To get a better sense of how Hurricane Maria impacted wheelchair users and people with disabilities in Puerto Rico, we spoke with Gretchelle Dilan, the founder of United Spinal’s Puerto Rico chapter. When we spoke in December, over three months after the hurricane hit, Dilan had to drive over an hour from her home just to get stable cell phone reception. A lifelong resident of Puerto Rico and a wheelchair user for the past five years, Dilan says she had never seen anything like Maria:
Every time hurricane season came and people predicted the worst, we thought, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ Forecasters always announce something, but nothing bad happens. But this time something that we could never have imagined happened. It was unmanageable: bad, bad, bad.
For over a month after the hurricane we didn’t have any way to communicate off the island and we didn’t have access to food and water. All we had was junk food and canned food. Even now, months later, I think only 40-50 percent of people have power and maybe 60 percent have water. Imagine trying to take a shower with just a gallon of water — that’s hard for anyone, but especially for wheelchair users.
For the members of our chapter who need attendants and medical or government services, for the first month there were almost no options. All they had was friends and family. Many people who needed help were forced to just lie in their houses, developing pressure sores and other problems. They had no way to get good food because they had no one to get them up and take them places.
If you didn’t have enough medical supplies on hand, there was no easy way to get more. We had to share our catheters amongst each other.
With no electricity, power wheelchair users often had no way to recharge their chairs. Some businesses and people with generators let others charge their chairs, but thing is, many people didn’t have a car to take their wheelchairs to the generator. And many more people simply didn’t have any gas to drive their cars. If you didn’t have gas to take your wheelchair to a place where there was a generator, it was very difficult for you to go anywhere. It got so bad that people were trading supplies for access to generators.
Even today, we still don’t have a consistent means of communication. Most of the radio and cell antennas were blown over or damaged. We just got power back a week ago where I live — it had been over 90 days! Thanks to United Spinal, our chapter got a number of power inverters so members could use car batteries to recharge their chairs and electrical stuff. Our members also have applied for grants from United Spinal to help get them pay for the many costs they’ve incurred.
The whole experience has reinforced the need to be prepared. We need to think three to four months in advance, in terms of food and medical supplies. And manual chairs are a must — even if you don’t normally use them — because you can’t know how long you’ll be without power.”