Climate Change Is Already Affecting Miami’s Disabled Residents

Daniel Samano and Yoberly "Lilly" Zambrano on the Venetian Causeway
Courtesy of Yoberly Zambrano
Daniel Samano and Yoberly "Lilly" Zambrano on the Venetian Causeway
Yoberly "Lilly" Zambrano and Daniel Samano crossed the Mercedes-Benz Corporate Run finish line on September 23, 2021 and, even though they were exhausted after completing the 3.1-mile race through downtown Miami, they had to keep going.

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

Samano, who trains with Zambrano and helps push her manual wheelchair during runs, is also a clinical research coordinator at the University of Miami (UM) Miller School of Medicine and studies the effect of extreme weather events on healthcare with vulnerable communities, such as people with spinal-cord injuries.

They both knew the rain would not only soak Zambrano’s fabric wheelchair cushion, potentially rust her caster wheels, but in just a few minutes the sidewalks and streets could flood, stranding her for hours until the water receded. More important, people with spinal-cord injuries have trouble thermoregulating, so even though the low that evening was 77 degrees Fahrenheit, getting wet puts Zambrano at risk of hypothermia.

"Sometimes the conditions outside are harder than the injury itself," Zambrano tells New Times. "More than four times [Samano and I] have had to wait at restaurants during our runs until the flooding stops and drains. It’s a lot of water."

That evening, the pair acted fast, covering Zambrano in a waterproof jacket and taking the Metromover to Brickell City Centre until the rain stopped and waters receded. This time, it only took 45 minutes or so. But other times, during weekly training sessions in Brickell, they’ve spent more than two hours cooped up at restaurants waiting for the water to go down so Zambrano could safely traverse the sidewalks to get to her nearby apartment.

"The main streets in Brickell, and especially Brickell Avenue, are awful," Zambrano says. "The water rises above the sidewalks, and I’m stuck."
Over the next 80 years, sea levels are expected to rise between two to six feet. That’s roughly an eighth of an inch each year, which might not seem like much, but for people in wheelchairs a couple of inches of water is enough to derail an entire day. Though many people who are wheelchair-bound come to South Florida for the warm weather, flat terrain, and access to healthcare facilities, they report that the rainy season and annual king tides — when water levels rise as much as three feet during the autumnal full moons — are especially difficult for them.

"I’ve been in Miami for 22 years and I never remember it being so bad," says Tatiana Ribeiro, who has paraplegia. "I’m in a better position than someone in an electric [power] chair, but if the water goes up just five inches there’s no way — the [push rim] handles [of the manual wheelchair] get slippery and you don’t have control."

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

On a rainy August afternoon, Ribeiro was driving on their flooded street and the water was so high that it entered the van, sloshing under their feet and inundating the hydraulic ramp in the floorboards that allows them to exit the vehicle.

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

It took her hours to dry the van, tediously wringing out towels again and again. But more than anything, she was relieved the van didn’t get stuck in the middle of the flooded street.

"If the car gets stuck, it’s a lot more dangerous and harder because we can’t just walk out of the car," Ribeiro says. Flooding, she says, can bring on a situation where "I’m in the car, but I can’t leave the car. I learned the lesson that if I see rain, I am not able to go out."

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

"Caregivers have to get them ready, help them brush their teeth, transfer them to their chairs, and then they rely on [Miami-Dade County Special Transportation Service] STS — it’s really time-consuming and can take four to six hours to make it to an appointment," he explains. "There’s already a lot of limitations — it’s so hard — and then if it rains or there’s flooding, it’s just one more thing."

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

"These random weather events are progressively, little by little, happening more frequently. It’s so subtle, we might not realize how frequently they happen. But above all the burdens people with spinal-cord injuries face, it’s just one more limitation," he says. "As extreme weather events continue to be more frequent, we have to find resilient ways in healthcare and in the community to provide better services for them."
click to enlarge Anson James (left) and Tatiana Ribeiro - COURTESY OF THE MIAMI PROJECT TO CURE PARALYSIS
Anson James (left) and Tatiana Ribeiro
Courtesy of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis
Anson James, who has paraplegia, will not leave his apartment if it rains.

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

James tries to keep active, but he says multiple times a year he has to cancel events owing to rain and flooding. Sometimes he’ll go out in his van and if he can’t find a dry parking spot, he’ll turn around and go 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," James recalls. "I wasn’t going to try to push through that. So I just went home. It wasn’t worth it."

If the water is higher than the three-inch caster wheels in the front of his chair, James doesn’t risk going through it. He’s heard horror stories from friends of getting swept out of their chairs.

"If you’re wheeling through water, and you don’t know how deep it is or if there’s a pothole, you can slip right out of your chair," he says. "I’ve heard it happen."

What's more, the cross slopes on sidewalks and ramps in and out of buildings get slick when it’s wet.

"If my chair is wet, it can make the ramp very slippery, and I have to slip and slide to get back inside," James says. "I’m used to it, so I don’t get spooked or scared and I just keep pushing and maneuvering."

"While you can jump over a puddle or go around it in the grass, we can’t.”

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Manual wheelchairs cost more than $3,000, while electric powerchairs can cost more than $20,000. The water can corrode and rust various parts, and repairs can be expensive and, since they require specialized mechanics, can take days or weeks to schedule. For example, the padded cushion on Zambrano’s chair, which is designed to prevent pressure sores, cost upward of $600. If the cushion gets wet, Zambrano can’t use her chair until it dries — essentially leaving her bedridden.

Zambrano uses the manual wheelchair around her house because it’s more compact for maneuvering around the home (and when she trains with Samano). But when she goes out by herself, she opts for the electric powerchair, which is equipped with a joystick.

Until it starts raining.

"I’m more scared with flooding with the powerchair because of the cables and motor and batteries that are underneath it," she explains. "I can’t hold an umbrella, and a poncho will just fly off in the wind."

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

Earlier this year, Zambrano started working part-time in Midtown. If it rains, she has to go three streets away to a Miami-Dade Transit Metrobus stop that doesn’t flood. If the bus stop doesn’t have a covered enclosure, there’s little she can do to stay dry while she waits for the bus. Once inside the bus, the air conditioning exacerbates her already increased risk of hypothermia.

"It’s a nightmare," she says. "One time I was [so soaked], I was leaking water all over the bus and I was almost shaking. I was so cold that I had to call my mom and told her to go home right away and prepare the bathtub for when I arrive. It took two hours to stop feeling cold."

After getting stuck in the rain multiple times on her commute, 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 hasn’t deterred her from pursuing her next big race: the 26.2-mile Miami Marathon in February.

In addition to Zambrano’s and Samano’s weekly runs in Brickell, they’re going to begin incorporating longer runs on weekends along the Venetian Causeway.

Her favorite part is when they go downhill on the bridges, and Samano lightly takes his hand off her wheelchair.

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