Shelter in a Storm

Emergency prep essential for people with disabilities

by Jan Blaustone on May 1, 2007 - 2:20pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 3

Someone once said, “No one plans to fail, they simply fail to plan.”

What would you do if your water and other vital utilities were cut off for days? How would you use lifesaving medical equipment requiring electricity? Have you registered with emergency personnel as needing special assistance? What would you do with your pets if you had to go to a shelter where only certified service animals were allowed? If you don’t have a car, how will you leave your home in an emergency?

When faced with disaster, strength is gained and lives are saved by those with a plan.

Learn the system

Each state has an Office of Emergency Management (OEM) that’s the focal point for all emergency planning activities. OEMs develop a basic emergency plan that coordinates with all county departments and other organizations.

How a city responds to an emergency is determined by the type and severity of an event. Emergency shelters aren’t designated in advance, explains Scott Harris, interim department director of the Mayor’s OEM in Nashville, Tenn. Schools and churches are often used for shelter, but their locations depend upon where the disaster occurs, its scale and how many vulnerable populations are involved.

When disaster strikes, a community hotline is activated. Media and first responders alert the public to the hotline, where all critical information is learned, from evacuation routes to the location of accessible shelters.

As in most communities, Nashville’s electric service has a special needs database of individuals who depend on powered medical equipment for life support.

“In the event of an evacuation or disaster, that database gives a good advance indication of where people are who will require assistance,” says Harris. “The Red Cross and health department officials will be ready to assist them at designated shelters.

“It also allows fire departments to ‘tag’ [a list from] a telephone poll when someone requiring critical care lives there. That way they know there may be someone inside the home requiring special assistance in the event of a fire.”

Trained volunteers

Harris advises individuals with disabilities to create a support network of family and friends for assistance. Because jammed phone lines are a common problem in the first few hours of a disaster, it’s also good to have a contact outside your area who can relay information to others.

For help in a declared disaster, specially trained volunteers are available as well.

Community groups, family members and friends can volunteer to be trained to assist emergency response personnel during large-scale disasters. “It’s really all about neighborhoods looking out for neighbors,” says Harris.

Nationally, these volunteers are known as the Citizen Corps Council (CCC). Variations of CCC exist across the country, such as Tennessee’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members. These local volunteers can cut off utilities, put out small fires, administer first aid, search for victims who need rescue, and collect disaster information to help guide governmental response efforts.

To learn more about a Citizen Corps Council in your area, contact your local OEM, or contact the Red Cross.


Evacuations are more common than many people realize. Besides fires, hurricanes and floods, there are chemical spills, gas leaks and even police actions that may force you to leave your house immediately.

If you use a power wheelchair, it’s wise to keep a manual chair on hand for emergencies, because it can be broken down quickly and tossed into most any vehicle.

The newly implemented Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2007 (see “After Katrina” ) requires that accessible transportation be available in an emergency. But to be sure somebody is coming, it’s best to have a network of people who will assist you.

Safe rooms

Sometimes it’s not possible to evacuate. While basements typically are seen as safe shelters, they usually aren’t wheelchair accessible. A wind shelter or “safe room” built in a first-floor interior room (large closets and utility rooms are popular retrofits) can provide sturdy accessible protection from damaging winds,flying debris, tornadoes and hurricanes.

FEMA offers guidelines and instructions in its publication “Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House,” available online or by calling (888) 565-3896. If your region is prone to windstorms, spending $2,500 to $6,000 on safe room construction is worth the reassurance.

Take action

“Preparing in advance of any emergency can save lives later,” says Harris. “When a disaster is happening is not the time to make a plan.”

Some preparations are personal: Create an emergency kit online (or call (202) 282-8000). Learn your region’s disaster history (from the FEMA Web site) and what disaster procedures are in place at school or work.

Some preparations have a broader focus. To advocate for better emergency preparedness for people with disabilities in your community, ask the city or county OEM for a copy of your area’s emergency disaster plan, or contact the local American Red Cross. Every citizen is entitled to view these public documents.

If you feel the plan is inadequate, address the issues with city or county elected officials and local OEM. It doesn’t hurt to involve the local news media.

Safety improves for everyone when you become an advocate for your community’s preparedness by educating yourself and becoming involved.

Jan Blaustone, a writer and teacher in Nashville, has limb-girdle MD.

Editor's note: Don't forget to print your own copy of MDA's "Preparing for Emergencies Checklist." It's available in English and Spanish.

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