Emily Woodruff at NOLA.com:
The special needs registry was started in 2013. Over the next few years, the city went door-to-door in low-income apartments to find vulnerable people. Officials also used Medicare data to pinpoint how many people might need help powering life-sustaining medical devices.
But what started with good intentions has become unmanageable. The list grew from 750 to 4,800 people by the time Ida rolled through, according to Meredith McInturff, the city’s public health emergency coordinator.
“It kind of became this tool that was being promoted by all city leadership as, if you need any sort of assistance during a hurricane, you should get signed up for it,” she said in a presentation to advocates.
But the system didn’t have the organization or workforce to follow through on that.
It set up an “unrealistic expectation,” said McInturff, “that every single person signed up would be evacuated out during a storm.”
Although special needs registries have caught on in disaster-prone states like Florida, Texas and California, they rarely work, said June Kailes, a disability policy researcher.
“Nobody can keep it updated,” said Kailes. “People who need it don’t register anyway. There’s no data that says it works.”
In that sense, the Smart911 system, a communication platform that allows residents to create profiles detailing everything from whether they have a COVID infection to needs like medical equipment and ventilators, is an improvement.
The city can also use the system for other purposes, such as alerting emergency responders that the person calling may be hard of hearing or pregnant. It allows an entire household to sign up, and tech-savvy family members can assist others in the process, said McInturff.
But advocates say the changes are not enough to address the thousands who need extra help in disasters. Smart911 offers an easy way to text or contact registrants, but it requires them to renew every six months. Participants need a smart phone to download the app or have the ability to register on a clunky interface on a computer.
“It almost is no change,” said Claire Tibbetts, the administrative manager of Autism Society of Greater New Orleans. “Instead of trying to fix the problems, they were just gonna eliminate the registry and dial back to only the thing that they were willing to provide in the first place.”