Surviving a Natural Disaster with Chronic Illness
The dread spread through my body like ice water in my veins.
I couldn’t ignore it for very long. I kept trying to distract myself, but the panic always returned. The horrible knots in my stomach weren’t going away, and my Meniere’s symptoms were getting worse by the second.
At some point, I stopped fighting it and turned on the weather channel. Hurricane Dorian was over the Bahamas, a nightmare category 5 storm with 185mph sustained winds – essentially a 40-mile-wide F3 tornado – and it was slowly heading our way.
To make matters worse, my 1-year-old son Zack had been sick for weeks now. After a viral infection that caused a terrible rash and fevers, he now had strep throat.
I felt so powerless. My mind raced through a brain fogged haze, trying to juggle the huge list of things that needed to happen to help Zack and get ready for the storm. How was I going to get everything done? I was getting more and more dizzy and felt thoroughly exhausted. Zack was crying, his fever had returned in force.
I was in way over my head, and the entire experience was a terrifying reminder of just how difficult things can get when you live with a chronic illness and disaster strikes. But luckily, fast forward a week and we somehow made it through the whole ordeal without any major incidents.
After years of dealing with the threat of hurricanes and other disasters, I’ve learned a lot of important lessons and helpful strategies for navigating these kinds of situations much more effectively.
Prepare for the worst:
This time around, it all worked out in our favor. I was able to get all the supplies we needed to prepare, and I got my family somewhere safe to ride out the storm. My son started feeling better after another day or two on antibiotics and the hurricane ended up missing us entirely here in South Florida.
In the end, we got very lucky with the storm. Parts of the Bahamas are completely destroyed and that could have been us.
For days, the forecast was dire. We stood directly in the path of one of the worst storms ever recorded in the Atlantic basin and it was chaos.
Gas stations quickly ran out of gas with lines stretching out into the streets. Grocery stores immediately sold out of water, bread and other non-perishable items, while hardware stores ran out of generators, plywood, and batteries.
Everywhere I went there was tension in the air. I saw a fight break out at a gas station and people panicking in Walmart.
When disaster looms, and you live with a chronic illness, I truly believe the best strategy is to prepare for the worst. Life with a condition like Meniere’s disease is unpredictable enough on its own. You hope for the best, but you have to make sure you are completely ready for the worst possible outcome.
Of course, the nature of your planning is going to have to change depending on the specifics of your illness and the type of natural disaster.
But it’s always better to prepare for the worst-case scenario because if it comes to fruition and you aren’t prepared, you may not be able to react accordingly to keep yourself and your family safe.
Have an emergency plan in place:
Most of us live in places that are prone to some kind of natural disaster.
Whether it’s wildfires, earthquakes, blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, or any one of the many other types of terrifying natural events, it’s important to create an emergency plan long before disaster strikes.
We had a plan in place for hurricanes and it was still terrifying. For smaller storms we put up our shutters and ride it out at home. For medium hurricanes, we board up the house, pack up our supplies and stay with family members that live further inland. Anything larger and we evacuate.
The problem was that me made our decision too soon. Dorian wasn’t very powerful at first, and as the storm intensified, I realized our plan might not be enough to keep us safe. If it was going to hit full force, I didn’t want my family to be here at all. But it was too late to make other plans.
Flights out of town were sold out and hotels in surrounding areas were booked up solid – even Amtrak was out of seats. We were going to have to ride it out and this only made my anxiety worse.
Had I thought it all through ahead of time, it would have made the whole experience a lot less stressful.
Moving forward, I’m going to keep a list of pet-friendly hotels in different parts of the state that offer last minute cancellation policies. And the next time a hurricane is headed in our direction, I’m going to make “just-in-case reservations” right away.
The more you plan ahead of time, the better.
NOTE: You also have to make sure you’ll have assistance available, should you need it, in the event of a natural disaster. If you are frequently incapacitated by your symptoms, you may not be able to prepare for – or deal with – a significant threat like a hurricane. Make sure you have a plan in place to obtain assistance in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.
Maintain a kit of emergency supplies:
If there is a possibility that you will experience a disaster (natural or otherwise) at some point in the near future, it’s important to keep a stash of emergency supplies on hand at all times.
For hurricanes here in the South East United States, a lot of the issues stem from widespread power outages. So it’s important to have flashlights, batteries, battery powered fans and radios, medications, a power bank to charge your phone, drinking water, a few days’ worth of non-perishable food, etc.
For natural disasters like hurricanes and blizzards, where you actually have time to prepare, the essential supplies that everyone needs will sell out first. And the widespread panic can make shopping difficult and stressful, especially when you live with a chronic illness.
In another hurricane scare a few years back, I waited until the last minute and went to Costco about 36 hours days before the storm was predicted to make landfall. It was pandemonium.
The parking lot was gridlocked as hundreds of people came and went. Once I got inside, they were sold out of water and most of the non-perishable foods. I waited in line for more than 45 minutes to pay and still had to go to several more stores before I found a few cases of water. Had my Meniere’s symptoms flared up at this time, I wouldn’t have been able to manage any of it.
