Chaos and Trauma for a Family with a Child with Special Needs

reat_familykevinjohnson-4.jpgThe following story was written by BridgingApps’ Co-Founder, Cristen. Cristen and her son Vincent, who has special needs, were Easter Seals Greater Houston’s Walk With Me 2017 Ambassadors and have been dear friends of Easter Seals Greater Houston for years. Cristen graciously shared her story to show how having a loved one with a disability compounded the difficulty and stress faced during Hurricane Harvey.

 

Our house was built in 1955 and has never flooded. We typically have a modest hurricane and emergency kit prepared during Hurricane season. During Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike, I evacuated with both my sons, while my husband stayed to prepare and salvage the house.  As Harvey moved closer, we decided that this time we would not evacuate, but would shelter in place.

You see, my 14 year old son, Vincent, who has Down syndrome, a visualVincent-and-Cristen impairment and extreme sensory issues, generally is a good traveler, but sometimes he has difficulties with transitions. As he has gotten older, he has also gotten more opinionated, making an evacuation less desirable. This time, I made sure that we had enough medications, water and food.

However, we were not prepared for the amount of rain that kept coming and coming. We lost power in the middle of the night on Saturday. Our home is located 3 blocks from Brays Bayou, and we watched the water rise, then crest, then continue to rise on our street, and then in our yard. Most of the homes in our neighborhood are one story homes, and we could see our neighbors begin to flood. The water came into our garage, and we thought it was not long before it would come into our home. We decided to evacuate our home and go to a neighbor that was higher two blocks away.

In the span of about 30 minutes with zero planning, we threw important papers, picture albums and some clothing into our attic. We scrambled to get all of Vincent’s medications, shoes with orthotics, two pairs of different prescription glasses, incontinence supplies, and two days’ worth of clothing into backpacks and garbage bags. We attempted to save his $1500 adaptive stroller by throwing it on top of our car, because we knew it would take forever to get approval for another one.

My 17 year old son Martin volunteered to carry my 80 pound son Vincent to our neighbor’s house. My husband and I carried everything else. It was a challenge to explain to Vincent, who has a cognitive disability, that we needed to put on his raincoat and walk out in the pouring rain into water that was nearly waist deep on his brother’s back. My goal was to do it in a lighthearted way, but my voice broke, and it became impossible. Tears were streaming down my face, so I was glad for the rain to camouflage this awful fear in front of my children.

As we plunged into the cold water, it was amazing how small things like the sidewalk, bricks, tree roots, curbs and other small obstacles became huge obstacles, causing Martin to stumble, trip, and nearly drop Vincent multiple times. The truth is that if they fell and he went under water, the current was so strong, I am not sure that we would have found him.  It was hard for Vincent to see out of his glasses with the rain coming down, and it must have been terrifying for him. His preferred spot in life is on the floor, as it is predictable, steady and safe.

Martin had to rest, so we got to the front porch of a house at the intersection of our street. As we rested there, we saw people chest high in water carrying their dog. We had no idea where they were trying to go, and I am not sure they did either. At that moment, we saw a kayak two houses away. My husband got their attention, and it turns out they a couple in their 70s and offered to take us one by one to our friend on the next block who was on higher ground.  It was a given that Vincent would go first, so I had to explain to him that he needed to get into a “special boat” with complete strangers to get to our friend Carolyn’s house. As we maneuvered him into the unsteady kayak, he slowly sat on the lap of a woman named Diane. I kissed him and told him that I would see him in a few minutes. I simply could not believe how strong the current was, swiftly rushing towards Brays Bayou, as the kayak had to navigate across the intersection with my most vulnerable child.  I watched helplessly and had to trust that he would be ok.

It was at that moment that I broke down and had what I imagine was a FULL ON panic attack. I was unable to breathe and nearly fell down. My sweet husband Daniel, thought I was having an asthma attack and asked where my inhaler was.  In the pouring rain, in the middle of a swift river of water I wanted to smack him for not realizing that I was having a PANIC attack, not an asthma attack.

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It seemed like FOREVER when the kayak returned reporting that they had safely deposited Vincent at our friend Carolyn’s house.  One by one the rest of us were ferried to her house, where we waited out the rest of the day and night of continuous rain and no power.

On Monday, when the water had receded enough, we returned to our house and watched the news that the forecast showed nothing but rain. Though Brays Bayou had gone down its banks a bit, with the power back on in our house, the weather reports were nothing but rain and prediction that Brays was going to crest again.  We immediately decided to evacuate a second time to another friend’s house about 2 miles north of our home. This decision was based completely on the best place for Vincent. We determined where we would go based on which friends of ours had not flooded yet, did not have a cat (allergies), and had enough room where Vincent could have his own space because of his sensory issues.

We returned to our house on Wednesday to begin the clean-up and on Saturday had to be evacuated AGAIN because of a bad gas leak in our yard.  We hadn’t even unpacked from the 2nd evacuation, so it seemed to be easier than the other two, but we as a family were nearly at a breaking point emotionally.  Vincent’s daily schedule is predictable, planned out and communicated to him to reduce his anxiety. The previous 7 days had been everything but predictable. It was emotional, stressful, unpredictable, and frustrating.  For most families dealing with this hurricane was horrific, but for our family with a child who has cognitive and sensory issues, it was tremendously difficult.  Luckily our house sustained only minor damage, but the toll it has taken on our whole family will take weeks to recover.  It has changed the way I will prepare for disasters, and it will change forever the way that we discuss it with our children.

Cristen Reat, Parent and BridgingApps Co-Founder, Easter Seals Greater Houston

As of today, thousands have been begun to receive direct client services as well as clothing, medical equipment, and assistance from Easter Seals Greater Houston. These families have been through a major trauma; please donate to help us meet their needs.If you or someone you know needs assistance, please contact us at Harvey@eastersealshouston.org. If you or your company would like to partner with Easter Seals, please contact us at Info@eastersealshouston.org.

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