Hurricane-force winds. Raging floodwaters. Surging wildfires. Damaging tornadoes. No matter where we live, natural disasters, and even man-made ones like arson fires and toxic spills often strike quickly and without warning. Tornadoes and severe thunderstorms seems to be occurring more often here in McMinn County. Sevier County was recently ravaged by wildfires. No one is immune from the effects of disasters, especially older adults.

If we know that disasters are inevitable in any location, what can we do to safeguard ourselves and our older loved ones from potential devastating effects? Preparedness is crucial - before disaster strikes. In an emergency, basic services, including water, gas, electricity, and communications such as home phones and cell phones may be cut off. Grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies may be closed for some time. The key to withstanding disasters is readiness.

In emergency services we need to consider the special needs of aged loved ones who are confined to a bed, wheelchair-bound or who have limited mobility such as using a walker or cane. Unfortunately, some of the most tragic losses in times of disaster are the seniors who couldn't leave their homes to get to safety. With a little planning, aging seniors can stay safe and comfortable in times of disasters and emergencies.

One of the first steps in preparing for an emergency is to gather a supply kit. These are basic supplies that could be needed in an emergency: batteries, blankets, flashlight, candles, lighter, adequate supply of water, nonperishable food, medications, hygiene items, and supplies for pets and service animals. One of the best gifts I ever received from my son was a hand-crank radio. Inside these radios is a small generator powered by a hand-crank that charges a rechargeable internal battery when needed. A few minutes of cranking will usually give you an hour or so of power for getting emergency information. Very good disaster supply kit checklists can be found online.

After you gather your emergency supplies, you will need something to store it in. Pack the supplies in an easy-to-transport container such as a plastic bin of waterproof duffle bag. A storage container with wheels is even better.

Older adults should also be sure to have emergency supplies in their car. During a sudden snow-storm, you could possibly get stranded for quite a long time. A supply kit for your car should include a tire repair kit, jumper cables and flares.

The next step in planning for a disaster is to have a plan. Seniors need a group of people who can offer hands-on assistance in disasters. These could be family members, neighbors, friends or professional caretakers. They need to talk to these people about personal limitations and concerns. An action plan needs to be created to resolve these issues. Planning should include home escape routes, such as how to escape from a fire, community planned evacuation routes, and transportation needs. Copies of important papers should be kept in a fire-proof safe, a safe-deposit box, or given to someone to keep for you. These documents should include a birth certificate, social security cards, wills, passports, and insurance and financial records. A safe place in the home should be designated, such as planning to go to the basement or inside room with no windows during a tornado.

Staying informed is also an important part to being prepared for a disaster. Having a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather-alert radio is a must for a senior. These are special radios that receive emergency alerts for dangerous weather events, natural disasters and other hazards, such as terrorist threats. The radios remain silent until an alert is detected. These special radios can be purchased at most department and drug stores. The price varies, usually from $29 and up.

There is one disaster that you will receive no warning for - a house fire. People 65 and older are twice as likely to be killed in a fire. This makes it essential for older adults to be prepared.

The following are some important fire-safety tips:

* Consider sleeping in a room on the ground floor in order to make escaping easier. Be sure a telephone is near you when you sleep.

* Never smoke in bed or near an oxygen tank.

* Be sure smoke alarms are placed in every sleeping room and outside each room. The majority of fatal fires occur when people are sleeping because smoke can put you into a deeper sleep rather wake you up. It is imperative to have an early warning of a fire to ensure you wake up. Consider having an alarm with a flashing light or vibration to wake you up. If you do not have any smoke alarms, contact the city fire department if you live in the city or the rural fire department if you live outside the city. They will come to you home and install a smoke alarm for you in the proper place.

* If you are looking for an apartment or assisted living facility, look for one that has a sprinkler system. Sprinklers can extinguish a home fire in less time that it takes for the fire department to arrive.

* Conduct your own, regular fire drills to make sure you know what to do in the event of a home fire. If you live with someone who cannot escape on their own, designate a member of the household to assist. Fire drills are also a good opportunity to make sure that everyone is able to hear and respond to smoke alarms.

* Make sure you are able to open all doors and windows in your home. Be sure the windows have not been sealed shut with paint. If they have, arrange for someone to break the seals. You may have to escape through a window in case of a fire.

* Escape as soon as your smoke detector goes off. Do not waste time to get dressed or collect valuables or pets. Get out of your house immediately.

* If your clothes catch on fire, drop to the floor and roll to suffocate the fire. Keep rolling (running form the fire will only fan the flames and make it worse).

* Feel any door before you open it - if it is hot, find another way out.

* Never go back into a burning building for any reason. Get out and stay out!

* Do not try to fight the fire. Call for help immediately after you escape from the fire. If you don't have your phone with you, call from a neighbor's phone.

* And finally, review your plan every six months with your friends and family. Also every six months, check your disaster supply kit to see if anything has expired. Conduct fire and emergency evacuation drills on a regular basis. Make sure your plans work. It is important to make sure you batteries in your smoke alarms are working. The best method to ensure your batteries are working is to replace them when the time changes either to Daylight Saving Time or back to Standard Time.

Helping older loved ones plan for a possible disaster reduces anxiety, injuries and life-threatening situations. Possessions can be replaced, but the preciousness of life cannot. We can all help each other by planning for disasters, not if they will occur, but when they do.

We would like to invite you to come to our center to participate in the many activities we have planned. The following is our schedule for the next five days:

* Thursday, April 13 - 9:30 a.m. Exercise Class, 10 a.m. Bowen Therapy, noon Dental Program with Dr. Raymond Pate, 12:30 Watercolor Class and 12:30 Game Day.

* Friday, April 14 - We will be closed in observance of Good Friday.

* Monday, April 17 - Be Wild Day! Join us for 10 a.m. Bingo with Athens Place and a noon showing of the movie "Priceless."

* Tuesday, April 18 - 9:30 a.m. Exercise Class, 10 a.m. Bingo with Beltone, noon Nutrition class with Courtney Hall, and 12:30 Crafts.

* Wednesday, April 19 - 10 a.m. Singing with Helen James and 1 p.m. Walk With Ease Class


EDITOR'S NOTE: Sue Walker is executive director of the Etowah Area Senior Citizens Center. She may be reached by calling 423-781-7632.

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