Natural Disasters

Climate Change and Natural Disasters: An Overview

Storms and other extreme weather events are some of the most dramatic consequences of climate change; these events can have immediate impacts to the environment, the economy and entire populations. Climate change contributes to extreme weather in many ways, but most are easy to understand. As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more water vapor, leading to denser storm clouds with heavier downpours and more flooding. The energy from warmer oceans can super-power tropical cyclones, hurricanes, nor’easters, and the “atmospheric rivers” that hit WID’s home state of California (among other storms which start over water). Shifting wind patterns and pressure zones tied to climate change can also contribute to faster wind speeds in hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes and storms of all types. Some climate-linked natural disasters are not necessarily the result of storms: for example, hot, dry weather can increase the chance of wildfires that destroy forests and homes – but because soils are less stable after fires (without healthy tree and plant roots to support soil), heavy downpours in “burn-scar” areas can then lead to mudslides. These factors and more are predicted to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and natural disasters, although changes will depend on the location’s weather and geography.

A collage of 5 photos showing a large flooded neighborhood, piles of snow with a car in the background, trees on fire, dry land with a lake in the background, and a tornado.
Climate change can contribute to many types of disasters. This collage shows flooding after hurricane, a major snowstorm, forest fires, parched land during a drought, and a tornado coming from a thunderstorm. Disasters can affect economies and endanger lives – these climate-linked disasters are becoming more frequent and intense as the atmosphere warms. | Pixabay/NOAA

Some of the numbers are striking. According to the World Health Organization, “[g]lobally, the number of reported weather-related natural disasters has more than tripled since the 1960s. Every year, these disasters result in over 60,000 deaths, mainly in developing countries.” In the United States, 2017 saw a partial failure of the nation’s tallest dam (Oroville Dam in California), caused by a combination of unprecedented rainfall and engineering problems, which required the evacuation of nearly 200,000 individuals; the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the costliest on record, with Harvey dumping record amounts of rain in Texas and Maria leading to over 3000 deaths in Puerto Rico; and wildfires in the West burned hundreds of thousands of acres and led to dozens of deaths, followed by mudslides in Southern California when a once-in-250-year storm hit burn scars in the Santa Monica area. Computer models predict that average hurricane speeds will increase 2-11 percent, leading to a greater frequency of the most intense storms (including a predicted 45-87 percent increase in the frequency of category 4 and 5 hurricanes, even though the total number of tropical storms may stay the same or decrease). Hurricanes may move more slowly over warm water, picking up more energy and moisture, which scientists project will also lead to a 20% increase in total precipitation (rainfall) rates. Rising ocean levels also mean that when storms hit land, the water pushed on-shore (called “storm surge”) will reach farther inland and be more destructive.

The impacts of natural disasters on society are widespread. Disasters can cause fatalities and injuries from fires, flooding/drowning, damaged buildings or falling trees, car accidents and more. Disasters often interrupt access to food and clean water (and storms can pollute conventional fresh-water supplies), leading to malnutrition, illness and, in the worst cases, deaths. Damage to infrastructure – such as roads, railways, pipelines, industrial facilities, and the electric grid – can cost billions of dollars to replace or repair. Storm victims may lose access to jobs and income, their homes and personal possessions, and support networks. Many times, individuals may evacuate before, during, or after a storm; some evacuees are able to return home quickly, but some may remain in shelters or temporary housing for months, and others simply choose to reestablish their livelihoods elsewhere. (This “permanent displacement” is a type of the climate migration we mention in an accompanying NED section). Areas with large amounts of incoming evacuees (such as Florida after Hurricane Maria or certain regions of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan) sometimes also experience socio-economic tensions. The direct impact from a natural disaster may hit a narrow location in just a few hours – or in the case of some events, such as tornadoes or mudslides, a few minutes – but in the end, the many social, political, resource and economic disruptions from natural disasters can span the entire world and last for years.

