Coping with the aftermath can be a disaster, too, for people with disabilities.
By Jim Hammitt
This article originally appeared in the May, 1994 issue of Mainstream magazine.
My God, this is the BIG ONE!" was my first thought as I was jolted awake by the roaring and shaking of the Northridge earthquake at 4:31 a.m. on January 17, 1994. My wife and I forgot about the luxury of a couple of extra hours of rest because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, as we faced the real possibility of being trapped and crushed in our brick-lined bedroom. It sounded as if the roof was coming off while the room was shaking. In the split seconds that it took for us to get out, we were both praying that we could clear away enough debris to create a path to the safety of the main part of the house.
After we were safe and somewhat calmed down, we surveyed the rest of the house and discovered that, despite many of our books and dishes being on the floor, and the end of our brick porch wall having fallen off, we were extremely fortunate. We lost one tea cup and a few glasses to breakage, but no one was hurt.
It was not until hours later that we began to understand the full extent of our good fortune. We had immediately started monitoring one of the local all-news stations on a tiny battery-operated radio, as there was no power, no television and no telephone communication. Even the radio reports did not reveal how bad the situation really was. Later that afternoon electric power was restored, and we were able to use a small black and white television set. We began to see more and more of the devastation in the Northridge area. We were horrified to see pictures of a collapsed parking structure at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where I am employed at the Office of Disabled Student Services (ODSS).
It was not until the next afternoon that we were able to reach anyone by telephone. Mac McFarland, a paraplegic counselor who works with me, lives in campus housing less than a mile from the epicenter and just blocks from the center of the campus. As he was awakened by the shaking, he could not find his glasses. Once he found them and got into his wheelchair, he faced the problems of getting through his apartment. In an effort to create storage space he had placed low bookcases in the hallway between his bedroom and the living room where the only outside door was located. This day he had to clear a path in the dark to get through the hall to safety.
"I was totally unprepared," McFarland recalls. "I didn't have a flashlight near my bed, and when I got in my wheelchair it was very hard to move through the apartment because of the objects that had fallen on the floor." After the quake, as he cleaned and reorganized his apartment, he took action to ensure a clear route to the door. He also now has a flashlight within reach of his bed.
We learned of several other persons with disabilities who experienced evacuation problems. For example, a woman who uses a power wheelchair as a result of cerebral palsy lives on the second floor of an apartment complex several miles west of the quake's center. Two years earlier when she moved in, she was assured by the building manager that she would receive exit assistance in case of an emergency. When the earthquake hit, she was up working on her computer and realized that she must leave the apartment because books, dishes, and glassware were falling around her. When she reached the hall outside her unit, she discovered the elevator wasn't working because of the power failure. On the way back to her apartment she asked her landlady how she was supposed to get down without an elevator and received the answer, "Everyone has their own problems." Fortunately, two neighbors came to her aid and carried her in her wheelchair to the street.
Sheila Chulick, a CSUN student with a vision impairment, lived in the three-story Northridge Meadows apartment complex where 15 people lost their lives as it collapsed onto itself. She woke up when her second-floor apartment literally fell into the one below. For 10 minutes after the shaking stopped, she lay in silence as she was trying to collect her wits. Then one of her neighbors came along and the two of them made their way through the rubble into the street.
Sheila, like hundreds of her neighbors, was left standing on the street wondering if she now owned anything but the clothes on her back. However, she did not have time to mourn the loss of her possessions. She had to secure public assistance to find a place to stay, a change of clothes, and food.
Many students with disabilities who lived in the San Fernando Valley temporarily lost a major link in their personal networks. They were not able to use the resources of the ODSS, as the CSUN campus had taken a major hit would be closed down essentially for the next 28 days. The 750 students who came to ODSS for personal and educational services had to find other sources of help.
The quake would force local volunteer agencies to face unique challenges to meet the needs of persons with disabilities. Norma Vescovo, director of the Independent Living Center of Southern California in Van Nuys, knew that the ordinary relief agencies would not be prepared to serve the diverse needs of persons with disabilities.
By 10 a.m., only three and a half hours after the quake, Vescovo had a small staff in place and began meeting those unmet needs. As soon as the Red Cross began opening its community shelters, persons with disabilities started to report problems. A man with a hearing impairment was denied shelter because its personnel could not understand sign language. Persons with cerebral palsy conditions were not served because shelter volunteers thought they were on drugs or alcohol. A quadriplegic man could not take a shower for a week because the shelter was not equipped with an accessible stall. During the first week after the earthquake, members of the center's staff led on-site awareness sessions at the shelters, in an attempt to resolve such problems.
When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up shop in Los Angeles, Vescovo met with the local director to work out an agreement whereby the center would be designated as the official service center for persons with disabilities. Individuals with disabilities were thereby given the opportunity to have help to apply for food stamps and other federal assistance at the center. Staff members personally walked the paperwork through FEMA to speed the process. Vescovo transferred staff from the center's Santa Barbara and Fresno branches to meet the increased workload in the San Fernando Valley.
Persons with disabilities, like their neighbors, are still in the process of putting their lives back together. The quake will not be forgotten soon by any of us who lived through it. The experiences we had as people with disabilities demonstrate clearly the need to develop procedures for meeting more effectively the needs of people with disabilities in the event of a natural disaster. And that's not a job to be left solely to non-disabled disaster preparedness people; people with disabilities, through agencies like independent living centers, and on our own must take the initiative to work with disaster agencies to develop emergency plans.
Jim Hammitt is a freelance writer.
Overview of independent living for people with disabilities