As recent events have demonstrated, natural dis-
asters can have a particularly devastating—and,
in many cases, lethal—impact on the disability community.
Despite the best efforts
of the US Civil Rights
this country is arguably
no more prepared to
the needs of residents with disabilities during a
than it was during Hurricane Katrina nearly
In the aftermath of Katrina, Benilda Caixeta, a quadriplegic
resident of New Orleans, tried for two days to
refuge at the local Superdome. Despite repeated
calls to authorities, she was found dead in her
floating next to her wheelchair.
No one had
to her aid.
Though a definitive number of people with disabilities
killed by Hurricane Katrina remains unknown, a 2006
White House report revealed that 71 percent of the storm’s
1,330 victims were more than 60 years of age. This
suggests people who needed special care suffered
in a time of crisis.
In February 2011, a Los Angeles federal court reached a
landmark decision that carried national implications: the
City of Los Angeles was found to have violated federal
law, including the Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA), by failing to meet the needs of residents with
disabilities in planning for natural and other disasters.
This recent ruling is the first such decision in the United
The lawsuit—Communities Actively Living Independent and Free and Audrey Harthorn vs. the City Of Los
Angeles and the County Of Los Angeles—determined
the city violated the rights of people with disabilities, provided
under the ADA and other federal and state laws,
by failing to incorporate the needs of people with disabilities
into the city’s
disaster preparedness planning. The
Rights Legal Center (DRLC) represented the
during the legal process.
“The city’s practice of failing to address the needs of
individuals with disabilities discriminates against such
individuals by denying them meaningful access to the
city’s emergency preparedness program,” Judge Consuelo
B. Marshall determined in her ruling. “Because of the
city’s failure to address its citizens’ unique needs, individuals
with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable
harm in the event of an emergency
Although Los Angeles has been no stranger to serious
natural disasters—including a major earthquake in
1994, and wildfires in 2008 and 2009—the city still
lacks adequate disaster planning for people with disabilities.
shelters, plans for providing
and medication at shelters, accessible transportation
and evacuation assistance, as well as communication
services that are available and accessible to
with a wide range of disabilities are minimal or
A recent series of disasters, including a tsunami in Japan
and tornados and flooding across the Midwestern and
Southern United States, underscores the need for better
emergency preparation. During Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita, many people with disabilities, including a number
of seriously ill seniors, were left to die because of a lack
of planning for their emergency care.
These and other such tragedies prompted the February
lawsuit, a legal effort to make future natural disasters
less hazardous for people with disabilities. Marcie Roth,
executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury
Association, hopes that February’s federal ruling prompts
other cities, counties and states to examine their own levels
preparedness and avoid or
life among their populations.
“Benilda need not have drowned,” Roth told the US
House of Representatives Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus
in 2005, after she had personally placed calls to prompt
the New Orleans woman’s evacuation during Katrina.
“People with disabilities are not in good hands.”
by Paula Pearlman
Paula Pearlman is the executive director of the Disability Rights
Legal Center, and a visiting associate professor of law at
Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Excerpts from the Howie Mandel Issue Jun/Jul 2011:
Howie Mandel — Interview
Hamill — Bodyslamming a Theater Near You
Cerebral Palsy — The Power of Play
Zambia — Advocates for African Children’s Rights
Senator Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?
Recipes — Tasty, Cancer-Fighting Dishes
DRLC — Rescue 411
Articles in the Howie Mandel Issue; Humor — Jockey: A Horse Tale (Pt. 1); 8 Win Win — Tickets to Ride; Ashley’s Column — Let the Racing Begin!; Senator Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?; DRLC — Rescue 411; Bad Boys — United Airlines, H&R Block; Hamill — Bodyslamming a Theater Near You; Frankentongue — How I Licked Tongue Cancer; Paralympics — A Leg Up on the Competition; United Cerebral Palsy — The Power of Play; Zambia — Advocates for African Children’s Rights; Recipes — Tasty, Cancer-Fighting Dishes; Howie Mandel — Showered with Riches; Dyslexia — Tangled Up in Blues; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe