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Mom upset by shelter rules for disabled son

Special storm needs — Yorelia Navas tells the Deltona City Commission about her experience trying to find shelter during Hurricane Irma for her family, which includes a teenage son who uses a ventilator. Her story illustrates the importance of planning specialized care for those who have serious medical conditions.

Special storm needs — Yorelia Navas tells the Deltona City Commission about her experience trying to find shelter during Hurricane Irma for her family, which includes a teenage son who uses a ventilator. Her story illustrates the importance of planning specialized care for those who have serious medical conditions.

BEACON PHOTO/AL EVERSON

A mother with a teenage son who has a severe disability said she encountered trouble trying to find a place for her family to weather Hurricane Irma.

“When I got to the shelter, they said they were not taking special-needs,” Yorelia Navas told The Beacon.

As Irma approached, Navas said, she contacted Volusia County Emergency Management about a place to evacuate with her family.

The 13-year-old boy suffers from a muscular disorder and requires a ventilator. Navas said she was told she could go to Deltona’s Heritage Middle School, a special-needs shelter.

However, arriving at the school at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 9, Navas said she was not welcomed.

“They first said no. They said they were not taking special-needs,” she said.

“Special needs,” according to Volusia County Health Department Communications Manager Holly Smith, does not include patients who require round-the-clock care with medical equipment such as ventilators, which the shelter staff may not be equipped to manage.

“The special-needs shelters are not places for ventilators. That’s a special level of care,” Smith said.

Navas said she is a certified nursing assistant, and both she and her husband know how to work with ventilators and related medical equipment.

“I was not asking them to take care of my son. I was asking for a place for my family. We take care of our little guy,” Navas added.

In any case, according to Navas, a verbal battle ensued at the school, and she was told she and her son could shelter there, but not with the rest of her family.

“What about my husband and daughter? None of the nurses there was ventilator-trained. I need my husband to provide a backup,” Navas said. “They said, ‘Heritage will take you and your son. You will be in a corner, and your husband will be somewhere in the building.’”

Smith of the Health Department said the space allotted for special-needs patients is constrained.

“Sixty square feet per person with special needs,” she said. “Everything and anything they have with them must fit within that 60 square feet.”

Furthermore, she said, a public storm shelter may be fraught with other conditions that may not make it the best place for a family with a person requiring total care.

“Whenever you’re in a shelter, you’re in a room full of people with all types of problems,” Smith said. “It’s a noisy place. Some are coughing. Some are having trouble getting around.”

Smith also noted the Navas family was not preregistered as a special-needs family.

“Advanced application to the special-needs registry is the best thing for someone to do,” Smith said. “If they exceed the capability of our [special needs shelters], we will let them know and then help them to navigate the system.”

Smith explained, “We don’t want to leave them out in the cold,” noting Navas was not turned away from Heritage.

Navas, however, said insisting the family be separated was, in effect, turning them away.

“I was fighting with them for not having a backup. After I got into a big fight that lasted two hours, they found another shelter in Daytona,” Navas recalled. “What I went through — that’s not fair.”

Rather than continue to fight, as Hurricane Irma moved closer to Florida, Navas said she decided to take her son and the rest of her family to Nemours Children’s Hospital at Lake Nona in Orlando.

“We got to Nemours at 5 p.m. Saturday and left Monday,” she said.

Smith commended Navas for evacuating to Orlando.

“That’s a good decision, because Nemours provides for special needs,” she said.

When the Navas family returned to Deltona, Navas said, they discovered their home had not lost electric power. The fear of losing power was what had sent them seeking shelter elsewhere.

“The battery in his ventilator can last six hours. Being able to charge the battery was my biggest concern,” she said. “We kept the power. My kids did not realize there was a hurricane. I was just so happy and blessed. After everything that happened Saturday, I felt blessed by God.”

Both Navas and Smith agreed there is a need for advance planning and preparation for caring for people who cannot care for themselves, in the event of a storm.

“I just hope this will help people with special needs,” Navas said.

- Al Everson, al@beacononlinenews.com


“The special-needs shelters are not places for ventilators. That’s a special level of care.”

 — Holly Smith, communications manager for the Volusia County Health Department

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