How to Prepare for Natural Disasters When Caring for Children with Disabilities
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Plan, prepare, and protect your family
The Northwest is on fire, the South is drowning; earthquakes, floods, heat waves, and droughts are destroying lives and livelihoods all over the world. Just watching the news can be traumatic. And what if you are on your own, a Solo Mom raising a child who may need oxygen or a wheelchair, or who might run away or resist rescue?
How can we plan and prepare for the natural disasters that affect our area? I come from earthquake country and learned how to handle those—from moving away from buildings to bolting shelves to walls to carrying an emergency kit in my car. Now I live with forest fires, floods, and blizzards.
When we were on pre-evacuation notice for a fire I could see from my front door, my three kids and I packed, loaded the car, gathered the animals, checked on the neighbors, and took a load of valuables to a friend’s house in the next town. We watched and waited. But my medically fragile son, who could not walk alone, overdid it, and while the brave firefighters were battling the blaze, I got him to the hospital. He had stirred up a mean infection in his bones and would be even more restricted for many months to come.
We were lucky: we did not have to evacuate, and I could drive him to get help.
We were not well prepared then, nor for the next emergency—the Colorado floods of 2013. After a harrowing drive home, not realizing what was happening, we hunkered down and waited out the rain and floods. Our neighborhood got cut off, with all the roads out flooded. Again, we were lucky.
Fires and floods trigger us all, and the stress for those of us reliving those experiences makes it harder to think clearly, which is why having an emergency plan is so critical. The National Organization on Disability recommends having an emergency plan in place for home, work, and school (or wherever you spend the most time).
The first thing to consider is your personal network. For each location, particularly for your family members with special needs (including service animals), identify who will be a direct help in case of an emergency. Talk with this person so he knows that you have identified him and will expect two-way communication in an emergency. This step is critical if you have a loved one who cannot speak for herself.
Next, have an escape plan at each location. Such plans can include knowing how to get out your bedroom window during a house fire, where to meet, what to do during an earthquake, and which shelter you would use during a tornado or hurricane. Plan for at least two main places you will go. Make sure those in your personal network know your escape plans, and don’t forget your animals in your plan.
In addition to planning how you will stay connected (Zello has a free walkie-talkie app for use when there is an Internet connection but no cell service), you will need to have essential items such as food, water, and blankets, as well as personal items such as medications, devices, supplies, and batteries. If you or your child relies on electrical items, you should consider a backup generator.
Most people think they know how to handle an emergency. Some emergencies, such as an impending hurricane, come with advanced warning, giving people a chance to gather and prepare; but it’s the unexpected emergency for which all of us need to be prepared.
The following guides and checklists offer specific plans and strategies to prepare for and deal with disasters:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—Emergency Preparedness: Including People with Disabilities
- Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation—Emergency Preparedness for People With Disabilities: Guide and Checklist
- Redfin’s Disaster Safety for People with Disabilities: What to Do When Emergency Weather Strikes
It would be wonderful if every family could be as prepared as the above guidelines suggest, but as we see from many of those hurt the most in the recent hurricanes, floods, and fires, people with fewer resources often have no option but to stay and pray. They may not have the money to stock food for three days or to pay for gas to evacuate, or they may have family members whose disabilities make it difficult or unsafe to move them.
When my son’s leg became infected, if we did not have a personal network, money, and access to cars and hospitals, he likely would not have survived; yet too many of our friends and neighbors cannot do what we could do.
According to the CDC, 44% of Americans do not have a first-aid kit, 48% do not have emergency supplies, and 52% do not have copies of crucial personal documents.
When I was financially insecure and had three kids (two with disabilities), I could do only one tiny thing each month to prepare. I looked for deals, such as getting most of my first-aid kit, candles, flashlights, batteries, hygiene items, and over-the-counter medications at the local dollar store. With money tight, I built my personal network. Once during a multiday power outage resulting from a snowstorm, I packed up my kids in snow clothes and made it to a friend’s house that had power and a fireplace. When my kids couldn’t stop shivering, I realized I had to get over asking for help.
Emergencies are stressful and scary. They can make us feel helpless and vulnerable. The more prepared we are to handle the physical, emotional, and mental challenges that disasters bring, the better we can make it through and keep our loved ones safe.
Please start preparing in whatever way you can. Although we hope we never need to rely on our emergency supplies or plan, in this time of epic disasters, we all need to take the necessary steps to protect our families, pets, homes, and neighbors.
Take care, my Sisters!
Let’s help one another out! Have you and your loved ones with disabilities experienced a natural disaster? Please share your experience as well as tips on how you handled it.
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.