In a crisis, the provision of emergency services is a balancing act at the best of times. Our goal is to provide the best services we can to the most people given limited resources and severe time constraints. However, that goal implies that there may be people whom we are unable to help. But as the 2011 lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles affirmed, we have an obligation to provide access to our services to all citizens. This is at the core of planning for people with special needs.
One of those groups frequently overlooked are those who are socially isolated. This may include people such as the homeless, people who do not speak English, the elderly and others who have limited or no contact with their neighbors and the community. These are people who may not be reached by our normal means of communicating information such as boil water orders, evacuation warnings, or severe weather warnings. They may lack access to televisions, radios, smart phones, etc. and either not hear or not understand the message. They may a not have neighbors, friends, or relatives who could help them in a crisis.
In his study of the Chicago heat wave of 1995, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, sociologist Eric Klineberg studied two communities with identical demographics and demonstrated how social isolation was the principal factor leading to the deaths experienced by one of the communities. Many of the dead were older citizens who were afraid to leave their apartments, didn’t know where to go for help, or had no one to check on them.
A similar situation occurred recently in the evacuation of three counties in California is anticipation of the failure of the Oroville Dam spillway. The mandatory evacuation order never reached homeless camps along the Feather River, many of which were not evacuated until the next day. Those who managed to evacuate in a timelier fashion had no information about where to go or what to expect. Fortunately, the spillway did not fail and no lives were lost.
Social isolation is not a problem emergency managers can solve as it has its roots in societal failure. Nor can we solve it “on the fly” in a time of crisis; there’s not time and resources are limited. But we can rethink how we communicate critical disaster information before the event and go beyond press releases and social media. We can invite the participation of organizations that work with these populations as we formulate our emergency communications plans and make use of their resources when we need to reach out to the socially isolated.