Photo by Caitlin Penna

In the wake of Hurricane Florence, people with disabilities were stranded in a shelter without access to bathrooms, faced shelter staff with inadequate training to meet their needs, and were on occasion turned away from emergency shelters altogether, according to a new report from Raleigh-based Disability Rights North Carolina.

In a report released Tuesday called The Storm After the Storm, Disability Rights North Carolina (DRNC) concludes that federal, state and local emergency management officials must do more to ensure the well-being of people with disabilities during Natural disasters.

Hurricane Florence was devastating for thousands of North Carolinians with and without disabilities, with the population of shelter residents reaching a height of 21,272 people. But disabled survivors had an especially difficult time accessing resources that accommodated their disabilities, the DRNC report indicates.

According to the United Nations, “children and adults with disabilities and older adults are two to four times more likely to be injured in a disaster due to lack of planning, accessibility and accommodation,” the DRNC report reads.

Disabled Hurricane Florence survivors were frequently unable to access transportation or necessary services at shelters, and were occasionally turned away from shelters altogether.

“Being in the shelters is hard on everyone,” one of those survivors, Terry H., said in a statement, “but for me and my family, it was harder. We needed more help then and we still do now.”

Gaps in disaster response for people with disabilities were initially revealed by Hurricane Matthew in the fall of 2016. After shelters failed to accommodate disabled survivors, those within the disability community helped communicate their needs to state officials who have since implemented measures to address them.

Since 2016, the state has hired its first Disability Integration Specialist, started covering daily triage calls, created sensory rooms in some shelters, begun providing American Sign Language interpreters at shelters and during official announcements, and started dispatching teams to address accessibility issues.

But DRNC identified remaining gaps in support for those with disabilities in the response to Hurricane Florence last fall. According to DRNC’s findings, many shelters were inhospitable for disabled individuals, despite the federal Americans with Disabilities Act requiring shelter programs to be “readily accessible and usable by” people with disabilities.

In forty-seven days, DRNC visited a total of twenty-six shelters in fourteen counties: Brunswick, Carteret, Craven, Cumberland, Forsyth, Harnett, Jones, New Hanover, Onslow, Orange, Pender, Robeson, Wake, and Wayne.

One particularly troubling shelter was located in Winston-Salem, where people were housed in Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

All of the cots were set up on the floor in the center of the Coliseum, and the only usable bathrooms were located at the top of a steep flight of steps. There was one service elevator, but it could only be operated by a Coliseum staff member, according to the report.

Long periods of time passed when there was no elevator operator present, especially at night. Consequently, disabled survivors had to use adult diapers.

The Coliseum had showers on the first floor, but there was little to no privacy, and, according to the report, they did not look large enough to accommodate a wheelchair or transfer.

An NC Disability Integration Specialist was able to successfully address some of these issues by calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Functional Assessment Service Team to assess the facility and offer guidance on making the space more accessible.

DRNC recommends the Disability Integration Specialist program be expanded, saying the specialists’ training, sensitivity, and ability to provide resources are an invaluable asset to ensuring the safety of disabled survivors.

Another problem DRNC frequently encountered was shelter staff’s lack of training and compassion towards survivors. While some shelter managers were proficient in the trauma-informed practices of remaining sensitive to each survivor’s individual experience, many struggled to remain positive. Many lacked the awareness and sensitivity to call each survivor by name, the report says.

One shelter manager referred to survivors – including family members of a person with autism – as “dairy farmers” who were “milking the system.” The family was unaware of available resources until DRNC staff members found and directed them.

At a shelter in Robeson County, Red Cross staff prohibited DRNC from monitoring sleeping quarters and speaking with guests, even after being presented with a copy of an official agreement between the National Disability Rights Network and the Red Cross. The staff eventually conceded after the DRNC contacted the Red Cross Headquarters.

The report concludes that shelter staff need more training to properly provide aid and assistance to all individuals during a disaster and support with people who have experienced trauma. Federal, state, and local officials must also take care of shelter staff by ensuring that there are enough workers available to relieve those who are overwhelmed and fatigued.

Finally, DRNC found that access to affordable and accessible housing is one of the most pressing improvements that needs to be made in order to support survivors of natural disasters.

In early October 2018, Governor Roy Cooper introduced the Back@Home initiative, created in Houston and Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, allocating $12 million to support North Carolinians ineligible for FEMA and other disaster resources, particularly those who were either homeless or at risk for homelessness after shelters closed.

While DRNC says it supports the Back@Home initiative, the organization found that the initiative was often insufficient after Hurricane Florence. The report describes one man with mobility and mental health challenges being relocated to a house with unstable floors, faulty wires hanging from the walls and ceiling, and no furniture. He eventually contacted DRNC, which helped him advocate for better living conditions.

In light of this case and others, DRNC recommends that the state allocate more funds to the Back@Home initiative in order to help assist participants and adequately accommodate those with disabilities until they are permanently housed.

Most importantly, DRNC suggests that the state provide supplemental funding for the Low-income Housing Tax Credit Program administered by the NC Housing Finance Agency in order to build the quality affordable rental units that communities hit by disasters desperately need.

 “While progress has been made,” said Iris Green, supervising attorney with DRNC, “North Carolina can and must take concrete steps now to protect our most disenfranchised persons from future natural disasters.”