It’s a much better strategy to purchase basic emergency supplies and store them away long before anything happens. The less you have to do when disaster approaches, the better.
If you live in a place where disaster can strike without warning, this is an absolute must. You simply may not be able to get the supplies you need after the fact.
Take action quickly (and fill your medications first):
Even when you have your essential emergency supplies stashed away at home, there will often be a few other important items that you still need to go out and get. Waiting until the last minute is almost always a terrible strategy, even if it means you’ll save a few dollars in the event that the disaster is averted.
Instead, start executing your plan as soon as possible. And the first item on your list should be obtaining medications. If a disaster decimates your area, you may end up having to wait a while before you can safely get to a pharmacy, assuming the pharmacy can even receive shipments.
When you live with a chronic illness, this is so important. Get your medications as soon as possible, and if you don’t have a refill available, start coordinating with the pharmacy and your doctor immediately. You need to have enough medication to last 7-14 days, at minimum.
Depending on where you live, you can often get more medication when facing a supply disruption like a hurricane. But doctors get overwhelmed by calls from their patients the closer it gets, so always call as soon as possible.
Plus, the wait times at pharmacies can be insane in the days leading up to a natural disaster. I waited in line for nearly an hour to get Zack’s antibiotics.
Start making contingency plans early on as well. If there is a chance you are going to need to evacuate, figure out where you’re going and make whatever reservations you need to make to protect your family. Hotels will book up and flights will sell out quickly in the event of a mass evacuation.
The sooner you go out and get everything you need to survive the natural disaster, the better you will feel.
Focus on reducing stress and managing symptoms:
My anxiety has improved dramatically over the last few years, but I still really struggle in these kinds of situations.
I know logically that the forecast always changes. The storms never play out exactly as predicted. But when I see my home in the middle of the forecast cone, I can’t help but panic. The anxiety overrides everything, and that kind of stress is like pouring gasoline on the fire of chronic illness.
If a disaster strikes, you’re going to be stressed out. And that stress can make your symptoms worse, which in turn can make it more difficult to prepare for – or react to – danger.
So in addition to planning and preparation, it’s crucially important to also focus on reducing stress, and employing various coping tools to help manage your symptoms.
As the storm approached, I made sure to make sure I got exercise and enough sleep. I meditated twice per day and used various CBD supplements to help me relax even further.
I also forced myself to listen to podcasts and watch funny shows and movies once I finally finished making preparations. The waiting is always brutal. I made sure to distract myself as much as possible.
It wasn’t always effective, but it often gave my nervous system much needed periods of relief.
After more than a week of dealing with one crisis after another, it’s been tough getting back into the swing of things. I’m still exhausted. The whole ordeal has taken a toll on my health.
But in the end, it all worked out. We’re safe, healthy-ish, and slowly getting back to our normal routines.
When I catch a lucky break like this, it’s important to remember that it’s never a bad thing to be overly prepared and wrong, especially in the face of chronic illness. The only thing I regret was not booking a hotel out of town just in case – a mistake I won’t make again.
I hope you will all consider these strategies and give them a shot the next time a disaster is headed your way.
If you have any helpful tips for navigating these types of situations, leave a comment below!
2 thoughts on “Surviving a Natural Disaster with Chronic Illness”
I also live in Florida and have Meniere’s Disease. After suffering a full blown vertigo drop attack during Hurricane Irma (and scrambling for 2 days for gas and water), and being totally stressed out, I now have a very simple emergency plan.
1. Get water now. I have vowed to always have at least 4 cases (40 bottles each) of water on hand during hurricane season. I’m not going from store to store ever again frantic to find water. I also try to keep my cars filled up so I refill them when the tanks are half full during hurricane season.
2. Evacuate as soon as possible. I have 3 dogs too, I know it’s difficult. But you CAN NOT wait until you know where the storm is tracking, by the time you know where the storm is going to hit it’s too late (unless you want to sit somewhere on I-75 moving at a snail’s pace and hoping you wont run out of gas and be stuck in the path of the storm).
3. Know where you’re going to evacuate to. Do your research on pet friendly lodging and contact them early.
4. Make sure to pack your insurance policies in addition to your meclizine. If the storm does hit, you’ll need them. On a side note, take pictures (lots of them) of your house and post them on Zillow (and keep them current). You don’t have to be selling your home, it will show up as not for sale. But if you have to battle with an insurance adjuster (and if you have any significant damage, you will battle), you will always have pictures online to share with the adjuster. My home is on Zillow with photos, and I have a virtual tour of my house showing the exterior and the roof (but you can’t post the tour if your home is not for sale, so make sure you save it on your mobile device). It’s well worth the money to be able to prove what improvements your home has and the condition of your roof before the storm hits.
I’ve lived in Florida all my life and the hurricanes are a lot worse than when I was a kid. Hurricanes are incredibly stressful, especially if you live close to the water. If this storm had hit us I would be homeless right now. Even though we live on the other coast of Florida we had every intention of evacuating if the storm had stayed on its original path (even though they were predicting a Cat 2 hit on the west coast). I’m so grateful it didn’t. Hope this post helps.
These are great tips Melody! Thanks for sharing these!