The ethics question known as the “lifeboat dilemma”: say there are twenty people on a sinking ship, and the lifeboat only has room for fifteen. How do you decide who gets on the boat? An infant or a 60-year-old man? What if the man’s a medical researcher close to making a great and important discovery? An elderly saint or a young criminal? Lots of tough questions. Here’s another: if a storm has trashed the whole neighborhood except for a single storm shelter, must you let a potentially dangerous person in? What if you just don’t have what it takes to accommodate him?
Mentally ill hurricane evacuees were often discriminated against during relief efforts last year, to the point of being banished from shelters or institutionalized against their will, a government report says.
The National Council on Disability said Friday it was common practice after hurricanes Katrina and Rita to segregate people with psychiatric problems. The council called the segregation hurtful and illegal.
Some lived outside relief shelters. Others huddled in corners behind barriers and away from other people. Some were shipped to nursing homes, jails or mental institutions.
The article goes on to mention volunteer organizations like the Red Cross who are targets of the NCD’s ire:
In its report, the council also cited shelter conditions that were often "crowded, noisy, confusing, and sometimes violent, all inadequate circumstances for a person with psychosis, anxiety or depression."
I wouldn’t call “crowded, noisy, confusing and sometimes violent” adequate circumstances for the mentally stable, either. As for such discrimination being illegal — maybe it is when they’re criticizing a government agency like FEMA. But can you make such criticism of a volunteer organization? Can you tell a volunteer “you are not doing enough, and unless you do even more you’ll be breaking the law?” And suppose the Red Cross does in fact manage to build enough quiet, spacious, comfortable shelters for the mentally ill: doesn’t that discriminate against the healthy people forced to stay in the noisy, violent hellholes?
Now assume, for the sake of argument, that it’s the government’s job to make sure everybody’s taken care of when a storm comes through. Disasters like Katrina have shown that the government’s not doing too well. Clearly, improvements must be made. But resources are limited. What should it do first: improve the miserable shelters used by the majority, or invest in specialized accommodations for those whose mental disabilities leave them even more vulnerable than the healthy people?