Oklahoma Tornadoes Provide Valuable Lessons for Individuals With Disabilities During National Preparedness Month

Devastation from Moore, OK, tornado, May 2013
The Moore, OK, home of Dan Petersen, Paralyzed Veterans of America Mid-America Chapter Director, after the tornado on May 20, 2013. Photo courtesy Dan Petersen.
Navy veteran Daniel Petersen learned an important lesson in the spring of 2013 when an EF-5 tornado tore through his Oklahoma town: that having a disaster plan in place is critical, particularly for individuals with disabilities.

Petersen, who serves as the director of the Mid-America chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, was working on his computer at his home in Moore, Okla., on May 20, 2013, when he received a telephone call from his brother-in-law Bill urging him to take cover.

“I opened my storm door and took a look to the west and saw a big swirling black mass of weather, hail, bumpers, building material and sheet metal,” Petersen says. “It was indescribable; even movies couldn’t do it justice.”

Petersen, who was paralyzed in a motor vehicle accident in 1970, admits that he was not prepared for a disaster, particularly at such magnitude as an EF-5 tornado. “I didn’t prepare,” he says. “ I was the type of individual who would laugh at everyone getting their bottles of water and blankets. I was the optimistic one who believed it would never happen to me.”

Petersen is not the only person who has felt invulnerable to emergencies or disasters. That’s why the federal government each September runs the National Preparedness Month campaign, an effort that encourages Americans to put together a family preparedness plan. And having a preparedness plan is as much if not more important for individuals with disabilities.

The tornado certainly changed Daniel’s outlook on disaster preparedness, so much that his home is now equipped with a generator, battery backup for some lights and appliances as well as emergency supplies like food and water. His homeowner’s association also is in the process of building within his gated community a 52-person storm shelter that will also be accessible to him and others with disabilities, he says.

Scott Ellis, government relations director for the Mid-America chapter of Paralyzed Veterans, said that the Midwest is no stranger to serious weather conditions, including tornadoes, floods and blizzards. Above all, he stresses that people with disabilities have an evacuation plan in place and ensure that medical equipment and medications are in a location where they can “grab and go.” Individuals with disabilities also must plan to make it on their own, at least temporarily, as emergency response teams may not be immediately available, he says.

“When disaster strikes, it affects everyone,” Ellis says. “It may wipe out your disaster response team, and you may have no one coming for quite a while. If you are on a ventilator or equipment that requires electricity, consider putting in a backup generator. Have a plan. Don’t wait until the event happens.”

Ellis serves on Oklahoma City’s disaster preparedness committee, which assists city, state and federal first responders and emergency responders in coordinating a controlled plan for people with disabilities. The committee also works with preparedness centers and shelters in tornado areas to ensure they are prepared to help people with disabilities.

Ellis credits the advanced planning of the city and state for a smooth response to the five tornadoes that ravaged the Oklahoma City region this past spring. He encourages other Paralyzed Veterans of America chapters to work with their state and local emergency response teams to educate them on the needs of people with disabilities. He also encourages Paralyzed Veterans members and all individuals with disabilities to determine the location of the emergency shelters and ensure they are accessible. 

“I don’t know what every city and state in the country has available, but I do know that Oklahoma City and the state of Oklahoma is very proactive when it comes to emergency response teams and their training and assistance of people with disabilities,” Ellis says. “They really go after it, and we’re proud of them for that.”

Learn more about how to prepare in the event of an emergency from FEMA 

Prepare for Emergencies NOW: Information for People with Disabilities (PDF from FEMA) 

Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.  

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    Oklahoma Tornadoes Provide Valuable Lessons for Individuals With Disabilities During National Preparedness Month