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Preparing For Storms When You Have Medical Needs

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Lottie Watts
The Florida Channel
Dr. Theo Sai is the chief medical officer for senior products for Humana in Central Florida. He's lived through several hurricanes, and offers advice from personal experience.

Consider this past weekend a dry run -- in spite of all the rain – for tropical storm and hurricane preparation.  Tropical Storm Erika never made it to Florida, but emergency officials spent much of last week urging people to get ready. 

For people with special medical needs, getting ready is a lot more complicated. Extra preparations for people who are managing chronic medical conditions may include getting early prescription refills, figuring out how to keep a ventilator on or keeping certain medications cold.

Dr. Theo Sai is the chief medical officer for senior products for Humana in Central Florida.  He's also lived through several hurricanes, so when he offers advice on preparing for storms, it comes from personal experience.

“I remember the worst one for me was in the Bahamas, where I was on the first floor and it was a pretty bad hurricane, and Nassau typically floods a lot,” he said. “So just being there alone in the apartment by myself and basically not having access to anything, it kind of brings home the point that it is important to prepare.”

He said it took that storm to get him to do things differently.

“I mean, something as simple as water, thank God I had a gallon of water there, but if that storm had lasted a little bit longer, I don't know what I would have done,” Sai said. “I used to say, 'why do people rush to the supermarkets when there's a storm coming?’ But after that, I used to be the first person in the line, to make sure that I had everything ready.”

Since power outages can also impact ventilators and other devices, Sai recommends evacuating out of the area with friends or family, or registering for your county's special needs shelter.

“If you stay at home and there is a loss of electricity, your refrigerator obviously cannot keep the temperatures that are required to make sure that your medication doesn't go to waste,” Sai said.

Keely Smith is the special needs shelter coordinator for Hillsborough County. Individuals who need assistance with medication, rely on medical devices that need a power supply or use oxygen are among those who meet the medical criteria for special needs shelters.

Each Florida county has a registration form, available online or by calling the county health department or sheriff. More information and applications for special needs medical shelters are available online at this link.

Smith said pre-registration is important, but people who show up at the shelter and are qualified to stay there won’t be turned away.

“Individuals that are preregistered for the program, they’ll walk in, give the registration desk their name, and then get let right on into the shelter,” Smith said. “If you haven’t preregistered, then you’ll have to go through a triage process, where the nurses will have to determine whether or not you qualify, and then you’ll have to get registered and provide all of your information.”

Smith also said that if you have medical records, you need to make sure to make copies and bring those with you if you evacuate.

“People don’t think about trying to recreate 80 years of medical history,” she said.

As part of any evacuation plan, whether you're going to a shelter or elsewhere, you need to make sure you bring your medications with you.

Sylvia Smith of Disability Rights Florida said a state law passed in 2006 allows for early prescription refills under certain emergency circumstances, such as if your county is under a hurricane warning, is part of the Florida Governor's state of emergency, or if your county has activated its emergency operations center. 

"The insurance companies are required by Florida law to remove any barrier to you receiving an early refill for your medication,” Smith said.

Smith said that because of this law, her organization no longer get complaints from people who say they had trouble getting an early prescription refill to put in their hurricane emergency kit.

Lottie Watts is a reporter and producer with WUSFin Tampa. Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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.