What you should do with your pets, the elderly, and the handicapped during a natural disaster

Hurricane season officially ended in the U.S. on Friday, but it was definitely one to remember. Both Hurricane Michael, which made landfall as a category 4 storm, and Hurricane Florence, which was a category 1 storm when it swept into North Carolina, left behind destruction that people are still struggling to recover from.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty likely that we’ll see a bad hurricane season like this again, which is why experts urge people to prepare for next time. The same is pretty much true for all natural disasters, including floods, tornados, earthquakes and wildfires — preparation is crucial. “Prepare, prepare, prepare,” Scott Kaiser, a family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., who just helped evacuate an center for the elderly during the recent wildfires, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s hard to get people to think about prevention.”

While you’re probably aware of certain things you should do, such as listening to evacuation orders and having a disaster kit, it’s important to keep in mind that you’ll also need to think of how to care for your pets, as well as elderly and handicapped loved ones, in the event of a disaster. Here’s what you should do if the worst happens.

If you have pets… 

Whatever you do, don’t leave them and assume they’ll be OK. “We saw so many pets abandoned as people evacuated from Hurricane Michael, and it was heartbreaking,” Daniel Noah, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tampa, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“One of the most important actions is to make sure your pets have permanent identification, usually in the form of a microchip and a collar with tags,” Lena DeTar, assistant clinical professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Making sure your pet is up to date on their vaccinations is also crucial. “Certain evacuation centers may deny pets without proof of current rabies vaccinations, and the other core vaccines can help keep your dog or cat healthy if sheltering near other animals,” she says.

You’ll also want to make sure you always have “at least three days of food, water, and medications on hand for your pet,” Ragan Adams, a veterinary extension specialist at Colorado State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “This will be essential if you are cut off from suppliers or can be placed in the ‘ready go bag’ if you must evacuate.”

It’s a good idea to have a crate large enough to house your pet in case you need to move it someplace where it will need to be contained for a bit, along with food and water bowls, leashes, and toys “all to create a familiar and safe ‘home away from home’ if the pet must be transported and sheltered in an unfamiliar place,” Adams says.

And, if you have larger pets like horses or farm animals, “having access to a trailer and making sure your horses and pasture pets are used to loading and unloading can help a lot,” DeTar says. “Having a prearranged destination is critical — nearby municipalities often have pasture or barn accommodation, fairground, stockyards, or other facilities that can be used, but they may fill up fast.”

If you know a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or wildfire, is approaching, call a pet-friendly hotel out of harm’s way and make a reservation ASAP, Noah advises. “Don’t wait until the last second because all the rooms will gone,” he says. “You can always cancel if you don’t need to evacuate.”

If you have an elderly loved one…

In general, the things you’ll need for your elderly loved one will be the same as for yourself — food, clothes and other essentials, says Kaiser. However, you’ll also want to make sure you’re on top of any medications they may need and “have a supply to last during the event and available until you can get to a drugstore,” Jack E. Nicholson, director of the Florida Catastrophic Storm Risk Management Center at Florida State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Not only do you want to make sure you have a large enough supply, you also want to make sure the medication is portable and easy to grab if you need to get out quickly, Kaiser says. “Health care documents — medications, name of doctors, and health history — are also essential for the elderly to have,” he says. “If you need to go out of the area where you live to get care, you’ll want to have that information.”

And finally, keep in mind that “everything is going to take a lot longer” with elderly loved ones, Kaiser says. That means you have to be prepared to act fast if you’re ordered to evacuate and possibly even preempt an evacuation. “You’ll have to account for needing some extra time in a situation where you might not have time,” Kaiser says. “That’s why preparation is so key.”

If your loved one is handicapped…

Obviously, there are many ways in which someone can be handicapped, and you’ll need to tailor your preparations to your loved one’s needs.

If they require supplemental oxygen, you’ll want to make sure you have enough for three or more days, Nicholson says. “Some people may require more than one person to take care of them, so have family ready or on call,” he adds.

If your loved is in a wheelchair or requires the use of a cane to get around, know in advance where those things are so you can quickly grab them if you need to, Kaiser says. And, if they rely on an electric wheelchair, “make sure you have a manual one as well because you may not be able to charge it,” Noah says.

As for medical devices your loved one may need, “make sure several family members know how to use them,” Noah says. That way, if you’re busy tending to another aspect of the emergency or get injured, someone else can step in to help.

Above all, experts stress that preparation is crucial. And, even if it’s not hurricane, tornado, or wildfire season where you live now, thinking about what you’d need in case the worst happens can make a huge difference.

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