Assessing the Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Persons with Disabilities

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On February 12th, 2006, the U.S. House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina released a comprehensive report, A Failure of Initiative: The Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (, detailing failures and performance gaps in the planning for and response to the single most costly natural disaster in our nation’s history. However, this report paid inadequate attention to the challenges associated with accommodating the needs and priorities of persons with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities.

Purpose and anticipated benefits

Responding to the clear need to document aspects of the experiences of persons with disabilities and agencies working with them in the preparation, evacuation, shelter, and recovery process, this project provided a series of recommendations at policy and program levels that can be used by public agencies to improve the services provided to people with disabilities in future emergencies. 


In October 2005, the National Institute of Disability Rehabilitation Research and Assistant Secretary of Education John Hager asked about the roles centers for independent living played in assisting people with disabilities living in affected coastal regions during the storm be assessed. NIDRR Director Steven Tingus, who was aware of the Nobody Left Behind research project, invited Glen White, Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas, to submit a proposal to investigate hurricane-related activities affecting consumers before, during, and following Hurricane Katrina. Collaborating with White were Michael Fox, Kansas University Medical Center, and Anthony Cahill, professor and disability researcher at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, a proposal was submitted and awarded. 




This current work built upon the Nobody Left Behind project at the University of Kansas and had two primary tasks: (1) Identify barriers and gaps that centers for independent living personnel have experienced concerning people with disabilities in the affected areas and relocation centers and (2) identify barriers and gaps that emergency personnel have experienced concerning people with disabilities in the affected areas and relocation centers. In addition to surveys, site visits were made to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama to conduct a focus group with consumers and independent living staff, and conduct individual consumer interviews. Other interviews were done with emergency managers and relocation shelter directors in Louisiana and Mississippi to document their preparation and experiences in dealing with persons with disabilities.


Responses from center for independent living directors interviewed revealed that little pre-disaster planning took place in the centers, and that there was little interaction between the centers and emergency management personnel before the hurricane

When asked to describe how else the CIL staff prepared for Katrina, other than a written plan, responses described a lack of preparation:

  • “We were basically caught unprepared.”
  • “We had no idea of what was coming.  Had we known we would have prepared.”

Further, most centers of independent living interviewed played a significant role in assisting people with disabilities at shelters during and after the hurricane and played an active role in providing services after evacuations had been ordered (see Table 2). The roles they played were varied and included locating clients with disabilities and assessing their needs, providing immediate assistance in securing medicine, food, or durable medical equipment, and working with emergency management personnel to acquire accessible housing for people with mobility limitations (see Table 3). The active role that centers of independent living played is consistent with their mission in the communities and regions they serve. However, since the disaster planning and linkages with emergency managers discussed above were almost non-existent, this placed CIL staff in difficult positions. Without adequate training, often denied access to shelters and outside the formal communication loops established by the emergency management community, they were significantly hampered in their ability to provide effective assistance.

Select Survey Questions

Q:  Did CIL employees have to take on different tasks and roles after the disaster?

  •  “Yes. We had to find housing, go to shelters, and make announcements on the radio about our services.”
  • “Yes. Everyone did everything, whatever was needed that might include shelter work, equipment and supplies delivery, coordination of water and ice deliveries, search for lost persons, etc.”

Q. What were the most significant hardships your CIL faced during the shelter and recovery phase?

  • Miscommunication from government employees (primarily FEMA) and shelter workers
  • Lack of communication and shelters being non-functional.
  • No plan in place to assist consumers, so difficult to develop in the middle of the disaster of this magnitude.

Q. What were your CIL’s most significant accomplishments during the shelter and recovery phase?

  • Finding consumers and getting necessary equipment to them.
  • Continuing to provide services. 
  • Getting into shelters and working directly with people in crisis. Assisting emergency managers in developing plans for people with disabilities.
  • As long as we were doing the work, we saw that things were getting done.

Q. Can you report any success stories?

  • Mississippi: “The generosity of the disability community was incredible! The pulling together of some agencies that historically don’t work very well together was remarkable.  Many consumers who have relocated to the state have successfully found community supports they need with assistance from CIL staff.”
  • Louisiana:  “The huge amount of support we received from the CIL community and other supporters.”
  • Alabama: “Nothing to report at this time.” The staff person taking the survey felt helpless amidst people losing everything, having such a large land mass to cover without the support to do so, and then dealing with limiting factors within the community, such as public transportation, etc.

Q: What type of resources would be most helpful to better serve consumers in an emergency or disaster? 

  • Contacts with individuals who can get things done at the highest levels in state and federal government, as they are crucial resources when time can mean the difference between life, death, or serious injury.
  • Reliable and better communication among all parties involved in disaster preparedness and relief services.
  • Improved networking with local, state, and federal agencies to facilitate preparation for and recovery from a disaster.
  • A way to provide basic needs with food, water, generators and gas, transportation, housing, medicine.


Survey of Centers for Independent Living (CIL) Managers and Key Personnel (2006, March). “Nobody Left Behind: Disaster preparation and emergency response issues affecting people with disabilities in the Gulf region.” Sixth International Conference on Occupational Stress and Health, Miami, FL.

White, G.W., Fox, M.H., Rooney, C., & Cahill, A. (2006, April). Assessing the impact of Hurricane Katrina on persons with disabilities: Interim report.  Lawrence, KS: The Research and Training Center on Independent Living at the University of Kansas.

White, G.W., Fox, M.H., Rowland, J.L., & Rooney, C. (2006). Overview of research findings. Lawrence, KS: Research and Training Center on Independent Living, University of Kansas.