Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hurricane Ike, As Seen From CROWD

On October 10, I will be visiting the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities (CROWD) in Houston, Texas. If you have never heard of CROWD, it's time to listen up as they've collected lots of research on women with disabilities. Peg Nosek is the Executive Director, and earlier this month I checked in with her regarding Houston and Hurricane Ike. What's it like riding out a hurricane with a physical disability? Peg wrote up a short piece about it, and I am reprinting it below with her kind permission.

Riding Out Ike on a Vent
by Margaret A. Nosek, Ph.D.

We rode out the storm here, completely prepared and dutifully following instructions to shelter in place. It was mighty terrifying but luckily we had no damage to the house, only lots of fallen limbs.

1. The decision about whether or not to evacuate should be made out of consideration for those people who are my life support, not just me. I was completely confident we would be all right and my house would hold up. My attendants, Perla and Amalia, however, were terrified. The wind started getting very bad at around seven o'clock in the evening and the electricity went out around 10:30. I finally went to bed at two o'clock in the morning; I was tired but not afraid. My two ladies didn't sleep the whole night; they just huddled in the next bedroom with Perla's three kids. They even came to my bedroom around four o'clock to move my bed away from the window. The wind was howling and there was a constant rumble like a freight train, with trees swirling as if they were lassos and limbs snapping all over. By the morning we all agreed -- never again!

2. Generators smell really bad! As soon as we got up, four of our neighbors came over to check on me and help set up the generator. Everything worked okay and we plugged in the refrigerator and battery chargers for my ventilator and wheelchair. It was still raining and the wind was still blowing pretty hard, making all the fumes from the generator surround the whole house. The combination of fumes, heat, and humidity really started getting to me by the afternoon and I was having a lot of trouble breathing. This was the main reason, plus other reasons listed below, that I made the quick decision that we had to leave.

3. Sprint cell phones don't work in a crisis. Apparently they don't build their towers as robust as Verizon. Thanks to Amalia's Verizon cell phone I was able to connect with Chris, my nephew in Atlanta. He searched the net and found me what was probably the last available hotel room in Austin.

4. When electricity goes out you don't just lose your lights. In my naïveté about how the world works, I never realized that without electricity gasoline pumps won't work, air pumps won't work, and water purification plants shut down. Generators only run about 10 hours before you have to put in more gas. No gasoline stations were open or functioning. The fact that our water was contaminated was the final straw, propelling us down the road to Austin. After visiting two abandoned gasoline stations we finally figured out why the air pumps weren't working so we fill up our tires using an old-fashioned hand pump I had in the garage. We finally got to the hotel in Austin by midnight. It was really eerie driving the first hour through a totally dark city. Only the car dealerships were lit up.

5. Neighbors and family really are lifelines. Once I was able to get a cell phone signal I kept in constant touch with my nephew and my neighbors. We had a sinfully wonderful time in Austin. We took in some sights and caught up with lots of old friends. I even got to teach two classes at the University of Texas, one in rehabilitation counseling and one in nursing, when some faculty friends found out I was available and not particularly busy. It was glorious fun! Man, I love that city. My neighbors called me late Wednesday evenings to say that power was back on my side of the street. Thus ended our unexpected adventure. After lunch at Threadgill's and a little more playing around, we came home Thursday evening.

6. The aftermath is so much worse for low income areas. Driving around town over the last few days has deeply saddened me, not just for all the lost trees and damaged houses or the utter devastation in Galveston and Bolívar Peninsula. It’s the disproportionate effect of the event on people who lack the resources to bounce back. FEMA, some churches, and others are helping get some folks through the crisis, but I'm really concerned about those who won't have the resources to repair or rebuild. The effect on them is so much worse than for those of us who could escape and regroup.

7. Regulations are good. Whatever happened to the rule that says utility companies have to trim trees around power lines? I think deregulated public service industries have failed us miserably. Maybe enough middle- and upper-class people have been severely inconvenienced by this event that they will vote Democrat in November and get us back to a society that protects its people.

Now that I have survived, it's time to rekindle the fire in my belly and get back to work!

Margaret A. Nosek, PhD
Executive Director
Center for Research on Women with Disabilities
Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
Baylor College of Medicine

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