Hurricane Relief: Past Lessons Pay Off

“We’re in it for the long haul,” Carolyn Phillips noted on a recent conference call with the national network of disability-focused relief organizations. Phillips is the director of the Pass It On Center (PIOC) which provides technical assistance on assistive technology (AT) reuse through the national AT3 Center. The calls are taking place every day, sometimes attended by as many as 300 participants. Each caller represents an organization or program. And each is looking to assist people with disabilities and seniors impacted by the 2017 hurricane season that can no longer be personified using a single given name.

The Pass It On Center is located at Georgia Tech’s College of Design within the AMAC Accessibility Solutions and Research Center in Atlanta. From there Phillips must keep a wary eye on Irma’s predicted storm path as she collaborates with the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, Portlight Strategies, FEMA, and other national and state-level organizations responding to impressively complex needs on both a macro and micro-community level.

This is where disability networks shine. While the needs are daunting, this collaboration–years in the making–is launching online portals for matching assistive technology and durable medical equipment (DME) needs with the inventories of programs that collect gently-used devices for use by people with disabilities. They are connecting state AT programs and disability organizations from distant states with hurricane-affected communities; advising on device sanitizing, repair, and labeling; identifying resources for shipping and warehousing; establishing hubs for these services; and recruiting and training volunteers (including occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech-language pathologists) on the appropriate handling and matching of manual and power wheelchairs, communication devices, walkers, and specialized pediatric equipment among other devices and supplies. Examples include the USSAAC‘s portal for tracking communication equipment needs (HarveyAAC.recovers.org and AACDisasterRelief.recovers.org for disasters other than Harvey), a portal developed by PIOC and Portlight for organizations to track DME needs and donations, the in-kind shipping available through UPS’s agreement with Volunteer Organizations Active In Disaster (VOAD), PIOC’s Harvey and Irma wikis of resources and updates, the hotline for disaster survivors with disabilities established by the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, and all the equipment donation drives, including the hundreds of manual wheelchairs shipped by Joni and Friends along with their own volunteers for a massive distribution event in Houston.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this effort is how it’s carrying out national disaster relief for people with disabilities, while not hesitating to respond to the unique needs of specific individuals. In the case of the Pass It On Center, Phillips is working on big-picture tools, such as developing a HIPPA-ready database that can link donated equipment with individuals who need it (they developed their organization-to-organization online tool with Portlight in just a matter of days), while at the same time fielding specific requests from families and individuals. For example, PIOC’s Liz Persaud and Trish Redmon have been working around the clock to respond to requests such as the one that came yesterday from a woman in the path of Irma. She needed a wheelchair to evacuate and is now safely in a shelter. And even in the notes for a disaster-relief coordination call we find: “Special request for a child with epilepsy who needs a cooling vest and a Hoyer lift.”

It’s not just a matter of doing what these organizations have always done–matching individuals to appropriate equipment–it’s also driven by a grim reality of disaster relief. We’ve seen the images on social media of mounds of donated stuffed toys, and heard about the oddities–such as donated prom dresses–from people imagining that if people have lost everything, then everything is fair game to ship. But even in the category of durable medical equipment, there is the danger of equipment piling up in the absence of a clear chain of demand.

Which is why, in Massachusetts, Karen Langley was thoughtful about what she gathered on Thursday for the two trucks organized by SMILEMass headed to Houston. Langley is the executive director for Requipment, Inc. a reuse partner with the Massachusetts state AT program, MassMATCH. She has participated on each call this past week with PIOC, and has reached out to her state network of small DME reuse programs and Councils on Aging with loan closets, as well as the Connecticut Tech Act Project. When SMILEMass connected with Langley about their plans, Langley immediately contacted PIOC to ensure coordination. SMILEMass President and Co-founder Lotte Diomede was already working with a disability organization in Houston and seeking to fill specific needs, such as for adult diapers and pediatric medical equipment. Langley identified several pediatric DME items her program could spare for the effort. Now she is working on device sanitation assistance, becoming a member of MA VOAD for in-kind shipping, and identifying warehousing for staging the shipping of future donations.

A woman works on a pediatric wheelchair in a room of equipment
Stacey Collins, a REquipment reuse partner technician, prepares a pediatric wheelchair for donating to the Harvey relief effort.
Two women smiling in front of a tent with boxes of adult diapers and next to wheelchairs.
Karen Langley, Executive Director of REquipment, Inc. and Lotte Diomede, President of SMILEmass at the DME donation drive organized by Diomede for the Harvey relief effort.

Pass It On Center, the Partnership, Portlight, and others are managing the urgent enthusiasm coming from diverse organizations on a local, state, and national level, by sending a clear message about the cycle of recovery. While the hurricanes are currently dominating the news cycle, recovery will be long and slow and the DME/AT needs of disaster survivors will come in waves (as survivors return to their communities, as children return to school, etc). This is the time, they emphasize, to organize local and state reuse networks, such as Langley is doing, for necessary sustained engagement.

Indeed, these networks are valuable. PIOC has spent the last several years organizing disaster preparedness summits on a regional level throughout the US. Now, Phillips reports, “We’re seeing it pay off. It’s making a big difference that people know each other within these regions.” Despite everything else PIOC is currently managing (and, yes, there are also the fires out west), Phillips plugs this effort on a recent conference call, “Let us know if you want to do a summit,” she says.

Organizations with equipment to donate or with equipment needs:
register for the AT/DME Supplies Matching Portal by emailing carolyn.phillips@gatech.edu. Registering will allow you to enter the portal to get a match.

Interested in making a financial donation to PIOC’s disaster-relief effort? Visit this AMAC webpage