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Who is responsible for the disabled during natural disasters?

For California residents with physical and mental disabilities, simply navigating everyday life can be a huge, difficult challenge. So what happens during a natural disaster that comes on suddenly and leaves mass damage in its wake? How can people with disabilities survive such situations and the long recovery period that comes after?

That question is being asked in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the super storm that caused fires, flooding, a loss of electricity and a loss of life in New York and many of its boroughs earlier this year. While the eyes of the nation have been on the victims of the hurricane that lost their homes and belongings, there has been relatively little attention paid to the plight of the disabled and the difficulties they encountered in simply trying to survive the storm. And now, people with disabilities and their family, friends and caregivers are asking whether more should and could be done to help them get through natural disasters and their aftermath.

For example, should authorities have helped the paralyzed man who nearly drowned in his apartment, instead of the kind neighbors that broke through his windows and rescued him? Should authorities, not strangers, ensure that the batteries on another man’s ventilator remain charged? Should someone – anyone – have ensured that the elderly woman’s oxygen machine could remain powered up when her electricity went out?

According to the New York City Office of Emergency Management, the city is not responsible for the harm suffered by disabled people during Sandy. The agency states that the city’s emergency plans were developed to “effectively serve the needs of all New Yorkers, including individuals with disabilities.”

However, several of those individuals disagree, and have filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the lack of a comprehensive plan for the evacuation and protection of people with disabilities disproportionally elevates their risk of injury and death.

Source: AM New York, “Disabled people especially vulnerable in calamities such as Sandy,” Sheila Anne Feeney, Nov. 19, 2012

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