Disaster Planning

Article adapted from presentation by Kim Leffler
Disaster Services Specialist
American Red Cross, Greater Richmond Chapter

Day-to-day coping is challenging enough – dealing with a disaster as well as Alzheimer’s or other primary caregiving responsibilities can be devastating for everyone.

Planning ahead can make all the difference. Your goal as caregivers is to identify potential challenges and take the steps necessary to guard against, and prepare for disasters, in order to reduce the confusion and disruption that can distress and alarm family members requiring caregiving assistance, especially those with Alzheimer’s.

Types of disasters

  • House fires
  • Floods
  • Tornadoes
  • Hurricanes
  • Winter storms
  • Power outages
  • Heat waves
  • Chemical spills
  • Terrorism

These disasters is common or has the potential to affect you, depending on where you live. The risk for some hazards, such as house fires, can be minimized, but there is always the chance that lightning will strike your house or that an accident will happen.

Other disasters, such as hurricanes, winter storms, and heat waves often provide some warning; while tornadoes, floods, chemical spills, and terrorism offer little or no advance notice.  Power outages are common with many of these disasters. The good news is that you can plan for every one of these disasters.

Prepare an emergency plan

The first step is to take time now to think about your daily routine – the foods you eat, the medications you take, the people you rely on, and so forth. Think about the ways in which these items might change if a disaster knocked out your power, and you couldn’t leave your home. How would they be affected if you had to leave your home due to a disaster?  

Ask yourself:

  • What kind of disaster could affect us?
  • Where would we stay?
  • What would we eat and drink?
  • How would we communicate, get information, deal with medical emergencies, acquire supplies, and replace our belongings and medications 

Post the plan in a prominent place in your home.  The plan needs to be in a place where you, or family, friends, and neighbors can easily find it when an emergency strikes. 

Keep a copy with you.  You may not be home when an emergency strikes, or you may not be able to return to your home. Your plan will have important information, such as phone numbers, and other details you will need to access. 

Make sure everyone involved in your plan has a copy.  Once you have developed your plan, discuss it with everyone involved, and make sure they have copies as well. Make sure this list gets any updates or changes to your plan.

Shelter – at home and away

Depending on the timing and nature of the disaster, you may find yourself sheltering at home. For instance, here in Central Virginia you will probably await a hurricane in your home, as the winds, while strong, will not be severe enough to warrant advance evacuations. We remember from Isabel that most of us had undamaged homes, but almost all lost power during the storm; for some the outages lasted weeks.

Think about what you would need to do to cope in this situation. Excessive heat could be an issue, or extreme cold might be a factor in a winter storm. If you have a generator and feel comfortable using and maintaining it, you and your loved one may have fewer issues with confusion if you stay in your home’s familiar environment. Or, you may decide that you would be better off staying with family. Now is the time to identify the need, locate the safehouse, and discuss the plan with your family or friends.

Sometimes staying in your home is not an option. Tornadoes, house fires, and floods all might damage your house, or prevent you from returning home if you are away when trees fall and block the roads, or floods inundate the area – remember Gaston? You need to anticipate this happening and have a backup plan for shelter. Family or friends will most likely be your first choice, but they might also be affected, requiring that you stay in a Red Cross shelter.

A shelter will open in the affected area, and will provide food, beverages, and blankets, but probably will not have enough cots or pillows for everyone. The food may not be to your taste, or meet your nutritional requirements. Nurses will staff each shelter, but will not have any medications other than basic first aid – residents in need of medical attention will be evaluated and evacuated to hospitals. It is important to note that shelters will not be a long-term option – you will need to have a post-shelter plan in place.

Food and water

You must have these two essentials whether you stay at home or at a shelter. Begin now to stock up on foods that you like, that meet your nutritional requirements (i.e. low sugar, low salt, high protein), that do not require cooking or refrigeration.  Make sure you have a manual can opener.

Here are some good items to have on hand:

 Granola bars
 Peanut butter
 Cans of tuna
 Appropriate cookies
 Cans of fruit or applesauce

Plan to have enough food for three days and take it with you if you have to evacuate to a shelter to ensure that you will have food you can eat.

Also, store one gallon of water per person per day for three days for drinking, cooking and washing. You will not have to take water to a shelter.

