Impact Feature Issue on Disaster Preparedness and People with Disabilities

Katrina is Not Over:
Stories From the Arc of Mississippi


Matt Nalker is Executive Director of The Arc of Mississippi, Jackson.

I was asked a few days ago if I was happy Katrina was over. The person who asked me that question had no clue what he was saying. It was clear to me he was not affected by the storm nor did he have anyone close to him affected or he would never have uttered such an ignorant statement. People lost everything!

A lot of people are still living in FEMA trailers, mucking out their homes with little to no help. People with disabilities are still on extended stays with other family members or sister organizations further up state, their homes as they knew them never to be the same. Some of the luckier ones who got only eight feet of water in their homes are able to get back to normal after stripping the house down to the studs and getting the proper inspection then re-sheetrocking and insulating and basically rebuilding the entire home while living in a FEMA trailer in the driveway and, yes, truly considering yourself lucky. Normal life has an entirely new meaning to most people affected by the storm.

Today, normal for our local chapter of The Arc in Gulfport Mississippi means meeting regularly to discuss the need to charge for services they were able to provide for free for 50 years. Although their sheltered workshop only sustained minor damage, the city of Gulfport and many, many of its members lost most of everything they owned. Let that marinate for a minute – “Everything they owned!” The priority of the day for almost a year or longer for many of these people was not disability policy or quality of services for the people we represent, it was food and shelter and basic necessities for all. Now that was true inclusion.

I remember a call in the office a few months after the storm reporting that a man with a cognitive disability and a wheelchair user used his FEMA dollars to buy camping gear. The well-intended reporter was aghast that someone in his condition would not use the money to better himself in other ways. As a person-centered organization we went out and actually asked the man what he was doing and if we could offer assistance in doing it. He had been in a shelter watching the news and saw the many reports of looters taking things from the rubble; he was not going to let that happen to him. When we arrived he was determined to camp out at his home-site and spend his days rolling through the rubble, stacking up pictures, furniture, clothes and other various stuff that was his before the storm. He had the need to protect his stuff and there were people who believed that because he had a disability, he should not be allowed to do so. In the end, he purchased his camping supplies, and ended up camping out at his home and protecting his property – just as so many of the other Katrina victims did. The only difference in his case and his neighbors‚ was that he was there with the proper supports who ensured his safety and independence.

In another case we were able to help a family of 11 who fled Louisiana and evacuated to our city. The mother, son and daughter, along with their 75-year-old aunt, spent three days on the road sleeping, eating, and barely surviving a 200-mile journey into the unknown. When they arrived in Jackson they found themselves in a hotel for one night and then kicked out due to insufficient funds to stay. They quickly reunited with the rest of their family in another hotel, sharing space with the other six members in two hotel rooms for the eleven. Just as before, the management needed them to leave due to insufficient funds. Back in survival mode they met with management to no avail. While in the hotel office they met a past advocate of The Arc of Mississippi who was there with her church handing out bottled water. She was told their story and we were called. The son was a wheelchair user in dire need of assistance. You see, they left Louisiana in the middle of the night and forgot his foot pegs for his chair. His feet had been dangling for days and the pressure had swollen his feet to basketball size proportion. Not being from Jackson, and still being in survival mode from sleeping in the car for days and not knowing about the status of their home back in Louisiana, this family was in dire straits. As a mission run person-centered organization, we were able to help support this family for 10 months in their own hotel room, get them the medical attention the entire family needed, and most importantly make several trips back home to get their home ready for their return to Louisiana, where they live today. This family and so many others have profoundly impacted the supports and services we provide as a primarily advocacy organization.

The purpose of this article is to give a perspective from an agency that has experienced recurring disaster preparation and recovery, and to tell about the lessons learned that could benefit other agencies. My lesson is to always be person-centered and find out for yourself what the real issues are so you can help make proper decisions to help with the situation. Some thought that a man wanting to spend his money on camping supplies during hurricane recovery was silly, but driving down the demolished streets of Bay St. Lewis and seeing the looters taking off with others’ sentimental belongings, it made perfect sense that he would want to camp out to protect his possessions. Some may assume that 10 months is far too long to stay in a hotel when your home was damaged, but until you visit the devastation and see for yourself what thousands of homes still look like, you cannot understand. I’m glad we were able to be honest about what we were able to provide and that we were able to partner with many agencies to experience the outcomes we all wanted for the people we still get to represent.

Katrina is NOT over and we are still learning lessons from it.