While weather is generally predictable, it’s best to be prepared for the unexpected. Forecasters can determine the probability of severe weather events with increasing validity due to advancements in technology. However, the most accurate forecasts are short-range predictions — falling one to seven days before the weather hits. This isn’t enough time to prepare adequately, so it’s important to do so beforehand.
There are many different types of severe weather events — from floods to droughts and everything in between. Regardless of where you live in the United States, there is always some risk of losing access to power, shelter, or other necessities due to inclement weather. Although climate issues are on the rise, Americans are still largely ill-prepared for the inevitable weather extremes.
It’s no easy task prepping your home for extreme weather. This urgent need for preparation — along with accessibility issues, medication needs, communication barriers, and mobility issues — places people with disabilities in a uniquely dangerous spot. However, there are ways for people with all varieties of disabilities — visible and invisible — to prepare well for emergency weather situations, keeping everyone safe and sound in the process.
Covering all your bases when it comes to extreme-weather prep may seem like a daunting task. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, start with the basics. If preferred, you may want to enlist the help of someone close to you to go over the next few sections. This way, you can both move quickly in the event of an emergency.
First, be aware of the types of hazardous events that may occur. The area in which you live may be more prone to certain types of weather, so keep that in mind when researching the following types of natural disasters:
- Heavy snowfall;
- Heavy winds;
- Icy conditions;
All of the disasters listed above are natural in origin — they’re not human-caused emergencies. These natural disasters may cause the following:
- Damage to shelter;
- Dangerous debris;
- Excess heat;
- Excess cold;
- Exposed electrical wiring;
- Food shortages;
- Power outages.
This list isn’t meant to be threatening but, rather, to serve as a guideline on what could occur. The possibility of damage doesn’t mean that it will happen to your home, but it’s better to have a plan just in case it does. This way, you can practice your plan so that it becomes second nature if and when needed.
Emergency Preparedness Kits
Every person preparing for extreme weather should put together an emergency prep kit. Disabilities, however, may call for a few extra items. Of course, this will vary depending on individual needs. Get started by considering placing the following items in a portable container in a secure, accessible place:
- Any necessary medical devices;
- Any supplies for a support animal or pet, if necessary;
- Backup medication;
- Can opener;
- Extra clothing — socks, shirts, jackets, underwear, pants, hats, and gloves;
- First aid kit — gauze, bandages, antibiotic ointment, and scissors;
- Non-perishable food;
- Power bank and extra batteries for cell phones/radios/flashlights;
- Purified water;
- Toilet paper and other sanitary items;
Take inventory of what you need to survive comfortably on a daily basis. Then, see how much you need of these items to survive comfortably for a few weeks. Stock up on as much as you can if you can’t leave your home to retrieve more supplies. Keep your medications and devices in mind, as well as a way to contact authorities or call for help.
Personal Assessment Documents
Along with your emergency kit, you should keep a document that covers your personalized needs. This way, anyone who accesses it will have a reference point on how best to assist you. This is especially useful in the event of an emergency that is time-sensitive or in which you cannot describe what you need adequately. Provide emergency responders with the following information on your assessment:
- Any specific tasks you need help with;
- A list of medications, medical devices, and any allergies;
- Current support/service animal, if applicable;
- Emergency contacts, including personal contacts and healthcare providers;
- Your level of ability to:
- Prepare meals;
A typed version of this is great to have if the electricity goes out and a backup generator isn’t available. You may want to send it to your personal contacts in advance of the emergency weather event, but always keep a physical copy in an accessible spot. This physical copy should be either laminated or contained in a waterproof and fireproof bag. If it isn’t see-through, label it accordingly.
Personal Support Network
Ideally, you will have a personal support network (PSN) — a set of individuals and organizations set up to check in with you in the event of an emergency. These people may also offer assistance, if necessary. Your PSN may include:
- Healthcare providers;
- Personal assistants/attendants.
Identify the people in your PSN by cataloging all the places you frequent — such as your home, local grocery store, doctor’s office, school, or place of work. If possible, identify at least three people in each of these places that could help with your particular disabilities. These should be people that you trust and have a good understanding of how to help you.
For instance, if you are deaf or hard-of-hearing, your PSN will understand the importance of other signals to communicate in the event of an emergency. Some other tips for making the most out of your PSN are to:
- Create special codes or signals to indicate safety or distress;
- Decide on an emergency meeting place;
- Distribute important keys and key fobs to each member;
- Practice any emergency evacuation plans with each member;
- Share passcodes in a secure folder.
These people should be notified of their role in your PSN as soon as possible — and about every six months, send them a refresher and update any points where necessary. For example, your passwords, keys, or schedule may have changed.
It’s important to remember that members of your PSN also may be affected by a weather event in your area. Certain situations may render them unable to come to your aid. This is why the personal assessment document is so important to have on hand. Also, send this personal assessment to individuals and organizations on your PSN. It’s nice to have a reference, even if you assume they already know the pertinent information.
