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Hurricane Katrina and Disability: Marcie Roth Interviewed on Newsweek On Air

Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, has emerged as one of the leading voices in drawing attention to the needs of people with disabilities affected by Hurricane Katrina. Marcie was interviewed on the online radio program “Newsweek On Air” on Sept. 25. The following is a transcript of the interview.

Newsweek on the Air: September 25, 2005

Hurricane Alert Part 1: Ready for Rita

Anchors: Emily Hoffman and David Alpern

Guests: Richard Wolffe, Newsweek senior White House correspondent and Marcie Roth, executive director and chief executive officer, National Spinal Cord Injury Association

Recording of President Bush:

We are now facing another big storm. I appreciate the folks here who are working so hard to help the folks on the ground prepare for the storm.

Woman:

We have been cooperating with state and federal officials, and they have certainly been cooperating with us.

Man:

The first storm eroded our levees to the point where we have virtually no protection. Levees are going down, maybe five, six, seven feet of erosion, and the water is coming over those areas where it is so low.

David Alpern:

First Katrina and then Rita, and there could well be more to come in hurricane season along the Gulf Coast. Determined not to appear to be caught short again, President Bush was personally monitoring preparations at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, and later at the military’s Northern Command in Colorado Springs, even before the second storm struck in the area around Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, albeit with weakening force. Local, federal and state cooperation seemed to be working for Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas of Galveston — ultimately spared Rita’s worst, but the new storm also poured more water into previously flooded areas of New Orleans, particularly St. Bernard Parish, as we heard from Parish Council Chairman, Joseph Difatta — raising new questions about rebuilding plans there.

Emily Hoffman:

Trying to learn lessons from Katrina, officials from the Houston area ordered emergency evacuations producing unprecedented gridlock. The lack of pre-positioned fuel and highway rerouting plans was obvious. A bus evacuating frail residents from a suburban Houston senior living center burst into flames and exploded on a clogged highway south of Dallas — killing two dozen or more — and focusing new attention on the special problems of disabled residents in disaster areas.

Alpern:

Late Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff signed a memo to FEMA acting director David Paulison and other key disaster officials that authorizes deployment of disability specialists to ensure availability of medical equipment and supplies, mobility aids, hearing aids and special-access housing. Chertoff also reported that special needs of the disabled should be worked into future emergency planning. For more on how well government got ready for Rita, we have Newsweek Senior White House Correspondent Richard Wolffe and Marcie Roth, executive director and CEO of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association and a leader in the larger disability community.

[Richard Wolffe segment omitted]

Alpern:

Next, to Marcie Roth of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. The Chertoff memo on special concerns for the disabled did not come spontaneously. Tell us briefly how the disability community approached the government about the special problems that became so obvious after Katrina — all those scenes people in wheelchairs and being evacuated from hospitals. What were your top priorities?

Marcie Roth:

Well, it became very clear to us in the early days after Katrina struck that, in addition to the horrendous crisis that everyone was facing, that there were particular concerns for people with disabilities. This became very clear to me very early on, and, unfortunately, I spent most of that Monday, the day the hurricane hit, on the telephone with a wonderful woman from New Orleans — a woman who’s quadriplegic, who unfortunately did not survive the hurricane. Her name was Benilda Caixeta. I was on the phone with her until the point at which water was rushing into her house and her phone went dead.

It became very clear across the country as the disability community began to check in with each other and to check in with the independent living centers and the other community service providers in that area to try to find out what the status was for individuals. At that point we reached out as well to the government folks that we work with throughout the rest of the year, trying to get them some of the assistance that they might need to begin to address the needs of the community of people with disabilities.

Hoffman:

How far does the Chertoff memo go to meeting the need as you see it?

Roth:

Well, you know, it’s a huge breakthrough, both in what it says and in what it signals. You know, if you were to look throughout the announcements, the Web base, the media, there’s so little specific focus on what could be seen as perhaps the additional needs of hurricane survivors with disabilities, and this is really the first signal from the government that there is acknowledgement that there are additional needs, and that alone is huge. There are many opportunities that are embedded in this statement from Chertoff, and we are very hopeful that the appointment of specialists on the ground — disability specialists — is going to begin to give us some sense that at the highest levels decisions are being made that don’t create unintended consequences for people with disabilities and at the same time are, in fact, going to lead to good smart policy decisions that help people with disabilities to regain their independence.

Alpern:

We heard from Marcie Roth of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, a leader in the disability community. We also heard from Richard Wolffe, senior White House correspondent.