Virginia examines emergency assistance for people with disabilities

Sandy Hermann feels a sense of dread every time she hears that a severe storm could be heading towards Hampton Roads.

Her 26-year-old daughter has a neuromuscular disorder and requires a ventilator, wheelchair and feeding tube. She can’t be away for long and normal emergency shelters can’t accommodate her.

With limited options, they almost always hole up at home when hurricanes hit.

“I just pray it doesn’t hit the bull’s eye,” said Hermann, who lives in Virginia Beach with daughter Felicia.

Emergencies are not easy for anyone. But disability advocates say disasters of all kinds — be it a hurricane or a pandemic — generally present a far greater challenge for people with special needs. A state official in a newly created position will work with two agencies in Virginia over the next year and a half to investigate the problem and find ways to help.

“We want to promote equality, access and full inclusion for people with disabilities,” said Jamie Liban, who assumed the role of development coordinator for emergency preparedness in late September.

Liban is embedded within the Virginia Department of Emergency Management but also works closely with the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities. The 18-month position was created with federal funds earmarked to support the disability community.

Liban previously served as executive director for The Arc of Virginia, a statewide non-profit serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Felicia Hermann, 26, sits for a portrait at her family home in Virginia Beach, Virginia on November 15, 2022.  Hermann requires a 24-hour ventilator, feeding tube, and oxygen compressors.

She said she doesn’t have any recommendations yet; Her work is still in its infancy and she is focused on research. She plans to speak to various government agencies and organizations at the local level for their contribution – and encourages others with feedback to get in touch.

Teri Morgan, executive director of the Disability Committee, said the pandemic has highlighted the disadvantages people with disabilities face in emergencies.

She said some residents who cannot drive or travel easily told the board they were having difficulty reaching testing and vaccination sites, while others said updates and information were not being provided in a way that they could easily digest.

“We’re excited about (this new position) and think it’s a good opportunity,” Morgan said. “We believe there is room to improve coordination, collaboration and communication at both the local and state levels.”

Ralph Shelman, executive director of the Peninsula Center for Independent Living, a Hampton facility that provides services to people with disabilities, said one of the biggest challenges is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

In emergencies, some residents may need sign language translation or shelter for a service animal, he said. Others need physical assistance, wheelchair-accessible transit, or a place to plug in their medical equipment.

“It’s not easy – that’s the bottom line,” he said, adding that more help is needed. “I think agencies are working hard to meet the need, but there have been certain caveats.”

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Hermann, 56, a resource coordinator at a Norfolk hospital, said her daughter would need extensive support during an evacuation.

Her husband could put Felicia in the car if they had to leave, she said. But if she were a single parent, Hermann couldn’t make it on her own.

“I can’t even push her up the ramp in the car anymore because I don’t have the stability,” she said, explaining that she has multiple sclerosis.

Hermann said that in an emergency Shelter Felicia needed plenty of power outlets nearby for her medical equipment, as well as a refrigerator to keep her medication cool. She would also need wheelchair-accessible entrances and additional space, and ideally an on-site medical assistant to assist.

Without that extra care, Hermann says, her daughter — or others with similar disabilities — might not survive an emergency.

“It’s a life and death situation,” she said.

Katie King, [email protected]