A more inclusive response to climate change in New Jersey
People with disabilities face increased risk from intensifying severe weather.
I was following a team of cadaver dogs through a mangrove swamp on the outskirts of a village in Tacloban when the personal impact of climate change first hit me. It was early 2014, three-months after this coastal Philippine city was devastated by typhoon Haiyan, a super storm that sent rushing waters into homes and killed several thousand people throughout the region. I was there to cover its aftermath and ongoing recovery. I contemplated how I, someone with a low vision impairment, or any disability, would have stayed safe during a disaster like this. I later went back to report on these concerns and what I found is that warning systems, evacuation measures and relocation policies did not take into consideration the mini needs of people with mobility, sensory or developmental disabilities. This isn't a problem just in the Philippines; a new study finds that countries across the globe have not come up with inclusive disaster management policies that could save the lives of many members of their disabled communities whenever severe weather strikes. And as we experience an increasing number of climate change driven events, including hurricanes Ida and Sandy, the risks faced by this one-billion strong, worldwide population become even greater.
In this inaugural post for the Lens15 newsletter, which coincides with the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, I'd like to share with you a snippet from a conversation I had with Javier Robles, a Rutgers University professor and chairperson of the New Jersey Disabled Action Committee. Since I moved back to the Garden State last year, he's been a great help in bringing me up to speed on the many issues that concern people with disabilities here and my interview with him helped inform my first Lens Into NJ column published earlier this month on the TapInto local news platform.
Below is a lightly edited transcript apart of our talk, but if you prefer to hear it, click on the embedded sound file.
What are the risks to people with disabilities vis-a-vis severe weather caused by climate change?
Well, the risk to our specific population of individuals with disabilities is extreme at this point. We just saw, just with COVID-19, how unprepared states across the board are to handle national emergencies or pandemics. So there is no doubt that individuals with disabilities who tend to be the people who are the poorest, who have not graduated at rates that peers do, and also tend to be the ones who have least protection in terms of safety nets in this state and nationally, are the people that really are at most risk when it comes to issues of climate change. And we see it all the time, people who can only afford to live in certain area codes. And those area codes usually also tend to be the area code, they get flooded, they tend to be the area codes that are where the housing structures are not that great
a situation like (Hurricane) Ida last summer comes to mind.
Yes a situation like Ida definitely. And we've seen it before, Hurricane Sandy, we saw that as well. We saw people with disabilities actually die, we saw people in places for people with disabilities in places like Staten Island, the Jersey Shore or even key port, and places like that, where their homes were flooded and an uninhabitable and where people actually died because of the water level rising so much. A community not being prepared for these things that are obviously going to keep happening, these events are not going to get better.
What can people with disabilities do, as well as their families caregivers do to prepare themselves in the case of one of these emergencies,
there's registries in the state of New Jersey, like Register Ready. If you look up Register Ready, New Jersey as a Google search, you should be able to find your local register, where you can actually register as an individual with a disability with your township in case there are disasters. A lot of these so called register readies and so forth really haven't been fully tested in terms of just because fire departments or police departments know where I am, does that mean that they can get to me in case of a natural disaster that occurs very quickly? Does that mean that they're ready to provide transportation to me? The other thing is that they can be involved with their local boards, and lots of counties have different boards in terms of environmental disasters and things like that, as do state boards, I encourage people with disabilities not to just think of themselves as victims all the time, and not just say, hey, there's nothing I can do and just throw up your hands. That's one of the worst things we can do as people with disabilities, you know, you have power, you have the ability to commit time, hopefully, to these issues. If there are issues you care about, you want to do something about them, then get on a state boards, they Commissioner board, get on a local school or board and make your voice heard about these issues like climate change, and access. So climate change is not just like, hey, we have this horrible weather, there's an emergency, what are we going to do? Climate change is really about planning. And if we plan for every possibility, then the odds of people surviving are a lot better. If we just throw up our hands and say, well, there's too many logistical issues. What do we do for people who are in wheelchairs and live in the rural parts of New Jersey? What do we do for people that are in wheelchairs that live in Newark and other places where transportation may be available, but there's no plan as to how to get people to a specific spot or how to pick them up. These are all logistical issues that are the crux of what we do in terms of climate change and planning, not just for environmental disasters, but for any disaster. We were all taken aback when we saw what COVID has done to our state, to our nation, to the world. And a lot of that is really about planning. Most of the scientists that you talk to, will tell you we knew COVID was coming. We didn't know when, we didn't know, whatever, but we knew it was coming we knew was just a matter of time. So if scientists have told us that for quite a few years, and we know that the most vulnerable people in our population are going to be the ones that are most affected by these things, then why are we not doing anything about it?
(transcription by Other AI)
I'll be covering more stories throughout this year on how disaster management in New Jersey can be made more inclusive for people with disabilities. I'm also headed to Bangladesh and Indonesia this summer (visas permitting) to report on these concerns on a National Geographic Society-supported reporting trip. And next year, i'll spend seven months in India, Sri Lanka in the Maldives researching and writing about climate change, disaster risk reduction and disability as a Fulbright scholar. So, much more to come on this overlooked aspect of the ongoing climate crisis.
In the meantime, please reach out with any stories you'd like to share about how severe weather in New Jersey is impacting you.
A short list of informative articles concerning disability from media in and around NJ.
Inside quiet rooms. N.J. schools are locking kids in padded rooms. Are they breaking the law?NJ.com
Where to find adaptive golf courses in New Jersey that are accessible to all. Northjersey.com
A subway system unsafe for the blind. New York Daily News
If you someone else who might enjoy this newsletter, please share!
Lens15 Media is supported by a grant from the NJ Civic Information Consortium and NJ Health Initiatives.