Responding to a Humanitarian Crisis
In perhaps the largest natural disaster the San Diego region has ever seen, we put our emergency
response system to the test.
For one frightening week that began on October 21, 2007, fires
raged through the region and more than half a million people evacuated their homes.
Like all members of our community, we are proud of all those who acted quickly and effectively
to save lives and homes, some at great risk to themselves.
Were it not for these heroes, which
include firefighters, first responders, public servants, and countless volunteers, we would no
doubt have suffered a far greater loss than we did.
Our emergency response system was successful in alerting vast segments of the population and
evacuating them to safety.
It was also successful in providing immediate shelter, food, water and
other emergency supplies to the great many of those fleeing the affected areas.
But the system
and human compassion fell short in some of our most vulnerable populations, including
immigrant, low-income, detained, and homeless populations.
At a time of crisis, such as we just experienced, humanitarian principles should be prioritized in
our emergency response policies and practices.
These include respect for human dignity and the
sanctity of family regardless of race, national origin, language, legal status, property ownership,
or any other factor.
When lives and family well-being are on the line, nothing else should
Natural disasters do not pick and choose their victims, and they certainly do not bypass
A humanitarian response demands that all victims have access to disaster relief.
This is not only compassionate and civilized, it is also good public policy to ensure the public’s
health and safety.
Emergency assistance—from government and from private sources—must be
available to all people affected by a disaster’s destruction.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Immigrant Rights Consortium, Justice Overcoming
Boundaries and other legal and community organizations have received hundreds of reports of
civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights abuses.
These include undocumented immigrants
and homeless evacuees denied emergency services and shelter because they could not provide
the proper identity documents; an extended family with three children arrested and deported for
taking more donated goods than someone thought reasonable; a young Filipino volunteer evicted
from the stadium for helping evacuees carry donated goods to their vehicles; and a number of
journalists denied access to relief operations or otherwise precluded from doing their jobs.
These abuses should not be repeated.
As a community, we can ensure that they will not be by
implementing emergency protection policies that are mindful of our most vulnerable
communities in times of crisis.