Hubert Fairweather knows what a hurricane can do. Four years ago, Hurricane Iris crashed through his hometown in Belize with winds that could hit a man like a speeding bus. Waves rolled right across the sleepy fishing village. The only buildings left standing were the ones made of concrete.
So when his organization mobilized to help a New Orleans center for the disabled, Fairweather rushed to volunteer. “It’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “We’re going to help some people.”
On Wednesday, Fairweather set out from Fort Totten, in Bayside, at the wheel of a handicap-accessible bus, part of a two-vehicle convoy sent by the United Spinal Association to deliver $50,000 worth of wheelchairs, canes and other supplies to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
“Most of us take it for granted that we can get around,” he said. “These guys are depending on us for their mobility.”
The association, a national non-profit disability rights organization based in Jackson Heights, is sending the bus and a box truck to ferry the supplies to Baton Rouge. Accompanying Fairweather, who is a wheelchair technician, are a driver and an orthotist, a specialist in the use of mechanical devices to support weakened limbs. An estimated 75 people will be helped.
Other supplies include a mile-and-a-half of duct tape and towels, which will be used in lieu of customized supports to help hold the patients in their wheelchairs. The bus will be donated to New Orleans Resources for Independent Living, a group that provides care and transportation to people with disabilities in Southern Louisiana.
“The people who are going to be receiving these donations truly need it,” Yovanka Archaga, director of the New Orleans group, said in a statement issued to the media. “Our consumers have lost so much…Hospitals are overloaded and it’s amazing how much we have taken for granted. Consumers’ medical needs are just another luxury that has been taken away.”
Archaga added that all her staff and clients are accounted for. Despite being under two or three feet of water, the organization’s computer equipment now functions normally. “That just tells me that God is saying that Yovanka has to keep going…that tells you we are doing something good.”
More than 155,000 people with disabilities live in the area affected by Hurricane Katrina. According to United Spinal Association, all wheelchair accessible transportation and housing in cities such as New Orleans, Biloxi, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama was destroyed.
Officials at the association worry the needs of disabled persons and those who cannot walk without assistance are being neglected due to a lack of supplies, shortage of professional caregivers and unsanitary conditions. Infections, pressure sores, dehydration and malnutrition are particular concerns. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve heard the horror stories yet,” said Paul Tobin, the association’s deputy executive director, who himself has needed a wheelchair since a spinal cord injury in 1993.
Watching as news crews took pictures of his bus and interviewed United Spinal executives at a press conference held in Fort Totten to publicize the effort, Fairweather said he was looking forward to the journey. “It’s a nice day. It’s going to be a nice trip.”
United Spinal Association is located at 75-20 Astoria Boulevard in Jackson Heights. For more information or to make a donation, visit the web site at www.unitedspinal.org or call 800-404-2898.