by Cindy Otis
In Florida, five days before Hurricane Irma struck last September, home health aides stopped coming to the home of wheelchair user Felicia Jaffe, 62. After calling every organization she could think of for help, she used all of her money — money budgeted for her mortgage and other bills — to pay for private aides to stay with her during the hurricane. “I was desperate,” she says.
Things didn’t improve much after the hurricane blasted through. While the state set up multiple sites for people to apply for aid from FEMA, Jaffe was unable to take advantage. “Because of my multiple sclerosis I was unable to endure the crowds and long lines and I had no transportation,” she says. No accommodations were made or thought given to help people who were elderly or disabled, Jaffe explained. “It was a total disregard for the most vulnerable.”
Luckily for Jaffe and many others with SCI/D who were affected by one of the most devastating hurricane seasons in history, United Spinal Association was there. Jaffe applied for and received a relief grant from United Spinal. The grant helped cover the money Jaffe had used to hire emergency aides and helped her get closer to getting her life back. “I want to thank United Spinal for being at the forefront of obtaining services for all those affected, not only during the storm, but continually focusing on tangible services that directly impact the quality of our lives,” she says.
Where Recovery Starts
The microgrants are one part of a much broader hurricane relief effort on behalf of the organization at both the national and chapter levels. Those efforts started almost immediately in the wake of Hurricane Harvey striking Texas in late August.
The disability community in Houston lost vital equipment and medical supplies, according to Rafferty Laredo, an occupational therapist and the executive director of United Spinal Association Houston. Houston mobilized several major shelters to house thousands of displaced people, and Laredo spearheaded United Spinal’s disaster relief efforts there.
“Individuals affected by disability in these shelters were in desperate need of mobility devices,” Laredo says, “like wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, as well as medical supplies like catheters and other incontinence management items. We provided over 400 donated wheelchairs to these facilities. We received hundreds of wheelchairs, thousands of medical supplies, and were supported by dozens upon dozens of volunteers.”
After watching United Spinal’s vital work in Houston, the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those with SCI, offered United Spinal a $500,000 grant to help people with SCI/D pay for unexpected costs from the hurricanes. With the grant, United Spinal was able to help Jaffe and many others start to recover from the devastation.
(Aug. 17-Sep. 1, Peak 130 mph)
Angela Wrigglesworth couldn’t have expected that she would find herself applying for one of the grants as Hurricane Harvey bore down. Wrigglesworth, 40, has a form of muscular atrophy and uses an electric wheelchair. She and her fiancé had decided to get supplies and hunker down in their home near downtown Houston. “I’ve lived in Houston my entire life, so hurricanes weren’t foreign,” she says. “No one in our area was leaving. Even though we live in an area that floods, our house has never flooded.”
The couple woke up early Sunday morning, August 19, to a river of water in front of their house. “We turned on the news and saw people up on their roofs getting rescued not far from us. That’s when we knew we needed to go,” she says. They tried to call 911, but could not get through. Other emergency management services told Wrigglesworth to get on her roof. Wrigglesworth took to social media to ask for help when water started seeping into her house later that morning.
Her post went viral. A few hours later, a team of firefighters arrived, but they determined they could not transport her and her wheelchair safely. Later, three former Marines in a canoe paddled to her house, but there was too much risk that the canoe would tip over in the rushing water. “Being medically fragile, I was worried about being transported and transferred safely,” Wrigglesworth explains. “There were these moments of relief because we thought we were being rescued, but then these letdowns when we realized it wouldn’t work.”
In all, it took six hours of trying before they were safely rescued. Two friends arrived with a snorkel Jeep that could drive into high waters and a 12-foot-long fishing boat that could accommodate her. Wrigglesworth’s wheelchair was damaged from the rain and her home is still being repaired from flood damage, but she considers herself lucky to have had so many people try to help. She plans to use the money she received from United Spinal to pay for hotel expenses she incurs while the damage to her home is fixed.
(Aug. 30-Sep.12, Peak 185 mph)
Before the damage from Harvey could even be assessed, Irma became the strongest hurricane ever recorded outside the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Just like Wrigglesworth days earlier, Yami Hernandez, 52, was forced to evacuate her home in Key Largo, Florida. She went to stay with her daughter further north, but had to leave her power wheelchair behind. Her power chair gave her the freedom to do things her manual chair could not, she says. After the hurricane, Hernandez returned to her home to find the entire first floor filled with three feet of water, mud, and debris from the hurricane. Her power wheelchair was ruined.
Hernandez says that if it was not for her daughter who helped clean out the first floor of her home in Key Largo, she would have had to abandon her home completely. She is still working to repair her home after the flood damage. Because of United Spinal’s grants, she was able to purchase a new wheelchair.
“My insurance really didn’t cover anything, and I can only do repairs to my home little-by-little because it’s so expensive. But I’m so grateful to have my ability to move around again with my new chair.”
(Sep. 16-Sep. 30, Peak 175 mph)
The record hurricane season saved perhaps its most devastating blow for the island of Puerto Rico in the form of Hurricane Maria. With 175-mph winds, Maria would do over $100 billion in damage and take more than 500 lives.
In December, a team of United Spinal employees visited Puerto Rico as part of a larger community event for people with disabilities in San Juan. They handed out vital supplies, such as power inverters, food, solar lamps, and hygiene products, and helped people like Raymond Ortega Serrano fill out applications to receive grant money.
Serrano, 17, lives in a home that had been adapted for his wheelchair on the northeast side of Puerto Rico. “In the middle of the hurricane, trees began to fall on top of the roof of my house and there was a terrible noise,” he says. “Water started pouring into the house. Things started to collapse. There were a lot of cement structures that could have fallen on top of us.”
Thinking the house might collapse, Serrano and his family drove in blinding rain and battering 170 mph winds to his grandparents’ home nearby to take refuge. Serrano said after the hurricane, there were trees, posts, and cables all over the streets. “When I saw the destruction, I felt like I was in another country,” he said. Serrano has not been able to move back into his home for fear it will cave in. Like many, he still has no electricity or access to water and has not been able to attend school.
“We have not yet recovered,” Serrano says. “We have had to spend a lot of money on generators, getting basic food stuffs, health services, and other things. I don’t want to lose my beloved home that was made for my mobility needs. We got by, making so many sacrifices. My biggest desire is to return to home and have my space and my accommodations, like my adapted bathroom.”
United Spinal board member Andy Hicks was on the team that went to Puerto Rico. He said that assistance to the people of Puerto Rico has only been a Band-Aid solution, and the people who need the most help cannot get into San Juan for assistance. “One woman, who has a high cervical injury, told me she had to move up to the second floor of her uncle’s home because of the inundation of water. She has to be carried down every day to go to work. Another woman who cares for her disabled granddaughter has half a roof. She said when she wakes up, she often puts her feet into water that is on the floor from rain that night.”