Was Sandy A Turning Point?
Ten-years after the superstorm, people with disabilities are still at greater risk from severe weather and climate change.
I was out of the country when Superstorm Sandy made landfall on October 29, 2012. I was relieved that my immediate family in Atlantic County were all safe, including my now late grandfather, who’s nursing home near the bayfront was evacuated inland. But, many others who resided in congregate settings in New Jersey and New York were not as fortunate. Along a beachfront promenade, a woman in a wheelchair faces a seated man holding a microphone and a woman behind a camera atop a tripod.
The CDC reports that Sandy took the lives of 117 people along its path; drowning was the leading cause of death. It’s unclear how many individuals with disabilities were among those fatalities as this is a statistic that’s not always categorized. But, as thousands of residents lived without power, heat or food in their homes or facilities for weeks following the storm, it was crystal clear that authorities throughout the region had no plan in place to protect some of their most vulnerable populations. Disability organizations in NYC won an ADA lawsuit against the city to make emergency management more inclusive. However, that ruling does not directly compel authorities in NJ or anywhere else to make changes to their disaster responses. Sandy should have been a turning point to ensure that the one out of four New Jerseyans that have mobility, sensory or developmental disabilities will have access to safe evacuations, sheltering and relocation during a severe weather event.
Lens15 is working on a series of reports to mark the 10-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy and its impact on the state’s disabled community. We’ve spoken with survivors, emergency responders as well as climate change observers to learn what’s improved since the disaster and how this population continues to face greater risks. Those stories will be published at www.lens15.com and on our YouTube channel. We’ll also publish content from this project on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and even TikTok.
One Sandy-survivor who’s featured in our reporting is Millie Gonzalez. She’s Board President of the Philadelphia-based Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies and works with other organizations to make sure that people with disabilities are not left out of the planning, protocol or recovery of any emergency, whether its weather-related, war or a public health crisis. Millie shared her experience during and after the storm with us near her home in Monmouth County’s Union Beach.
You can read the transcript from part of my interview with her below or listen to it via the embedded audio player
Ahead of Sandy's arrival, Millie evacuated to a relative's home. I asked her to describe what she saw as the storm hit where she was staying.
Millie Gonzalez. We started to feel the impact of that between the shaking of the house and actually water starting to leak through some of the windows. And there got to a point where I was trying to get from a living room space into a restroom and I stepped with my crutch, because I also use crutches although I'm currently a full time wheelchair user. So I stepped with my crutch onto kind of a small piece of carpet, and my crutch sunk into just water pouring out from the carpet. So I let the person know that there was water coming into the house. And from that point forward, I went through a window, I saw just floodwaters literally, just kind of crashing into the streets, all these different things, all this kind of debris was coming down the street, I mean, major things huge garbage receptacles, arcade games. I was in a town called Keansburg and we have Keansburg Amusement Park. There were literally like full size arcade games just coming down the street as though they were light as a feather. And a little bit after that, I saw the car that was parked in our in our driveway at that house, go underwater, beep a little bit, like an alarm was going off, and then just completely cut out. 10 years later, and I'm telling the story to you, and it still feels like I was watching a movie, like it still doesn't feel like something that I lived through.
Jason Strother. Do you feel that your your safety was threatened?
Millie Gonzalez. Yeah, that's a really great question. So I mean, at some level, there was a choice to stay in a residence as opposed to try to go to a shelter. And as a person with a disability, the safest place for me is in a home and not a shelter where oftentimes there are not folks there who can help us remain safe in case of emergency. Where they might not have the equipment or even the power, the outlets to charge power chairs or a place to keep our medications refrigerated. I mean, all of these things that we as folks with disabilities have to think about when trying to go to a public shelter. And for many of us, again, the alternative would be a hospital. But again, who wants to be at a hospital when you don't actually need to be at a hospital. And you know, that other folks who do need to be there need the beds that I might be taking up just because some of these other places are not equipped to take care of me in an emergency.
Jason Strother. Did your home survive Sandy?
Millie Gonzalez. My home did not survive Sandy.
Jason Strother. What was lost that was really valuable to you, related to accessibility?
