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Disaster planning is essential for people with disabilities

Written by Linda Mastandrea, Director At The Office Of Disability Integration and Coordination at FEMA

Imagine there’s a hurricane swirling violently in warm ocean waters with a forecasted track that will send it barreling toward your city within the next five to seven days. What would you do? Would you be ready to leave at a moment’s notice if your local officials ordered a mandatory evacuation? Would you be prepared to live in a shelter, hotel, or with friends and family — for days, possibly weeks at a time — if your house became uninhabitable due to severe wind damage or flooding?  

As the director of FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, I work closely with our state, local, tribal and territorial partners every day, supporting their efforts to help people with disabilities is prepared for disasters and emergencies. 

Every individual who has a disability has his or her life-sustaining plan just in case a disaster strikes. However, this simply cannot wait until just hours before, it must take place well in advance.  

People with disabilities often plan out their days in great detail. Arranging transit days in advance, scheduling personal care assistants, dealing with malfunctioning assistive technology and preparing meals made to specifications are just a few examples.

They know what they need to get through their day-to-day. Yet, when it comes to preparing for disaster, many of us are woefully uninformed and unprepared. Many may think, disasters will never impact them and may believe it costs too much to prepare. However, neither is true.  

The reality is, there are many things that people with disabilities can do to prepare for emergencies and disasters, and it does not have to be expensive. First and foremost, individual preparedness is the key.

After a disaster, help may not arrive for 48 to 72 hours, or even longer. That means you are personally accountable for your own well being those first few days, whether you stay at home or are ordered to evacuate by local officials. 

Therefore, it is important to plan ahead and that means you need to think through possible scenarios. For example, if your spouse or child requires a wheelchair for mobility and has to move quickly to safety, would that be an issue for you during a time of disaster? I met Stephanie, a 43-year-old Florida native, who endured high winds and flooding during Hurricane Michael in 2018. 

A wheelchair user, part of Stephanie’s preparedness plan is having extra wheelchair tires and tubes, as well as an extra wheelchair cushion, ready at all times. She says the tires and tubes come in handy because flat tires are likely when there’s a lot of debris on the roads or sidewalks post disasters.

Disaster survivors have also said the extra cushion, in addition to being a backup if yours is ruined; the extra cushion works great as a pillow if you are spending the night in a shelter.

Another important part of planning is making sure you have enough medication available immediately after disaster strikes. For example, what if a disaster affects your access to insulin and you need several weeks’ worth available to help with your diabetes? I met Lisa, in Puerto Rico recovering from Hurricane Maria. As a diabetic, Lisa makes sure she orders her insulin and supplies from a mail order pharmacy three months at a time. This helps ensure she will have enough if she needs to shelter in place or evacuate. 

Evacuations can be stressful experiences for everyone involved. What if your child has autism and needed arrangements for travel, along with necessary medication? In early 2017, following a tornado outbreak in Georgia, I met Laurie and her 14-year-old daughter, Skylar, who has autism and becomes easily over stimulated in crowds.

Laurie had noise-canceling headphones and an electronic device preloaded with movies, games, along with extra chargers to help Skylar stay as comfortable as possible during their time in a shelter.

Another suggestion, which could really help if you do not have noise-canceling headphones or an electronic device, is to include other items such as squishy balls or fidget toys in your emergency preparedness kit to help in calming your children. 

Additionally, communicating in a hectic shelter can be challenging for anyone, and even more so for people with disabilities. In 2018, I met Austin, a 50-year-old Texas native, uses an augmented communication device due to a speech and motor disability. He makes sure to have extra power sources in his go-kit, but he also has a low tech back up. When I met Austin, he showed me his binder with photos and common words and phrases that help him communicate with first responders, shelter staff and others during an emergency.  

Stephanie, Lisa, Laurie and Austin are just a few real-life examples of what you could be facing during the next disaster and how you can prepare. What would you do to be ready? Taking steps to prepare yourself and your family can help you stay safe, increase your chances of survival and help you recover more quickly after a disaster. For people with disabilities, preparedness is not just a good idea it is crucial.

Linda Mastandrea is the director at the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at Federal Emergency Management Agency.