A row of damaged electrical power lines leans sideways over a road, surrounded by trees with broken limbs. A car and person are in the distance.
Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017 as a category 4 hurricane. The storm completely shut down the island’s electrical power grid, leaving all 3.4 million residents without power or relying on generators. As of mid-2018, the electrical grid is still not fully repaired, jeopardizing the island’s economy and its residents’ health. | US Air Force, Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts

“Vulnerable Populations” and People with Disabilities

Various populations are affected by natural disasters in different and dramatic ways. This happens at many scales: wealthy countries are generally more resilient and have more resources to recover than poorer countries do, which means that a greater percentage of the population in developing countries are affected; and within countries or specific disaster-hit areas, poor and marginalized groups (including women, children, people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, the elderly, and others) tend to be hit harder by disasters than more privileged groups. In the case of foreseeable disasters, such as hurricanes a few days before landfall, wealthier people are more likely to be able to evacuate ahead-of-time and afford shelter as they ride out the storm; more “vulnerable” groups, though, may have to stay home and experience the disaster head-on, see their lower-quality housing damaged or destroyed in the process, and simply not have enough money to rebuild. Research has shown that financially disadvantaged individuals, as well as minorities and other marginalized groups, have higher rates of injury and even death in both the short- and long-term after disasters, and have more difficulty recovering in the wake of those tragedies. (See more from Scientific American on economic divides, The Atlantic on broader inequality, and the National Institute on Health on disasters’ impact on people with health care needs and different racial groups).

People with disabilities are uniquely affected by natural disasters in many complex and overlapping ways. Some of the barriers we face include:

  • People with disabilities are often socially or logistically isolated and may not receive warning of oncoming disasters or instruction on how to manage their personal needs.
  • Individuals with communication disabilities may not have access to evacuation warnings – for example, people who are deaf may not hear sirens during an oncoming wildfire or have access to emergency radios. Once they reach shelters, there may not be communication “accommodations” such as sign language interpreters for deaf individuals or braille materials for blind evacuees.
  • People with disabilities may not have access to appropriate transportation to evacuate ahead of disasters. This may be because they do not have a personal vehicle and rely on public transit and/or paratransit, which may shut down before a disaster or not be available in a timely manner (i.e during fast-moving wildfires). Alternatives evacuation resources – mainly, conventional cars or trucks – may not have ramps or lifts. Finally, individuals with disabilities may have medical equipment such as ventilators, Hoyer lifts, or hospital beds which are difficult to transport.
  • People with disabilities often rely on personal support networks (including family, friends, or paid caregivers) for well-being and independence. These networks may become scattered during disaster situations, especially if members of the support network do not have deep ties to the individual. This can leave PWDs abandoned in the face of a disaster and/or endanger their health and independence during recovery.
  • Personal disaster readiness guidance (i.e. brochures or websites) may not be fully accessible to people with sensory or cognitive disabilities, or those without access to the Internet because of financial difficulties. This guidance may also not address the specific needs of people with disabilities, such as finding accessible evacuation and medical needs.
  • People with disabilities, including “leaders” from the disability community and disaster readiness experts, are often left out of disaster planning efforts. This takes away an important voice and source of insight to develop plans that meet the needs of the disability community.

Many disability accommodations require extra funding – for example, sign language interpreters in shelters or providing medically-appropriate beds. Government and nonprofit funding often doesn’t prioritize these needs, even when they are legally required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other federal laws.

This FEMA registration area was set up in Georgia after major flooding in 2009. It allows for registration on computers and provides a dedicated phone line for individuals who are speech or hearing impaired. Accessible registration and renewal of emergency services is important for inclusive disaster response. | FEMA Photo Library/George Armstrong

Even though people with disabilities are often a “forgotten minority” in many aspects of climate change resilience, we have received recognition when it comes to disaster readiness and response. In the United States especially, there are federal, state, and local agencies tasked with ensuring the civil rights of people with disabilities during disasters, although there have been major failures on behalf of those agencies during disasters. Within the disability community, nonprofits and advocacy groups at the national, state and local levels are seeking to remedy these shortcomings and protect our well-being. For example, in May 2018, the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a major national coalition, released “Getting it Wrong,” an in-depth report covering the shortcomings in meeting people with disabilities’ needs during the many natural disasters of 2017-18.  Some of these shortcomings included lack of access to power for people with medical equipment in Puerto Rico, inaccessible registration and renewal processes for FEMA assistance after Gulf hurricanes, and insufficient emergency warnings for deaf individuals ahead of forest fires in California. Clearly, there need to be improvements system-wide and more must be done in the future.

