Ask About the ADA Podcast

Ask About; Natural Disasters

August 31, 2022 Northeast ADA Center Season 1 Episode 40
Ask About the ADA Podcast
Ask About; Natural Disasters
Show Notes Transcript

People with disabilities can face unique challenges in preparing for natural disasters. In this edition of Ask About the ADA, Joe Zesski speaks with the Northeast ADA's affiliates from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. They discuss the experience of people with disabilities in weathering natural disasters in the territories and lessons learned during hurricanes, earthquakes, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

JOE ZESSKI: Hello. Welcome to Ask About the ADA, the podcast where we answer your questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it applies to everyday life. I'm Joe Zesski, the program manager here at the Northeast ADA Center. 

On this week's edition of Ask About the ADA, we're going to go back to part of the audio for a webinar that was presented in March of 2022. In the webinar, I am speaking with our affiliates in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, we work with an organization known as MAVI, which is an independent living center on the island. Joining us from MAVI are Mildred Gomez and Nellyber Correa. 
And from the Virgin Islands, we work with the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, DRCVI. Joining us from DRCVI is Archie Jennings, the lead attorney for DRCVI. And we're going to be discussing emergency preparedness and response to natural disasters. 

Over the last number of years, both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have had to deal with a number of natural disasters, from hurricanes, to earthquakes, to the pandemic. These certainly have posed challenges in multiple ways. Archie, I'd like to go to you first. Have there been lessons learned from dealing with these different issues? 
ARCHIE JENNINGS: I can say that one thing I learned is that you got to have an emergency management agency locally that's ready to assist. We had none, and it was slow-moving. As a result of the hurricanes we lost the shelters. Most of the schools, which served as shelters from the hurricanes, were destroyed or in some way compromised. 
So as we go into this hurricane season-- and we already had one of our first meetings. They have to have what's called shelter in place. We're assisting the elderly and persons with disabilities, urging them to get on a list with the government so that the government has information. Those who want to voluntarily give it so they know where the persons are that would need assistance after the passing of the disaster, because that did not occur last time either. 
So we're learning now to work with volunteer organizations who assist in disasters-- what they call VOADs. And the P&A system has developed a memorandum of understanding with Red Cross to coordinate the resilience after the hurricanes, but also to coordinate efforts. We are a small agency on both Islands, but it's one of those things where we do become a conduit for persons with disabilities when they are looking for issues with government outreach. 
And also, through the memorandum of understanding, they put us in closer touch with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They're always assuming we're already connected with the local management agency. But putting those resources together and trying to work together-- it's sort of where we are now. We're already having management meetings in preparation for the next hurricane season, which starts June 1st. 
JOE ZESSKI: And, Mildred or Nellyber, what are your thoughts regarding Puerto Rico? 
MILDRED GOMEZ: Hello, this is Mildred. Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are very similar in the situation of emergencies because we are islands in the Caribbean. And we have this hurricane season that affects us-- not very frequently, but in 2017, we received Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria. These two hurricanes changed our daily living-- change the daily living of all the persons in Puerto Rico, especially people with disabilities. 
So during all these years, we have learned many lessons. We don't want to pass through the same situations again. And one of the things that we are doing here-- now we are doing-- is empowering people with disabilities and their families in inclusive plans. We have to learn to be prepared-- not dependent on others and not dependent on the government, but dependent on us. We have to be prepared. We have to make our family plans. 
We have to empower and know about the services that the community can bring me-- where I have to call and what things I need. And as you mentioned, it's not just hurricanes. We pass through earthquakes too in the south and now the pandemic of COVID-19. So the thing about empowering people, educating people, educating communities-- we realized and we learned through the past of Hurricane Maria that the communities make the change. They are the ones that made that first response and gave services to others. 
Like the US Virgin Islands, we have a lot of mountains and we have a lot of beaches and coasts around. So it's very hard when you don't have transportation-- when you have a hurricane like Maria that bring everything down and you're not able to be out of your house. So other things that we learned are that we don't have a register of people with disabilities here in Puerto Rico because many of our municipalities think that people with disabilities are people that are old, undead, or are not able to walk. 
And we are educating them that people with autism and people with many other situations and disabilities are in this area of people with disabilities that need some assistance. We are working on inclusive plans. And something that we've learned a lot about and that we are working on is the Core Advisory Groups. 
After Hurricane Maria, with the collaboration of FEMA, we have different conferences and table talks about what happened. What was the real the needs of people with disabilities around the island? And we realized that all persons in the island with disabilities had the same situations. So we developed these working groups. The are named Core Advisory Groups. And we have groups in the states too. 
We divide the island into 10 regions, with the collaboration of the emergency preparedness office in Puerto Rico-- state and local. And we have been working since Hurricane Maria to educate, to be part of the community, to teach them, and to be there hand-by-hand so they can be prepared not just for the hurricane seasons that start on June 1st, but through many other emergencies that can happen on the island. 
