Special radios help warn deaf people

Anyone who doesn't heed the call to evacuate before a monster hurricane hits might be considered foolish or crazy.

But maybe they're deaf.

The screech of the Civil Defense alert, the pulsing bleep of the TV weather warning – even the roar of the wind as a storm approaches – may all be lost on the person with a severe hearing impairment.

State emergency managers first realized the danger of relying solely on audible warnings for weather-related events when they saw footage of deaf people swimming out of a mobile home park near Greenville after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

As the water rose in waterfront communities of Eastern North Carolina after that storm, police, firefighters and volunteers went house to house banging on doors in the middle of the night to tell people to get out.

“Thousands of deaf residents had no idea what was going on,” said Tom Ditt, emergency preparedness coordinator for the state Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Based on national averages, the state estimates one in eight residents has some hearing loss, and about 25 percent of those – more than a quarter of a million people – would qualify as deaf.

After Floyd, the state applied for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin distributing weather radios to the hearing impaired that alert by means of a small strobe light and a “pillow vibrator” that trembles hard enough to wake a person. The radios also come with a transmitter and remote receiver that can be used in another room from where the radio is kept, to cause a lamp to start flashing.

The radios are programmed for the county where the resident lives and have a digital readout showing the nature of the alert.

Mountain residents get an extra antenna in their package to improve reception of the National Weather Service signal that sets off the alarm.

FEMA gave North Carolina $500,000 to buy 3,500 radios to launch the program in 2005. The state has handed out another 1,400 since then, buying the radios with money from a 9-cent surcharge on cellular phones.

Deborah Stroud of Raleigh got one of the radios about five years ago, when a Sertoma Club representative brought it to her. Sertoma is one of the state's partners in distributing the devices, which retail for about $150 each.

Stroud, an administrative assistant for Embarq's governmental affairs group, wears cochlear implants during the day that allow her to hear. When she takes them off to go to bed, she says, “I am totally deaf.”

Stroud says she feels safer with the radio. “I feel I am much more aware of dangerous weather than most people would be during the night or day,” she said.

Stroud said her only quibble with the unit is that it's fully electric, with no battery backup.