Addressing Disability in Natural Disasters: Best Practices

Guaranteeing the well-being of people with disabilities in natural disasters is a matter of human rights. As the Partnership points out in Getting it Wrong, people with disabilities are protected by many federal civil rights statutes before, during and after disasters – including the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Olmstead decision guaranteeing a right to community-based living, educational equality regulations, and more. International agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) also call for ensuring safety in disasters. Protecting well-being will take coordination between government, nonprofits, and community groups; securing funding and resources; and providing people with disabilities with the information and supplies needed for personal resilience. Among other actions, some important recommendations include:

  • Provide accessible informational documents, warnings, and ongoing public communications for people with a range of communication and cognitive disabilities. Also, provide accessible resources for acquiring and managing assistance from disaster relief agencies such as FEMA.
  • Guarantee accessible evacuation, transportation and shelter before, during and after disasters. Ensure that this is provided for as long as needed for individuals to recover their independence; also, guarantee access to housing in the community as supposed to in hospitals or nursing homes (in compliance with Olmstead requirements).
  • Identify individuals with specific disability-related medical needs, such as electric power for medical equipment or oxygen supplies for ventilators, and provide those through reliable and well-organized venues.
  • Government agencies should always meet civil rights requirements for people with disabilities. The government cannot shirk its responsibilities by “outsourcing” or deferring response efforts to nonprofits or for-profit companies, although sharing responsibilities may work if the government guarantees that its partners are meeting civil rights requirements.
  • Always include people with disabilities in planning and response efforts in line with the frequently-used disability rights mantra, “nothing about us, without us.”
  • Give people with disabilities the necessary information, education, and resources to increase their personal resilience to natural disasters. This can include, for example: plans to communicate and coordinate with support networks; establishing “buddy systems” with neighbors and even coworkers for fast evacuation; having sufficient food, water, medication and medical supplies to safely manage disasters and recovery; and identifying evacuation methods and medical resources or shelters that can accommodate one’s disability.

There are connections between poverty rates and increased difficulty managing or surviving natural disasters. Improving economic situations of people with disabilities can increase their personal resilience and disaster-related outcomes.

A large ship in a body of water. The ship is white with red crosses, signifying it has medical services.
Hospital ships and medical services can be sent to disaster areas in times of need. The USNS Comfort, pictured here, is nearly 900 feet long and can hold up to 1000 patients at a time. It has been used in combat situations as well as disasters such as after Hurricane Katrina and the 2009 Haiti earthquake. The Comfort was deployed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria but was not used to the full extent possible. | United States Navy/Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Timothy Comerford

There are many ways to respond to natural disasters and protect the well-being of marginalized groups more broadly, which can then be used to address the needs of people with disabilities. The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 – a major international agreement for establishing disaster resilience for populations, economies and the environment – aims for “[t]he substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.” The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has laid out a strategy for the consideration of marginalized groups (including people with disabilities) when developing national risk assessments, which contains 5 key components of an inclusive national risk assessment development process. These are: recognition and engagement; data; implementation; communications; and monitoring and evaluation. For more information and insights on UNISDR’s recommendations, check out the link above.

Natural disasters represent a powerful example of the current and future impacts of climate change. The frequency and intensity of disasters will continue to increase as the years go on. Certain populations are more vulnerable to the direct impacts of disasters and face more difficulty afterward with regards to attaining services and reestablishing their well-being. People with disabilities are a key group and face many barriers including maintaining personal support networks, medical supplies, social services, and accessible resources (information, transportation, housing, and more). It is important to create comprehensive disaster readiness and response planning that both empowers individuals and guarantees necessary supports by government and its partners. This planning must address the needs of people with disabilities by assessing their situation, collecting data, and always including input from the disability community and key representatives. This comprehensive, inclusive and proactive disaster planning can protect lives and well-being in times of crisis.

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