Hurricane preparation vital for people with disabilities, says UF expert
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Weathering a hurricane is never easy, but evacuations, power outages and other storm-related hardships present special challenges for older people or those with disabilities – which makes planning ahead especially important for these individuals, says a University of Florida expert.
Anyone with a temporary or permanent condition that impairs mobility, strength, judgment or other critical functions should make hurricane plans that accommodate their needs, said Carolyn Wilken, an associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
“Many people may need extra help during a hurricane, not just those with serious, long-term health issues,” Wilken said. “For example, elderly people who are generally in good health may have difficulty tolerating heat, and that can become an issue when the power goes out.”
More than one-sixth of Florida’s population is at least 65 years old, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Nationwide, the disability rate reported by this age group was more than three times that of the rest of the population.
Wilken said hurricane preparation for people with disabilities involves four major steps: assessing the situation, seeking help, arranging to weather the storm at home, and creating an evacuation plan.
“The first step, assessing the situation, should include a visit or phone call to your primary care physician to ask for any special instructions regarding hurricane situations,” she said.
People who rely on medical devices such as pacemakers should keep a list of the brands, models and serial numbers of their equipment, Wilken said. In addition, anyone using durable medical equipment such as oxygen tanks or wheelchairs should know the weights and dimensions of these items in case they need to be moved.
While it can be difficult to ask for help, Wilken said, enlisting support can ensure a person with disabilities will get the assistance they need during a hurricane. She advises people with special needs to create a “disaster team” of friends, family members or neighbors and discuss their emergency plans with the group.
Wilken recommends that at least one member of the team be given a key to the disabled person’s home. Each team member should have contact information for the others and have any special instructions provided by the primary care physician.
To prepare for weathering a storm at home, people with disabilities – like everyone else – should keep a supply of nonperishable food, drinking water and batteries for radios and flashlights, she said. Other important supplies may include extra batteries for hearing aids or electric wheelchairs and extra prescription medications.
“You can also let your utility company know of your needs, especially if you rely on electricity to operate medical equipment,” Wilken said. “They may make reconnecting your power a priority in the event of a loss of service.”
People who rely on life-sustaining treatment, such as dialysis, should locate at least two nearby facilities that can provide treatment in an emergency, she said.
Wilken said people who provide care for someone at home should remember they could become separated from the person they care for during a hurricane. Caregivers can prepare by writing a detailed description of the person’s individual needs, including their daily routine and how to help them deal with stress.
“Many people put this kind of information in the refrigerator for safekeeping with a boldly written note securely taped to the front of the refrigerator to alert emergency personnel,” she said. “Emergency personnel know to look there, and chances are good that the refrigerator will stay in place even if the home is damaged.”
To prepare for an evacuation, contact the county emergency management office or Red Cross to locate the two nearest special-needs shelters, Wilken said.
“You may not be able to reach the closest shelter, so know where the next closest one is located,” she said. “Practice driving there using different routes so you’ll be prepared in case of road closings.”
People who use durable medical equipment may need help moving it during an evacuation; something the disaster team should plan for, Wilken said. In this case, staging a practice evacuation is a good idea.
“A practice run can help you sort out important issues before you find yourself in an emergency,” she said. “For instance, you can make sure your helpers can lift that wheelchair, and find out if it fits in the trunk of your car.”
For more detailed information and links, see Wilken’s fact sheets “Disaster Tips for People with Disabilities” at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FY750 and “Disaster Planning Tips for Caregivers of People with Disabilities” at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FY751.