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Inside the Organization Saving Disabled People During Hurricane Harvey

An interview with Paul Timmons, co-founder of a non-profit that helps the most vulnerable escape from natural disasters.
Brad Matheney offers help to a man in a wheelchair while Hurricane Harvey passes through Galveston, Texas, on August 26th, 2017.

Brad Matheney offers help to a man in a wheelchair while Hurricane Harvey passes through Galveston, Texas, on August 26th, 2017.

When natural disasters strike, disabled people are among the most vulnerable. Disability acts as a multiplier, intensifying risk from both natural and human forces. Among other concerns, disabled people often cannot evacuate on their own, or they struggle to carry their medical equipment with them (which can be necessary for preserving life). Emergency services may ignore the needs of a disabled person—sometimes, according to experts in inclusive disaster relief, even blaming disabled people for not planning better. Such experts are concerned that too many emergency responders treat people with disabilities as objects with no agency or rights, tossing them into whatever institutional setting they can find.

During Hurricane Harvey, stories of disabled people in jeopardy have proliferated across private social media networks in the disability rights world, punctuated by periodic news stories in the general press, such as this shocking one from Galveston, Texas, that depicts seniors up to their waists in floodwaters. Enter Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies. The 501(c)3 organization was founded in the late 1990s as a way to recycle and distribute durable medical equipment, but, during Hurricane Katrina, the non-profit shifted its focus to disaster relief. According to Paul Timmons, co-founder and current chairman of Portlight, he became involved in Katrina after other members of the disability rights community alerted him to numerous abandoned wheelchairs at the New Orleans airport following the storm (people had been evacuated without their equipment, as NPR reported at the time). Portlight, with its experience moving equipment to those in need, sprang into action.

Since then, the organization has been involved in relief for people with disabilities in every natural disaster in the United States and is currently engaged with the response to Hurricane Harvey. Pacific Standard caught up with Timmons over the phone on Sunday night, to ask about what he's hearing from Texas, and how emergency responders can serve disabled people just as well as they do non-disabled people.


How did Portlight get involved in inclusive disaster response?

Portlight was founded in 1997. We began initially recycling and distributing durable medical equipment. [After Hurricane] Katrina, we began repatriating people with their medical equipment. The National Guard took a guy or gal, threw them over their shoulder, and got them the hell out. From there, we were very involved in a number of different pieces of the Katrina response. Then right after that was Hurricane Rita [and] Hurricane Ike, which hit the Texas coast in 2008, and we've been involved in any disaster response ever since then.

What do readers need to know about people with disabilities and disasters?

The most important message is for the emergency responders, the emergency management people: There is no disaster loophole when it comes to ensuring the civil rights of people with disabilities. That message drives everything else that goes on in this space.

I assume you're saying this because too often emergency service workers ignore the rights of disabled people.

Whether it's the Red Cross, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or state or local emergency management folks, frequently these are people who come out of the medical community—nurses, E.M.T.s, firefighters, etc. As a result of that, they don't know what they don't know. And they're pretty firmly rooted in the medical model. As long as you've got a bed, and you're OK, and someone's bringing you food—the fact that you want to roll outside and smoke a cigarette does not resonate with them.

So they treat a person as a problem to solve medically, not a person with rights and agency.

It's an uphill climb. There's just historically deep-rooted medical model thinking, so that it makes the gains more torturously incremental.

What is Portlight doing right now [Sunday night]?

Information gathering and resource referral. At this point, it's largely a rescue situation. Even the responders can't move around Houston right now. We know that there will be need for durable medical replacement. We're prepared to help with that, and the need for short-term lodging. And we're also gathering information, anecdotal information, where the system is going wrong, so we can use that in our ongoing efforts to educate and mitigate some of the problems.

This is probably going to transition on Wednesday or Thursday to filling direct immediate needs. Traditionally that's been replacing durable medical equipment.

Because that equipment is either damaged by the water or abandoned?

All of the above, that's correct. The more long-term piece—on the very best day, housing is a real challenge for our community, and these obviously aren't going to be the best days. So medium- to long-term housing always becomes a problem. We're expecting to serve as a resource.

How should people with disabilities, their loved ones, and caregivers prepare for disasters?

Everyone should have a personal plan. It's counterintuitive not to have some idea of what you're going to do if a giant schism rips open the surface of the Earth. But it's the job of the people in the business [of disaster response] to serve our community.

My concern about the focus on personal planning is this: It can lead to scapegoatism and a false sense of security. There was a woman in the [2015] California wildfire with multiple sclerosis who died. She had a great plan. ... It turned to shit when the balloon went off. Emergency responders could have gotten to her and saved her, and they didn't. Everybody should have a plan, but I don't think it lets people in the business [of disaster response] off the hook.

What needs to happen in other places before the next disaster strikes?

Where this [inclusive disaster response] works is where there are pre-existing relationships between people in the emergency management community and people in the disability stakeholder community. Where it doesn't work is where those relationships don't exist. It's too late to build those relationships once the disaster has come.

There are a lot of granular solutions. Almost all of them come from the creation and cultivation of relationships.