Climate Change and Housing

Houses on stilts are a way to mitigate coastal climate change. But they aren’t accessible.

When Superstorm Sandy flooded Liz Treston’s home on the South Shore of Long Island, she worried her wheelchair would prevent first responders from rescuing her. So Treston, a quadriplegic, wrote her Social Security number on her arm with a Sharpie, so they could at least identify her body.

She survived, but once the floodwaters receded, officials pushed residents of her Long Beach neighborhood to rebuild their houses on stilts. Treston went along, fearing that if she didn’t, her flood insurance premiums would jump. And, she was told, if her house stayed at ground level, the next storm would turn it into a bowling ball, knocking over the homes around it.

So Treston raised her house 13 feet (4 meters) off the ground, and had enough money to install an elevator. But now she finds the homes around her are mostly off-limits. “I can’t visit anyone in my neighborhood, because they’re all up in the air,” she said.

When we talk about disability and climate change (as I did here), this is the world we’re heading towards.

Hurricane Maria and the Human Choices that Kill

On February 2nd, 2018, Aníbal Dones Flores, 54, woke up in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, with an asthma attack. It was almost half a year after Hurricane Maria had savaged the island, but Flores still didn’t have power in his house. His condition grew worse as he labored to awaken his brother, hoping his brother could turn on the generator to power Flores’ breathing machine. The brother called 911, but the dispatchers sent an ambulance from neighboring Juncos, rather than one from San Lorenzo itself. By the time the EMTs arrived, Flores had died.

Flores is one of the thousands killed as a result of Hurricane Maria, a disaster still claiming lives even today, thanks to the severity of the storm, the long neglect of the island’s infrastructure, and, arguably, a willful disinterest from federal disaster officials. The story of his death, along with the deaths of about 475 other Puerto Ricans, was collected through a collaboration between Quartz, Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Associated Press. The project came online even as President Donald Trump was falsely claiming that over 3,000 people didn’t die in the disaster and subsequent response, arguing that he and his administration had done a “fantastic job” supporting the island.

The grim narratives in the project reveal just how badly relief efforts have failed, how long the road is to recovery, and, as we have regularly reported at Pacific Standard over the last year, how disaster recovery will continue to fail if it doesn’t prioritize access for disabled people who are in harm’s way. Instead, even when disaster services are robust, disabled people routinely get ignored or abandoned. In Puerto Rico, where federal efforts fell so short, story after story reveals the extent of preventable deaths in the wake of the hurricane.

Disability and Disaster

I wrote a long feature for Pacific Standard about disability and disaster response:

There are four basic different types of needs related to disability that emerge in the aftermath of disasters: health maintenance (medicine, electricity, medical care), ability to move in and through physical areas, effective communication access, and what the experts call “program access.” Some of these needs are obvious: People who depend on dialysis or oxygen need power. Diabetics need insulin. Chemotherapy patients need hospitals that work, and so forth. A wheelchair user might well not be able to cross flooded areas, climb stairs to escape rising water, or access a shelter. Shelter space might also be inaccessible because messages about locations aren’t communicated in sign language or Braille. Such spaces might be too loud or chaotic for people with sensory integration needs (as would be true for my son, who has Down syndrome, many autistic individuals, and many others).

Needs can overlap. Many people fall into more than one of these categories, and access to the resources required to meet these needs is never distributed evenly. The consequences of a natural disaster for any individual will be intensified not only by specifics of the disability, but also by other forms of inequality and marginalization such as race, class, gender or sexual identity, and legal status. Disabilities can also be temporary or changing, especially when disasters bring injury or new health risks. Disability disaster response therefore requires understanding all the varieties of disabilities and the inequities of our society—and too often requires fighting against governmental structures built without disability in mind.


Disaster Studies – There are No Natural Disasters

I talked to Jacob Remes about Critical Disaster Studies, Hurricane Maria, Imperialism, Trump, and more. New at Pacific Standard:

“At the heart [of the field] is a saying that became common in the 1970s: There’s no such thing as a natural disaster. There are hazards, some of which are natural (earthquakes, tornadoes, river floods) and some of which aren’t (industrial fires, pollution, dam collapses, nuclear bombings). But what makes them a disaster is how they intersect with individual and community vulnerability, which is socially constructed. Once we understand this fundamental paradigm, we can understand how disasters are political events with political causes and solutions, not just (or even not primarily) technical failures.”


“So to think about Puerto Rico, we can see how imperialism (which of course is wrapped up in white supremacy and capitalism) shapes both Puerto Ricans’ vulnerability to the hurricane hazard and also the U.S. mainland’s response to it. Puerto Rico has been suffering under the Orwellian-named PROMESA Act, which essentially created a federally appointed fiscal control board that ruled the island for the benefit of mainland bondholders, rather than for its citizens. This has been hollowing out the Puerto Rican state for several years and has made Puerto Rico less able to respond to things like hurricanes. And of course, after the disaster, we can see how Puerto Ricans’ second-class citizenship—yes, U.S. citizens, but without representation in Congress or a vote for president—means they do not get full access to the American state when it comes to disaster relief.”

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