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Preparing for a Hurricane When You Have Special Medical Needs

USF Sun Dome

Do you take any prescription medications? Do you rely on oxygen, a respirator or other medical devices that require electricity? If so, you have a few extra steps to take to get ready for a hurricane. 

Tampa Bay hasn't had a major hurricane in more than 90 years. There's no way to know for sure when a hurricane can strike, so early preparation is key. In the first part of our special hurricane preparation coverage, hear how people with health issues or those who rely on daily medications can make sure they're ready.

Dr. ScottLatimer, the senior products president for Humanain Central Florida, said you should have a hurricane preparation kit, something that's small and easy to grab on the way out if you need to evacuate. If you take a daily prescription medication, you need to have an extra supply in that kit. 

Rules on refills can be strict, as anyone who has gone to the pharmacy early to try to get a refill knows. But that can change if a hurricane is headed for Florida. In that case, the governor will declare a state of emergency, which overrides the early refill limit on prescription medications. 

"For most people, if they get their prescriptions from a drug store, it's usually a months' supply and people have limits on how soon they can go back and refill their prescription," Dr. Latimer said.  "In the event that a hurricane is approaching Florida, almost all the time there will be a special situation where people can go to the pharmacy earlier than they normally would and get a refill."

A complete hurricane guide details all of the steps you need to take, but if you have special medical needs, Dr. Latimer says you should definitely make sure to have: 

  • Insurance cards and/or Medicare cards
  • A written list of prescription medications
  • A cooler and ice packs if you have medication that requires refrigeration
  • Plenty of bottled water

For people who rely on medical devices that require electricity, registering for a special medical needs shelter is very important, even if they don't think they'll need to stay there. 

"People on dialysis, people that use a respirator, or other devices that require use of electricity or other services, it's a very good idea to contact the county, whichever county you live in, inquire about medical special needs shelters and if necessary fill out the application in advance," Dr. Latimer said. "That literally can be a lifesaver for some individuals."

More information and applications for special needs medical shelters are available online:

Many more people register for special needs medical shelters than actually show up. About a third of people who register end up going to the shelter, because the shelter is recommended as a backup, according to Ryan Pedigo, the director for public health preparedness for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County.

"We tell them that shouldn't be their primary plan, because no matter how comfortable I can make that shelter, that's not a good place to be," Pedigo said. "It's much better for individuals if they can seek shelter in a safe place with a friend or a relative in the area if that would be a safe place to shelter, or leave the area, but we also recognize that some people can't do that."

In Hillsborough County, he says they've tried to think of everything that would prevent people from getting to the shelter. They send around a bus to pick up people who don't drive or don't have another way to get there. And they're flexible even if people haven't registered in advance or need to bring more than one caregiver with them, even though the application says you can only bring one person.

"We cannot by law break up a family and won't," Pedigo said.  "We encourage you to only bring one because of space constraints. I can't fit 35,000 people in the Sun Dome or one of the schools. But if you bring out family and they don't meet any of the criteria but you do, the whole family can stay there. We're not going to kick anyone out."

Even if someone doesn't rely on medical devices, but may be frail or elderly, Pedigo says the special needs medical shelters will take care of them during a hurricane if they need it. 

At Hillsborough County shelters, people can bring their pets. 

"Understanding some of our folks are elderly, they are by themselves, they have no other place to bring their animal, we work with animal services to allow them to bring in their pets into our shelter," Pedigo said.  "We keep them in a separate room. They have to remain caged, but they'll be safe."

Pedigo said that although pets can't come into the cot area, people can go into the separate area to visit their animals during their stay at the shelter.

More of WUSF's special coverage on how to handle a hurricane is available here

Copyright 2013 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Lottie Watts covers health and health policy for Health News Florida, now a part of WUSF Public Media. She also produces Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show.
Lottie Watts
Lottie Watts is our Florida Mattersproducer, and she also covers health and health policy for Health News Florida.