Disaster and Disability

Wow, what a day! Up at 3:30 a.m., to catch a flight to D.C. Seems to be a travel theme to my writing these days, right? Drove myself to the airport, no traffic to speak of at 4 a.m. Parked the car, got to the gate with an hour to spare until takeoff.

Full day of meetings, got to see old friends and meet some new ones. The focus of the day? Emergency preparedness and people with disabilities, and coalition building to ensure that no one is left behind when disaster strikes.

Heard from people all over the country about their experiences, both positive and negative. The negative? A man with cancer evacuated from a nursing home only to be kept in a closet in a second nursing home until he died two months later. The positive? Two moms of toddlers who are technology dependent to live became the heroes of the disability community after the floods that ravaged Louisiana last summer, becoming the go-to for supplies, resources and support for families of other kids with disabilities.

The point? To learn from each other. To organize. To plan for the future. It isn’t a question of if Louisiana will flood again. It is a question of when. It isn’t a matter of if Oklahoma will get hit by a tornado. It is simply a matter of when.

So the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, a newly formed nonprofit, hosted today’s meeting, inviting stakeholders from the disability community, government, and other nonprofits to share the room, learn from each other and chart a way forward.

I never knew I’d be so enthralled with weather. I used to laugh at my husband whose cocktail party conversations often centered around the water shortage in New Mexico or the earthquake that was sure to hit California. Now, I’ve become that person, a regular Weather Channel junkie. I know about weather patterns. I know who is getting rain. Where the wildfires are. The latest tornado touchdown. I could jump into the anchor desk on any day or night without batting an eye. Who’s laughing now?

It is amazing that there’s so much to learn from how we prepare for and respond to disasters. Who is at the table, and who isn’t. We learned that in California with the recent evacuations due to the potentially overflowing dam, people with disabilities had trouble evacuating because the paratransit providers who were supposed to be the first line of evacuation assistance for them had no idea. They were shut down and evacuated themselves.

So, the whole point of today? To underscore the need for communication between emergency managers, people with disabilities and disability organizations. To ensure that we work together NOW so that when there’s a disaster in the not so distant future, people with disabilities who are affected can be safely evacuated, sheltered, and ultimately returned home.

2 thoughts on “Disaster and Disability

  1. Hello Linda – Mike here in Colorado Springs. Yeah, that Mike from Chicago & the RIC Sports Program. We had two series of wildfires, one in 2012 and a following one in 2013. It changed us, here in Colorado Springs. No more junipers (they are one of the few ornamental trees/bushes that seem to thrive in the “high desert”), but the firemen call them “gasoline on a stick.” Friends lost their homes, we have the “burn scar,” so when the weather trackers follow a rain cloud (they show up occasionally, even in a drought) they notify all of us that the rain cloud is approaching the burn scar. The fires were so hot that they actually changed the chemistry of the top several feet of soil. Now, when rain hits the burn scar, zero is absorbed into the soil and it all runs off. Hence the floods in 2013 and 2015 (you probably saw the videos of the cars floating down Canyon Street in Manitou Springs).
    The readiness did change after the first fire. Although the Humane Society and the Norris Penrose Center (where they hold the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo) took in pets and equine/bovine livestock (something learned from Katarina), the service to the disabled residents was pretty poor during the first fires, in June 2012.
    Our friends, Dale & Patsy, were given about 2 hours to prepare for evacuation. Dale retired from Utilities with a disability retirement several years earlier and he has a progressive neurological disease (similar to MS) which has him wheelchair bound. Dale and my wife Diana were friends from her time working at Utilities. We spend holidays with them, go to ballgames, have picnics, etc.
    Diana and I were driving home from work on that Tuesday in June and it was dark; the fire blew down the mountain with following 60-mph winds. Sparks preceded the fire, setting houses and trees off up to a mile in front of the actual blaze. Dale phoned us from his van (they had been evacuated) and said they were on their way to Josey’s house. We were not home yet and he phoned us again and said that Josey just got the evacuation notice. We told them to come on to our place (we never got evacuated). We got home in front of them, I asked my neighbor for the old wood that he had stacked up; he had just replaced his porch. Diana and I built a ramp to our front door, just as Dale & Patsy drive up.
    Our house is certainly not ADA-compliant. We arranged things as well as possible, breaking down the dining room furniture and setting up a bed on the first floor. Also, the only two showers were on the second floor. Dale stayed downstairs. What people didn’t remember was that the temps hit 100 degrees that day (and night) and the newsies were saying “Close your windows” because of the smoke and ash. We had one small window unit, no central air. Here at elevation 6.000, we really don’t need air conditioning – until that night.
    Over 40,000 were evacuated and significantly, five large hotels were in the evac zone. Diana and I spent the next three days at home with Dale & Patsy; if there was a possibility that we would get evacuated, we needed to be able to move him into a van and that was a multi-person effort, with the jury-rigged ramp set-up. None of the temporary housing options were satisfactory for someone with Dale’s level of mobility-impairment; I know, I went to the high school gyms with the rows of cots and scoped them out. After four days, we finally got a disabled room at The Antlers Hilton, in Downtown Colorado Springs and got Dale there for three more days before the evacuation was lifted and they could return home (their home was untouched). Emergency management locally had figured it out much better by 2013 when the Black Forest Fire burned 550 homes.

    What you are doing is important; please keep doing it!

    Best wishes,

    Mike Fink

    1. Thanks for sharing your story Mike! This reinforces why including people with disabilities in emergency planning is so important, as well as the importance of having our own emergency plans and networks in place. It is often our own small communities that are the first line of defense in disasters as you so aptly demonstrated. Appreciate you taking the time to write.

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