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HOW THE SURVIVORS SURVIVE: THE HURRICANE EXPERIENCE OF A PERSON WITH DISABILITIES
THE IMPACT OF HURRICANES AND WHAT TO DO

by Sarah J. Blake
September 2, 2005

When discussing the problem of accessing shelters with my dog guide following Hurricane Charley, I was often advised to go to a "special needs shelter." I was deeply uncomfortable with this idea. Volunteers at these shelters would be busy caring for people with serious needs and would likely not have time for orienting me or assisting me with my one need: relieving my dog. Furthermore, my presence at one of these shelters would take space away from someone with more serious needs who desperately needed the space. Blindness is not a severe disability, however people may view it.

In researching the issue of "special needs shelters" since the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, I have learned a number of things.

These factors present very real problems for people who do not meet the criteria for special needs shelters. My roommates and I would have fallen into this category, as demonstrated by my discussion of the link to the Florida registry below.

While reading news articles about survivors of Hurricane Katrina, I was impressed by details that would have never come to my mind because I am removed from the situation, even though I had been through evacuation. It's easy for me to sit in my air-conditioned house, watch the news on television or read it online, and gloss over these seemingly small details; but for a person with disabilities, small details can be very significant. With these things in mind, I found myself becoming frustrated when I perceived that someone was objecting to the solicitation of a blindness organization for donations to help refugees who are blind. She stated that she felt that blind people should not receive preferential treatment and that all people are affected by the storm and need our help.

Certainly all people are affected and need help. However, people with disabilities may have unique needs which are not taken into account by relief workers. Some of these needs are very practical: the loss of adaptive technology and employment and difficulty in locating new employment that is much more pronounced than that facing the average person. Some needs are non-monetary: the need for transportation; the need for sign language interpreters; the need to be oriented to new surroundings, whether this is a shelter or new community and housing. Some of these needs can be emotional. When the water rises suddenly in one's home and one clambers to the rooftop, there may not be time to grab the cane or harness up the guide dog. Getting out alive and fast is the priority. The emotional cost in a situation like this--and worse, in a situation where you don't know what is safe around you, who to trust, or even where to ask for help or where you can't ask for help because you can't communicate--are tremendous. Add to this any impact created by lack of appropriate medical care--some conditions can be physically or emotionally torturous or even life-threatening without proper management--and the impact is beyond simple loss of home and basic quality of life.

A number of people have been quick to blame residents of New Orleans for their plight because they failed to heed evacuation warnings. Certainly some residents did fail to heed the warnings. However, a number of these residents are elderly, disabled, and impoverished people who do not have the means to evacuate. Many, many have disabilities and special medical needs.

In light of these factors, I felt that it was important to include on this site some links to sources of information for people with disabilities to help with hurricane preparedness and also for shelter workers and responders who may be in a position to help them in an evacuation or emergency situation. I'm thankful that I had family who were able to relocate me. Everyone does not have these resources available. If this site helps a few people, I will be very happy.

Resources

Disaster!
This article from Mainstream magazine examines the issues affecting people with disabilities who are affected by disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Authors point out that large concentrations of people with disabilities live independently in disaster-prone areas and that they may possess strengths in dealing with changing environments which can be helpful in a disaster. On the other hand, the authors also discuss the very real problems people with disabilities face in evacuation situations because of the failure of relief workers to respond appropriately to disability-related needs.

Florida Division of Blind Service's Hurricane Safety Tips
This site provides very little information but does include links to information about Florida's special needs registry. Sadly, it appears that my roommates and I would not even have met the criteria ofr the registry:

Florida Statutes Chapter 252.355-Registry of Persons with Special Needs requires all counties to maintain a special needs registry. People may require as little as transportation to a regular shelter to more involved assistances made possible through a special needs shelter. The program registration is free, voluntary and confidential. Registration is based on persons meeting the Special Needs Programís criteria. Registrants are responsible for keeping their registration information accurate and up to date and renewing their registration each year.

In brief, any residents of one of Florida's 67 counties may register if they:

At first glance, this would have given me hope. Taking a closer look, I begin to wonder if upon attempt to register I would have been questioned about whether anyone I knew would house me or transport me--anyone, even an acquaintance from here or there, list off places I might be active. It would make me feel that I was being turned away. This kind of thing does happen. I am uncertain whether we would have been disqualified since our home was not mobile--we did live in an evacuation zone. However, we also could have taken a taxi to a shelter. On the other hand, income is limited. Yet these questions will probably dissuade Christy and Amy from attempting to register as they would have me.

Hurricane Preparedness for Individuals with Disabilities
This is a very thorough guide, although readers will need to spend some time working out specifics of how it applies individually because the suggestions are very general. It lists steps to take, including (for example) gathering supplies. It does not list particular supplies since each person's supplies will be different according to disability-related needs.

Red Cross Info
This link leads to a list of documents and tip sheets with preparedness information for people with various disabilities. Some of the files are in PDF format.

Disaster Planning and Response for Persons with Disabilities
This article provides tips for people with disabilities as well as for responders and shelter managers. Some information is Florida-specific.

Hurricane Preparation Vital for People with Disabilities
This is a brief but somewhat helpful article with a few general tips for people who have disabilities or medical needs or who are elderly. Links to additional articles are provided.

Disaster Mitigation for People with Disabilities
This article proposes some solutions to the problems of disaster preparedness and response for people with disabilities--excellent reading for people with disabilities and anyone involved in disaster preparedness and response work.

Katrina and People with Disabilities
This page presents a digest of information about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on people with disabilities from a variety of news sources.

Katrina Impact and Response
This is the text of an email forwarded to me regarding the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the state of response efforts for people with disabilities as of September 2, 2005.

Katrina Relief for People with Disabilities
This site lists relief organizations to contact for assistance or to make donations of money, supplies, or time and services.

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Sarah Blake is a person with disabilities who lived in Florida during the fall of 2004 and relocated due to the impact of hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne. To learn more about her, please check out her blog at LiveJournal. This section of the site was adapted from some of the entries there. If you would like more information about visual impairment, epilepsy, migraine, premature birth, mental health, the Christian faith, or other miscellaneous topics that Sarah may be writing about, please visit Growing Strong, her personal site.