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Planning for the Whole Community Before, During and After Emergencies

At FEMA we’re taking strides to emphasize the importance of including the whole community in disaster planning, response and recovery.

Disasters have been front-and-center this year, from the Japan earthquake and tsunami back in March, to the tornadoes this spring, the recent flooding from Hurricane Irene, wildfires in Texas and the remnants of tropical storm Lee along the East Coast.  Across our nation, we recognize September as National Preparedness Month – where we encourage everyone to make sure they’ve taken steps to prepare their family and property before a disaster strikes.   

Traditionally, planning for the access and functional needs of people with disabilities, young children, and seniors has been an afterthought at times – something that was added as an “annex” to an existing emergency plan or considered “special” despite the fact that more than 20 percent of people have a disability and more than 50 percent have other access and functional needs. 

When communities integrate the needs of children and adults with disabilities and others with access and functional needs into their community wide planning initiatives, they optimize resources, meet their obligations and strengthen their ability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.

On a personal level, preparing before disaster strikes applies to people with disabilities just as it applies to people without disabilities.  And even though ability varies from person to person resources for disaster preparedness, response and recovery - educational and outreach efforts, information and tools - must be made available, achievable and accessible to everyone, and everyone has something to contribute.

At FEMA we’re taking strides to emphasize the importance of including the whole community in disaster planning, response and recovery. This goes beyond engaging our counterparts at the federal, state, local and tribal levels – it means including those groups who have traditionally been overlooked or labeled as “too difficult” to include in our emergency plans as key players in community preparedness.

Almost everyone has specific needs before, during and after a disaster, whether the needs are prescription medication or medical supplies, access to information or transportation, dietary needs or assistance to maintain health, safety and independence. 

So as part of National Preparedness Month, I challenge those in the emergency management community to invite disability community leaders  to come to the table and work together to plan for the entire makeup of a community.  For individualsand families, as you create or review your family’s emergency plan and emergency kit, make sure you have enough supplies and have considered strategies to meet the unique needs of your family for at least 72 hours.

At FEMA, we still have a long way to go to be as inclusive as possible in our planning efforts.  But, I’m excited about some of our recent success stories:

  • Before Hurricane Irene made landfall along the East Coast, our Disability Integration Specialists in each of our regional offices were reaching out to independent living centers, protection and advocacy agencies and other disability services and advocacy groups to ensure close coordination as they prepared. We also prepositioned durable medical equipment and consumable medical supplies in distribution centers if states requested these resources to assist survivors to maintain health, safety and independence.  (The FEMA blog has more on our inclusive planning efforts before, during and after Hurricane Irene.)
  • A few days ago, we hosted our second annual “Getting Real” conference, bringing together leaders across emergency management and the disability community to share disability inclusive promising practices and map out a way to continue the positive momentum.
  • FEMA continues to invest in supporting states with Regional Disability Integration Specialists, universal cots to improve accessibility in general population shelters, training and technical assistance, and the availability of reimbursement forpersonal assistance services (to name a few).

Visit to learn more about getting your family and property prepared before a disaster strikes. And remember – inclusiveness needs to be an ongoing mission for all of us, whether in the field of emergency management or in our larger society.

Help us by doing your part – join the team and spread the word.

Marcie Roth is Director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at the Federal Emergency Management Agency