With a background in health education and as a Health Promotion volunteer clinical director with the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes program, Dr. Brian F. Geiger has extensive experience working with people with intellectual disabilities. But when the most devastating tornado-laced storm in decades struck Alabama on April 27, he took a real-life crash course in disaster relief.
He and all eight members of this team from the Univ. of Alabama Birmingham pitched in to help – delivering two truckloads of basic supplies to shelters, volunteering in a special needs shelter, and responding to requests for other necessities such as medical equipment and medications.
“Everyone felt individually compelled and felt that this was something they had to do,” he said.
The impact of the storm in Alabama has been immense – 250 killed, 1600 needed medical attention, $45 million in federal disaster assistance, and over $4 billion in losses reported to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and private insurance companies. Yet, the response from people like Dr. Geiger has also been immense. Within hours of the storm, social media sites were up and coordinating the search for loved ones and supplies, and within a couple of days, an entire network was established for relief efforts aimed at people with disabilities spearheaded by the Independent Living Resources of Greater Birmingham, the Red Cross and FEMA. The group consisted of a hodge-podge of organizations including county health departments, non-profit groups, and others.
In addition to helping physically getting supplies from donors to the shelters where they were needed most, Dr. Geiger helped coordinate other efforts. Daily conference calls among members of this newly formed network identified needs, sources of supplies, and ways to deliver goods. Additionally, the group identified other resources that were available to people with disabilities, updated the list daily and disseminated it online, through the media, and by hard-copy flyers distributed at shelters, food assistance organizations, the Salvation Army, and others.
Efforts were most often coordinated by personal connections – someone on the daily call would have a former co-worker in a community or a family member in another community.
“It was mostly a spontaneous reaction of people similarly inclined to help out,” Dr. Geiger said. “People have been very eager to work together and cooperate. One of the interesting things is that it was the first time many of these agencies or organizations were talking to each other. That is something that will hopefully continue.”
Dr. Geiger is hopeful that other positive outcomes with arise out of the storm’s tragedy.
“FEMA, Red Cross, and others are identifying many people with disabilities who may need further follow-up care. We hope this information will be shared with local agencies,” he said.
If so, the storm may ironically lead to improved services for people with disabilities across the state.