After Hurricane Matthew, I Lost Faith in Emergency Support for Wheelchair Users
On September 30, 2016, Hurricane Matthew became the first category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean in nearly a decade. The storm, which formed from a tropical wave off the coast of Africa, ultimately made landfall in Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas, before setting its sights on the east coast of the United States. Matthew hugged the coast of Florida for two days before making landfall near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on October 8.
The following image is a historical overview of Hurricane Matthew’s track, and provides important insight into the storm’s impact on me, which I will discuss in this article.
I first began paying attention to Matthew as the hurricane turned to the north off the coast of Colombia. I was in Atlanta, Georgia at the time, but had a flight to Europe scheduled for October 7, departing from Miami International Airport. Hurricane forecasts are constantly changing, and I wasn’t sure if it would affect my travel plans or not. As the confidence of the models improved, it became clear that flights would definitely be affected in the Southeast United States.
As a result, I made the decision to travel to South Florida a couple days in advance of my flight to Europe. On October 5th, I flew to West Palm Beach, landing around 5pm. Not wanting to pay a ridiculous cab fare for the 78-mile drive to my hotel in Miami, I turned to public transportation – the TRI-Rail and city bus would get me to my hotel for around $10.
Just after 8pm, I got off the commuter train at the Hialeah Market Station (one stop way from Miami Airport), where I was supposed to transfer to city bus number 36. The bus never showed. After waiting for an hour and with a low battery on both my wheelchair and cell phone, I began to worry.
I called multiple cab companies, requesting a wheelchair taxi. They could only send a standard taxi, as all of the wheelchair taxis were “offline” or “unavailable.” This was absolutely a violation of the ADA, especially in relation to Yellow Cab Miami. And, as a power wheelchair user, nothing but an adapted vehicle would do.
I then called the Miami Police Department, who informed me that public transportation service had been suspended. The police could offer no assistance, other than providing telephone numbers for the taxi companies I had already called. As a last resort, they said, an ambulance could be sent to take me to the hospital, but my wheelchair would have to be left behind.
It was around 9:30 p.m. that a guy walked up, asking about the status of the city bus. I told him what I knew, and he called for an Uber. The Uber arrived in about 10 minutes to pick him up and take him to safety. Because Uber does not offer an accessible service, I remained in a drizzling rain and with no way to get to my hotel.
Then, salvation came in the form of a train. It was bound for the airport, and I’m still not sure why it was running – all public transport in Miami had been suspended more than an hour before. I was one of only a few passengers on the train, and I made it to the airport, where I expected to spend the night. Then, another miracle (sort of). I rolled up to the airport taxi stand, requested an ADA taxi, and Yellow Cab dipatched one about an hour later.
The story ended well for me. I made it to the shelter of my hotel and Hurricane Matthew passed by the following day, on October 6. My flight to Copenhagen departed on the 7th as scheduled, and I had an enjoyable vacation. But I couldn’t help but wonder, what if that train had never shown up?
The NOAA hurricane advisory, pictured above, was released right about the time that I got off the commuter train. I believe that public transport was suspended in Miami a bit too soon, and without enough advance warning. If city bus service had been suspended, that should have been announced repeatedly on the TRI-Rail train. No such information was ever shared.
Many cities do direct resources to help elderly and disabled residents evacuate natural disasters, but there seems to be no support offered to disabled travelers and tourists. I was shocked by the police department’s inability to help me. Are there really no ADA accessible police vehicles in Miami-Dade County? Would they actually have left me outside during a hurricane?
Since this article relates to Miami-Dade County, you can find information on their Emergency Evacuation Assistance Program here. This program is available only to residents of the county.
I do realize that I put myself at risk by traveling to South Florida while a hurricane made its way towards the state. But the models predicted that the storm would remain off the southern coast, and the weather conditions on the night of October 5th were that of an average Florida thunderstorm. Things did get worse the next day, but I assumed that if the airports remained open, services on the ground would as well.
Turns out, I was wrong. And it was a lesson not to take chances in traveling towards a hurricane or natural disaster. There might not be any help available.
And so, with Hurricane Irma now the second most powerful Atlantic hurricane in history, I strongly urge you to evacuate from its path. Be safe, and guard your life. Get out while you still can!