A recent class-action lawsuit brought against the city of New York by Disability Rights Advocates affirmed that residents with disabilities face disproportionate risks of catastrophic harm and death during large-scale disasters—not because of some inherent “natural” risk, but because the city fails to plan for their needs.
One of the plaintiffs in the case was Melba Torres, a New York resident unable to evacuate during Superstorm Sandy in 2012 because she could not find accessible transport that could handle her power wheelchair. Torres was trapped without power on the eighth floor of her building and remained stuck in her apartment for six days. In a far-reaching settlement, the first of its kind, New York City agreed to overhaul its emergency preparedness plan, adding sixty new emergency shelters accessible to people with disabilities, creating a high-rise evacuation task force, deploying more robust accessible transportation resources in times of disaster, and hiring a disability coordinator for emergency services.
As climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather, it makes us all more vulnerable to natural disaster. While we often shorthand hurricanes and floods as “acts of God,” we are beginning to recognize erratic, deadly storms as augmented by human causes. Though then-President George W. Bush famously said of Hurricane Katrina that “the storm didn’t discriminate,” disaster almost always intensifies pre-existing social inequalities. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon observes, “Discrimination predates disaster: in failures to maintain protective infrastructures … in failures to organize evacuation plans for those who lack private transport, all of which make the poor and racial minorities disproportionately vulnerable to catastrophe.” While disasters may start as “natural” events, they become social catastrophes. The brunt of disaster is borne by those who have the least.
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