In Tornado Alley, Storms Are Even More Dangerous For People With Disabilities

John High has diabetes, which led to his leg being amputated beneath the knee two years in the past. He has been utilizing a wheelchair since then and hasn’t gotten used to having to work out options to on a regular basis issues — corresponding to moving into and out of the bathe within the small rental home he shares together with his son in Norman, Oklahoma. And when he hears a twister siren blaring out its high-pitched warning, he feels a spasm of worry and dread. He is aware of he’s on his personal.

“I just pray. That’s all I can do,” High mentioned. “They expect people to ‘shelter in place,’ but I don’t have anywhere safe to go.”

Other Oklahomans have needed to adapt, too. Few homes have basements, so residents who can afford to take action construct or buy their very own shelters. But High can’t afford the type he would wish — one that will enable him to rapidly roll his motorized chair inside. And few others see this as an issue.

“One person told me, ‘Put on a football helmet and go into your kitchen,’” High recalled with a bitter smile. “I’ve got a window in every room of this house, so there’s really no place for me to go.”

He wasn’t at all times on this scenario. High selected this rental home in 2008 due to its proximity to a public elementary faculty that was formally designated as a public shelter. From his driveway, High can see the varsity down the road. It would take 4 minutes for him to roll down a ramp, journey alongside the sidewalk and enter the varsity fitness center.

But entry to most locations which have served as public shelters up to now, together with that fitness center, ended just a few years in the past after fireplace officers and others argued that the general public shelters weren’t up to federal standards. Effectively, that change in coverage left Oklahomans like High to fend for themselves.

The protecting gold customary for individuals who stay in tornado-prone areas is a storm shelter, often known as a protected room. They could be bought at big-box hardware shops, or specialty firms can construct concrete shelters. The constructions vary in value from just a few thousand to tens of 1000’s of dollars, relying on the dimensions and supplies. The base mannequin is a concrete room set into the bottom, normally in a yard. To get inside, folks should climb down a ladder or steep set of stairs. Above-ground fashions which can be wheelchair-accessible value extra.

High depends on federal incapacity funds for his revenue and mentioned he merely can’t afford to pay for his personal shelter.

“What bill am I going to not pay, to try to save up $3,800? I live day to day. Every month is really rough,” he mentioned.

Towns began closing public shelters in Oklahoma just a few years in the past, to keep away from the prices of constructing them tornado-safe. There was no mandate that municipalities preserve them open. High mentioned he thinks the federal or state authorities must step in and assist folks with disabilities purchase their very own storm shelters.

“We’re [in] Tornado Alley. We’re known for it. Why aren’t they helping to protect us?” he mentioned. “Instead it’s, ‘Well, just duck your head and go in your house.’”

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Climate Change Is Making Storms Worse

Data collected and analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity discovered that between 2009 and 2018 Oklahoma had the best variety of main catastrophe declarations within the nation: Those included extreme storms, floods, fires, ice storms and tornadoes. According to the 2018 National Climate Assessment, many such weather-related hazards are anticipated to develop into worse and extra frequent due to climate change.

“If you’re able to install a safe room in your home, or on your property, we recommend that you do that,” mentioned Keli Cain, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. “It’s the safest place that you can be during a storm.”

Oklahoma has no state legal guidelines requiring owners or landlords to put in storm shelters. Instead, the security constructions are marketed as a fascinating amenity in some new housing developments.

If a group needs to open a storm shelter for the general public, that’s as much as native officers, Cain mentioned. “Community shelters are funded on their own, either through bond issues or other funding methods,” she mentioned.

There additionally isn’t any database that Oklahomans can seek the advice of displaying the place public or wheelchair-accessible shelters are situated. “We don’t have a listing of the community shelters,” Cain mentioned. “They don’t have to register it through the state or anything, unless it’s funded by a [federal] grant program.”

Oklahoma does supply a storm shelter rebate program, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Cain mentioned the annual grant is sufficient to assist about 50 households a 12 months set up storm shelters, with candidates getting as much as $2,000 to assist cowl the associated fee. But the grants are allotted randomly by means of a lottery system that doesn’t take socioeconomic standing into consideration — and it’s restricted to owners. Renters, like John High, can’t apply for the grants.

Cain blamed FEMA guidelines for that exclusion, acknowledging its influence on folks with disabilities.

“There is no specific program to help people with disabilities get a storm shelter,” Cain mentioned. “Some people might have to leave their homes a couple hours before the storm, and go to a place that is safe.”

Many FEMA applications do restrict disaster-aid funding to homeowners, and that has spurred litigation.

The most typical twister shelters have steep stairs, making them inaccessible to folks with ambulatory disabilities. The base mannequin, present in some backyards in Oklahoma, is an underground concrete field, like this one.(Jackie Fortier /StateImpact Oklahoma)

Americans With Disabilities Act Turns 30

In July 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into regulation. The ADA tried to interrupt down boundaries by requiring companies, faculties and different organizations to take primary steps to accommodate a variety of well being challenges, together with impairments of sight, sound and mobility.

“Fifteen percent of the population is over the age of 65,” mentioned Marcie Roth, CEO of the World Institute on Disability. “Within the next 40 years, this will grow to 1 in 4 people in the United States. In an emergency, you can count on the fact that people with disabilities will be affected.”

The ADA has been modified through the years to incorporate emergency preparedness, however the issue stays, bursting into public consciousness after main climate occasions like Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey in 2012, and Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast in 2017. In the aftermath of these storms, Roth mentioned, folks with disabilities had been left with out entry to important medicines and care; she blames poor catastrophe planning on each the state and native ranges.

As a consequence of these storms, and the ensuing backlash from many within the incapacity group over the shortage of planning, the federal authorities despatched the states guidance on how to comply with the ADA in emergency conditions. But the implementation of these directives has been haphazard, Roth mentioned, as evidenced by the devastation attributable to Hurricane Maria, a lethal Category four hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Dominica in 2017.

“Interruption of medical care and disability services was the primary cause of almost 3,000 deaths following Hurricane Maria,” Roth mentioned. “Emergency planning needs to be inclusive of the whole community, and it needs to be equally accessible to everyone in the community.”

Sara Pratt is a former official on the Department of Housing and Urban Development specializing in housing and incapacity rights, and helped write the steering despatched to states. Now a civil rights lawyer in Washington, D.C., Pratt thinks Oklahoma could also be violating the ADA.

“The idea that we don’t have to serve people with disabilities who are renters is not consistent with federal law,” mentioned Pratt.

Federal civil rights legal guidelines, together with the Fair Housing Act and the ADA, require accommodations for folks with disabilities in all catastrophe applications, Pratt mentioned, including mitigation.

“The programs that are being offered to assist people who are sheltering in their homes should be available to both homeowners and renters if they have disabilities and have disability-related needs,” she mentioned. “There has to be an opportunity for a person with a disability to shelter.”

More than 630,000 people in Oklahoma have a disability, and the state doesn’t observe what number of of them lack storm shelters.

Request For Financial Assistance

John High mentioned he’d wish to see the general public shelters reopened.

“Some people don’t even know the shelters are gone yet,” he mentioned. “If you don’t need something, you don’t think about it until it’s necessary.”

If the shelters don’t reopen, High mentioned, he’ll preserve making an attempt to get monetary help to get an accessible storm shelter in his dwelling. He plans to place it within the storage so he can simply drive his wheelchair in, however to this point he’s encountered an online of rules.

“Every time I hear the tornado siren, I fear — I fear for my life,” he mentioned. “If a tornado comes through here, I’m going to be dead.”

This story is a part of a partnership that features StateImpact Oklahoma, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

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