Helping the Disabled Prepare for Hurricanes

Wheelchair
TAMPA -

Getting prepared for a hurricane is stressful even for the able-bodied. Nailing plywood over windows, stocking up on canned food and water can take the wind out of even the most hearty people.

But imagine having to evacuate someone suffering from Alzheimer's. Or a disabled child who can't move without the help of a wheelchair.

Take the case of Elizabeth Caballero. The 11-year-old Tampa girl has a wheelchair that has to be powered up.

SOUND: Respirator.

The respirator keeping her alive has to be plugged in.

SOUND: Hello, my name is Elizabeth. You can call me Liz...

And the computer she uses to communicate isn't much use when the power goes out.

The spectre of hurricanes means weeks of preparation for Elizabeth's parents. Joe and Claudine Caballero were forced to evacuate their daughter during one tempest several years ago. They are on the county's list of special needs children, and they have an evacuation plan. But Joe Caballero says it's not perfect.

CABALLERO: We have gone to St. Joseph's Hospital, they opened the children's ward there. But the problem is there is a significant amount of germs in a hospital. So our focus is to try and keep her out of there, because she might catch a cold, which could be devastating, given her existing condition.

Elizabeth suffers from spinal-muscular atrophy, a neuro-muscular disorder that prevents her from controlling her body. Her mind is sharp, but Liz has to communicate by moving a mouse over words on a computer screen. Communicating with the girl with long, brown hair isn't easy even during ideal conditions.

SOUND: I need the pink...I need the pink case... followed by quizzical responses.

Her father says trying to comfort her during the swirl of activity before an evacuation compounds the confusion. Or in an unfamiliar setting, such as a special-needs shelter.

So the Caballeros have developed a detailed plan of action.

CABALLERO: One of the things we've one is we've added a generator to our home, because all of her devices - we have battery backups and all those things. But if the power were to be off for multiple days, it would put us in a situation where we would have no choice but then to evacuate - which then entails you moving equipment and managing all those other issues to get her there.

The Caballeros provide an example of the right thing to do before a storm threatens the area.

So says David Brooks, executive director of Achieve Tampa Bay. The group helps a broad range of people with developmental disabilities.

Brooks says his group's primary goal is to get people registered for special needs shelters. And that means families have to have a plan ahead of a disaster.

BROOKS: It's saying to that family, what is your plan for hurricane season? To try to help them. Some of the problem with children with disabilities, is how many people in their family can go to the special needs shelter? Typically, special needs are the client and one person. Well, if you've got two siblings and mom and dad, are they going to split that family up in a hurricane?

The elderly also need special attention well in advance of a disaster. At the top of that list are seniors who suffer from Alzheimer's.

A seminar to help the families of Alzheimer's patients prepare for hurricanes will be held Saturday morning at Westshore Senior Center, on Spruce Street in Tampa. There will be speakers from Hillsborough County Emergency Operations, the Red Cross and Hillsborough County Aging Services.

Melanie Meyer is with the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, an event sponsor.

MEYER: It is aimed at caregivers, because in the final analysis, it's the caregivers who have to do the preparation and have to anticipate what their care-recipient's needs are going to be. So we want to help them brainstorm, get whatever things they can get ready ahead of time and help them find some things to look for after the hurricane arrives.

Meyer says Alzheimer's patients are particularly at risk, because in the stress of the moment they are more likely to forget any preparation they've already made.

MEYER: Change can be very difficult for people with memory loss, especially rapid change that's associated with a certain amount of anxiety and their primary caregiver. They pick that up, like all of us do.

For people like Joe Caballero, there is no option but to get ready - well in advance.

CABALLERO: We have a checklist so we don't forget anything, because in some cases, if your forget a suction machine, it could be a life-or-death situation.

He says caregivers should make sure they've got enough medication on hand to last a least a week;' and to have activities ready that don't require electricity, to while away the time.

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