During Hurricane Katrina, Benilda Caixeta, a New Orleans resident with quadriplegia, tried for two days to seek refuge at the Superdome. Despite repeated phone calls to authorities, help never arrived for Caixeta. Days later, she was found dead in her apartment, floating next to her wheelchair.
"Benilda need not have drowned," testified Marcie Roth before the US House of Representatives Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus in November 2005. Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, had personally placed calls to prompt Caixeta's evacuation.
"People with disabilities are not in good hands," Roth said.
While there are no concrete estimates of how many people with disabilities died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, 71 percent of the 1,330 victims were older than 60, according to a 2006 report by the White House, suggesting people with special needs suffered disproportionately.
Disabled-rights activists have been calling for inclusive disaster-preparedness plans for years -- from wheelchair-accessible transportation to closed-caption emergency messages on television. But despite some progress on both the federal and state levels, and even a 2004 Executive Order to strengthen preparedness plans to serve people with disabilities, critics say recent disasters illustrate how disabled people are still being left out of evacuation plans.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 requires that emergency preparedness and response programs be accessible to people with disabilities. But critics say there is currently no standardized federal preparedness plan for disabled people, and many state and local emergency management offices do not have appropriate plans in place to account for special needs.
"There isn't ownership clearly defined by the federal government as to who is responsible for disability planning," Hilary Styron, director of the Emergency Preparedness Initiative for the National Organization on Disability, told The NewStandard.
While President Bush's executive order created the Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities, the council is only instructed to "encourage" state and local jurisdictions to consider special needs in its planning.
The ADA defines a disability as a "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual." There are an estimated 50 million people living with disabilities in the United States.
Disabled-rights advocates say traditional evacuation plans, which often rely on at least some walking, driving, seeing and hearing, are not appropriate for many people with disabilities.
Activists have been pushing for more responsive plans, and for governments to include people with disabilities and their advocates in the planning process.
Although some states have adopted measures that have begun to account for the needs of people with disabilities, such as a reverse 9-1-1 system and more accurate records on the locations of people with disabilities, gaps still exist.
Styron said emergency managers have difficulty planning for people with disabilities because there is no "one-size-fits-all approach." She also said many states have seen emergency management funding cut in recent years.
According to the National Emergency Management Association, a national nonprofit that produces the only report to examine state-level emergency management funding, there is currently a $246 million shortfall in the government's Emergency Management Performance Grant Program.
The program is the primary federal funding source for states and local jurisdictions' emergency management programs.
A three-year study completed in 2006 by the Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas investigated 30 randomly selected counties, cities or boroughs in the US that had recently experienced a natural or man-made disaster.
Researchers found that only 20 percent of the emergency managers had specific guidelines to assist people with mobility impairments during emergencies.
Additionally, the study discovered that 57 percent of emergency managers did not know how many people with mobility impairments lived in their jurisdiction, and only 27 percent of managers reported completing a course offered by FEMA to help emergency responders understand the needs of people with disabilities.
"People [with disabilities] are being left behind," said Cat Rooney, project coordinator for the study.
FEMA and emergency management offices in Louisiana, Arizona, Florida, California and Delaware that were part of the University study, did not return TNS interview requests.
Disability un-preparedness Jeanne Abide, complaints specialist for the Advocacy Center, a disabled-rights organization in New Orleans, said there simply was not appropriate assistance for people with disabilities after the hurricane.
According to the National Council on Disability, 155,000 residents living in the three cities hardest hit by Katrina -- Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; and New Orleans -- were disabled and over the age of five.
Abide told TNS that the preparedness problems specific to people with disabilities in New Orleans included a lack of appropriate transportation and emergency housing.
In February, the Center filed a lawsuit against FEMA, alleging that five months after the hurricane, the agency was still not supplying accessible trailers to people with disabilities.
Disabled-rights advocates say that people with disabilities have a host of concerns that non-disabled people may not consider during emergencies.
Groups say many people with disabilities in New Orleans were evacuated without their medicine, medical equipment, wheelchairs and even guide animals. "If someone has schizophrenia and they're put in a great big shelter with all these other people around them, and they don't have medication, that can cause a lot of problems," White told TNS.
Styron said she would like to see a disability coordinator at the federal level, a coordinator assigned to every FEMA region in the country, and a designated official within each state responsible for disability planning.