Evacuation Readiness for People With Disabilities
Part of proper planning with your PSN involves practicing evacuation strategies. You may also want to do this on your own or with your personal attendant or service animal to commit it to memory. When tensions are high, this will make it easier to evacuate and save you valuable time.
Sometimes, weather events cause conditions in which you need to evacuate your home or the local area. This will be reported on local news stations or mandated by local authorities. In any case, your evacuation route may be planned so that it goes as smoothly as possible. Your attention may need to be focused on avoiding potential dangers, like flying debris, rising waters, or electrical wires. Being ready to evacuate allows you and your PSN or assistants to be aware of these hazards while executing the plan safely and efficiently.
Here are some considerations to make when creating your evacuation plan:
- Assistive equipment needed during an emergency:
- A power source at the evacuation meeting destination;
- Accurate labels for easy identification;
- Chargers and adapters;
- Extra tanks or other refill supplies;
- Information readily available about the device (on a USB or laminated document);
- Insurance cards;
- Protective cases.
- Medication needs during evacuations:
- Administration tools and techniques;
- Dosage and instructions;
- Extra doses;
- Refrigeration, if applicable.
- Support/service animal needs during evacuation:
- A list of commands;
- Proper training;
Again, this list covers the basics — but your unique situation may call for additional items. Remember that, during an evacuation, you will need these items to be easily portable. Pack your evacuation items in “go bags” — backpacks or other bags that are conducive to carrying. Keep these “go bags” in an easy-to-reach spot for you or your aids. Make sure to leave open paths within your home that are easy to navigate and lead to safe exits.
Special Considerations for Different Disabilities
Of course, there are a variety of disabilities with specialized considerations. Even within the same disability, there is typically a spectrum of considerations and abilities. However, this guide intends to serve as a baseline from which to form your disaster plans. The following disabilities may be used as direct or illustrative examples of what to do during a weather emergency.
Deafness/Hard of Hearing
The deaf community experiences a range of hearing abilities. If you are a person who is deaf or hard-of-hearing, you are most likely well aware of the additions you need for the preparedness kit and documents listed above. However, there are some special considerations for deaf and hard-of-hearing people during weather emergencies:
- Pen and paper — If someone assisting you does not know sign language;
- Visual distress signals — Unique to you and your PSN, such as certain flags to display outside your home during an emergency that signifies safety or a need for assistance;
- Specialized alarm systems — Such as the NOAA weather radio models that come with strobe light attachments and text displays on-screen;
- Reverse 911 — A location-specific service that calls you during an emergency (get in touch to see if your location has this service and supports deaf accommodations, such as TeleTYpe).
This is not a complete list, and you may want to adjust the type of emergency assistance tools that you use according to your preferences.
Weather emergencies may cause individuals with blindness or low vision to lose access to some of the usual accessibility tools. This makes prep extra important for members of the blind community. Add your specific blindness/vision accessibility tools to the emergency kit list, such as mobility canes or screen readers. Make sure to have extra power banks, chargers, and batteries at the ready. Even still, you may lose power to some devices that help you navigate the world — such as your mobile phone. In that case, consider:
- Emergency whistle — Or other loud, sound-making device to alert others of distress;
- Reverse 911 — A location-specific service that calls you during an emergency;
- Tape recorders — With extra batteries to record any important messages for those that may need to assist you.
Clearly label all assistive devices and emergency supplies — with braille and text so that nothing gets left behind in an evacuation.
Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Intellectual or developmental disabilities come in a range of ability levels. You and your network of support likely know the best tools for your unique situation. This makes your PSN particularly useful during emergencies. Like other individuals with disabilities (or anyone, for that matter), you may lose access to helpful tools that you typically use every day — because a lot of it relies on technology that requires electricity. However, you can plan for this by preparing with non-tech or low-tech assistive devices:
- Battery-operated radios and walkie talkies — With clear instructions and extra batteries;
- Communication boards — Using simple materials like cardboard to assist nonverbal individuals with communicating needs;
- Pre-recorded instructions — On a tape recorder with extra batteries, which the individual can press a button and listen to during an emergency;
- Visual signals — Like flags or lights to indicate you need help.
Again, your support network is of utmost importance in helping you prepare these items. They can clearly label them and guide you to practice using them in the event of an emergency.
Items that assist with mobility are often powered by electricity. However, there are manual options that you should have on hand in your emergency prep kit. Consider:
- Backup, manual wheelchairs — With instructions and an air pump for tires;
- Canes and walkers;
- Extra braces, crutches, and kneepads;
- Inner tubes and other flotation devices — In the case of flooding;
- Towels, blankets, and cushions — To facilitate movement.
