I learned a lot from my first shelter exercise during The Great Utah Shake Out at Stansbury High School on April 17.
Countless decisions in our family’s life have centered around Heidi, our beautiful and complex adult daughter with Down syndrome and late-onset autism. So I have always believed in disaster preparedness, and was curious about emergency shelters for her.
Every parent of a child with disabilities faces this worry: “If some disaster happens, and we’re injured or incapable of helping this vulnerable child, where would she (or he) go?”
While I’m grateful Miss Heidi hasn’t experienced massive disasters, I imagined this overnight sheltering simulation like it was an actual disaster with her by my side. After arriving I was dismayed so few participated in this helpful, free opportunity to strengthen our area. Children and people with special needs who have survived recent trauma adapt better in familiar experiences, so this was a missed opportunity.
Here are some key points that I learned and why it’s important to always be ready if disaster strikes.
Choose up: Shelters are partnerships with local authorities, the Red Cross, and select schools, churches, or community centers for people in immediate danger (wildfires, earthquakes, toxic spills, or flooding) without alternative housing. There are mobile apps available to find shelter locations, etc. An average shelter operates for 3-5 days until displaced individuals can relocate with family, friends or motels.
Gear up: Everybody needs a previously packed 72-hour kit or “Grab and Go Bag” that’s easily available (not buried in the basement). Federal authorities have learned that many citizens assume help arrives in 72 hours after an emergency, but this three-day period is always an estimate. Today’s new term, Disaster Supply Kit, is a gathering of supplies for 4-5 days. Whenever possible, bring a week’s worth of medication and necessities. These build your “survival bridge” until help arrives. Many shelters do not have cots, blankets, and food for everyone, so bring your kits, sleeping bags, water, and copies or flash drives of important papers like bank numbers.
Show up: Red Cross shelters require identification with name/address/age/health if possible. If someone leaves, they must sign out, etc. No weapons, alcohol, drugs, or pets are allowed. Animals required by disabled citizens are permitted inside, yet I was thankful to learn they may be located in a separate area due to possible allergies, etc. This sounded wise, knowing Heidi is anxious in crowds and also snores.
Set up: Before any evacuation order, authorities try to have decent alternatives; however, many shelters don’t have stored emergency items, yet can provide a safe roof overhead. I was impressed our emergency team had the gymnasium set up with 100 cots, wool blankets, and hygiene kits, as well as a first-aid table, food tables, and a kid’s table of activities to do. Finding enough for children to do is vital, and I recalled packing some of Heidi’s favorite small books, balls, and toys in her backpack.
Fill up: There may not be hot meals available — or at all — because volunteer portable kitchen crews take time to assemble and arrive (depending on the distance and road debris). Our mock shelter provided pre-packaged snacks of crackers, chips, cookies, nuts, and fruit snacks. There was bottled water, but no soda pop or coffee. Frankly, I felt relieved I had given up my pop habit and didn’t have to battle a sugar/caffeine addiction. I assumed men and teenagers who need more to eat would be hungry, but Heidi would have loved it. I was glad I brought carrot sticks, almonds, applesauce cups, and raisins. I wanted foods requiring no cooking or refrigeration, plus were “sharable.” The lady next to my cot was recently diagnosed diabetic, so I was happy to share something healthy.
Listen up: Shelter rules help with safety and stability, such as “quiet time” at night. One sweet lady was on her cot trying to sleep at 10 p.m. sharp while others were fairly talkative. I imagine after a disaster the adrenaline will be pumping, and people could be crying or traumatized. When Heidi is anxious, she’s repetitious with rocking and questions. I couldn’t sleep, and was glad I packed herbs (in capsule form) that helped calm me down. I made a mental note to pack a sleeping aid in Heidi’s kit.
Lighten up: The human brain requires some light to feel safe. Yet, lighting candles after a natural disaster is not wise with potential gas explosions, so other light sources are safer. I was thrilled I’d purchased a hand-crank flashlight without batteries. I also loved the idea of chemical “glow sticks” for children and people with limitations, like my Heidi. However, like the chemical hand warmers, they’re a one-time use.
Pack up: When creating a basic disaster supply kit a change of clothes, toilet paper, first-aid, flashlight, silver solar blanket and cash (small bills and quarters) is a good start. Personalize it, like eyeglasses, inhaler, and feminine hygiene supplies, or an eye mask to block light. I packed ear plugs, which helped muffle the night sounds, but didn’t stop noise from the door (as people headed to the restroom). Heidi loves her Winnie-the-Pooh pillow case, so I’ve packed a duplicate in her emergency backpack. I suspect she may digress under pressure, so we have some adult diapers stuffed in, too. My husband has chronic allergies and needs nasal spray and tissues. So new handkerchiefs (which I can wash out) will help him during a big disaster. If you’re diabetic or eat gluten-free, kosher, etc., you’re responsible to prepare accordingly. Honestly, I can’t live without music or the holy writ, so I actually have a harmonica and a small bible in my survival bag.
After my experience, I’d say shelters are good for me, but would be challenging for Heidi’s sensitive nature and impulsiveness. I’m grateful we have them, and in future situations if Heidi was found wondering alone, someone could take her there so she could be safe until we could meet up, etc. She is pre-registered with local safety programs. We’re also getting Heidi a new identification bracelet.
Tonight I’ll sleep better knowing there are wonderful people who organize and run emergency shelters. God bless them.
Pearson is an international disability advocate, and an award-winning freelance writer from northern Utah. Her email is: firstname.lastname@example.org