emergency preparedness

Emergency Preparedness Planning For The Homeless

Homelessness is a growing problem in the United States, and all too often those who find themselves living on the streets are disabled American veterans and/or the elderly.  When your income is so low that you can’t afford to pay the rent and eat too, then living on the street becomes a reality.  Many of the homeless find the “golden years” are anything but golden.

There are certainly valiant efforts being made to reduce or eliminate homelessness, but for those people still living under a freeway bypass or in a garbage dumpster, life becomes a dangerous existence indeed. 

Have you ever thought about what happens to the homeless when disaster strikes? 

Many of these individuals are coping with mental illness; even if they make it through a disaster, putting their lives back together may be more than they can cope with.

Part of Emergency Preparedness Planning involves “sheltering in place.”  This is a term used to indicate that it is dangerous to be outside (because of radiation, toxic fumes, etc.), and the best practice is to remain in your home with the windows and doors sealed until the “All Clear!” is given. 

So what happens during and after a disaster to those individuals who are homeless?  Or, if your shelter is the local Rescue Mission where you are required to leave during the day -- how do you shelter in place when you have no place?   

What may be worse is that veterans living on the street are often there as a result of having PTSD.  An emergency, or even emergency responders, may trigger PTSD symptoms.  The sound of sirens and alarms from rescue workers can trigger flashbacks.

So what does a homeless person with a disability do when an emergency arises?  

That is something that needs to be addressed in our local emergency preparedness plans.   Shelters must be made available to homeless people too.  Perhaps even more important, our homeless individuals need the supports necessary to help them get back on their feet and take their place in society again before a disaster strikes.  We hope that time isn’t far off.  

Lessons Learned: Planning for Disaster

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, emergency preparedness planners learned that those affected the worst were people with disabilities and the elderly.  Most of those adversely affected lived in the New Orleans metropolitan area; 1,330 people died.  Roughly 71% of them were over 60 years old, and 47% were over 75.  Most died in their homes, and at least 68 died in nursing homes, abandoned by their caregivers.  This has, and should continue, to be a wake-up call to people with disabilities to prepare for disasters before they happen.

It’s not surprising that the elderly are at greater risk for being negatively affected by any type of disaster simply because they are already coping with chronic illness, functional limitations, sensory, physical, and cognitive disabilities.  With reliance on multiple medications, assistance by caregivers and the overall frailness of the elderly, they have greater needs than younger people.  Add into the equation that many elderly and people with disabilities live alone, and things just get worse.

Unfortunately, little forethought had been given to the effect of disaster on the elderly and people with disabilities.  It is time that those of us who are disabled, getting into our senior years, or care for others who fall into one of those categories, demand to be included in emergency preparedness planning at the community level.

Some of the things we’ve learned as a result of Katrina include the following:

  • We must provide emergency preparedness information to older people and people with disabilities that is appropriate to their needs and in a variety of formats (enlarged print, spoken and in Braille).
  • We must assure the elderly that if they are asked to evacuate they know it is a temporary measure and that they won’t be taken to a nursing home (one of their greatest fears).
  • We must educate people with disabilities and the elderly to plan for “sheltering in place” and developing a personal plan that takes into account any special needs they may have.
  • We must train emergency responders concerning the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities including any special emergency management procedures.
  • We must ensure that those agencies and organizations that provide supportive services to people with disabilities and the elderly have a plan in place to continue providing those services during and following a disaster.
  • We must identify those individuals who will need emergency transportation.
  • We must ensure that long-term care facilities have an emergency plan in place so resident care goes uninterrupted.
  • We must address barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing public shelters.
  • We must provide for emergency shelters with back-up generators to power life-sustaining medical devices.

We’ve learned many of these lessons the hard way, and at great loss of life.  As a person with a disability, please take the time to work on your own emergency preparedness plan that addresses your specific needs.  Let’s do everything possible to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

It Won't Happen To Me

Photo: American Red Cross Guide - Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and Other Special Needs

Photo: American Red Cross Guide - Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and Other Special Needs

Everyone is attracted to tips and strategies promising greater organization, time management, and stress relief, but how often do we become enticed by the idea of emergency planning?  For many of us the answer is probably rarely or never.  A fire resulting in the complete loss of a home, severe weather ending in a state of emergency, or the threat of terrorism is something that happens to other people, simply stories we see on the nightly news. 

In reality, devastation from fire, straight winds, and blizzards are more common in west Michigan than we typically admit; and unfortunately over the last few years, Americans have learned that we are all at risk for acts of terrorism.  For many individuals with disabilities, whether physical, mental, sensory, or health-related, planning for a potential crisis should be a priority.   Many consequences can be avoided or at least diminished by thinking proactively. 

To create broad awareness, FEMA and the American Red Cross have compiled a guide to assist individuals with disabilities and the elderly to develop a plan specific to their personal needs.  The packet entitled, “Preparing for Disaster for People with Disabilities and other Special Needs” can be found on-line at http://goo.gl/cUSqT.  

It outlines four critical steps:

      • Acquire information    • Collect supplies
      • Establish a strategy    • Regularly review and practice your plan

When gathering information, individuals should:

·     Identify friends, family, and others who are able to assist them

·     Evaluate which tasks they can perform on their own

·     Educate themselves on local resources available to offer support in the event of an emergency

Developing an action plan includes:

·     Open discussions with those that currently provide support such as personal care assistant’s

·     Recording names, addresses, and phone numbers of your support system

·     Mapping “escape routes”

·     Arranging for someone to care for your pets if you are forced to go to a shelter

The booklet also includes a helpful checklist of supplies to have on-hand in your home and automobile, and a list of actions to conduct regularly to ensure your strategy and supplies are up to date and ready when needed.


American Red Cross. (2004, August n.d.). People with Disabilities. Retrieved from American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/images/MEDIA_CustomProductCatalog/m4240199_A4497.pdf