Summertime for those of us in coastal states often means the start of hurricane season. Recently, a weather reporter on a national news show commented on August 2010 being the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and urged families to begin planning for weather related disasters. For families of a person with a disability, this advanced preparation is even more essential. Individuals with disabilities are particularly vulnerable in disasters, whether it be a hurricane, nor’easter, blizzard, tornado, flood, fire or volcanic eruption.
Establish a Personal Support Network
Start by establishing a personal support network made up of friends, family, co-workers, roommates or other individuals who are part of the life of the person with a disability. These individuals may be contacts at school, work, home, or any other place the family member typically spends time. Identify persons who are ready and willing to assist in the time of a disaster, and organize a network based on sub-teams for each of these locations. These personal support network team members should help complete checklists and prepare emergency preparedness kits for the individual.
Ideally, each site location sub-team should consist of at least three persons in order to avoid depending upon just one individual. The site team members should evaluate the location for which they are responsible, design and implement a plan of preparation and recovery for the individual, and be ready to act when disaster strikes. Likewise, the individual with a disability should be made aware of his or her responsibility to inform team members of travel or time away from home, work, school or other places where significant time is normally spent.
Every team member should have a complete copy of emergency information, including descriptions of the individual’s medications and personal care needs. The plan should also identify a designated gathering area based on the individual’s location and the disaster type, as well as information needed to contact the individual following the disaster. Comprehensive communication techniques beyond the telephone may be required, such as visual cues or automatic signals that indicate to others whether the individual is safe or in harm’s way.
Other important planning for team members includes (1) establishing protocols for notifying the individual of any government alerts or warnings in the event of an evacuation order, (2) scheduling regular reviews of these disaster plans to assure accuracy and completeness, (3) scheduling practice sessions for learning to operate any assisted technologies or medical equipment needed by the individual, along with his or her personal grooming or care skills, and (4) becoming familiar with the individual’s service animal and its care.
Complete a Personal Assessment
The individual with a disability, along with his or her network team members, should complete important forms and checklists of items and services the individual may require before, during, and after a disaster. These should address the individual’s capabilities and limitations regarding his or her activities of daily living, and describe medical care equipment, adaptive feeding devices, utility services and power-based equipment, transportation or mobility issues, evacuation, communication, and service animal or pet needs and abilities.
Checklists of this type are available from the American Red Cross. Ask your local chapter for a copy of “Disaster Preparedness for People with Disabilities” (Form A5091) or visit the Red Cross  website.
Other helpful publications with disaster planning lists may be obtained from FEMA by calling 1-800-480-2520 or writing FEMA, P.O. Box 2012, Jessup, MD 20794-2012. Some of these publications include “Are You Ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness (IS-22); Preparing for Disaster (FEMA475)(4600); Food & Water In An Emergency (FEMA477)(A5055); and Helping Children Cope with Disaster (FEMA 478)(A4499).
Prepare a Disaster Supply Kit
FEMA and the Red Cross guidelines emphasize disaster supply kits for the individual to be maintained at home, work, school and other frequently visited sites, as well as kept in the car. Many sources suggest storing the kit in portable waterproof luggage or storage boxes. Having multiple kits available provides reassurance that the individual with a disability will have these items regardless of where he or she is when the emergency or disaster strikes. In addition to the checklists by FEMA and the Red Cross, other sources of suggested disaster kit contents may be found at these websites:
- The Access Board 
- Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) Administration on Aging 
- National Council on Disability 
- National Organization on Disability 
- Prepare.Org 
- American Association for People with Disabilities 
- American Foundation for the Blind 
- National Association of the Deaf 
- Easter Seals 
Enroll in a Special Needs Registry
Many states have established special needs registries and special needs shelters for individuals with disabilities. In Florida, for example, each county has a phone number for a special needs registry. Depending upon the community, special needs shelters may separately exist or be a unit within a Red Cross public shelter. Identification of the appropriate shelter and its location should be noted in the disaster supply kit.
Be aware that while a special needs shelter is designed to meet the needs of individuals who require help with the activities of daily living, including medication management and supervision, special needs shelters rarely have advanced medical equipment. A caregiver for the individual should accompany him or her to the shelter.
Effective recovery from a disaster also begins with advanced planning. Working with FEMA will be required. The disaster recovery process begins with registration by telephone at FEMA. The individual will be referred to a disaster recovery center for important follow-up. Call FEMA contact information (1-800-621-FEMA). For persons with speech and hearing impairments call TTY-800-462-7585. Try calling either early in the morning or late at night, and have pen and paper handy when calling. If computer internet access is restored, check FEMA’s information online .
Individuals with special needs who need assistance with completing forms may ask for assistance from an individual at the nearest disaster recovery center. In order to quickly take advantage of resources FEMA can provide, have the following information accessible:
- Social Security Number
- Current and pre-disaster address and phone number
- Insurance information and type(s)
- Bank information (routing and account number)
Individuals with special needs receiving disaster relief federal payments including Social Security and Medicare should know these benefits are not affected by the receipt of FEMA assistance funds. Likewise, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) support and maintenance benefits are unaffected by such disaster payments as long as requirements are met. That may not be the case, however, for other public benefits.