How people living with paralysis can prepare for 5 common natural disasters

How people living with paralysis can prepare for 5 common natural disasters


(BPT) - From record-breaking blizzards in upstate New York and devastating wildfires in California to powerful hurricanes off the coast of Florida, natural disasters are becoming increasingly common because of the ongoing climate crisis. While everyone is affected by severe weather, it poses a particular risk for people living with disabilities.

When a natural disaster hits, the routines and the infrastructures people with disabilities depend on can be dangerously disrupted. Also, state- and county-level disaster response protocols may pose a danger to people living with paralysis, as they may not have made those protocols with the disability community in mind. That's why it's crucial that people living with paralysis and their caregivers know how to prepare themselves.

With this in mind, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to create the Emergency Preparedness for People with Paralysis Booklet. This comprehensive, crucial resource can aid national organizations, people living with paralysis and other disabilities and their caregivers to prepare for impending weather, including wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes.

Below are some ways the booklet can help you identify your mobility needs, assess challenges and create tangible solutions in case of a power outage, hurricane, wildfire, tornado and extreme heat.

Power outage

Power outages are common during various natural disasters and storms. Because they are so common, it's important that people who use power wheelchairs and/or ventilators know what they'll need to do to prepare.

First, you'll need to identify your frequently used electricity-dependent medical equipment. If you have extra batteries, know how long they'll last and understand how to use a backup power supply.

Next, contact your local utility company and register as a power wheelchair user or dependent on a ventilator. This registration list is used to prioritize power restoration services.

Finally, contact emergency services to understand their protocols for those who require electricity to support medical equipment. This includes information on priority shelter placement or transportation to local EMS facilities.


Hurricanes are tropical storms with wind speeds of at least 74 miles per hour. While these storms pose a significant threat to coastal communities, they can also cause torrential rains and severe flooding hundreds of miles inland.

To prepare for a hurricane, look around the interior of your home and identify what items need to be secured. Securing these items will prevent injury from falling debris.

Know your evacuation routes and leave immediately if an evacuation order is issued. If you're at home when a hurricane strikes, head to the highest level or shelter in a windowless room.


Although wildfires may begin in natural areas like forests and prairies, they can quickly threaten residential communities. Hazardous air conditions and emergency evacuation are likely, like those issued in the recent Canadian fires in the Northeast. If you live in an area where wildfire risks are possible, it's critical that you identify a safe space in your home that can be closed off before a wildfire strikes.

Another thing to remember is that regional power grids may be shut off to lower the risk of igniting power lines. Contact your local utility company and government agencies to find out how residents will be notified of a public power shutdown.

During a wildfire, if possible, get out of your wheelchair and onto the floor. Smoke rises, and the best air for breathing will be down low. Wear an N95 mask to limit smoke inhalation, and call 911 if you are trapped.

After the wildfire has been contained, don't touch fallen power lines and continue to wear masks. Make sure to wash service animals and/or pets to remove residual ash.


Tornadoes are most common in the Great Plains but occur throughout the U.S. and can be triggered by thunderstorms, tropical storms or hurricanes. The funnel-shaped cloud, containing violently spinning air, can leave a path of devastation a mile wide and 50 miles long.

In case of a tornado, identify a safe space to take shelter in your home. If the basement is not accessible, plan to use a windowless room, such as a bathroom or closet, on the lowest possible level of the home. Don't forget to lock your wheelchair wheels.

Extreme heat

As a result of climate change, extreme heat is increasingly becoming an issue throughout the country. It can pose a specific risk for people who have difficulty regulating body temperature due to spinal cord injury.

Get in touch with local emergency management officials to locate community cooling centers. Make sure to visit ahead of time to ensure they are accessible.

Pay attention to your wheelchair and mobility equipment, which can become extremely hot when left in the sun. Overheated equipment can burn the skin of individuals who brush up against hot armrests and seats or who place bare feet on a metal footrest.

Beyond preparation

In addition to ensuring the safety and livelihood of those living with disabilities and their caregivers, the Reeve Foundation's Emergency Preparedness for People with Paralysis Booklet is a powerful reminder to local and government leaders that people living with disabilities should be top of mind and included in the conversations of natural disaster response protocols.

To learn more and download the Emergency Preparedness for People with Paralysis Booklet, please visit

This publication is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor endorsement by, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. government.

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