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American Red Cross
Disaster Services

Disaster Preparedness for People With Disabilities


To find the best ways to prepare for a disaster, consider the following questions:

  • What kinds of disasters may occur in your area?
  • How are residents informed of possible disasters?
  • What are the effects of disasters on you and your community?

Contact your local American Red Cross chapter, your city/county emergency management office, or your local fire department. You can get information about the kinds of disasters that happen in your area and how often they occur. Check with your insurance agent about whether your insurance policies cover the types of disasters that can happen where you live. For example, regular insurance does not cover floods. You must have a flood insurance policy to cover flood damages.

Know the difference between a "watch" and a "warning"

The National Weather Service gives information to the public about some severe weather events, such as thunderstorms, winter storms, hurricanes, floods, flash floods, and tornadoes. Listen or watch for these terms:

Watch: A "watch" means that severe weather is threatening and may occur in your area. Continue to listen to the radio or watch television for information and advice.

Warning: A "warning" means that the event is happening now; it is imminent or has been seen on weather radar. This is the time to immediately protect yourself.

Some events happen very quickly, so warnings may not be issued or you may not receive them. Always pay attention to the weather around you. Take action when you think severe weather may be moving into your area, even if no official warning is given on the radio or television.

Know what your environment is likely to look like after the disaster

Disasters have many effects. Some are predictable and others are not. You should know what can happen and what your environment may be like after the disaster. It is our goal to help you deal with the hardships of a disaster. And you can. But first we must take a realistic look at what can happen during a disaster. Consider the following circumstances:

  • In disasters that have high winds and during earthquakes, a great deal of shaking may take place. This can break things and scatter debris. Hanging objects, such as plants, mirrors, and pictures, are likely to fall. Books may be flung from bookcases and the bookcases may fall. In your office, file cabinets, computers, and other unsecured items may fall. Acoustical ceiling tiles and all of the dust behind them may drop. Large and heavy furniture, such as couches, chairs, beds, and dressers, may move and block your pathway completely or in part.
  • Floods, earthquakes, and winter storms can cause sidewalks and roadways to crack or become impassable. Roads and sidewalks may be covered by mud, water, or debris, so you may not be able to tell where they begin and end. Mud, sand, and other materials may be left behind for long periods. In floods, the water may be moving very rapidly. This can keep you from leaving an area.
  • There could be so much debris on the streets that it would take weeks to clear it away. This could leave you stranded at home and keep caregivers from reaching you.
  • Familiar landmarks you use to help guide you may move or be destroyed, both indoors and out.
  • If you have a service animal, such as a guide dog, hearing dog, or personal-care monkey, the animal may be hurt or too frightened to work after a disaster.
  • Your home may be destroyed or isolated. Or, it could have enough damage to make it unlivable for a long time.
  • Your usual ways of getting groceries, medications, and medical supplies may be disrupted. It may take several days before stores reopen, so you may not be able to readily replace even basic items related to your disability, like hearing-aid batteries and prescription medications.
  • You may not be able to carry out your daily activities as you did before the disaster.
  • You may have a hard time reaching or getting help from police and fire departments, ambulance services, doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, veterinarians, markets, personal assistants, and other home health providers.
  • Utilities like electricity, water, gas, and phone service may be disrupted for a long time.
  • You may not be able to do the following:
    • Cook.
    • Cool or heat your home.
    • Make or receive phone calls to or from your doctor, fire department, ambulance service, support network, and others. You may not be able to use telephone relay systems and/or teletype equipment because systems may be overloaded or destroyed.
    • Light your home. You may have to move or communicate in the dark.
    • Receive emergency information from your television or radio.
    • Use equipment dependent on power, such as battery chargers, oxygen, suction devices, or home dialysis equipment.
    • Access cash through an automatic teller machine (ATM). Also, banks may be closed.
    • Fill vehicles with gas since pumps may not be working.

