Before Disaster Strikes

Evacuating during an emergency presents special challenges if you use a wheelchair, but these preparation steps will help you be ready to go if the time comes.

When authorities say an evacuation might be necessary because of a looming hurricane, raging wildfire or other pending disaster, there are some obvious things to do to be ready if that order is given.

But for someone who is paralyzed there’s more to it than following the well-established emergency protocols for the general public.

“You may need more time to evacuate, you may need special medical supplies and your service animal may need extra care,” says Kristin Sorensen, disaster preparedness specialist at the American Red Cross Grand Canyon Chapter in Phoenix.

It all comes down to preparation and since September is National Preparedness Month, it’s the perfect time to look at these seven steps that’ll have you ready to handle a call for evacuation.

Get Informed

You need to have an idea of the types of hazards you could be facing where you live.

If you don’t live near the coast, then you don’t need to prepare for a tsunami. However, living in a forested area means you should probably know about wildfires.

If you work or live in a multi-story building, check if an evacuation chair is available if you have to use the stairs in an emergency.

You can check hazard information in your area at and go to to learn about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio and its alerting capabilities.

“Find out how your community will warn you of a pending disaster and how they’ll provide information to you during and after a disaster,” Sorensen says.

The Red Cross ( offers several free emergency apps that have information about what to do before, during and after a disaster. There are apps for floods, wildfires, first aid, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes.

Create a Team

Form a group of people you trust who can check to see if you need assistance and provide it on just a few minutes’ notice.

The team can be neighbors, friends, roommates, relatives and co-workers and should be organized so they know your capabilities and needs where you live, work, go to school and every other place where you might be.

“One person isn’t enough; you truly need a team to do this,” Sorensen says. “If you have three people on your team at each location where you spend a lot of time, then you’ll have good coverage.”

What Can You Do?

Complete a personal assessment of what you can do for yourself and what you’ll need assistance with, as well as how much time you’ll need to evacuate.

This will be useful only if it includes a list of your personal needs and your resources for meeting them in a disaster environment. Do you use catheters? Be sure you have plenty for an emergency when supplies are hard to get. Do you use oxygen? Think about how you’d get your tanks refilled in an emergency.

“Think hard about your capabilities when everything is normal and the assistance you’ll need when it’s an emergency. Then, write down what you’ve come up with and share with every member of your team,” Sorensen says. “Don’t depend on your computer being functional — make paper copies of your plan.”

Construct a Kit

Assemble a disaster supply kit. Make sure to include:

-Three-day supply of nonperishable food

-Manual can opener

-Three-day supply of water (one gallon of water per person, per day)

-Portable, battery-powered radio or television with extra batteries

-Flashlight and extra batteries

-First-aid kit and manual

-Sanitation and hygiene items

-Matches in a waterproof container


-Extra clothing and blankets

-Kitchen accessories and cooking utensils

“It sounds like a lot, but you don’t want to wish you had something during an emergency that you don’t have,” Sorensen says. “Also, make sure you have photocopies of your identification and credit cards and some cash and coins, as well as prescription medications, eye glasses, contact lens solution and hearing aid batteries.”


Review your plan every six months. This can include simulating emergency evacuation drills and checking food supplies for expiration dates.

“Food, even in cans, will go bad and batteries need to be replaced every so often,” Sorensen says.

Get Out

If instructed to leave your home, shut off water, gas and electricity if told to do so and if time permits wear appropriate clothing and sturdy shoes, take your disaster supplies kit, and lock your home.

Use travel routes specified by local authorities and don’t use shortcuts. Certain areas may be impassable or dangerous.

Make sure to know which emergency shelter can meet your special needs. Check with local authorities as part of your preparation plan so you’ll know where to go when and if the time comes.

“Emergency public shelters are a safe place to stay and are usually accessible for people with physical disabilities,” Sorensen says. “But you need to confirm this before an emergency so that you know exactly where to go.”

What to do with Fido?

Pets are part of our families and no one wants to leave them behind in an emergency.

However, be aware that pets other than service animals usually aren’t permitted in emergency public shelters for health reasons. Prepare a list of family, friends, boarding facilities, veterinarians and “pet-friendly” hotels that could shelter your pets in an emergency.

“The best option, if you have to leave your home and have a pet, is to have family or friends who are willing to watch your pet,” Sorensen says.

For more information, the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have co-produced a booklet, Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and other Special Needs. It’s available for free at or


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