The majority of Floridians know that hurricanes are likely to strike our state, and news reports run season-long with projections for storms that could threaten our coasts and warnings on preparation. Still, the length of time between major storms can make it easy to underestimate the amount of damage and turmoil to our lives that they can cause.
No matter how well one prepares for hurricanes in the Sunshine State, the best lessons often come after the storm as folks assess what they did well and what they'll do differently next time (and, with hope, that "next time" is a long way off).
We hope the following stories of how a handful of self-advocates in Florida prepared and weathered Irma’s aftermath will offer insight into future preparation plans for others in Florida.
Panama City resident Amanda Baker registered for a Special Needs Shelter should the need to evacuate her apartment arise. As Irma’s path wobbled west, folks in the Panhandle began to prepare. In this particular instance, the storm did not impact the Panama City area enough for Amanda to need those provisions; however, it is worth noting that she was never contacted about arrangements in the event that evacuation was necessary.
“I don’t know if they would’ve come to get me or not,” Amanda said. Had things gone differently, this could have created a major safety issue and is something that she is looking into.
In Collier County, where Irma’s surge was predicted hours before impact to be as high as 18 feet, one grandmother of a child experiencing autism was turned away from the Special Needs Shelter she had pre-registered to evacuate to because it was full. After a frantic search for a place to go she learned her church had opened its doors and found refuge there. Naples was spared the devastating surge but the family’s mobile home was damaged by flooding.
Arizona Jenkins of Tampa reports that he began planning for the storm much earlier due to his disability, which involves the use of a power wheelchair and personal care attendant. He attended planning meetings for people with disabilities in his area prior to the storm and had registered to evacuate to a nearby hospital had an order for his area been given. He noted that although his home did not suffer as much damage and debris as anticipated, the lack of electricity for two days left him hot and bored with no TV and a dead iPad.
“Next time I will have a generator,” Arizona said.
A few miles east of Arizona, Florida Self-Advocacy Central writer Laura Minutello weathered Hurricane Irma in Brandon along with her family. Her preparations included the usual, stocking up on water, battery-powered lights, non-perishables, etc., as well as securing their home to the best of the family’s ability. When it seemed as though the storm was gaining strength and could possibly hit the Tampa area as a Category 5, Laura did consider going to a shelter. However, upon being advised that her wheelchair alone did not qualify as a special need, decided against it. She would advise anyone who qualifies to definitely pre-register to evacuate to a Special Needs Shelter with their county prior to storm alerts.
As far as any improvements to her storm preparation plan goes, Laura said that if she had it to do over again, she’d secure supplies to board her home well in advance as plywood became scarce the closer Irma came to the state. Additionally, considering how many days some in her area went without power, more powerful battery-powered light sources and a battery-powered radio are on the updated Minutello hurricane preparation list.
Some self-advocates hosted evacuees in their homes, requiring extra food, water, and other supplies. Many people who never lost power or had it restored more quickly offered cool rooms and hot showers to friends, family, and even strangers all over the state in the long days after the storm as families waited for their power to be restored.
Frank Shalett of Broward County hosted two family members for six days – three without power -- when they were ordered to evacuate their coastal home. Although Frank stocked up before the storm knowing he was hosting evacuees, extra food was brought in by another family member after the storm when the stay became extended. Frank and wife Sheila also went three days without the use of their CPAP monitors because of the lack of power.
Although the Panhandle was not heavily hit by Irma, FSACentral writer Chelsey Kendig learned the hard way that hurricane injury can be felt long after the storm has passed. In 2005, nearly six months after Hurricane Ivan came through the Pensacola area, she contracted a MRSA infection, likely caused by bacteria thriving in the area by the winds and flooding.
"While able-bodied residents, too, are put at higher risk for certain post-storm medical issues—a classmate of mine developed kidney failure that was likely caused by venturing into contaminated water too soon after the storm—people with chronic illness and disability must be extra vigilant about infection before and after disasters, even if the recovery period seems to have ended," Chelsey said.
What were the lessons learned from Irma from these self-advocates?*
Attend learning events on disaster preparedness when they are available in your area.
If budget allows, buy extra staples and supplies in the event of unexpected company due to evacuations or loss of power: food, water, paper plates/flatware, toilet paper, extra tooth brushes, etc. But also keep in mind, it’s entirely appropriate to remind guests to bring their own food and supplies. They may have things that would benefit everyone in the shelter home (like one of those cool battery-operated fans).
Look into programs that may assist low-income and/or people with disabilities with the purchase of a generator BEFORE the next storm threatens. If you’re fortunate to be able to get one, learn how to use it properly before you need it.
Have a plan for keeping yourself occupied and functional for the days following the storm if you lose power. Identify places close by where you might charge your wheelchair, phone, or other battery-operated devices. Gather up a few good books, playing cards, and board games.
Keep notes of what disaster-related services are/were available after Irma that you might need after a future storm. Contact information is especially important. Keep the notes in a safe place.
Be aware of and address known issues with Special Needs Shelters that came about during Irma such as shelters filling up and less-than-perfect communication, again, before the next storm. These include
The need to pre-register. Special Needs Shelters are coordinated locally by county (link). Waiting until a storm is looming to register may mean missing out.
If you can get there on your own, realize that getting to the shelter sooner than later may be wise. Apparently, like airline flights, a reservation does not always mean you’ll have a seat or, in this case, a place to lay your head.
If you’re pre-registered, call the county agency administering the program in the days leading up to the storm’s landfall and ask what to expect? Do you have to wait for an evacuation order in your area to be admitted to the shelter? Do you have to be in an evacuation zone to be admitted to the shelter? Should you call them when you’re ready to leave or wait for them to call you? How long should you wait for a call after evacuation has been ordered before getting in touch with them? What do you need to bring to the shelter? But in the end, be proactive. If you don’t hear from someone in a timely manner, call them!
If you had an issue with your county’s Special Needs Shelter during Irma, like those mentioned above, report and address them now with the county and, if necessary, Disability Rights Florida or another watchdog disability organization.
Do you have an Irma story that would be helpful to other self-advocates? If so, share it with us on the Florida Self-Advocacy Central Facebook page here. We'd love to hear from you!
*These tips are in addition to the readily available guidelines for disaster preparedness for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Check disability organization websites and social media pages for this information as well as floridadisaster.org.