Red River flooding: People with disabilities also preparing for worst-case scenarios

With the water still rising and sandbagging efforts in full swing on the banks of the Red River today, there’s another behind-the-scenes effort under way to aid people with disabilities living in the threatened areas.

Advocates for the disabled are contacting people with mobility issues to be sure they’re prepared in case they are stranded or need to be evacuated.

Margot Imdieke Cross, accessibility specialist at the Minnesota State Council on Disability, is working with state health officials and homeland security to help inform people with disabilities, as well as caretakers and emergency workers. (Full disclosure: I’m currently working with Margot and the council as a legislative liaison.)

Randy Sorenson, executive director of a resource center for independent living in East Grand Forks, said his staff is calling clients in low-lying areas, alerting them to the flood dangers.

“We’re telling them what to put together: lists of doctors’ numbers and their medications. We’re asking them to contact friends and relatives, to be sure someone knows where they are, and can maybe check on them in an emergency,” he said.

A checklist of preparation items is available on the Disability Council’s Web site.

There’s been a much-greater awareness of the needs of people with disabilities following the Katrina disaster in New Orleans.

“We were absolutely appalled at what happened during Katrina,” Cross said. “Many of those who died were old or disabled, and there was no legitimate plan in place, not even a good way to get people without transportation out of town.”

On Monday night, flooding in Jamestown, N.D., led to an evacuation of the Anne Carlsen Center, a care facility for persons with disabilities. More than 50 students, along with their medical equipment and supplies, were transported to a variety of locations throughout Jamestown.

Sorenson said many people with disabilities were evacuated from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks during the flood of 1997.

“They did a great job of ensuring everyone got out, and identifying where the shut-ins would be, but it’s a huge undertaking,” he said. “It’s important that people have a plan of their own for emergencies.

Plan ahead
One big factor for officials: checking that emergency shelters are accessible.

Sorenson said one woman in 1997 was evacuated to an air force base, but was unable to sleep on the cots there, because of a disability. It took several days to find her an accessible hotel room in another city.

Cross said the when hotel vouchers are handed out in emergency situations, people with disabilities often don’t get them early in the process, and as a result, the few accessible hotel rooms in nearby towns are often already taken. Some have to travel long distances to find an accessible place. One solution: get vouchers issued earlier to those who will need accessible rooms.

And she said it’s crucial that everyone, and particularly those with disabilities, have a supply kit on hand in case they’re stranded, and to know what to take along if evacuated.

“Last year during the Rushford flooding they were evacuating people from their homes at 2 and 3 in the morning, and they told one older woman to grab what she needed. But she didn’t take her medications or her clothes; she grabbed an umbrella, because it was still raining.

“When disaster strikes, people don’t have time to stop and make a list of what they need, so it’s important to plan ahead.”

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politics and other topics.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Barb Brynstad on 03/26/2009 - 02:44 pm.

    Thanks for covering this issue. We often forget how vulnerable people and the agencies who provide disability services really struggle during these crises. CCRI, a provider of services to people with disabilities headquartered in Moorhead had to relocate 16 sites (group homes) yesterday. They’re expecting to move more folks out of danger, today. Additionally, shelters are trying to figure out what to do with folks who need service dogs.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/26/2009 - 07:21 pm.

    Good article. Keep up the good work!

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