ST CROIX, V.I. -- Like most Virgin Islanders, J.C. worries about hurricanes and has felt the devastating effects of these powerful storms more than once. Until now though, worry was all she could do, because like many of the hundreds of deaf residents of the Virgin Islands, she has had difficulty adequately preparing for and recovering from these disasters.
Tonight though, J.C. and a dozen other deaf Cruzans sit in the tiny, donated office space of the Deaf Coalition of St. Croix while FEMA Community Relations Field Officers describe disaster recovery programs with the assistance of Sign Language Interpreter Myrelis Aponte.
Aponte, a FEMA disaster reservist from Puerto Rico and graduate student at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., was called in after a deaf woman came to the Disaster Recovery Center in Christiansted and could not communicate with the staff.
"They tried, but nobody at the Recovery Center could help her," said Aponte. "And, it is not just a matter of knowing sign language. It takes years of training to become an interpreter who can work with a group like this, and it takes an understanding of the deaf culture to be effective."
On this night, the focus of the presentation is on Individual Assistance programs and the Teleregistration process.
Through Aponte, J.C. tells how her TTY telephone was damaged during Hurricane Georges last year. She had no idea that FEMA-sponsored programs could have helped her to replace it. And Martin, also at the meeting, finds out that he may now be eligible for assistance to repair his car that was struck by a fallen tree when Hurricane Lenny passed through last month.
"Direct outreach to the deaf community is critical," says Aponte. "TTY phones are important, but not a total solution."
Ester Perez-Johnson, the director of the Deaf Coalition agrees. "Many of the deaf here also have limited reading and writing skills or cannot afford a TTY phone. Teleregistration can be an intimidating process without additional assistance."
Aponte adds, "This kind of personal attention is necessary to make FEMA programs accessible to the deaf, and the same approach can be extended to other special needs groups."
"We have needed help for so long and finally you are here. This is the first time, and we are so thankful," says Perez-Johnson on behalf of the group, signing the words as she speaks. As she finished, everyone threw their hands up in the air and waved them in the deaf community's version of applause.
After the meeting, several members of the group made plans to visit the Recovery Center to Teleregister on the newly-installed TTY phone with the assistance of a FEMA representative. "This is a good night for FEMA," says Aponte, "and a good start for the deaf community on St. Croix."