When a crisis is imminent, the pre-disaster homeless are often neglected.
We often think of homelessness as a problem that is limited to urban centers. But as the recent flooding in California demonstrated, rural areas have pockets of homelessness and if anything, they are even more vulnerable than those in cities and towns.
In February, a crater formed in the spillway of the Lake Oroville Dam, forcing officials to slow the release of water. Lake Oroville is California’s second largest man-made lake, holding some 3.5 million acre-feet of water, and the dam is the tallest in the United States. The heavy winter rains and runoff filled the lake to capacity and there was the risk that the dam would be over-topped because of the reduced flow through the damaged spillway. State water managers opted to use an emergency spillway that began to erode and seemed in danger of collapsing, leading to a mandatory evacuation order affecting three counties and almost 200,000 people.
In the urgency of the moment, no one gave any thought to the homeless encampments along the Feather River. Lacking the usual means of receiving evacuation notices such as telephones, television sets or radios, the people in the camps were completely unaware of the danger they were in. Several watched the streams of cars leaving the area but received no information about the evacuation or shelter locations. Many were not able to leave the area until the next morning.
As I pointed out in an article in August 2015, Pre-Disaster Homeless Populations Pose Unique Problems for Planners, social isolation is one of the biggest problems we face when dealing with the pre-disaster homeless. For this segment of our population, the usual means of communications aren’t effective and we need to rely on organizations and outreach teams that regularly work with the homeless to help us develop an effective communications plan. We need to include these organizations in our planning, something that is now taking place in many of the communities affected by the Oroville Dam evacuation.
We need to accept that our responsibilities as emergency managers encompass all citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable to disaster. Planning for the needs of the pre-disaster homeless is complex and requires working with groups that are not always the most cooperative with government. But as I note in my previous article, the courts have held that it is our duty to ensure that all citizens have access to our emergency programs.