Frontline Initiative Coping with Disaster
A Time for Ice and Snow
Winters in Kansas City are usually pretty predictable with relatively small amounts of snow. The only obstacle is the bitter cold from December to mid-February. From time to time, however, Mother Nature throws us a curve that can leave even the best prepared person wondering what just hit. This is a story from a Direct Care Provider’s point of view about the events that happened in Kansas City in January 2002 and how a few workers with a common goal provided supports for persons with developmental disabilities.
My name is Jim, and I have worked in direct care for about 10 years. I started working with persons with special needs in McPherson, Kansas. It was the first job I ever had that I didn’t wonder what it would be like to be somewhere else. There was a level of acceptance that I can not describe and a genuine spirit of goodness that I always received for being there, providing supports and caring for others. Over the course of several years and three relocations I found myself in Kansas City working for a very progressive company called Johnson County Developmental Supports (JCDS). I felt at home and really enjoyed the relationships being built with the people I supported and fellow employees. I am currently a “Live-in”, and along with my full time position I provide supports that can range from helping someone at night if they are ill to assisting in an emergency situation.
It was Thursday, January, 2002 and it was cold and nasty. The weather had turned pretty rough that week and the days that followed were very challenging for everyone and everything in the Kansas City area. It had been snowing off and on with periods of sleet and freezing rain since Wednesday. Getting from one place to another was extremely challenging and the weather wasn’t letting up. I remember coming home around 4 p.m. to the usual greeting from the women that live at 154th Street, “Hi Jim.” We visited briefly and I retired downstairs to my living quarters. The electricity had flickered several times through the early evening and about at 5: 15 p.m. the lights went out and stayed out. I came upstairs where a colleague, Sheri, was rounding up flashlights and candles and assuring Peggy, Cheryl, Dee and Jamie that all would be ok.
It was getting dark outside and the rain and ice mix was still coming in full force. We made several phone calls to the power company with a cell phone, a great tool to have on hand when the power goes out. We found ourselves sharing stories and jokes, listening to the weather radio, and enjoying each other’s company. We started hearing a very eerie sound of distant cracking. I walked into the back yard and discovered that with every gust of wind tree branches were buckling under the pressure of the mounting ice. Suddenly, a loud electrical explosion filled the air followed by a greenish blue glow, lighting up the sky like the 4th of July. It took awhile for all this to start making sense but we were seeing and hearing electrical transformers explode. We counted half a dozen or so and were all amazed with the beauty of the distant light show in every direction. We received a phone call from the Residential Coordinator, Patty, shortly after the power went off. She shared with us that people all over the Kansas City area were losing power and she was going to call us back with a plan just in case the power stayed off. Occasionally we would see a utility truck passing by with their strobe lights on, going up and down the street just beyond our backyard. We just knew that it wouldn’t be long before they had our power back on and all would be fine. Meanwhile, Patty called us with a plan. After discussing options with her supervisor they decided that we were to go to the Holiday Inn with the women, and check in so we would have heat. Patty had called ahead and the booked us the last several rooms.
After de-icing the van, packing clothes, medicine, extra blankets, and flashlights, we were ready to meet the others at the Holiday Inn. After arriving, we were shocked to find that the hotel had lost power just five minutes before we arrived. All the while, the rain and ice continued. We were able to move our reservations from that hotel to another Holiday Inn nearby.
Once we arrived at the second location and were checking in, I remember wondering just how many people were without power. Some people were showing up with reservations, and some were just coming in and asking if there were any rooms. In order to keep our group together we were forced to be on the fourth floor. This didn’t make us too happy because we had two people in a wheelchair, one person that used a walker. The person on duty assured me this was the best they could do to keep our group together. We accepted the rooms and began to check into the hotel.
Unloading the vans proved to be quite a tricky task. The men and women who walked were escorted arm in arm with staff over the icy parking lot while the vans that had wheelchair lifts were in front of the hotel unloading. During this process, and on several other occasions, I remember thinking, these guys are doing incredibly well for having to change their living arrangements at a drop of a hat! I was very impressed at how well everyone worked together. Final trips were made by staff to get clothes and medications, a few extra items and then park the vans with lifts before everyone could regroup and enjoy a bit of warmth.
Approximately thirty minutes after our check in we were faced with yet another obstacle, this hotel lost power, too. A diesel generator started up shortly after the place went black but was only running the lights in the hallways. Everyone was getting a little restless but remained calm in our newest circumstances.
A couple of staff went downstairs to check on the situation and it wasn’t very hopeful. Not only were we without power, but the generator outside was only able to run the hallway lights within the hotel. The lobby now looked like a tomb and was darker than the hallways running above it on the other floors. We were again in a situation where there was no heat or electricity. Since the elevator wasn’t working we couldn’t get the men and women who were in wheelchairs out the way we came in. The people working the front desk didn’t have any news other than that they had called the power company and like everyone else in the city, they would have power as soon as possible.
Despite the events everyone remained calm. Most of the people being supported simply decided that sleep was the best idea. A couple of staff went to the van to get some emergency flashlights and made a phone call to Patty to advise her of our situation. It was approaching eleven o’clock and a couple of staff came to the hotel to relieve the shift before them. We had eleven people sleeping in beds and the staff were keeping a watchful eye, by sitting in the dimly lit halls leaning against walls or doorways to each room. Electronic swipe cards operated the doors so we were very careful not to close the doors.
It was close to midnight and was getting colder. All of the extra blankets we brought were being used so a couple of staff went downstairs and asked about getting more blankets. They gave us the last two blankets and said that was the best they could do. I was upset and explained that we had men and women with special healthcare needs on the fourth floor and since the power went out, about two hours earlier, no one from the hotel has been up to check on the safety of persons staying there! The employees gave little reassurance, but one person encouraged me to speak with management the next morning and perhaps they could “discount” our stay.
Everyone made it through the night, and in the early hours of the morning hours we ran to Lamar Donuts and brought back donuts and juice for all of us. Nothing had changed with the situation of the hotel and by mid-morning we were all ready to check out - but how were we going to get the people in wheelchairs out without an elevator?
After discussing the situation with our supervisor and colleagues, it was decided that the people from the homes that had power could go back home and a couple of staff would remain behind with Steve who was in the power chair. Additional arrangements of getting him out were to be made by calling the Fire Department for an evacuation once everyone else was out. Attending staff proceeded to warm the vehicles and escort people one by one down four flights of stairs. We carried one person down the stairs and returned her to her chair at the bottom. Another person, who uses the assistance of a walker, walked arm in arm and hand in hand with staff down all four flights. This was an incredible accomplishment for her and was a powerful statement of determination for everyone that witnessed it.
We made another phone call to Patty roughly an hour after we started and reported that the first step of our evacuation was done and two staff were waiting for the Fire Department to arrive and help carry Steve and his chair downstairs. Within minutes of that call our help arrived and we carried him separately from his chair to the bottom landing where he thanked everyone for helping him. “Thank-yous” and handshakes were graciously exchanged and our heros were off to another call. We officially checked out around 1pm on Friday. The hotel was still without power.
According the newspapers some 800,000 Metro residents were without power and full power was finally restored until mid February. The men and women we are responsible for either returned to their own homes, their parents’ homes, or arrangements were made for other temporary homes until power was restored.
This story shows how Direct Support Professionals and the people they support can work together to adapt and cope during a disaster. To plan for winter storms stock up on blankets and supplies. When elevators are unavailable, consider all options before moving people who use wheelchairs using the stairs.