Planning meeting: Protecting disabled Tri-Staters

Emergency planners and first responders in Vanderburgh County saw what lack of knowledge and preparedness did to the most vulnerable citizens of the Gulf Region during hurricane Katrina. They don't want the same mistakes repeated, so they're taking a proactive approach.

Jane Santomassimo's neighborhood looks a lot different than it did before November 6, 2005. The muscular dystrophy patient survived the tornado by crouching in a closet, only to emerge with her house in shambles, her customized van destroyed.

Getting around would be difficult so would finding a new place to live. "Who could I have gone to find out where is there a place that is handicapped accessible that has some place open that I could rent? There wasn't any place. I was doing that all on my own."

This group wants to start addressing those kinds of questions before disaster strikes. For instance, many seniors wouldn't evacuate their apartments during a recent fire at Kennedy Towers. Firefighters want to know the best way to convince them it's safe.

Sheriff's deputies need more training on how to handle traffic stops for the hearing impaired. Sergeant Jim Martin, Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office, says, "If they read lips, they'll want to get up to the person speaking to them, so they can see them. Well, law enforcement, we don't want you coming up to us quickly, and if we're telling you to 'stop, get back, get in your car,' and they're not hearing us; obviously, we have a bridge that we can't cross."

Goodwill industries offered advice, as did representatives from ARC and Evansville Association for the Blind.

The Local Emergency Planning Committee says this is the kind of dialogue that will save lives. Dwayne Caldwell, Local Emergency Planning Committee, explains, "Two or three times during the meeting, folks said, 'Well, we have a training we can give.' And someone else said, 'Well, that's the training we need.' So, hopefully, by interconnecting these folks, we can pass along information, pass along services that would make the response that much better."

One of the challenges for emergency planners and first responders is getting information to the disabled population in a format they can understand. For instance, just because someone is visually-impaired doesn't mean they can read braille. These are the kinds of things they'll be working on as a group. They're also going to be hosting a town hall meeting soon to get input from the public. We'll have more on that as it approaches.