Make note of these accommodations and how to use them in your personal assessment. This way, if someone needs to assist you, they have a point of reference on how to do so effectively.
Preparedness for Specific Weather Events
You may find yourself in the midst of any type of natural disaster. These weather events can cause an array of less-than-ideal conditions. Knowing the specific circumstances of common disaster effects will help you prepare.
Heatwaves can cause extreme heat — characterized by elevated temperatures of greater than 90 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two days. High levels of humidity also intensify the adverse effects of extreme heat. Heat-related deaths are the most common weather-related casualties — and temperatures are only rising along with climate change.
People with disabilities are often more sensitive to heat, so any days that are hotter than normal should be monitored and dealt with appropriately. You may incur heat-related illnesses if ill-prepared. Make sure to:
- Drink plenty of fluids — Keeping hydrated to help your body stay cool;
- Educate yourself and your PSN on the symptoms of heat-related illness — Such as high body temps, heavy sweating (or lack of sweat), pale complexion, red skin, excess cramping, fatigue, fainting, nausea, and vomiting;
- Keep hats and visors handy — As well as light-colored clothing, especially if you are evacuating in an area exposed to the outdoors and direct sunlight;
- Keep ice packs in the freezer — And use them sparingly, especially if the power may go out;
- Keep your HVAC system up-to-date and operational with a generator — Because simple, battery-operated fans don’t provide adequate prevention against extreme heat.
If your HVAC system loses power or fails during extreme heat, have a backup plan. Find out the location of your nearest cooling center and add this to your evacuation routine.
Much like excess heat, your body doesn’t react favorably to extreme cold. People with disabilities should prepare their homes for freezing temperatures before they hit. Extreme cold can cause power outages, dangerous road conditions, cold-related illnesses, and even cut off access to a water supply. Remember to:
- Add self-warming devices to your kit — Such as hand warmers or self-heating blankets, but make sure to know the risks associated with these items and notify your PSN of use;
- Keep a battery-operated personal heater — But also keep a fire extinguisher that you have learned how to operate in case your heater unwittingly causes a fire;
- Keep warm clothing in your emergency prep kit — Such as wool or fleece gloves, sweaters, hats, scarves, and socks;
- Know the signs of cold-related illnesses — Such as hypothermia and frostbite;
- Install a carbon monoxide detector that runs on batteries — Because generators may cause excess carbon monoxide;
- Make sure your plumbing system is updated — Because pipes can burst in freezing temperatures, cutting off access to fresh water;
- Seal windows and doors — Stopping as much cold air from getting in as possible.
If you’re prepared for winter weather, you and your home will be less at risk of experiencing any disastrous effects.
Rising waters may cause an array of issues, from unsafe drinking water to power outages. People with disabilities may be extra susceptible to adverse effects of flooding — particularly if they experience mobility issues. However, much of the prep we already mentioned for people with disabilities during disasters will help mitigate flooding hazards. Some more tips for preparing for floods or flash floods include remembering to:
- Avoid areas of high and fast water — By moving to higher ground if possible and not attempting to swim or float on water until assistance arrives;
- Equip your emergency kit with flotation devices — To help you evacuate and navigate waters with help if necessary;
- Equip your house with waterproofing methods — Including hiring someone to update drainage systems and seal any cracks;
- Hire a professional cleaning service with updated systems — To safely and adequately clean up harmful debris once the waters have subsided;
- Hire an electrical contractor with up-to-date tech — To deal with any exposed wiring or dangerous electrical devices that may have come into contact with water.
Waterproofing your home will require assistance, so ask your PSN for help setting up appointments with professionals for this job. Professionals can install systems such as sump pumps to ensure proper drainage. As you can tell, many of the hazards that come with flooding also arise during the cleanup process. Make sure to work with remediation experts to ensure safety — even once the waters have cleared.
Recommended Resources for People With Disabilities When Preparing for Weather Emergencies
There are many resources available, in-person and online, to help people with disabilities best prepare for weather emergencies. Reach out to your local community to see if there are any location-specific resources. Your PSN can also help identify these organizations and places of refuge during extreme weather. In the meantime, check out these resources on preparing for natural disasters as a person with disabilities:
- Individuals With Disabilities | Ready.gov — A government-prepared guide on how to prepare for weather events as a person with disabilities (or someone helping a person with disabilities);
- Inclusive Preparedness Resources | Red Cross — Resources compiled by the Red Cross that take people with disabilities and other marginalized communities into account;
- Disability and Health Emergency Preparedness | CDC — A guideline created by the Centers for Disease Control that specifically speaks to people with disabilities.
You may also seek out support groups for your particular disability. Those with similar life experiences will be able to more accurately offer advice and tips to deal with extreme weather. Remember that you’re not alone, and waiting for assistance is the best option to avoid hazardous situations. Your emergency preparedness kit will keep you safe and ready to deal with any unexpected disasters along the way.