Know some other effects of a disaster

  • Public transportation may not be working. Routes and schedules may be changed. Public and private wheelchair transport services or paratransits may not be operating.
  • Roads may be damaged or blocked. Road signs may be down. Traffic lights and walking signals used to cross the street may not be working properly, or at all. This can disrupt cues used to cross the street. Travel time may be longer because of detours and added traffic.
  • Noisy surroundings, like a shelter, may interfere with how well your hearing aid functions. Also, the vibratory cues you are used to may be disturbed. A noisy environment can be very disorienting for people with visual impairments, as well.
  • You may need temporary housing for pets.

Know how disaster-related stress may affect your disability

Experiencing a disaster can be overwhelming. Stress makes many medical conditions worse. Everyone affected by a disaster may experience one or several of the following symptoms:

Psychological and Emotional

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability, restlessness, overexcitability
  • Depression, moodiness, crying
  • Anger, blaming
  • Feelings of apathy, diminished interest in usual activities
  • Feelings of isolation, detachment, estrangement
  • Feelings of guilt about surviving
  • Denial or constriction of feelings
  • Flashbacks or unwelcome memories of the disaster
  • An exaggerated reaction to being startled
  • Recurrent nightmares about the disaster or about other traumatic events
  • Inability to fall or stay asleep
  • Sleeping excessively


  • Poor concentration
  • Mental confusion
  • Slowness of thought
  • Inability to express yourself verbally or in writing
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to make judgments and decisions
  • Loss of ability to think of alternatives or prioritize tasks


  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Nausea, upset stomach, other gastrointestinal problems
  • Muscle soreness
  • Hot or cold spells; sweating or chills
  • Numbness or tingling in body parts
  • Heavy feeling in arms and/or legs
  • Feeling a "lump" in your throat
  • Chest pains
  • Trouble catching your breath; rapid breathing
  • Tremors
  • Fatigue
  • Increase in allergies, colds, or flu
  • Heart palpitations


  • Hyperactivity
  • Outbursts of anger or frequent arguments
  • Loss of objectivity
  • Withdrawal, social isolation, distancing yourself from others
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
  • Avoidance of activities or places that remind you of the disaster
  • Family problems

If any of these symptoms affect your ability to function, seek medical attention from your doctor or a mental health provider familiar with the effects of disasters. Some people may never have a reaction. Others may have delayed reactions that can show up days, weeks, or even months after the disaster happens. Not everyone has reactions right away. These symptoms may go and then come back again when something makes you think about the disaster.

After a disaster, be sure to talk to someone about how you are feeling: a member of the clergy, a counselor, or someone in the Employee Assistance Program provided by your employer. Also, the Red Cross has disaster mental health professionals who can help you deal with the stress related to your disaster experience.

Remember that service animals may also suffer emotional trauma. Get their daily routine back to normal as soon as possible. This will make it easier for them to serve you as before.

Know how a disaster may affect your independence

You are used to being in a certain environment. However, a disaster can change your ability to deal with this environment. It is important that you anticipate for your lowest level of functioning for your personal disaster plan. Your condition may become worse because of physical or emotional reactions to stress. For example, people who do not need the aid of devices on a daily basis may need a wheelchair after a disaster.

After a disaster, you may need to ask for help to do things you usually would have done independently. Understandably, this may make you feel especially vulnerable. You may need help putting your home back in order, filling out forms, or providing documentation and information to disaster relief agencies. This can add to the stress you may be feeling. A personal support network that knows your needs may anticipate some of them and make your recovery easier and less stressful.

Know how to reduce the impact of a disaster on you

Now that you know what may happen, what can you do to reduce the effects of the disaster and to develop a personal disaster plan?

Start by considering the following actions:

  • Create a personal support network.
  • Complete a personal assessment of your needs.
  • Collect information and take actions that will help you meet your needs during evacuations and after the disaster happens.
  • Gather essential supplies you will need during and after a disaster, especially those specific to your disability.
  • Make your home or office safer.

<< Table of Contents      < Introduction      Creating a Personal Support Network >


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