IM this article to a friend!

September 11, 2005

NTID, others aiding deaf storm victims

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, NY - Sep 11, 2005

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(September 11, 2005) — BATON ROUGE, La. — Hurricane Katrina devastated lives across the Gulf Coast, but the loss of electricity and telephones made a dangerous situation even worse for deaf storm victims who had no way to communicate with the outside world.

In a society in which e-mail, cell phones and text messages are commonplace, finding alternative ways to communicate was challenging during the storm and its aftermath.

Two elderly brothers who are deaf and blind — and were apparently oblivious to Katrina's danger — rode out the storm in their New Orleans house.

"They came out after the storm subsided and found out their neighborhood was empty," said Luther "Bill" Prickett, superintendent of the Louisiana School for the Deaf. The brothers found a stranger who helped them get to the school in Baton Rouge, which provided them shelter until they could find another place to stay.

Similar accounts are sure to come from many of the estimated 9,000 deaf residents of Louisiana.

Jalessa Smith, 16, of New Orleans, needed a boat, helicopter, airplane and bus to get to a shelter. She ended up in San Antonio and didn't even know where she was until she got off the bus.

In New Orleans, she was in floodwaters so deep she had to climb on a friend's shoulders. She still doesn't know where that friend — or her own father — is now.

"I don't have any way to contact them," said Smith, who is back at her school in Baton Rouge. She knows her mother, also deaf, is safe, "somewhere" in Houston.

Help from colleges

Two major colleges for the deaf, Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, have offered to admit deaf students who otherwise would be unable to continue their education because of Katrina.

"We are opening our campus and our hearts to those who are experiencing this devastation and helping them move on with their lives as quickly as possible," said Alan Hurwitz, dean of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and vice president of Rochester Institute of Technology.

A coalition forms

A coalition of churches, associations of the deaf and government agencies are attempting to serve as a clearinghouse based at the Catholic Deaf Center in Baton Rouge to address the needs of the deaf. That includes making sure there are qualified interpreters in shelters.

That could be a challenge, since there are only 70 sign language interpreters in the state, according to Fred Roy, executive director of the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf.

"We have calls for interpreters to come from out of state, but so far, we're meeting the needs," Roy said.

Many misunderstandings

Miscommunication is a common problem. At one Louisiana shelter, a deaf man attempted to ask a volunteer where he could go to the bathroom. He held his hand in front of his pelvis, and the volunteer thought he was being sexually aggressive.

Theresa Vaughn, a volunteer interpreter in Houston, said 20 to 30 deaf evacuees were bused to Houston's Astrodome.

"A lot of them discovered the hard way if you had any sort of disabilities, you were targeted by thugs," she said. "They learned to hang low."

Eventually, another volunteer wrote "DEAF" on a cardboard sign and walked around the Astrodome.

"Everybody came to him; he was like the Pied Piper," Vaughn said.

Staff writer Greg Livadas is on assignment in the Gulf Coast with Gannett News Service.

How you can help
To help deaf storm victims pay for clothing, medication, transportation and other needs, send checks to the Louisiana School for the Deaf, Attention: Bill Prickett, at P.O. Box 3074, Baton Rouge, La. 70821.

Copyright © 2005 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle