A steel container delivered to a metal recycler in a Spokane neighborhood recently started to leak while workers handled it. Compressed chlorine gas escaped from the cylinder, and wind carried it beyond the worksite. A four-block radius around the recycling center was evacuated. Ten people were transported to hospitals, most suffering respiratory issues. Eight were in critical condition at the time. One person later died.
Events such as this show that emergencies can happen anywhere at any time, and often without warning. Chemical spills, wildfires, earthquakes, floods: whatever the cause, we all need to be prepared to either evacuate or shelter at home, often without utilities and services for extended periods.
If you or a family member have a disability or special medical needs, however, some additional planning is needed to prepare for emergencies. Whether you go to an emergency shelter or stay at home, you’ll need to have a supply of medications, any necessary medical equipment with a backup power supply, and any other items needed to manage chronic health conditions.
Advanced planning and practicing with your family, care attendants and others in your support network before an emergency can help you cope with your special health care needs when disasters strike. Taking the time to do this will not only help you during an emergency, but will also make you resilient, meaning that you will recover more quickly from a crisis.
Improving community resilience is one of the nine Thurston Thrives action areas designed to improve the health of our community and its residents. More information on Thurston Thrives is available at thurstonthrives.org.
Take the following steps to plan and prepare for an emergency if you or a loved one has a disability or other special medical needs.
Develop a communication plan. Create a paper copy of contact information for your support network; discuss your emergency plan with those on the list and practice your plan with them. Be sure that they know where your emergency supplies are stored.
Check your emergency supply kit. Identify essential items (food, water, medical supplies, batteries, etc.) that you and your family will need to survive for three to five days — or longer — if emergency responders or others cannot get to you after a disaster. Store all of these supplies in an easily accessible location.
Make a medical plan. Have both paper and electronic copies (for example, on a USB flash drive) of your medical information. Be sure to include information about medical prescriptions and orders for medical equipment, medical insurance cards and any relevant health information.
Plan for possible evacuation. During an emergency, be ready to explain to first responders and emergency officials your special needs, equipment and supplies. You may want to have printed and laminated instructions if it may be difficult for you to describe your needs and preferences, or if it may be difficult for you to be understood. Plan ahead for accessible transportation needs.
Make a power outage plan. Plan to have a way to charge your mobile devices and medical equipment before disaster strikes. How you will address your dependence on electricity? Your power company may be able to advise you if you use oxygen or mechanical ventilation. Plan for medications that require refrigeration.
Plan for your service animals. Make plans in advance for your service animal’s health and safety whether you both stay at home or evacuate to a shelter.
Research on preparedness shows that nearly 20 percent of Americans have a disability that affects their capacity to respond to an emergency. Only 1 in 4 of those, however, have made arrangements specific to their disability to help prepare for emergencies. Working together as individuals, families and neighbors, we can make sure that all of us are better prepared. Don’t wait until there is an emergency to get started.
More information on emergency preparedness for those with disabilities is available at ready.gov/individuals-access-functional-needs.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.