Wheelchair users in Miami most affected by climate change and rising sea levels

Yoberly “Lilly” Zambrano and Daniel Samano crossed the finish line of the Mercedes-Benz Corporate Run on September 23, 2021, and although they were exhausted after completing the 3.1 mile race in downtown Miami, they had to keep going.

It had started to rain, which can be a nuisance for able-bodied Miami residents, but for Zambrano, who suffers from quadriplegia, precipitation, which is frequently followed by flooding, is more complicated than soggy sneakers.

Samano, who trains with Zambrano and helps push his manual wheelchair during races, is also the Clinical Research Coordinator at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami (UM) and studies the effect of weather events. extremes on the health care of vulnerable communities, such as people with spinal cord injuries.

They both knew that the rain would not only soak the fabric cushion of Zambrano’s wheelchair, could rust its casters, but in just a few minutes sidewalks and streets could be inundated, wedging her for hours until as the water recedes. More importantly, people with spinal cord injuries find it difficult to thermoregulate, so even though the low that night was 77 degrees Fahrenheit, getting wet puts Zambrano at risk for hypothermia.

“Sometimes the conditions outside are harsher than the injury itself,” Zambrano explains. New times. “More than four times [Samano and I] Had to wait in restaurants during our shopping until the flooding stopped and drained. That’s a lot of water. ”

That evening, the pair acted quickly, covering Zambrano in a waterproof jacket and taking the Metromover into downtown Brickell until the rain stopped and the waters receded. This time it only took about 45 minutes. But other times, in weekly workouts at Brickell, they spent more than two hours locked in restaurants waiting for the water to drop so Zambrano could safely cross the sidewalks to his apartment. neighbor.

“The main streets of Brickell, and especially Brickell Avenue, are horrible,” Zambrano says. “The water is rising over the sidewalks, and I’m stuck.”

Over the next 80 years, sea level is should increase between two and six feet. That’s about an eighth of an inch every year, which may not seem like much, but for people in wheelchairs, a few inches of water is enough to derail an entire day. Although many people in wheelchairs come to South Florida for the hot weather, flat terrain, and access to health facilities, they report the rainy season and the annual high tides – when water levels are high. water rise up to one meter during the full autumnal season – moons are particularly difficult for them.

“I’ve been in Miami for 22 years and I never remember how bad it was,” says Tatiana Ribeiro, who suffers from paraplegia. “I am in a better position than someone in an electric vehicle [power] chair, but if the water only rises five inches, there’s no way – the [push rim] handles [of the manual wheelchair] become slippery and you don’t have control. ”

Ribeiro and her husband, who also uses a wheelchair, renovate an apartment they bought in Edgewater. They loved being near Margaret Pace Park and Biscayne Bay, but her experience with flooding in the neighborhood makes her reconsider.

On a rainy August afternoon, Ribeiro was driving down their flooded street and the water was so high it got into the van, splashing under their feet and flooding the hydraulic ramp in the floor that allows them to get out of the van. vehicle.

“It was terrible,” says Ribeiro. “We needed a boat, not a car.

It took him hours to dry the van, painfully wringing out the towels over and over again. But more than anything, she was relieved that the van hadn’t got stuck in the middle of the flooded street.

“If the car crashes it’s much more dangerous and more difficult because we can’t just get out of the car,” said Ribeiro. Flooding, she says, can lead to a situation where “I’m in the car, but I can’t leave it. I learned the lesson that if I see rain, I can’t go out.

Zambrano’s running partner UM researcher Samano has been studying the effects of extreme weather events on vulnerable communities since 2017. More than the other groups he’s studied, Samano says, people with spinal cord injuries spinal cord are the least reliable when it comes to showing up to clinic appointments.

“The caregivers have to prepare them, help them brush their teeth, transfer them to their chairs, then they rely on [Miami-Dade County Special Transportation Service] STS, it takes a long time and it can take four to six hours to get to an appointment, “he explains.”

Based on his research, Samano knows that these extreme weather events are likely to get worse.

