Among the many buildings destroyed in Northern California wildfires this week, was a nonprofit private school that serves 125 students who have autism.
Anova school — located in Santa Rosa, Calif., inside the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts — serves students age 5 to 22 who have been diagnosed "with high functioning autism, social and emotional challenges, learning differences, and other neurodevelopmental impairments," according to the school website.
Fortunately, so far, there have been no reports of injuries to school staff, or to students or their families, says Andrew Bailey, founder and CEO of Anova. But some have lost their homes.
"We are strong people and we will survive this fire," Bailey says. Already, local school districts have been reaching out with offers to loan space until Anova can rebuild.
Yet even as he and his staff assess the physical damage to their school, Bailey has something else on his mind: The emotional needs of his students. Big changes — like a disaster — can be especially hard on some people on the autism spectrum, he says.
"We have students who experience anxiety and depression occasionally — sometimes fairly regularly — even without a fire event such as this," Bailey says. "So those types of students will have a real problem with losing their school."
Bailey is organizing a meeting with families and staff to go over how to support and talk to the students during these times.
"[We] make sure we keep this simple," he says, "and not explain a whole lot to these kids other than, 'This is a dangerous situation; but life is full of danger and your family is here.' "
Baily says his approach in these discussions is about respecting the students' routines; that can be particularly important to people on the spectrum.
Fortunately, Anova has strong community support, Bailey says. The school serves more than 200 students from around the Bay Area at two locations — Santa Rosa and Concord, Calif.
But what about other fire-affected people who have developmental or physical challenges and who lack a strong support network?
That's a question Richard Ruge thinks about a lot. He leads a volunteer group of county employees and others in Sonoma County called "Disaster Preparedness for Vulnerable Populations," which helps educate the public — especially the elderly and people with disabilities — about the importance of preparing themselves for disasters.
The group has assembled a collection of disaster planning tools aimed at agencies that provide care for people who are medically frail, or have physical, mental or developmental disabilities. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency has its own guide. Any of these lists can be handy mental prods for anyone with special needs, who may one day have to evacuate a home or workplace fast.
For example, having an evacuation plan, and keeping shoes, gloves and flashlights near the bed is important for everyone, Ruge says, but people with disabilities need to go beyond that. Someone who uses a ventilator, for example, should tape written directions on how they need to be evacuated on the machine, or their wheelchair. And keep extra batteries for your cochlear implant or hearing aid in your go bag, along with at least a few days or a week's worth of any medications you use regularly.
Building a community network of nearby friends and neighbors is crucial.
"Some people are on dialysis, some people have oxygen tanks and things like that," Ruge says — conditions that require extra time or consideration in an emergency evacuation. "So they really need to work with their neighbors, and let everyone know what needs to happen if a disaster were to strike."
The National Council on Disability, an independent agency, advises FEMA, Congress and other elected leaders, among other things, the special needs of people with disabilities during disasters.
"In 2005, we wrote our first report with recommendations for policymakers that used a hypothetical scenario of a major hurricane striking the Gulf Coast," says Amy Nicholas, attorney advisor with the Council. "Hurricane Katrina struck four months later. It was like the report was prescient."
Nicholas herself uses a power wheelchair, and says she and her team take their work personally.
"People with disabilities will always be the canaries in the coal mines," she says. "In some ways, if you focus on improving our outcomes, everyone else's outcomes are sure to improve, too."
This week Sonoma county has asked Ruge to prepare a list of groups serving vulnerable people – local groups that might be tapped for help during evacuations.
But there's not yet a local system in place, he says, to keep track of people with special needs during the current fire emergency.
Ruge worries that many of the hundreds of people who are still unaccounted for in the fire area could be these vulnerable people he's tried to serve.
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