After the media coverage of a major natural disaster ends, people are left to recover and pick up the pieces. For some disabled people impacted by the power outages and winter storm in Texas starting February 15, 2021, the recovery and repair process can be substantial. Below is an interview with Kemi Yemi-Ese, an artist and professional counselor assistant who lives in Austin, Texas. Many thanks to Emily Wolinsky for the introduction!
Please share a little about yourself !
Currently I live in Austin Texas. I’m a licensed professional counselor associate and visual artist. I was injured in a car accident in 2006, sustaining a cervical level spinal cord injury resulting in paralysis in my arms and legs.
You are an artist based in Austin, Texas. What do you love about living in the capital and its art scene?
I have been so inspired by the art community here in Austin. There have been a lot of opportunities to grow as an artist and cultivate friendships among other creatives here.
It’s hard to believe that major parts of Texas were hit by a winter storm only a few weeks ago on February 15, 2021. What was it like when you first realized the weather was going to be severe? How was Austin impacted that week?
I unfortunately realized the severity of the storm as it was progressing. I assumed it would come and pass quickly like a previous snowfall in January did. I think that even in Austin, the impact of the storm varied. I was without power and running water for 6 days and I know of some people who either lost for a day or didn’t lose anything at all.
When did you lose power and how long were you without it? How did you cope during the power outage?
I lost power on the morning of the 15th. Then that evening a pipe burst and flooded the entire apartment in 3 to 4 inches of water. Emergency maintenance workers and the fire department responded by turning off my water and retrieving as many items out of the water as possible. After the water was removed my brother and I assessed the damages and remained in the apartment (as advised by the fire dept) to wait out the storm. I coped by reading, keeping in touch with family members/friends, minimizing my news intake, and appreciating the company and help from my brother.
Did your home suffer any damage as a result of the weather? How about your own health and well being?
My apartment was flooded and all of the walls (up to 1.5 feet) had to be removed to prevent mold/mildew. It was definitely a stressful period and I’m still dealing with the aftermath of the storm nearly a month later since the repairs are not yet completed. As a therapist, I am trained to help others through stressful episodes and it was definitely important to use my interventions on myself. Due to my inability to regulate my body temperature, there was the ultimate priority that I stay warm so I lived the week under several blankets and comforters and couldn’t get out of bed. My regular caretakers were unable to help me; it was left to my younger brother to assist me and keep me safe. When the water was finally turned on on Saturday the 20th, my skin reacted to it in a flare up of eczema. I’m more than ready to put this whole ordeal completely behind me.
Before this disaster, how has it been for you during the pandemic in the last 11-plus months? Has this master changed your ability to stay safe and healthy?
This pandemic altered the way I’m able to hold therapy sessions and my efforts as an artist as well. I’ve seen an uptick in the number of people concerned about their mental health during the pandemic so I’ve taken on more clients.
How are you recovering now? What are your immediate needs and priorities? Is there any way people can help?
My immediate needs are restoring my home and workspace to be livable and comfortable. This is now in the hands of the apartment property managers/owners who are covering the cost of repairing/restoring my apartment. I wish there were some way to expedite the process.
What are your thoughts on the callousness and neglect of elected leaders such as Governor Gregg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz? What kinds of accountability and changes do you want to see?
I am dismayed and extremely disappointed by the way the state government handled this storm crisis and the pandemic as well. There seems to be no empathy or consideration for citizens. I would like there to be a solid plan of safety in place for citizens with disabilities so that we are more protected and prepared in times of crisis. If i didn’t have my brother with me and a few brave friends who checked on me, I’d be in a much worse state physically and mentally.
Ep 75: Coronavirus and Disaster Planning with Germán Luis Parodi and Valerie Novack, Disability Visibility podcast
Protecting Seriously Ill Consumers from Utility Disconnections: What States Can Do to Save Lives Now, National Consumer Law Center, February 2021.
Nigerian-American therapist and visual artist, Kemi Yemi-Ese, resides in Austin, Texas. Following a near tragic car accident in 2006, Kemi became paralyzed at the cervical level of her spinal cord and uses a wheelchair for mobility. After graduating from Baylor University and Texas Tech Health Sciences Center, Kemi is focused on growing in her dual careers as an artist and therapist. Her art reflects the struggles and triumphs that living with a disability entail through imagery that is relatable. Her artwork and therapeutic approaches often confront representations of mobility, gender, beauty, race, and divinity. The challenges she faces compel her to also be an advocate and she has taken many opportunities to advocate for her rights and those of others with disabilities. From serving on boards for independent living centers to winning the title of Ms. Wheelchair Texas, Kemi is earnest in speaking up and taking action. Kemi’s current work is heavily inspired by her Nigerian heritage blending dynamic and contemplative portraits with cultural exploration.
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