Is Your Disability Ready for an Emergency Like Hurricane Ian?

Preparing for a natural disaster takes extra thought with multiple sclerosis

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by Ed Tobias |

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“I thought it would never happen to me.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard someone utter that phrase during my four decades in the news media. Last week, it happened to me.

About three years ago, my wife and I bought a condo as a wintertime escape from cold, wet, snowy winters in Maryland. Our Florida home is in Punta Gorda, one of the communities hardest hit by Hurricane Ian.

During the storm, TV reports showed metal, apparently from a rooftop air conditioner, wrapped around a telephone pole in our downtown. I know it’s a cliche, but palm trees in our community were snapped like toothpicks, or yanked from the ground, roots and all. The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore was hunkered down inside a Punta Gorda parking garage for many of his reports, as the back end of the eye wall passed over the downtown area. There was no water for a day, and the power in our community was out for a little over four days.

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There was a good deal more damage in Fort Myers, about 40 minutes to our south. You’ve probably seen the pictures of 50- and 60-foot boats shoved onto the shore by wind and storm surge, piled onto each other like toys in a messy kid’s room.

As I write this, nearly a week after Ian struck, the search continues in the Fort Myers area for people who may be trapped and alive. According to CBS News and other news organizations, more than 100 people have died in the storm, most of them in Florida.

My wife and I are thanking our lucky stars that we were in Maryland when Ian struck our Florida home.

Sheltering from the storm

But what if we’d been in Florida when Ian threatened? Where would we have gone? How would we have fared?

Because of my multiple sclerosis (MS), I’m pretty much stuck to my scooter to get around. I can only walk a short distance without it, and then I typically use two canes. My wife has her own medical issues. Had we been there, we might’ve been forced into a hurricane shelter, along with our stubborn, noisy Yorkiepoo and our giant, rough-and-tough Maine coon cat. Not an appealing thought.

We might’ve evacuated to a hotel away from the most dangerous area. But that’s also not easy to do. We might also have elected to shelter in place. Our condo is in a very sturdy building, and it weathered the storm without major damage. But with a shift of a couple of miles, we might’ve been hit with the storm surge. We could’ve been trapped, as so many people were.

Is your disability ready for a disaster?

People with a disability like MS need to be ahead of the planning curve, whether we’re making a trip to the grocery store or a concert or sheltering from a disaster.

What would you do if a hurricane, a wildfire, or a blizzard threatened?

In Florida, the state’s emergency management website has several tips for a person with a disability. Two of them seem to be particularly useful to people MS:

  • Practice how to quickly explain your condition and your adaptive equipment to someone who is helping you.
  • Wheelchair users need to have more than one exit from their residence that is wheelchair accessible. Practice how to escape from your home.

The American Red Cross also has an excellent, detailed guide about how someone with a disability should prepare for a disaster. The Red Cross is one of the disaster agencies that sets up evacuation centers, which have people trained to help those with disabilities do things such as moving from a wheelchair to a cot or navigating a cafeteria-style food line. Many shelters provide shower stools, commode chairs, and other items a person with MS may need.

In Florida, there are shelters designed specifically for people who need extra help because of a medical condition. But you can’t just show up at a special-needs shelter. Registration is required prior to an emergency, and a person with a disability must meet certain eligibility requirements. Other states may have similar shelters and requirements, so contacting emergency management officials where you live before a disaster hits should be part of your plan.

We were very lucky

We didn’t have to decide whether to hunker down or flee. Our power was out for a relatively short time. Our property seems to be OK. Nobody in our neighborhood was hurt. But I’ve started working on a more more robust disaster plan for my family. Next time we might not be as lucky.

You’re invited to visit my personal blog at

Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.


Reg Bavis avatar

Reg Bavis

I too have MS I am now use a scooter all the time I cannot walk I live in Canada and so far I have not been affected by any hurricanes and hope this trend continues I feel for these people.

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Thanks for your thoughts, Reg. It's unlikely you'll feel the brunt of a hurricane, though Nova Scotia did get slammed by the second blast of Hurricane Ian. We all need to be prepared for whatever, whenever.


Tom Anderson avatar

Tom Anderson

I’m being frank…. nuclear catastrophe. It certainly is much more on the minds of many people. It has a whole other set of things to do and not do depending on many factors. There may not be anything you can do, but then again, there may be, depending. I assume most people would try to survive, so they aught, in my opinion, read up on it. Certainly being handicapped will add to whatever kind of challenge there is or that you make of it. It is no longer a distant, distant possibility, some say. :-( Be prepared or at least read up on it?

Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Interesting to think about, Tom. I think it's more likely we'll have an electromagnetic pulse event, either man-made or natural, taking down power grids and communications over a very large area. Former FEMA Director Craig Fugate once told me that was the disaster that kept him up at night.



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