Tags: disability and love, disability and marriage, disability and relationships, hurricane rescue, interability marriage, Katrina, Katrina relief, love story, Megan Cutter, personal assistants, personal care assistants
Barton and I are huddled in the bathroom, his power wheelchair blocking the door. In the background, tornado sirens scream. Over the radio- the announcement that the EMS station lost power and they can’t tell us why the sirens are going off. The phone rings. Thinking it’s my grandfather who is two miles away and living alone, I answer. My father, stepmother and brother burst into Happy Birthday. Do I hang up? The epitome of irony…
Everyone in the South has their own Katrina story, where they where, if they were rescued, if they assisted in the rescue effort, in church praying for those who lost loved ones and homes, those on the ground volunteering in rescue camps or sorting through and handing out donated items.
I was already off work since Barton had a doctor’s appointment in Birmingham, and we had planned a night out on the town for my birthday. Instead, we drove back to Tuscaloosa with green and gray clouds swirling overhead, the news of New Orleans already blasting over the airwaves.
That night, we huddled in our safe spot, (not how I was expecting to spend my birthday) and when we ventured to the bedroom, I slept with boots on, just in case I needed to haul us out of there. Katrina was still a Category One, and there was a tree over the bedroom. I was praying that it wouldn’t fall, not only for our sake, but so that we could sell the house as we planned! We were lucky and sustained only minor wind damage, but several houses in our neighborhood did have trees down.
Two weeks earlier, Barton found out that instead of moving to North Carolina that October, we would be moving on September 1st. Unprepared for the quick turn-around, I was scrambling to sort through items in my mother’s house, prepare the house for sale, and getting us squared away in North Carolina while wrestling the arrangements for resigning from my work (as we needed health insurance for as long as possible). We decided that Barton would move on September 1st, and I would stay behind for a week.
On August 31st, I was pulled into meetings about the rescue effort, when I knew the next day I would be resigning from my job. It was a difficult moment to tell the CEO that I could not participate in publicity for relief effort. Barton moved up to NC, and I was left to fend for myself. The days following would be harrowing- news of the gas lines lead to gas siphoning, gas price gouging- I would drive down the street to get a rationed two gallons at $4.75 a gallon, and the emptying out of grocery stores. Other than the grocery store and gas stations, the streets were empty, and you could feel tension in the community rising. While it was nothing like New Orleans, I learned a lot about what happens, when as a community, we are all in panic mode. I was lucky- I was kept from watching those horrifying images over the television by the overflowing list of things to do.
While we only lost power for two days, my grandfather didn’t get power back for over a week. Though he was stubborn and wanted no help, I would take a cooler with fresh food for the day, cleaned out his freezer and leave flashlights and candles on the counter when I left. I sorted and packed items for the move and worked hard to repair the house. I made a huge donation pile for hurricane relief. (Later I would realize that a box of our childhood toys had accidentally made it into that donation & am thankful they were put to use). And I still worked, over my eight hours a day, to prepare for my exodus of seven years working in corporate advertising.
The hardest part was moving. At a time where everyone was huddling together, working and volunteering, we were leaving to go to a place where we could better sustain our family. I didn’t see or say good-bye to many of my friends until we actually sold my mother’s house six months later.
But Katrina isn’t just about remembering what happened, it’s about how we live now. Are we prepared for another natural or unnatural disaster? Really? One film called On Higher Ground talks about emergency preparedness for those with disabilities and their direct support professionals. While we have made long strides, there is still much work to be done.
Katrina made us think about what would we have done, we went through scenario after scenario- what if Barton couldn’t get the medicine he needed, what if we had to leave without his wheelchair (either of them), what if we had to rescue the neighbors (what would our different roles & procedures be), what if we couldn’t get food, what if I couldn’t get to NC? Trust me, we talked about & had a plan for everything we could think of, and some of those conversations were difficult to talk through.
Even when we moved into the new house, we asked- how could I get Barton out of the house if there was a fire blocking the exits…While the “what ifs” can drive you crazy, it’s important to know how to take care of yourself & how to take care of others.
As we approach the 5th anniversary of Katrina, we are reminded that the people around us are precious, that anything can happen, and to take steps to prepare for an emergency beyond our control.
Check out some resources to create your own emergency plan: