August 31, 2012

Waiting to be Evacuated

Geraldine is a power wheelchair user. She lives in Manitou and watched the Waldo Canyon fire on the TV. She trusted and relied on the organizations that exist within Manitou (the police, fire department, etc.) to evacuate her when the time came. Still, it was scary to watch the fire getting so close and not knowing what was going to happen. She touched base regularly with family and neighbors to let them know she was okay. Friends offered to evacuate her, but none of them could move a power wheelchair, so, like Geraldine, all they could do was wait. She charged up her wheelchair, got what she could packed into her wheelchair. When Manitou was placed under mandatory evacuation she was ready with her front door unlocked, she stayed awake and waited for emergency response crews to get to her. Help arrived shortly after midnight. But they were not prepared to move her in her chair. Geraldine knew she couldn’t function without it and everything she needed was already packed on it. A member of the fire department stayed with her until arrangements were made through Amblicab. The night of the evacuation Geraldine was scared to go to sleep. With the fire so close she was glued to TV. She knew she wouldn’t be left behind because police and fire crews would go door to door and neighbors knew she was there. “Don’t fall asleep, be ready!” She told herself. She trusted there would be some kind of plan and that once the mandatory evacuation when into effect there would be a sweep of the streets. Geraldine ended up at the Cheyenne Mountain Shelter around 1 AM.  After registering, she was exhausted. The Red Cross did not have what she needed given her disability. She was given a regular cot, even though there were accessible cots. She was told they would bring one to her, but that never happened. The shelter also didn’t have any showers that would accommodate Geraldine. There were no shower chairs for her to use either. Not wanting to be a burden, Geraldine told them not to worry about it. She used the sinks to clean up, hoping she wouldn’t be evacuated too much longer. The shelter wasn’t as full as it could have been. Many people chose to stay with friends or at a hotel. Geraldine was stuck there because none of her friends could transport her in her power chair, and the bus system was down. Geraldine also lives on a fixed income, she lives month to month, so the shelter was the only place she had to go. She was at Cheyenne Mountain for four days. After Manitou residents were let back in, there were no arrangements made for her to get home. Red Cross volunteers asked her how much money she had – implying she had to pay to get back. Then the county stepped in! They were offering free rides to the Sky Sox game. When they realized what was going on, they called Geraldine an accessible cab and picked up the tab for her ride home. “Every time you run through (things like this) you see the small things that could be fixed,” Geraldine said. “(Things) didn’t run real smooth but it (got) taken care of.” Geraldine identified three main issues with her evacuation:
  1. She never received reverse 9-1-1. Emergency people came to her house but never got the message she was in a power chair.
  2. She never knew who to call for information (outside of what was being said on TV). She didn’t know what to do in the situation
  3. Should she have gone out with pre-evacuation orders because of her electric wheelchair? And if she had wanted to leave then, who should she have called for that assistance?
 “This was a dress rehearsal, and made me think of what I needed to have ready, which includes important papers, medications, etc. (It) really helped me realized the things I do need and was fortunately to realize what I really need.” This is the second in a series of stories highlighting the experience of people with disabilities in the Waldo Canyon Fire. The third installment will be published next week.