“These random weather events are happening gradually, bit by bit, more and more frequently. It’s so subtle that we might not realize how often they are happening. But above all, the burden that people face. with spinal cord injuries face, this is just one more limitation, ”he said. said. “As extreme weather events continue to be more frequent, we need to find resilient ways in health care and in the community to provide them with better services. ”

Click to enlarge Anson James (left) and Tatiana Ribeiro - COURTESY OF MIAMI PROJECT TO CURE PARALYSIS

Anson James (left) and Tatiana Ribeiro

Courtesy of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis

Anson James, who suffers from paraplegia, will not leave his apartment if it rains.

“While you can jump over a puddle or walk around it in the grass, we can’t,” said James. “I cancel all my plans when I know it’s going to rain. ”

James tries to stay active, but he says several times a year that he has to cancel events due to rain and flooding. Sometimes he gets out in his van and if he can’t find a dry parking space, he turns around and goes home.

“Two years ago a whole bunch of us went to dinner [in South Beach], and I was the only one in a wheelchair, and the whole parking lot was underwater, ”recalls James. “I wasn’t going to try to go through this. So I just went home. It wasn’t worth it. ”

If the water is higher than the three-inch casters on the front of his chair, James is not likely to cross it. He heard horror stories from friends that he had been swept off their chairs.

“If you roll in the water and you don’t know how deep it is or if there’s a pothole, you can slide out of your chair,” he says. “I heard it coming.”

In addition, cross slopes on sidewalks and building access and exit ramps become slippery when wet.

“If my chair is wet, it can make the ramp very slippery, and I have to slide and slide to get inside,” James says. “I’m used to it, so I’m not scared or scared and I keep pushing and maneuvering.”

“While you can jump over a puddle or walk around it in the grass, we can’t. “

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Manual wheelchairs cost over $ 3,000, while power chairs can cost over $ 20,000. Water can corrode and rust various parts, and repairs can be expensive and, since they require specialized mechanics, can take days or weeks to plan. For example, Zambrano’s padded chair cushion, designed to prevent pressure sores, costs over $ 600. If the cushion gets wet, Zambrano cannot use her chair until it dries, leaving her essentially bedridden.

Zambrano uses the manual wheelchair around her house as it is more compact for getting around the house (and when training with Samano). But when she goes out alone, she opts for the electric chair equipped with a joystick.

Until it starts to rain.

“I’m more afraid of flooding with the wheelchair because of the cables, motor and batteries underneath,” she explains. “I can’t hold an umbrella, and a poncho will fly in the wind.”

Instead, Zambrano keeps a thick waterproof jacket over her knees which she pulls on the screen and joystick when it rains. This protects some of the electrical equipment but leaves it soaked.

Earlier this year, Zambrano started working part-time in Midtown. If it rains, she must travel three blocks away to a Miami-Dade Transit metrobus stop that is not flooded. If the bus stop doesn’t have a covered enclosure, there isn’t much she can do to stay dry while she waits for the bus. Once inside the bus, the air conditioning worsens his already increased risk of hypothermia.

“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “Once I was [so soaked], I had water leaks all over the bus and I was almost shaking. I was so cold that I had to call my mom and tell her to come home right away and get the tub ready for my arrival. It took two hours to stop being cold. ”

After getting stuck in the rain several times while on the move, Zambrano had to quit her job at a company that oversaw Airbnb rentals, even though she enjoyed the work.

“I quit my job because it was the rainy season and I was so exhausted from getting wet all the time.”

That didn’t stop her from chasing her next big run: the 26.2-mile Miami Marathon in February.

In addition to the weekly runs from Zambrano and Samano to Brickell, they will begin to incorporate longer weekend runs along the Venetian Causeway.

His favorite part is when they step down onto the bridges, and Samano takes his hand slightly away from his wheelchair.

“Daniel says, ‘Fly, Lilly, fly’, and I open my arms and go so fast,” she said. “It’s like being on a roller coaster.”

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