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Why evacuating is a bigger hurdle for the poor, elderly and disabled ahead of major disasters

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
September 02, 2017, 11:51:36 AM EDT

While some Texas officials have been criticized for not ordering mandatory evacuations ahead of Harvey, leaving homes behind is not always a viable option for impoverished, elderly or disabled people.

Whether ordered to do so or not, refusal to evacuate is sometimes viewed as irresponsible, dangerous and possibly life-threatening to both residents and rescuers, but the lack of mobility or expendable income can pose major issues.

These personal constraints lead to many people compromising their safety, left with no other choice but to ride out the storm unless other help or resources are available to them.

Poverty issues

With 15.9 percent of people earning incomes below the poverty line as of 2016, Texas ranks as the 37th poorest state in the country.

It has been my experience that impoverished families live day to day worrying about the lower tier of Maslow's hierarchies of food and shelter, an existence where any interruption financially can be devastating,” said Marc Burdiss, emergency management expert and owner of Preparedness Solutions.

For those living in poverty, the decision to pack up and leave town can be an expensive option wracked with uncertainty.

Hurricane Harvey survivor's damaged home

Sam Speights exits a window of his home that was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

“Go where? How much gasoline will this require and at what expense?” asked Burdiss. “Do they have a car reliable enough to go the distance?”

“For people who are poor, for communities that are dealing with the daily challenges of poverty, expecting people to be able to evacuate without putting [the appropriate] resources in place is just not an effective plan,” said Marcie Roth, chief executive officer of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies.

Before Harvey battered the coast of Texas, lower-income families were already faced with the reality of no income for days or possibly weeks after the storm. However, even people with financial stability oftentimes view evacuation as a costly alternative, said Roth.

Progress has been made in bringing effective resources together before approaching disasters, Roth said.

“That work is very important, but at a time like this, we’re dealing with the fact that a lot of that work has just never been done,” she said.

Evacuating the elderly

Media reports showing distressing images of flooded nursing homes in areas including Port Arthur, Texas, demonstrate the difficulty of extending appropriate help to an aging population during an emergency.

Harris County has more than 250,000 residents aged 65 years or older, according to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

"Many elderly people who prepare for emergencies have a lot of equipment they would need to take with them to maintain health,” said Roman Zrazhevskiy, founder and chief executive officer of Ready to Go Survival.

“Carrying this equipment to a safe location is one of the biggest reasons this segment prefers to hunker down instead of evacuate,” Zrazhevskiy said.

Roth said she and her colleagues have worked tirelessly to assist people left in horrifyingly dire straits after Harvey’s impact, including the elderly.

“There was an 87-year-old woman and a 91-year-old man; he was on the first floor of their home in a hospital bed with water up to the mattress,” Roth said.

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“She was on the second floor and couldn’t come down,” Roth said. “They were trying desperately to get rescued; it took a long time.”

Difficulties for people with disabilities

More than 11 percent of the Texan population are disabled, according to the Texas Workforce Investment Council.

Texas also reports the second-highest number of disabled citizens in the U.S.

“We had a small number of phone calls before the hurricane, where folks were trying to take some proactive steps if they had a disability or a family member with a disability,” said Roth.

Roth added that in the days following Harvey’s impact on the Gulf Coast, her team has been inundated with calls related to urgent disability-related needs.

Harvey’s flooding separated a quadruple amputee from the woman who assists her with care, Roth said.

“[The caregiver] left one evening and woke up the next morning, and the highway between them was submerged,” Roth said.

Though an emergency rescue in this case was successful, it’s not always the outcome.

During Hurricane Katrina, Roth attempted to coordinate an evacuation from Washington, D.C., for a quadriplegic woman trapped by flooding in New Orleans as the levees broke.

“She and I were on the phone when she said to me, ‘The water’s coming in,’” Roth recalled. “We lost our contact and we found her body several days later.”

Roth stressed the importance of people with disabilities participating in community disaster planning.

“It’s a critically important distinction that we need to make sure that [we’re] planning with people with disabilities, not just for people with disabilities,” Roth said.

“Whether or not people should evacuate in advance, they should be given actionable information they need in order to make those kinds of decisions,” she said.

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