By JEFF MEYERS
---- — PLATTSBURGH — It started with a small leak; it turned into a flood of damages, disappointments and uncertainty.
Debra Buell, an outspoken local advocate for the disabled who uses a wheelchair herself, suffered for more than two weeks as she watched her apartment and belongings endure severe damage from a leaky pipe. Then, she began a sometimes overwhelming process to find her way into a new future.
“I’ve got to say that mostly I still think I’m in a bit of shock,” Buell said of the initial leak, which was discovered May 20 and began a series of setbacks for the Plattsburgh resident.
“The only way to cope is to just keep plugging away at what needs to be done. Only when it’s done will I probably be able to let my real feelings arise.”
That first day, Buell and her aide moved her possessions in her one-room apartment away from the leak and then attempted to turn off a valve to stop the drip.
She called her landlady and next-door neighbor but still could not find a way to shut it off. The Department of Public Works was called to turn it off at the street, but water had already risen in the apartment to a level dangerously close to an electrical outlet.
A plumber eventually arrived and was able to replace the pipe, fitting and shutoff valve, but water covered 4 inches of the apartment floor.
The plumber advised Buell’s landlady to professionally remove the water and conduct mold mitigation.
“I spent the night in the apartment thinking tomorrow the landlady would have someone come in to get rid of the water and clean,” she said.
But there was no success in getting the apartment professionally cleaned, and Buell soon learned from the City of Plattsburgh building inspector that the unit had been deemed uninhabitable and that she had to find a new place to live.
“The big question is what happens to a disabled person, especially one with a lot of needs, when something like this happens,” said Robert Poulin, director of the North Country Center for Independence.
“Programs like Social Services and Plattsburgh Housing do the best they can, but we don’t have a very good support system in Clinton County for emergency systems like this when a person has serious medical needs.
“There is a real danger that a person facing what Debra’s facing could become institutionalized.”
A major focus for the Center for Independence is to help people live as independently as possible, including having a home where they can function with support from home-health aides and other public services.
“A lot of times, a person enters a nursing home not because they need to be there but because they’ve become homeless,” Poulin said.
“That’s not to say that is what is happening here (with Buell), but the possibility is there.”
Buell moved into her Plattsburgh apartment in 2009. She had previously lived in AuSable Forks but needed to be closer to the city for easier access to health care.
“I always thought of this as a stopgap,” she said of the small apartment she had since called home. “I’d go out and look for different places (to live), but it’s very difficult to find landlords that will accept people with disabilities.”
The Center for Independence has been advocating for state legislation to prevent discrimination of a person based on a disability, Poulin noted.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made such legislation a priority for his objectives in 2013, he added.
Buell has received support from the Department of Social Services, finding her temporary housing and storage for her personal property.
She also had some help packing up, but the physical effort of moving and the emotional stress from the experience left her exhausted.
She has since found an apartment with handicapped access in the Plattsburgh area, news that brightened her growing sense of despair.
“Perhaps it is a wonderful stroke of luck, karma,” she said of the news with cautious optimism.
Always an advocate, she said she will continue to work toward improving the lives of all people with disabilities, including efforts to reduce the stigma that contributes to the challenge of finding housing.
“Sometimes, people just don’t know enough about the disabled, about how much they can do by themselves or with assistance,” she added.
“People who do live with people with disabilities become astounded by what we can do.”
Email Jeff Meyers: firstname.lastname@example.org