Millie Gonzalez. Sure, absolutely. That's a great question. And, yes, I lost a lot of things that were disability related. First and foremost, supplies, just things that I use on a regular basis, all of that, drenched, underwater, not usable. I had a hospital bed, a medical bed, at home completely destroyed because we're also talking about sea water. So you're talking about even if you could sort of clean it up, you're still talking about the erosion and everything that's happening to these things. And also my manual wheelchair was at home as well. So I did also lose my manual wheelchair. In addition to some of the things that people might not think about right away, but like, my shower chair, you know, like the the things that I kind of use on a day to day basis that aren't necessarily outside my home either. So things like that. So I definitely lost a lot of things that were related to disability, medications, all that stuff.
Jason Strother. How long did it take you to rebuild your home? And what did you do in the meantime?
Millie Gonzalez. One of the things that we went through, that I went through, after Hurricane Sandy, is the fact that people didn't know what to do with folks with disabilities. They didn't know how we were going to recover, because we could not just rebuild and stay in a single level home, we had to now raise the house, we had to do other things. So there was this entire process of trying to find out information, applying for grants, applying for aid, applying for anything that was out there to help us to recover. And that really was a process. So I reached out to FEMA, I reached out to our Centers for Independent Living, I reached out to the Red Cross, I reached out to folks that I knew folks that I didn't know, individuals that I was being connected to, and still could not get direct answers as to how am I going to do this? Like, one, what's available out there for for folks with disabilities who are trying to now recover and trying to get their homes back; what's out there? And then kind of looking at it a little bit further into the future. Okay, I'm hearing that we have to elevate our house. Well, how am I going to get into my house now that we're going to elevate it? What are the guidelines for building a ramp or building an elevator, a residential elevator in a house. And nobody really knew. It just wasn't something that people were talking about, thinking about, even creating guidelines around. So yeah, it was definitely really lost. So I guess to more directly answer your question, I stayed in the home that I was in, navigating steps, stairs for for three years.
Jason Strother. Tell me about your work with the partnership. What is that? And what did they do?
The partnership for inclusive disaster strategies is the only US based disability led organization whose priority it is to make sure that there's equity, there's inclusion of people with disabilities and people with access and functional needs before, during, and after disasters. In all the planning and all the mitigation and all the recovery efforts, and really making sure that, at the end of the day, we are secure, we are safe, and we are alive.
Jason Strother. Am I right to assume that your experience with Sandy kind of led you in this direction?
Millie Gonzalez. It did. That's an interesting question. I have always had some interest in doing work around emergency response, recovery and preparedness. And it really just pushed me forward into this work. Because I saw, I experienced so much of what that looks like and how many gaps there are in the system. And how many folks that I knew that didn't make it through things like Hurricane Sandy. And I just didn't want to see that continue to happen. So yes, absolutely. It definitely brought me into doing that work.
Jason Strother. Do you think, here in New Jersey, that people with disabilities are safer now than they were 10 years ago?
Millie Gonzalez. I don't think we're safer. I don't think we're safer. I think that there are over the last 10 years, there have been lots of conversations that have occurred in the state of New Jersey and beyond, about how to prepare and how to keep folks with disabilities safe. But what has not occurred is giving us the infrastructure, giving us the personnel, giving us the the resources to make those things happen. I think that continues to be lacking.
Jason Strother. Millie, do you think Hurricane Sandy was a wake up call for the need for more inclusive disaster management?
Millie Gonzalez. I do think that Hurricane Sandy was kind of a wake up call for more inclusive disaster management. I think that it really brought to the forefront some concerns. And also, not just about the storm itself, not just the preparedness portion, but how do we recover? What's that mitigation look like? And how do people with disabilities fit into that scenario? I definitely think it was a turning point.
Jason Strother. Millie, thank you so much for meeting with me here at Union Beach.
Millie Gonzalez. Thank you, yeah, you, too.
In July, I wrote in this newsletter and in my Lens Into NJ column about how Essex County spent millions of dollars to renovate intersections along Bloomfield Ave, but neglected to install crosswalk signals that speak out loud when it's safe to cross the road. Well, it took a couple more months, but now the crossing at Grove St. in Bloomfield has an accessible system.
I shot this video and embedded audio description.
Unfortunately, newly remodeled intersections in Montclair are still silent.
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Keeley Giblin helped edit this newsletter