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Hurricane Florence evacuees with disabilities endured unsafe, ‘disrespectful’ conditions, report says

Floodwaters continue to rise in Lumberton on Sept. 16

Flood waters continue to rise in Lumberton Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 in the wake Hurricane Florence.
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Flood waters continue to rise in Lumberton Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 in the wake Hurricane Florence.

The state set up a special medical shelter in an old building during Hurricane Florence in a section of Goldsboro at risk for flooding, a new report says.

In Winston-Salem, people who were unable to climb stairs were marooned on the first floor of the Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, separated by steep stairs from the only bathrooms open to evacuees, according to the report released Tuesday by Disability Rights North Carolina.

The service elevator at the coliseum was unavailable for long stretches, so some evacuees had to wear adult diapers, the report says.

Disability Rights’ report on how the state, FEMA, and Red Cross staff and volunteers treated people with disabilities seeking shelter during Hurricane Florence said that overall, emergency help for people with disabilities has improved since 2016, when rain from Hurricane Matthew flooded eastern counties.

After Hurricane Matthew, the state hired a disability integration specialist who works on emergency preparations and responses.

But there’s more to do, the report said.

“We need to make sure the concerns that we witnessed monitoring the shelters get placed at the forefront,” Iris Green, a senior attorney at Disability Rights, said in an interview. People with disabilities should be involved in disaster planning, she said.

The federally mandated protection and advocacy organization visited 26 shelters over 47 days, and talked to more than 300 evacuees and more than 150 shelter staff and other providers, according to the report.

Keith Acree, a spokesman at the state Department of Public Safety, said NC Emergency Management agrees with the assessment that the old state psychiatric hospital in Goldsboro and Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem did not make good shelters.

“We probably wouldn’t return to those in the future,” Acree said by telephone. “We’d look elsewhere. You do what you have to do in an emergency.”

An advisory committee of dozens of people representing state and local agencies and advocacy groups works on shelter planning and improvements. Some of the representatives have disabilities or “functional needs,” meaning they use medical devices or need other assistance, Acree said in an email.

The report identified other problems.

At one shelter, people who use medical equipment had to line up against one wall to plug in their devices.

Disability Rights also found “compassion fatigue” among managers and staff, that in some cases “resulted in disrespectful, dismissive treatment of survivors.”

One shelter manager referred to survivors as “dairy farmers,” because they were “milking the system,” the report said.

At another shelter, a nurse gave Disability Rights a list of items evacuees needed, such as personal hygiene items and hair-care products for people of color. Disability Rights found a school system willing to donate the items, but the shelter manager never followed up, the report said.

The report recommends the Red Cross train shelter staff and volunteers on disability matters and helping people who have experienced trauma.

The American Red Cross was receptive to the report’s suggestions and agreed to work with the organization on training, Cas Shearin, director of investigations and monitoring at Disability Rights, said in an interview.

Shearin praised a volunteer nurse from Mississippi who created a “quiet room” in the Chapel Hill shelter for an evacuee with autism who needed to be away from the bustle and noise.

“That takes individual initiative,” Shearin said. “There needs to be some nimbleness, not a one-size-fits-all for people with disabilities.”

The Red Cross works closely with Disability Rights, said Brittany Jennings, regional communications officer. “Training is imperative for our volunteers and that is something we’re always improving upon,” she said.

The report identifies accessible, affordable housing as the biggest need. Eastern North Carolina had a shortage of such housing that Hurricane Matthew made worse, Shearin said. People got stuck in shelters because their homes were destroyed and they had nowhere to go, she said.

“We need to work on a long-term plan to make sure we are able to get people out of the shelters quicker,” she said. “The hurricane eliminated a lot of the accessible housing and the housing is not being replaced.”

The report recommends expansion of a program Gov. Roy Cooper started called Back@Home, which helps people find places to live when they are not eligible for FEMA help or are getting limited federal help.

The state needs to fund affordable housing in rural communities, Susan Pollitt, a senior attorney at Disability Rights, said in an interview.

“The infrastructure as well as the funds or resources that the rural communities could use to build affordable housing were depleted,’” she said. “We need to build that back up as fast as possible.”

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Lynn Bonner has worked at The News & Observer since 1994, and has written about the state legislature and politics since 1999. Contact her at lbonner@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4821.

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