JOE ZESSKI: That's an interesting point, Mildred. It brings me to another question about emergency preparedness. During COVID and the pandemic, were services impacted for people with disabilities? And are these services back to what they were before the pandemic started? And, I guess, for this question let's go back to you, Mildred, first. 
MILDRED GOMEZ: Sure. During COVID-19? 
JOE ZESSKI: Mm-hmm. 
MILDRED GOMEZ: We are learning. We continue learning during this pandemic. So the thing is that yeah, what we have seen during these two years is that all the services came virtual. So this is something that affects many of the people with disabilities on the island because they are not used to using technology. 
Most of the services in the government when they locked down closed services and gave new instructions. MAVI-- as an independent living center, we have the privilege to continue working and tending people by phone and by email. We maintain that contact with people with disabilities, promoting videos, giving access to deaf communities so they have the information, number one, about COVID-19-- about how the services in their communities and the government has been working. 
And many of the people with disabilities that don't have access to technology have a lot of situations because they are not able to make an appointment in government offices because they don't have an email, they don't know how to use technology, or they don't have internet. So it's been hard, but I think that we do our best. And the people now are very informed, especially the deaf community. That is the community that is, in my opinion, more impacted by COVID 19 because of the lack of communication. 
JOE ZESSKI: That makes sense. 
MILDRED GOMEZ: When people are not able to speak sign language, they are expecting people to put their masks down so they are able to read the lips. And people said, you know something? I'm not going to do that. I'm on my right. I have to protect myself. And we have a lot of stories of deaf people that came and said, you know something? I was asking for services, and I was not able to communicate because they don't put the mask down. So I think that that's a very big issue that touched us very deeply in the community. 
JOE ZESSKI: We certainly heard similar questions on the Northeast ADA's technical assistance line, especially during the first year of the pandemic. Archie, what about the situation in the Virgin Islands? 
ARCHIE JENNINGS: Well, social distancing impacted greatly the services for persons with disability. As noted, the deaf and hard of hearing community-- we tried to rally. They already had a group going, so it was almost by word of mouth and phone calls to rally them to come online for virtual trainings. And we were able to get the Department of Health to give feedback and allow them to ask questions through having in a separate room or separate location interpreters there to issue the questions and allow people to get them answered. 
Actually, we even had a-- not during '20-- that was a virtual shutdown In '21, as the vaccinations came along, we were able to open up more. And I think we even had a little gathering at the mall so people could come and get vaccinated. And we got the word out through the deaf and hard of hearing community to come get some more information and get vaccinated. 
So the impact at the very beginning was very, very severe. Government offices were shut down. They were closed because of people who had contacted or contracted and were found positive-- shut down a lot of offices. In '21, things started to open up. Transportation at the very beginning was also shut down, which impacted a lot of persons with disabilities' abilities to move through the community. 
But we're not back fully, Even though the mask mandate has been eliminated. It's now a matter of contacting those who were the core leaders in those groups, trying to get things rejuvenated and resuscitated and revived to go forward under the present conditions. So that's what happened here in the Virgin Islands. 
NELLYBER CORREA: Joe, I just want to add-- 
JOE ZESSKI: Yeah, please. 
NELLYBER CORREA: We have that situation that Archie says with transportation. The public transportation on the island was canceled during the pandemic, during the lockdown. So they faced the same challenge with access to medical service, going to the market, and having equal access to their daily living activities. 
So it was a hard situation for people with disability in Puerto Rico and in other areas and also the Virgin Islands. We try to help people with disability get the kind of services that are so important for people with disabilities. And for people without disability, it was hard work for the independent living service and all people that work for people with disabilities. 
MILDRED GOMEZ: This is Mildred. I'd like to mention two other things. Those are employment and education. And here in Puerto Rico, for example, we are not used to working remotely. So this is a modality that we have to learn. So many people with disabilities that don't have access to technology or are not able to work remotely don't have access to go to work because of transportation issues or other issues. So they were not able to work. 
The other area is education. Schools locked down too. And we have many families with three, four kids. And maybe they don't have a computer. Maybe they just have a phone with internet. And it was very hard. You heard stories about persons that have two or three kids and just have cell phones to connect for their classes. So these two areas were affected too by COVID-19. 
JOE ZESSKI: Those are good comments, Mildred. Thank you so much. And thank you all for listening this week. I hope you found it interesting and learned something about the impact of natural disasters in our region here in the Northeast, particularly in our affiliates with Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Thank you to Archie, Mildred, and Nellyber again. 
If you have questions about emergency preparedness and people with disabilities or about anything else related to the ADA, please feel free to contact us at the Northeast ADA by calling 1-800-949-4232. You can certainly visit our website,, shoot us an email, or follow us on social media. Just look for @NortheastADA. 
Once again thank you to Grace Fairchild for producing this podcast and editing it. Thank you as well to Peter Quinn of the Yang Tan Institute's media team for doing final polishing and editing. And thank you all for listening and being a part of the conversation.