Last year various regions of California were affected by a multitude of fires, floods, earthquakes and storms. Is your family prepared if disaster strikes San Diego?

While impossible to predict all eventualities, disaster preparedness experts agree that it’s best to plan ahead. This is particularly crucial for families with special needs, who can be exceptionally vulnerable during such times and may need extra assistance changing locations, experience difficulty transitioning routines, or require urgent medical attention.

“Being prepared, and getting kids involved in planning, helps reduce stress greatly,” says pediatrician Dr. Kamei Tolba of Children’s Primary Care Medical Group.

Identify Your Personal Support Network and Create a Personal Care Plan

The American Red Cross (ARC) recommends developing a network comprised of people you can turn to in times of crisis, such as your child’s caregivers, teachers, neighbors, family and friends. Once identified, it is essential to provide your network with all information relevant to your child’s care.

Many disaster and healthcare workers suggest creating (and regularly maintaining) a Personal Care Plan—a document with instructions about your child’s daily needs and medical information. In situations when electronic medical records are not accessible, this will be invaluable to doctors, nurses, pharmacists, emergency workers and more—particularly if you are separated from your child.

According to Medscape, the Personal Care Plan should include:

  • Detailed daily plan of care
  • Instructions on how to use medical equipment
  • Allergy information
  • Surgical history
  • Diagnosis information
  • List of doctors, pharmacists and equipment providers with contact information
  • List of medications (including photocopies of prescriptions) and other supplies
  • Insurance and caseworker information
  • Special items such as catheterization schedules
  • Biographical information about the child (likes/dislikes, hobbies/interests, triggers and more)

Keep hard copies at home (in a fire safe, if possible) and at an alternate location, such as a family member’s house, safe-deposit box or work location; email the document to yourself and others for easy electronic access; and store information on a flash drive or CD. Hard copies can be laminated, or kept in a waterproof bag, for additional protection.

Sheltering and Supplies

In the event of sheltering at home during disaster, think about what you’d need if cut off from outside assistance—without electricity, water service or medical aid.

Discover what all families should keep in an emergency supply kit at and

Families with special needs should also keep an emergency kit with specific items needed for your child. This might include prescription medications, extra eye glasses, contact lenses and solution, batteries for hearing aids and communication devices, special dietary foods and supplies (including formulas and recipes), diapers, wipes, catheters, nebulizer/breathing equipment, power sources and adapters, hand sanitizers, wipes and masks for kids with immune issues, comfort items such as stuffed animals, pacifiers and bedding. To whatever extent possible, duplicate your full supply kit and keep a second set of items outside the home, such as with a family member in another part of town. If a complete duplicate kit is not possible, create mini-kits.

In case of evacuation, take supplies, medications and medical equipment with you. The best option is usually to go to a family member’s or friend’s house, but if that’s not possible, emergency public shelters (accessible to those with physical disabilities) will be announced on local radio or television stations.

Because shelters are often noisy, particularly for those with sensory sensitivities, the Autism Society recommends bringing noise canceling headphones and anything else you need when in public spaces. Consider sensory toys and calming devices such as weighted vests, fidget toys, white noise or sound machines. Upon arrival, advocate for your child’s special needs.

“Make sure that kids with special needs, especially, have flu and other vaccines up to date; communicable illnesses spread like wildfire in shelters,” Dr. Tolba says. “Also, dusty or smoky conditions weaken defenses—especially for asthmatics or kids with other respiratory issues.”

If transportation is a concern, tap into your network for assistance. To help with mobility issues during an evacuation, keep exit paths clear, particularly in cases of wheelchair use or vision issues. Cal Fire recommends designing custom escape plans, based on individual abilities and practicing routes.

When it comes to disaster preparedness, it may not be logistically or financially feasible to prepare all of these items in advance. Do the best you can and remember there will be ways to resolve issues even during a crisis. Substantial resources are around to help in times of disaster; emergency personnel will often risk their lives to save yours; and coordinated, multi-agency efforts will get your family the help needed.

Note: American Red Cross shelter resources are available in the event of a disaster, even to families who aren’t staying there.

Additional Action Items

  • Schedule a family meeting and designate an emergency meeting location.
  • Order a medical identification bracelet and ID card for your child.
  • If your child uses any durable medical equipment (wheelchair, catheter, etc.), show everyone in your support network how it works.
  • Make sure others have keys to your house.
  • Register with to alert emergency responders of special needs at your home.
  • Be sure your child knows what emergency responders look like.
  • Explore options for back-up power for essential medical equipment. Consider manual options, if available.
  • If your child depends on dialysis or other life sustaining treatment, know the location of more than one facility. Ask about the facility’s plan for emergencies.
  • Speak to your doctor about how to access highly regulated medications and supplies in the event of emergency.
  • Read What to Know About Getting Emergency Prescriptions During Disasters.”


Lisa Pawlak is an award-winning contributing writer and Encinitas resident.


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