Rotate your food and water supplies every six months to ensure freshness.

We all know how critical it is that your family member with Alzheimer’s takes medications on a regular schedule. This could become even more important in a disaster, as you seek to keep him or her stabilized and minimize their distress. Plan now to be at least one week ahead with prescription refills.

Get in the habit of putting one week’s worth of medication in your emergency kit – order refills so they arrive before you run out. Use the stored medications for the last week and replace with a week’s worth of the refills. Keep a supply of all medications in your purse or day bag, in case you are away from home when disaster strikes. Use them toward the end of the prescription period and replace with the new meds.

Carry copies of your prescriptions in your purse or day bag – Red Cross nurses will be able to help you get replacements if needed.


How will you know that a disaster is imminent or has occurred? How will you get information about evacuations, shelters, or available assistance? Take the time now to ensure that you have a NOAA weather alert radio, and an AM/FM hand-cranked radio, or replace the batteries in your existing radio every six months.

Also, establish a family communications plan. Identify an out-of-town person who will serve as your touchstone – sometimes long distance calls are easier to place following a local disaster. This person can relay information to and about you and your other family members. Write family phone numbers – home, work, school and cell – in your emergency plan and keep a copy in your purse or day bag. These may be in your cell phone, but what if you lose your cell phone or the battery goes dead?

Emergency Kit

Each person in your family needs an emergency kit that contains basic resources for use at home or away (in a shelter or with family or friends). Prepare it in advance so it is ready at a moment’s notice. Your being prepared will go a long way toward keeping your loved one calm.

A disaster kit should contain:

  • Water – three gallons (one for each of three days)
  • Food – enough for three days
  • Battery-powered or hand crank AM/FM radio and a NOAA Weather Alert radio. Extra batteries for both, if used.
  • Flashlight, and extra batteries, or a hand crank flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle (to signal for help)
  • Dust mask, plastic sheeting, duct tape
  • Hand sanitizer, moist towelettes, garbage bags, plastic ties
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Local maps
  • Medications and copies of prescriptions
  • Hearing aid batteries
  • Wheelchair batteries
  • Oxygen
  • Eyeglasses
  • Pet supplies
       Toys, leashes

Pets, other than service animals, will not be allowed in shelters. Some areas are working out agreements with the SPCA and the Humane Society to care for the pets of shelter residents, but I advise making arrangements with your veterinarian or family and friends in the event of an emergency.

Your disaster kit container should be something easy to carry in the event you have to leave your home. I recommend a wheeled suitcase for each individual, which will allow room for a change of clothes, reading material, and other comfort items. Designate a closet for your emergency supplies, and keep a list of the contents on the door, with reminders to replace food, water, medications, and batteries on specific dates.

Vital Records and Documents

Your emergency kit should contain copies of the following in a waterproof container:

  • Family records
  • Wills
  • Power of attorney documents
  • Deeds
  • Social security numbers
  • Credit card and bank information
  • Tax records
  • Insurance policies for homes, cars, and medical
    (Keep a copy of these documents in a safe deposit box, and with a family member outside the immediate area.)
  • Names and phone numbers of everyone in your support network
  • Medical providers
  • Cash or traveler’s checks (at least $500)

Fire Safety

Fires are the number one local disaster. Hearing the smoke alarm go off may frighten your loved one, so it is important to take the time now to think about your exit routes. Have at least two ways out of every room. This might be the door and a window. Make sure your windows open easily, and that screens or storm windows are removable.

Invest in a collapsible ladder or sturdy rope tied to an eye bolt screwed into a wall stud if your bedroom is on the second floor. Keep hallways, stairwells, doorways, and windows free of clutter and obstructions.

Consider a safety audit of your electrical system if the wiring is years or decades old. Test your smoke alarms monthly and replace the batteries every six months. Install a carbon monoxide detector.

Make sure your insurance policies are up to date.

In Conclusion

This is a lot to digest and it may seem like an overwhelming task. But it is vital that you do these things -- for your own safety, and that of your loved one.

Tackle one item at a time and before long, you will have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that once again you have done your best. Enlist the aid of family and friends – they all want to help, and this will be a good way to get them thinking about disaster preparedness for themselves.

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