Natural Disasters Pose Extra Threat for Pacific Islanders With Disabilities

Building an Inclusive Culture of Safety in the Pacific
Trainers from Cheshire Disability Services demonstrate how to move the disabled to safety during a USAID training in Gabagaba village, Papua New Guinea.
USAID/C-CAP
Communities learn how to help those with limitations during crises
“I needed to be transported to an evacuation center. For a visually impaired person like me, this can be confusing and frightening.”

November 2015—A natural disaster is 30 times more likely to occur in the Pacific Islands than in the United States. Floods, droughts, tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events have forced people to cope with the devastating effects of a changing climate. Many of the region’s villages have not developed formal disaster response training, leaving families unprepared to survive catastrophic events.

People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. One out of every six people in the Pacific Islands has a disability, whether physical, intellectual or psychosocial. Despite their large population, people with disabilities are often marginalized.

“In many communities, there are no facilities, nor people who know how to transport us safely,” says Willie Saplou.

Saplou, who lives with a visual impairment, chairs the Vanuatu Disability Promotion and Advocacy Group, and serves on the board of the Vanuatu Society for People with Disability. In March 2015, he survived Tropical Cyclone Pam.

“I needed to be transported to an evacuation center,” he recalled. “For a visually impaired person like me, this can be confusing and frightening.”

Through the Coastal Community Adaptation Project and implementing partner Development Alternatives Inc., USAID is raising the visibility of people with disabilities, collaborating with disaster management organizations and advocacy groups to help communities identify disaster risks, develop response plans, and practice simulation drills. This is part of the program’s larger work to help Pacific Island countries adapt to climate change and contribute to the region’s resiliency.

In June and July 2015, USAID partnered with Cheshire Disability Services and the Red Cross Society to conduct disaster workshops and simulations in three different Papua New Guinea villages, reaching more than 700 people.

“People living in disaster-prone areas must learn how to help people with disabilities,” said Joyce Koupere, Cheshire’s programs officer. “We can minimize casualties if we know what to do.”

Marava Genabayo has used a wheelchair for more than 30 years in the village of Tubusereia. Her husband John is her primary caregiver. After their training, Marava was happy that people learned how to move a person with a disability.

“When we are not handled properly or with care, we hurt so much that we are reluctant to be helped,” she said.

From August to September, USAID collaborated with the Nuanua o le Alofa disability advocacy organization in Samoa to conduct disaster response training in sign language for nearly 350 people from nine communities. First responders learned how to sign the Samoan words for “cyclone,” “run,” “hurry,” “take cover,” and “don’t panic.”

“This training raised awareness of how to assist the different disabilities that exist in my community,” said Liufau Sauni.

Increasing awareness of the special needs of the disabled during disaster events benefits more than people with disabilities. Entire communities can readily understand and use the straightforward procedures, communications strategies, and infrastructure designed for people with disabilities. By introducing these practices to South Pacific communities, USAID and its partners are building a culture of safety that makes everyone more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

Local leaders, village elders, women’s groups and other community players from C-CAP sites are forming committees, collectively deciding what key infrastructures are most at risk and most important to save. Approximately 800 committee members have participated in the planning sessions, and an estimated 60,000 people from the Pacific region are expected to ultimately benefit.

The Coastal Community Adaptation Project runs from 2012 to 2016. It works in more than 70 communities in nine Pacific Island countries to rehabilitate and construct new, small-scale community infrastructure and train citizens in disaster prevention and preparedness.

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Last updated: November 13, 2015

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