“I looked at what these people had to endure in the shelters, and I know I couldn’t have done it,” Troupe says. “I saw the cots on the floor and I knew I couldn’t get down there out of my wheelchair. And if I did, I couldn’t get back up.”
Mary Troupe, Executive Director of Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities
Mary’s Story The day of Hurricane Katrina, trees were down and the power was out. Mary Troupe, Executive Director of the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, had long been concerned about the lack of emergency preparedness on the state’s part, particularly when it came to the needs of people with disabilities—people like herself.
Troupe first became involved with the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities as a volunteer, back when her kids were first leaving home. She eventually became a board member, then the board president, and finally stepped in to become the organization’s executive director. Founded in 1989, the Coalition is a disability rights organization comprised of Mississippians with disabilities, their families, and organizations that advocate for people with disabilities. The group’s mission is to expand opportunities and enhance the quality of life for children, adolescents and adults with disabilities, as well as their families, and to empower them to reach their full potential in every aspect of their lives.
After the storm had passed, Troupe called her staff of 5 together, ascertained that everyone was ok, and then sent them out to the shelters to do some reconnaissance. What they found was that Jackson’s population had doubled in 24 hours, able bodied and disabled alike. And Troupe’s initial hunch had been correct: the State of Mississippi was woefully unprepared to deal with the special needs of its disabled population.
Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities: Intervening after the storm Coalition staff, led by outreach coordinator, Clyde Monroe, who is legally blind, realized immediately that the shelters were not equipped for people with disabilities. In fact, there were no shelters at all for people with special needs, and they were being turned away from regular shelters “for safety purposes.” Many people were forced to evacuate with their families, yet no shelter had been set up that could accommodate someone with a disability and their family. So the First Baptist Church of Jackson became a special needs shelter. Troupe says, “They housed nearly 60 people with significant health challenges and they were wonderful.”
Once the immediate needs for shelter were met, Troupe and her staff began working to get ADA accessible trailers from FEMA. “People couldn’t get their wheelchairs into the bathrooms of FEMA trailers,” said Troupe. “There were no ramps. FEMA expected mothers to pick up their disabled children and carry them to the bathroom.”
Mental health issues were equally challenging. People quickly ran out of medication and had difficulty negotiating the chaos. Troupe helped arrange for families with children with autism to go to a camp in North Mississippi as the commotion of the shelters was too much for these kids. One four-year-old child, Troupe said, tried to commit suicide. “She lost everything to the water, so she tried to drown herself, to go back to the water.”
Since the hurricane hit at the end of the month, many people were out of money (disability checks arrive the 3rd of the month) and low on medication. The Coalition office became a de facto “post office” so that people had an address to receive their disability checks. Disabled adults and children were forced to wait in endless lines for ice until one woman collapsed in front of a Red Cross worker; then the system became more flexible.
Transportation was a challenge; in the evenings there is no accessible transportation at all in Jackson. Troupe and her staff waited in long lines to fill their own cars with gas; they took people everywhere. For people who where not mobile, they took people’s identification and stood in lines on their behalf—for ice, medication, and funds from the Red Cross and FEMA. People with homes also needed assistance; food was rotting in their refrigerators. Volunteers cleaned refrigerators and delivered fresh food. The lines were endless and the need was endless. In the first 11 days after Katrina, the Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities aided 350 people.
Since then, Mary Troupe’s organization has cared for more than 500 disabled survivors of Hurricane Katrina, from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. She’s thought a lot about what she would have done – or not been able to do – if she had been in their positions. “I looked at what these people had to endure in the shelters, and I know I couldn’t have done it,” Troupe says. “I saw the cots on the floor and I knew I couldn’t get down there out of my wheelchair. And if I did, I couldn’t get back up.”
Life post-Katrina: The challenges one year later One year after the storm, Troupe and her staff are still getting calls and people are still filtering in who haven’t received services. People with mental illnesses are suffering, FEMA is impatient and many people, even Troupe’s tenacious staff, are hung up on. There has been a 200% increase in the suicide rate in Jackson County alone.
