‘It was life or death': Evacuating a loved one with special needs can be scarier than the hurricane

Are you someone or do you know someone who couldn’t evacuate themselves in a hurricane? Don’t feel helpless from – help your loved ones plan for emergencies.

When evacuation orders are in place during hurricane season, many residents may not have a lot of time to gather their belongings and go. If you have special needs or are caring for someone with a disability, it may even be bigger a challenge. 

For my family, it was always a struggle, especially since they lived along the Florida coast. Hurricanes always terrify me, and I don't even live in Florida anymore. My parents did for many years, and my father needed oxygen to live. Getting him out of the way of a storm was only part of the problem. Keeping him plugged into an oxygen concentrator or tank during transport, through the storm and after the storm, was another. 

"(To evacuate) we probably had 15 oxygen tanks, the oxygen concentrator, 10 gallons of water bottles and a wheelchair," my mother, Lorraine Andrews, described preparing to evacuate with my father. "At that point, I could care less about the house blowing away. I would say, 'I can't do anything else.'" 

They didn't need to leave for Hurricane Eta in 2020, but at least they had somewhere to go. My father was a special needs evacuee with a spot at a shelter with backup generators. It's not only people who need life-saving machines that qualify but anyone who has no other evacuation plan and requires government transportation and sheltering during an emergency. 

Even residents of manufactured or mobile homes and those electrically dependent on medical devices not in an evacuation zone can qualify for the assistance program. Pinellas County, for example, has many people with special needs. About 25% of the county, home to Saint Petersburg and Clearwater, are over 65.


"I'm not saying everybody over the age of 65 or even under 65 needs special needs assistance," explained Cathie Perkins, Director of Pinellas County Emergency Management. "But there certainly is a fairly substantial segment of our population that has either home health care, gets assistance with daily living, have people come in to help them, people that are on intermittent or constant oxygen, people that are on life-sustaining medical equipment, people that are bed-bound, that are living in our community… and not everybody that has those conditions is living in an assisted living facility or a nursing home." 

Every county across the nation has an emergency management office to back up and support local responders in all types of disasters. The key is to get residents with special needs registered in-person, by mail, phone, or online. Family members and friends can even have a registration form mailed to someone with special needs. 

Pinellas County currently has around 4,900 registered special needs residents that the office contacts before a storm. Residents also call up last minute to be added to the list. 

"So we look at each storm independently. We look at how many people have confirmed the need for transportation from our call down, which we do about three or four days in advance of the storm," said Perkins. "For a Category 1 [storm], our clearance time is about 17 hours. For Category 5, it's about 50 hours. But we also want to minimize the amount of time that our special needs clients are in the shelters because we realize these are folks that have medical conditions." 


Clearance means evacuating people safely ahead of winds, rain and last-minute evacuation traffic.   

Andrews recalled the challenges getting out when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida in 2017.

"I think I saw that 7 million people living in South Florida tried to evacuate at the same time. And there are only three major highways going north," Andrews said as she recalled the Hurricane Irma evacuation orders that kept changing hours before landfall. "And trying to get back is a horror show because the gas stations will run out of gasoline. So you're stranded, and it'll take forever to get back home." 

Counties set up all levels of local care from cooling centers with backup generators to shelters and even arrange for temporary hospital or nursing home stays during and after storms. Pinellas County recommends that each special needs evacuee bring a caregiver or loved one, not only for comfort but to shelter them from the storm too. 

"Those public shelters, we realize they're not going to be comfortable. But it's better than having someone keep themselves in a risk area … Because during the height of the storm, you can call 911, but they're not going to be able to respond," Perkins said. "When I was working in another county, we actually had somebody who was electric dependent refuse transport, and then, unfortunately, they passed away when the power went out." 

For immunocompromised evacuees, she especially recommends trying to stay with friends or family first. Although, Pinellas County shelters try to set up some rooms with greater social distancing. 

Other tips: Make sure that your alternate accommodations have a backup generator if needed. Ask hotels before making a reservation. Also, check your evacuation zone and the zone of the place you hope to evacuate. Pinellas County details the zones on its website. The zones are based on National Hurricane Center models. 


"We went to a hotel that was far enough off the coast because our governor was saying that we could have a 12-foot storm surge," Andrews told me about driving around in Hurricane Irma with my father when he was a bit more mobile. "And that particular hotel that we chose was on a river … So we had to evacuate that hotel too." 

My father only had hours of oxygen in portable tanks and couldn't afford to be stuck in evacuation traffic. 

"Where I live, everybody is so used to hurricanes that they start calling up for hotel rooms two weeks before a hurricane is actually going to hit a certain area," Andrews said as she defended her first hotel choice. "So there are hardly any rooms to choose from." 

"Check on neighbors and friends before, during and after storms," urged Perkins. "When visiting your family, meet their neighbors, friends and fellow hobbyists. Get their phone numbers, so you can call them to encourage evacuation and again after the storm to see if the house is safe to return."

Local emergency managers also do wellness checks after storms if you are far away from a storm impacted loved one. While your family member may not have been in an evacuation zone or chose not to evacuate, an official can make sure everyone is ok without power or has enough medicine. Once the governor issues a state of emergency, anyone can get a prescription filled for 30 days not to risk running out. 

Make a plan now

During the pandemic, Florida's population grew by almost a quarter-million people, many trying to flee northern cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That growth was second only to Texas, which is also prone to hurricanes. And many have never had to prepare for hurricanes. 

"We had a lot of turnover, like 25% turnover, which is huge," Andrews said of just her small community. "And I don't think these people have any idea of what Florida hurricanes are like. So it's going to be very different." 


Follow these three tenants to stay safe or work with your family to do so: 

Know your risk – Every county has an online evacuation zone map. Know at what category storm your region and elevation generally evacuate. Know your needs, like electricity for an oxygen concentrator, feeding pump or ventilator. 


Make a plan – "If you do have to evacuate, where are you going to go? Do you need transportation assistance? Do you need medications? What types of things are you going to put in your kit?" said Perkins. "Maybe the person you were going to stay with is away on vacation. Call us as soon as possible, so we can get you on the registry." 

Stay informed – The NHC issues updated forecasts, watches and warnings every four hours. Follow your local emergency managers' updated evacuations on their website. They are in close contact with the NHC and the local NWS offices. Watch FOX Weather on TV or your streaming device as well. 


How to help

If you, like me, live far from your special needs loved one, you can 'pay it forward' and volunteer with your local emergency management office. Feel confident that another volunteer will help with your favorite evacuee. 


"We have a lot of people in our community that volunteer on a daily basis … Whether it be at parks or animal services, and then we can roll them into disaster assignments," Perkins suggested. "Some of the folks that volunteer for animal services may actually choose to work in a pet-friendly shelter, or maybe even work at the animal services site to take care of special needs people's pets. We actually offer that service because we know we have a lot of people that will not evacuate without their pet." 

So don't sit by and panic through another hurricane season. Make a plan or reach out and help your family make a plan and register with the special needs registry