Year of Publication



Martin School of Public Policy and Administration

Executive Summary

Since the events of September 11th and Hurricane Katrina, the field and research associated with emergency preparedness have grown substantially. Despite the positive contributions of research, problems relating to the use of emergency shelters during the disasters have surfaced. Through anecdotal evidence and subsequent research, it was soon discovered that the needs of those with disabilities were not adequately addressed at many sites. Many potential residents were turned away at shelters due to their disability, or if allowed in, were forced to live in sites with barriers that could hinder activities of daily living.

To address concerns, emergency management officials became proactive in establishing protocol, policy and other initiatives to ensure the safety of residents in their jurisdictions. In an initial step to improve preparedness efforts, officials in many areas collaborated with other stakeholders to establish predetermined emergency shelters which would be open during a disaster. The state of Pennsylvania and its American Red Cross chapters jointly created a database containing over 2,500 predetermined sites that could be used during a disaster. These shelters include schools, community centers, churches and more. Shelter sites were categorized by a multitude of attributes including location, capacity, construction materials, and whether or not they are accessible or compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Using the number and location of ADA compliant or accessible shelters across the state, this research looks to determine the ability of Pennsylvania American Red Cross chapters to adequately house their disabled residents in this preferred type of preselected emergency shelters.

The current analysis finds that less than 2% of disabled Pennsylvania residents can be housed in an ADA compliant shelter. These shelters, which are highly preferred shelter type, represent only 2.5% of all available shelters. Urban counties housed more than half of all ADA compliant shelters. However, ADA compliant shelters in rural counties offered higher capacity levels. The eastern portion of the state is home to 84% of these shelters. Accessible shelters, which rank below ADA compliant shelters, allow for almost a quarter of the state’s disabled residents to be housed. Most are located within rural counties, yet urban counties having these shelter types had a better capacity to house their disabled residents. Shelter locations varied across the state as well. However, twelve counties do not have a single preselected shelter site within their boundaries.

To improve capacity levels, it is recommended that the state of Pennsylvania and its American Red Cross chapters work to increase the total number of available shelters statewide. Specifically the number of ADA compliant shelters must increase considerably. To ensure this increase, collaboration is recommended to support state adoption and enforcement of stricter design standards for newly constructed buildings in order to gain national certification. Finally, it is recommended that those with disabilities be included in the shelter selection process as these individuals can be a valuable asset to ensure all residents are housed in the safest environment possible during an emergency.