Friday, Nov. 17, 2006 | Rusty Krumm considers himself lucky. Confined to a wheelchair since a diving accident left him a quadriplegic in 1969, Krumm, who lives alone in City Heights, has family and aides who help him get through his day. They’d also look out for him in the event of natural disaster or other catastrophe.

But Krumm, 49, is worried that others with special needs may not be as fortunate when a disaster strikes. He fears that some people with disabilities, elderly individuals and others who require special assistance could be left behind if part of or the entire city is forced to evacuate.

That’s because the city of San Diego’s emergency planners say they are aware of only a small portion of the people who might need assistance during an evacuation. And between technological limitations and miscommunication, it’s not clear that they would be able to quickly locate – and whisk away – the residents they do know about in a crisis.

“We wouldn’t be able to pull it up on a map and say ‘OK, this is where everyone is,’” said Wayne Bell, a police sergeant who oversees evacuation planning for the city.

The county of San Diego provides the city with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of approximately 250 of the 10,000 low-income, elderly or disabled city residents who receive in-home assistance through the county’s Aging & Independence Services, said Denise Neleson, a spokeswoman for the agency. That list includes only people with the most critical needs in an emergency – those who rely on oxygen, live alone or have no one to check on them.

However, there are approximately 193,000 disabled people in the city, according to Linda Woodbury, the city’s former disabilities services coordinator.

Although not all of those residents would require help evacuating, advocates for San Diego’s disabled community say the current method falls woefully short of identifying the true number of elderly, infirm, mentally ill or severely physically disabled residents who are non-ambulatory, lack transportation or would require aid for other reasons.

Those populations comprised the bulk of the dead in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Despite the lessons of that disaster, local authorities still have no way of knowing where to find many of those individuals unless they volunteer their information prior to an evacuation.

Even then, there are limited opportunities for people with special needs to register with local officials and there is evidence that emergency planners may not all be on the same page when it comes time to locate those who do make the county’s list.

If a wildfire, earthquake or another disaster strikes, officials will rely on media reports and a reverse 911 phone system to notify all citizens in the impacted areas of an evacuation. They would also make special efforts to contact people on the county’s list.

But there is confusion whether rescuers would actually be able to use that list to find residents quickly.

Bell and Donna Faller, the program manager with the city’s Office of Homeland Security, said in an interview that the city lacks the ability to geographically pinpoint those who the county identifies as requiring special assistance in an emergency.

Faller said the county is currently working to geographically organize those addresses and has not provided the city with an estimate of when the process will be complete.

But Stasia Place, a coordinator at the county’s Office of Emergency Services, said the coded list has been available for months and can be accessed by cities countywide.

“It sounds like we just need to educate them,” Place said.

Jill Olen, the city’s top public safety and homeland security official, later agreed with Place. She said the city has had access to the updated lists for months. Olen, who was present when Faller and Bell were interviewed, chalked the discrepancy up to a miscommunication.

“Right now what we have is adequate for evacuating folks and for notifying anybody, not just special needs people,” Olen said.

But San Diego’s not the only city where misunderstanding surrounds the updated lists.

Liz Pursell, a spokeswoman for the city of Chula Vista, the second-largest city in the county, said neither the city’s police nor the fire departments were aware that the reorganized directories are available.

“As a city we do our own disaster preparedness and we don’t have that capability,” Pursell said.

In the wakes of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, local governments across the country have made large-scale emergency planning and evacuation plans top priorities.

“A lot of the urban areas have been scrambling to put a lot more thought into it rather than just lip service,” said Don Lewis, a vice president with PBS&J, a national consulting firm that specializes in evacuation planning.

Locally, that effort is being coordinated at the county level, where officials are working to establish a universal template that individual cities can use to establish their own plans. That preliminary process is expected to be completed in January. Then the city can begin planning not only how to get citizens out of an impacted area, but how to take on the enormous task of providing food, shelter and medical care in a new location.

Planning for a mass evacuation “is not as easy as: ‘If something happens, everybody go outside and keep driving until you stop shaking or something,’” Olen said.

The deadly storms also emphasized the need for better planning when it comes to getting the elderly and disabled out of harm’s way.

“In New Orleans, the people that were disproportionately affected by the flood were elderly or had special needs,” said John Renee, an associate professor at the University of New Orleans, who studies evacuation planning.

Nearly half of the more than 1,000 people who died in the New Orleans area were more than 75 years old, Renee said. Many were stranded in their homes because of mobility restrictions.

But in San Diego, efforts to identify those people are hampered on several fronts.

For starters, it’s not easy to determine who qualifies as disabled or what requirements are extraordinary. Homeless people, those who rely on public transportation or people who don’t speak English could all be considered at risk during an evacuation, Faller said.

Regardless of who qualifies, city planners would like to have more information about special-needs individuals but can’t force them to register or otherwise identify themselves. Their hands are tied by federal law, which prohibits officials from inquiring about a citizen’s disability status.

“We have no mandatory mechanism to be able to identify them,” Olen said.

“We can’t go looking for them,” she said. “All we can do is put the information out that says: Please register with the county.”

Louis Frick, the executive director of the Access Center of San Diego, one of the largest support agencies for people with disabilities in the region, said he usually fights to ensure his clients are treated like everyone else and in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, Frick said he takes issue with the law when it comes to safety and emergency preparedness. He said people with special needs should identify themselves and the city should make greater efforts to raise awareness in the disabled community.

“They could be reaching out to various organizations and finding out how they contact a broader array of people with disabilities,” Frick said.

Others also put the onus on local government.

“I think it’s important that the city know who they are and we start looking at finding out who in the city is going to need help,” said Penny J. McClellan a psychologist and advocate for people with disabilities. “We need to figure out where they are located and what assistance they need.”

Neither Frick nor Place, of the county’s Office of Emergency Services, said they are aware of efforts by city or county governments to encourage people with disabilities or special needs to register for evacuation assistance.

Both the city and the county allow citizens to sign up for daily phone calls to check on their welfare. However, there’s currently no program that allows residents to sign up for aid in the case of a mass evacuation, Neleson said.

The county considered establishing such a service but found the resulting list would be too difficult to maintain as people died or moved away, Neleson said. Outdated information could tax rescue efforts in an emergency.

The city does plan to add a public education and outreach coordinator to Olen’s staff in order to help establish the disaster-related requirements of the city’s special-needs population. The position has yet to be filled due to a lack of funding for additional office space, Faller said.

The city’s general fund is currently stretched thin by a $1.4 billion debt to the pension fund, and San Diego has turned up low on the Department of Homeland Security’s funding list.

“This absolutely must be a priority for the top level down,” Woodbury said. “But it hasn’t received as much attention as it would have if past administrations hadn’t put the city in the situation that it’s in.”

Woodbury was terminated by Mayor Jerry Sanders on Wednesday afternoon. The official cause was unclear. Woodbury said she wasn’t sure if her participation in this article played a role.

The Mayor’s Office has a policy that staff must receive authorization prior to speaking with reporters, but it was not clear whether Woodbury asked for or received permission. Woodbury said she was told that she “exhibits a lack of leadership and support for the organization” before being fired.

With no way for people with special needs to register for evacuation assistance, advocates for the disabled and emergency planners stress the need for all residents to think ahead and prepare to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours after a catastrophe occurs.

It’s a message that’s not lost on Krumm.

“When the big one hits, we’re all going to be by ourselves for a while,” he said.

Please contact Daniel Strumpf directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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