In October 2005, Hopkins police chief, fire marshal and 6 other city workers volunteered their time and travel expenses to drive a relief caravan to Long Beach, Mississippi. A sister city about the same land and population size as Hopkins, MN, Long Beach, MS was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Although the storm was projected to travel 60 miles west of the city, residents, businesses and organizations took precautions. Homes and businesses were secured and some people moved to shelters. However, they were not prepared for the coastal wide carnage that swept over so many Gulf Coast communities.
The storm left the city without water, electricity and other essential services. City vehicles were destroyed along with all the communication equipment. They had no means to request assistance from state or federal emergency response teams. During the initial days after the storm, survivors had to be self-sufficient.
Fire and rescue teams worked 16-20 hour shifts clearing pathways through the rubble in search of survivors. Others worked to repair equipment and reestablish communication systems and other essential services. Many of these workers lost contact with their families for 5-6 weeks after the storm.
The Hopkins volunteers understood the trauma common to emergency response teams working in disaster situations. As peers, they arrived, prepared a hot meal and gave these workers their first opportunity to talk about their experiences. Afterward, volunteers toured the city. They saw several residents enter disaster zones with potential hazard warning signs posted. Sorting through the rubble of their former homes, many were heard commenting, “I didn’t have time to take anything. It was so sudden.”
Throughout the city, entire blocks, neighborhoods, businesses and shopping malls were reduced to rubble. Overturned vehicles and appliances were scattered along the beach. A semi-truck and trailer from a distant truck stop was buried in the sand. The wide sweep of the hurricane rendered support networks established with nearby cities useless.
The volunteers learned some crucial lessons about emergency management planning that weekend. Afterward, they held a debriefing and discussed changes and additions to improve their city’s emergencymanagement plan. In December, Hopkins Fire Marshal Dale Specken met with three representatives from Access Press. He discussed the city’s new plan, future goals and efforts underway to meet the needs of residents with disabilities.
The first change implemented was a training program for city staff. Specken explained that emergency response workers need plans in place for their families. This is one way local governments can improve worker response and performance in critical incidents. Attending to family members is cited as one possible explanation for why some city workers did not answer the call to duty during Hurricane Katrina.
In the coming months Hopkins is also implementing a citizen education and outreach program. One goal of the program is to help citizens establish emergency response networks. Neighborhood associations are one way citizens can establish help networks. Many home-bound elderly people and people with disabilities live independently in their homes. Networking helps to identify people who may need assistance in responding to a critical incident.
Establishing buddy systems within the school, work placeand other establishments is another method. A person with vision impairment may, for example, need assistance in finding a relief shelter or transport vehicle. Someone with a cognitive impairment may have difficulty understanding instructions or following a map. In a crisis situation, surrounded by noise and chaos, a person with a traumatic brain injury may be incapacitated by their brain’s inability to focus or process the vast enormity of stimuli.
Hopkins also obtained pamphlets from the National Organization for Disabilities (NOD) at www.nod.org. The pamphlets include instructions for designing emergency response kits for people with disabilities. This is another communication tool the city is implementing to address the needs of residents with disabilities.
When asked for a statement on emergency preparedness for people with disabilities, Specken emphasized, “Don’t become complacent just because the chances of it [a critical incident] happening are small. Don’t live with the perception that it’s never going to happen here because it can.” As one of the volunteers who drove to Long Beach, he witnessed the devastation made possible when the unexpectedoccurs and people are not prepared to be self-sufficient.
One step people with disabilities—or their representatives —can take is to contact local officials. Ask about pamphlets and other resources available for residents with disabilities. Hopkins learned about the pamphlets from a person with a disability. Based on this contact, the city now offers pamphlets to residents with disabilities. Each contact made within another city or county helps to ensure that citizens with disabilities are included in emergency management plans and outreach efforts.
Lastly, Hopkins Information and Technology Department is developing a program whereby residents can be notified by e-mail when a critical incident occurs. A notification message will automatically be sent to residents who request them. This is one way of notifying, for example, individuals with hearing impairments who cannot hear sirens. As with other efforts, inquiries with local officials and other representatives widens the scope of efforts taken on behalf of people with disabilities.
In summary, the United States, throughout all levels of government, is in the early stages of emergency managementplanning. Each step taken at a legislative, federal, state or local level is important. However, it is imperative for citizens with special needs or their representatives, to act on their own behalf. People with and without disabilities are encouraged to make emergency response kits number one on their list of 2006 resolutions.
In closing, NOD announced a major accomplishment in emergency preparedness for people with disabilities. “On December 19, 2005, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Emergency Preparedness and Response for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 2005. This bill calls for the hiring of a Disability Coordinator in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who will report directly to the Secretary. The bill also requires that 30% of temporary housing for disaster victims be made accessible to individuals with disabilities, and provides incentives to create more accessible housing during reconstruction efforts.”