Home > Family Services > How to Prepare for a Hurricane When You Have a Child With Autism

How to Prepare for a Hurricane When You Have a Child With Autism

My house after Hurricane Gustav

This post is written by Shelley Hendrix, Autism Speaks’ Director of State Advocacy Relations. She currently resides in Baton Rouge, La. with her two children, Liam and Mairin. Liam was diagnosed with autism age the age of two in 1998. She began advocating on behalf of her son and other children with autism almost from day one.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the nation’s largest natural disaster to date. Our own family was severely affected by the storm. Katrina ripped off portions of our roof and the siding from our house but the most destructive part came a few days after the storm when crews were clearing sewer lines pumping gallons of raw sewage into our home. We were without indoor plumbing for close to four months.

I was completely unprepared for Katrina and did not respect it for the storm that it was. As a result, we were looking for food supplies and water from neighbors because we were so sick of drinking diet strawberry-flavored soda water which was all they had left at the store when I got there. People don’t realize that when a storm like this hits that it can take days to start to get shipments of food and water back into an area. Baton Rouge is located approximately 60 miles northwest of New Orleans. I never imagined that a storm of that size could create such a disaster with us living that far inland.

Three years later our home suffered extensive damage with Hurricane Gustav. A neighbor’s tree landed on the back of our home and this time we had to move out for nearly seven months while it was repaired.

With Hurricane Earl bearing down on the eastern seaboard in a couple of days, we wanted to take the time to remind families how important it is to evacuate. The damage from Hurricane Gustav taught me that. While we weren’t at as much risk for wind or flooding damage from that storm, I never would have expected a tree located nearly 80 feet from my home to cause that much of a disaster in our lives. If we had been home we could have been killed easily. I was so grateful that we were not and will never ride out one of these mega-storms again.

Evacuating with a child with special needs, riding out the storm or surviving the weeks of no electricity that follow are stressful and difficult. Our children depend on routine and there is nothing that obliterates a routine like a hurricane. Weeks without electricity make cooking and daily life very difficult.

You have to plan ahead.

Some lessons we learned following these recent storms that we would like to pass on to our East Coast buddies from the Gulf South include:

1)      Be prepared! Stock up on food supplies and water.  Make sure you have enough to go for at least a week to 10 days.  One gallon of water per person.

2)      Fill up your bathtubs so that you are able to flush your toilets.

3)      Make sure you have your important documents – including birth certificates, insurance documents and IEPs in a safe and handy place. If you evacuate, bring this with you in the event that you have to relocate temporarily after the storm passes.

4)      Fill your car with gas and save a couple of gallons at your home if possible.

5)      During the days leading up to the storm withdraw as much cash from your bank’s ATM as possible each day so that you will have cash on hand.  We forget sometimes the luxuries that electricity bring like the use of credit cards, which are rendered useless in a post-storm, cash-based economy.

6)      Stock up on charcoal so that you can cook on the grill.

7)      If you evacuate, put all of the things in your refrigerator in a garbage bag and put the bag back in the fridge.  If you aren’t able to return for a week, you will thank us that all you have to do is hold your nose and grab one bag out of the fridge/freezer.

8)      If you evacuate to a shelter, consider going to a shelter at a church or school where your family might be able to have a quieter, more private Sunday School/classroom. Sitting in a large gymnasium with lots of people can be extremely stressful for our children.

9)      Be sure to pack enough medication for two weeks and be sure you have prescription numbers for refills if needed.

10)   Make sure to have first aid supplies on hand and readily available – including mosquito repellant (because they are awful after the storm hits) and sunscreen.

11)   Don’t get all caught up in the hype. Don’t get overly dramatic.  Parents that are stressed out invariably stress out their kids.  The more calm you can be, the better your children will be able to handle this disruption in their lives.

12)   Stock up on batteries and flashlights. Candles can be used if your kids will stay out of them. Mine never did so we use flashlights only.

13)   Do not go outside to go look around. It is everyone’s first thought to go outside after a storm to survey damage but don’t bring the kids outside until you know it is safe. Downed power lines can be everywhere for days and it is difficult to determine which ones are live.

14)   Be careful about snakes and insects – especially bees, wasps and fire ants because their homes have been disrupted too and they are likely looking for new ones … and stressed out and angry too!

15)   Pull out that battery operated radio from the 1980s that you have stored in your garage to stay informed of the storm’s progress.

You can find an excellent evacuation checklist here.

We encourage all families to evacuate and stay safe during this hurricane season!

  1. Dadvocate
    September 2, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Great advice, Shelley. Even if a family isn’t in a hurricane prone area, most of these tips work for any natural disaster. Every family should also have an “autism safety” plan in place for unexpected emergencies.


  2. Shelley Hendrix
    September 3, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Hey there…thanks for that. You are right though…going through ANY natural disaster with a child with special needs, especially autism, can be difficult. I never would have even though about evacuating with an IEP but that was so important for the families who fled NOLA with Katrina and had to relocate completely. It saved them so much time and the extra headaches that would have come with getting their children reevaluated for special ed services, getting the initial IEP done…they just walked into whatever school was enrolling them and got started!

  3. Katie
    September 3, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    This is a great list (my husband thinks I am always over prepared, but you have to have sometimes a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C with special needs kids). I also think having documents relating to diagnosis (in addition to the IEP) of the special needs would help. I know that’s more papers to carry, but it might help. Thanks, Shelley….

  4. September 3, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    I tweeted this Shelley because it is EXCELLENT advice. I’m not near a hurricane but your tips on how to prepare for ANY disaster if one is notified in time is just pure genius. Thank you. How do we get this out there ? @anne_barbano

  5. wendy chavis
    September 4, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    This is an excellent checklist. Currently i do not live really in a hurricane area, but I will be moving to Texas soon. God Bless you on your journey and struggles. I have a five year old autistic son,and he does not speak at all; and can become very aggressive when it comes to change. Thanks you so much about the IEP tips, that is a real life saver.

  6. September 5, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Shelley, this information is so helpful for those on the coast, but also for those in states with tornadoes and other unscheduled disasters. I’d like to use this list in my upcoming book in the You Are Not Alone book series, Hope for Families of Children on the Autism Spectrum. Can you email me and let me ask you more questions? The list would be helpful for families of children with other chronic conditions I have written about also (cancer and congenital heart defects).
    Thank you, Lynda Young

  7. Alicia Lester Poaches
    September 11, 2010 at 11:00 am

    Thank you so much for all the excellent advice. I live in Jersey, but I like to be prepared (sometimes I’m a little neurotic about it, so my husband says). We have a huge backpack filled with undergarments, toothbrushes, deoderant, activity books for the children, pencils/pens, even the little travel size board games. We’ve also begun scanning all of our personal documents to a flash/jump drive that we keep in the backpack. That way, if the papers get damaged or destroyed, there’s a copy somewhere.

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