by Alex Wegman: For Complete Post, Click Here…
I’ve always understood that access and independence are fluid and mean different things for different people. What’s modified for my access might create barriers for another person, and what works for me in one environment or situation might not in another. I see it play out in my everyday life all the time. For example, the ramps on my house. I can’t get into my front door without them when I’m using my chair, but they’re significantly more difficult for me to use on foot than the single step down would be. Last year, I experienced the give and take of various kinds of access in a context I never had before: Natural disaster.
On August 18, 2020, my family left for our first overnight away from home since that March, when the shelter in place orders were issued. We planned a two-night camping trip with our pandemic pod and drove four and a half hours into the Sierra National Forest, to Hume Lake, in our new-to-us, not yet converted Sprinter campervan-to-be. I use a wheelchair and Smart Drive pretty much full time, but was prepared to take only my big, heavy hiking chair, knowing I probably wouldn’t use my everyday chair at the campground. At the last second, my husband threw it in the van because we had extra room. With no cell service to speak of, we cooked, swam, kayaked, and basked in the change of scenery. I had a writing deadline, so the afternoon after we arrived, we drove to a camp across the lake rumored to sell access to wifi. We planned to connect so I could send my email, check out that side of the lake, and then head back to make dinner.
Blissfully unaware of the news I’d receive an hour later
The second I connected, my phone buzzed with what felt like a zillion ominous, vague texts.
“Are you okay? We’re worried.”
“Alex, I’m so sorry, please let us know if you need anything.”
It took a few minutes to parse it all, but eventually we figured out there was a wildfire raging where we lived and the whole town had been evacuated with an hour’s notice about twelve hours after we left to camp. There was no official information to be found; save for the daily press conference given by the fire and sheriff’s departments, local news, neighborhood Facebook groups, and group texts with neighbors, with all their uncertainty, speculation, and contradictions, were the closest we could get to eyes on the ground. In those first 72 hours, we were glued to our phones and saw everything from (incorrect) news that our entire neighborhood was leveled to images of dozens of fire trucks lining our little downtown main street. I always assumed there were official channels for disaster communication, but I was very wrong.