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.
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.
PLEASE READ THE WHOLE THING.