The situation with Mississippi’s Medicaid system is not helping matters, either. Pre-Katrina, problems were already rampant: there had been significant cuts, with 65,000 people losing prescription drug and transportation benefits. After the storm, displaced people found that Mississippi is a state that doesn’t recognize other state’s Medicaid. Troupe went to DC to begin to change this. Troupe finds that “by the time people get to us they are frustrated and depressed. You cannot do this work behind your desk. You have to go out, knock on doors, and find out what is really happening.”
The majority of people served by the Coalition are on fixed incomes. Housing is still a crisis: rents are high and there is little subsidized, accessible housing. There is a great need for funds to re-hab destroyed rental property so that people can move back to their own communities. There is also a need for counselors, especially in trailer parks; people need to be able to talk about how their lives have been turned upside down. The next crisis is that the 18 month “lease” on FEMA trailers will be up in February, leaving many people wondering where they will go next. And one year later, emergency preparedness still does not have a coordinated plan for people with disabilities. Monroe notes: “The mindset is still that this is a group of folks that are a problem.”
One important part of the Coalition’s work is providing education for the disabled and their families. Many do not know their rights. “Women with disabilities who are raising children hear ‘no’ from so many people that they learn to make do. They learn to cope. This was even more apparent after Katrina,” Troupe relates. She tries to make that coping easier in many ways, including creating Emergency Preparedness Kits, with flashlights, radios, candles and food. These were delivered just after the hurricane, and will be again this September, for Emergency Preparedness Month. “In a crisis,” Troupe says, “sometimes people forget about the people who need help the most.”
Troupe is proud of the effective response by the Coalition staff and volunteers, but distressed that her state was not more cohesive and caring. “There was not a sense of community with the state. It was ‘Down there and up here’ – ‘Those folks just have to move away from the coast.’ And, one year later, on the Gulf Coast, debris has been removed, but the re-building is slow. It appears to be dragging.”
The Coalition still is operating on bare-bones funding. The 6 lower counties want to partner with them and gave them office space, but they have no funds for gas to get back and forth. Troupe comments that, “If it were not for the grassroots groups we would be in trouble.” She continues, “The Ms. Foundation has been a part of bringing together some of the best groups and we have worked together effectively—some for the first time.”
Finally, Troupe and Monroe note, “There is Katrina Fatigue – even with some organizations, they’re saying, ‘It’s been a year, we should be done with this.’”
A very personal vantage point “Having a disability gives me a different viewpoint,” Troupe observes. “It is monumental [that] after all these years, people with disabilities are still a forgotten problem and a problem population.” She adds, “My hope is that if anything comes out of this catastrophe there would be more understanding of the needs of the total population – but it doesn’t seem to be happening,”
Troupe’s colleague Clyde Monroe notes, “People with disabilities are so quietly accepting of less. I am a taxpayer with a disability—we need to have a voice and that voice needs to be strong. People with disabilities take less; they feel they can’t ask and settle for less.”
As an African American man, Monroe is distressed that the majority of African American women who they see don’t know their rights. To help change that, he has forged a partnership with a shelter for homeless women called Matt’s House. Monroe finds that because of their own situations, many of these women have compassion and work well with the disabled population. He has found them jobs, and involves them as volunteers.
The other challenge that has always concerned him and Troupe is Mississippi’s tendency to over-identify African American children for special education.
“We worry about the people all the time. Many of the people, the women, have disappeared on us,” both Troupe and Monroe conclude.
The Ms. Foundation’s role The grant from the Ms. Foundation will be used to expand the opportunities for disabled individuals in the Gulf region and to create a program called AND: “Accessing Ability NOT Disability.” This program will assist individuals and family members in Mississippi with community outreach—specifically housing, education and benefits issues. Funding will also be used to expand the Coalition’s “Pathways” program in Jackson, MS, which trains individuals on advocacy initiatives and helps them maintain contact with legislators, so that they can better participate in the rebuilding process.