Disaster Planning for People with Mobility Challenges

Storm surge. High winds. Tornadoes. Flooding. Not ideal conditions for anyone, and they’re sure to ruin your day if you’re mobility challenged. That’s why wheelchair users all along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts brace themselves this time of the year. But hurricanes are just one kind of disaster mobility-challenged people face. If you live elsewhere, you may confront flooding, severe thunderstorms, forest fires, blizzards, earthquakes or even chemical spills.

Not surprisingly, dealers and rehab technology suppliers dread disasters. They worry about their mobility clients who depend on them for adjustments and repairs. Speaking from years of hurricane experience, Bruce Bayes, president of Custom Mobility in Largo, Fla., said, “The most important thing is for people to get out early. A power chair stops if it gets into water. That’s why most people in power chairs just leave the area.”

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross, Bayes’ advice applies to any situation that requires evacuation: The first priority is to get out when or before the order is given.

If you live in an area vulnerable to disasters that may require evacuation — from tsunamis to toxic-chemical spills and forest fires, for example — now’s the time to prepare. Disaster preparedness experts at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., say your first task is to prepare your “go” bag — a valise that contains your essentials and is always at the ready.

Since evacuation presents mobility clients with special challenges, here are some of the most important things you should do before, during and after the event.

Assess yourself: Know what you will and will not be able to do in an evacuation. Do you need help packing belongings, picking up prescriptions, arranging a place to go? Be realistic, and don’t hesitate to be explicit about your needs with people around you. The American Red Cross offers a free, printable self-assessment document that can guide you through the questions and considerations essential to a thorough self-assessment: www.redcross.org/services/disaster/beprepared/assess.html.

Set your expectations: Remember that your usual routines may be disrupted. According to the United Spinal Association, many people with disabilities in Katrina’s path were transferred to facilities and shelters out of their home state without their adaptive equipment and medical supplies.

Go, don’t wait: If a disaster threatens and evacuation will be likely, leave for the closest safe destination. Don’t travel farther than necessary, though, because doing so puts you at risk for accidents and traffic congestion. Plus you could wind up too far from members of your support group.

Plan for backup power: If you use a power chair, your chair’s batteries will probably be spent before power is restored, so plan ahead. Is a manual chair a temporary option? If not, develop a fallback strategy, such as investing in a generator or remaining in your chair and relying on caregivers to help with manual repositioning.

Stay in touch: Take your cell phone and charger, along with several fully charged backup batteries. Keep in touch with your support network, and remember to remain reachable so they can check on you.

Educate your support network: The American Red Cross recommends that you educate the members of your support network to understand the kinds of help you will need in a disaster: how to operate, transport, and disassemble your equipment, the safest way to move you, and how to assist you should you be without your wheelchair or other crucial mobility equipment. This level of understanding may exceed the knowledge they bring to your routine support.

Pack documents: Take written prescriptions for, and a 14-day supply of, all your medications; a list of your allergies; your health-insurance and prescription-drug benefits documents; a written description of your equipment (including the model and serial numbers) and documents identifying your chair’s provider, when the chair was delivered, contact information for the doctor who prescribed it, and documents that indicate how the chair was paid for. The American Red Cross reports that many of the people who lost their assistive equipment in Katrina’s wake couldn’t document their chairs and had to make do with welcome, but ill-fitting donated chairs.

Keep your chair in top condition: Don’t put off repairs and adjustments — be ready to roll anytime.

Put it in writing: Keep on your person a laminated card with a written description of your medical issues. Doctors will use it should you become incapable of communicating because of injury or illness.

There’s a lot more to know about mobility and disaster preparation, so visit www.redcross.org/images/pdfs/preparedness/A4497.pdf and www.prepare.org/disabilities/disabilitiesprep.htm.

This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Mobility Management.

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