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An Expert's Guide to Being Prepared Before Disaster Strikes

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and blizzards can destroy communities and take lives. Living with diabetes adds an extra layer of challenges. Here's what you need to know from an EMT who has type 1 diabetes.

flood prep

Record setting rainfall, lost lives, overflowing shelters, rivers instead of streets; Texas has been dealt a major blow from Tropical Storm Harvey. If you were faced with these grueling circumstances, would you be ready? Would you have all of your medications? The truth is, many of us would only have what is in our purses or daily kits, and that won’t cut it for long. You may have to leave your home quickly, being unable to return for days or months, like the victims in Houston and other surrounding areas.

If you or your loved one has type 1 or type 2 diabetes, it’s important to go above and beyond to be prepared in the event of a natural disaster. The need for a tightly monitored, life-dependent medication regimen and controlled nutrition means you need to be highly-organized and assertive when it comes to your emergency preparation. As a type 1 who is also an emergency medical technician (EMT), here’s my guide to diabetes disaster prep—the ultimate insider, and outsider’s, guide.

Create a “Go Now” Kit

The American College of Endocrinology has put together a Hurricane Katrina-inspired checklist for people with diabetes that includes items you’ll need to survive during a hurricane, flood, blizzard or any situation that may leave you stranded.  Use a large plastic box, like you’d use for Christmas decoration storage, to pack all of the supplies from the checklist. Personally, I think it’s wise to keep another “mini” kit available in your car. Of course, you can’t store insulin there due to its sensitivity to harsh temperatures but I always have my insulin with me anyway, in a small case that stays cool with a freezer pack.

In Georgia where I live, we get tornado warnings a few times each year. Luckily, our house has never been directly in the path of one, but the last tornado blazed down the main road next to our home—that was a bit too close for comfort for me! I watch the weather carefully and when things look dicey, I make a smaller grab-and-go box (from the larger box with all of my emergency supplies) and keep it handy in a central closet in case I have to flee on short notice.

For your “go now” kit, you’ll be stockpiling medications, non-perishable foods, fluids, clothing and a comprehensive information sheet about your condition. If a disaster becomes as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina, medical records could be lost so it makes sense to have those copied in advance.

Stock Up on Bottled Water

You’ll want to store at least enough water for three days.  The American Red Cross suggests each person have one gallon of water at their disposal, daily. As a person with type 1 diabetes, I know one episode of high blood sugar could result in dehydration, so consider extra water if there’s room. Selecting foods for your kit that contain liquid, like canned soup, is a smart way to nourish and hydrate simultaneously.

Blood sugar increases with dehydration, and high blood sugar leads to even further dehydration. It’s a vicious cycle that is bad enough even in the best circumstances.

Know Proper Wound Care

Depending on the circumstances, infection can become a very real thing, as if it isn’t real enough when dealing with diabetes. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many diabetics suffered severe skin infections after wading in flood waters. Lack of medical supplies or prevention methods proved devastating. It’s a good idea to have basic first aid supplies like bandages, iodine, alcohol swabs and antibiotic ointments on hand.

Good hygiene is the simplest way to prevent infection. Wash your hands especially before testing blood sugar. And carry on with your normal hygiene routine as best you can: brush your teeth, clean injection sites, and keep dirt and germs out of wounds. If you find yourself with a wound and don’t have access to medical care, follow these basic techniques:

  • Clean the wound with iodine, hydrogen peroxide, or if there is nothing else, use soap and water. Be very gentle, avoiding further tissue damage. Use gauze or other clean material to wipe away from the wound, removing dirt or other contaminants. Rinse with saline or water.
  • Pat the area with gauze and allow to dry thoroughly. Oxygen helps with healing.
  • After letting the wound breathe, bandage the area to protect from further contamination.
  • Change the bandage often and assess the wound for redness, swelling or discharge, which indicates infection.
  • In an emergency situation, I’d recommend antibiotic ointment. Avoid abusing these ointments, as it could lead to antibiotic resistance.

Stay Nourished

Pack enough nonperishable food to provide 1200 calories to each person for 2 days. Canned vegetables and fruits, baby food pouches, granola, nuts and whole food powders provide nutrition because Beanie Weenies just won’t cut it. Check your kit every so often to be sure your food isn’t close to expiration.

You can also purchase MREs or “Meals Ready to Eat”, typically used by the armed forces. MREs contain a main entrée, side dish, snacks like dried fruit and peanut butter, flameless heaters (Hint: Can be used for melting frozen water), tea, gum and toilet paper, all in a lightweight package. The shelf life is about three and a half years and each one contains an average of 1250 calories, making them an optimal choice for emergency kits. A variety of meals can be selected, and while they certainly aren’t gourmet, they don’t taste too bad.

Hypoglycemia glucose products like tablets and gels are good to have around as well, in case you need a fast-acting sugar source for low blood sugar.

Be Prepared for Serious Hypoglycemia

What if you pass out during an episode of hypoglycemia? Be certain to pack a glucagon injection kit, with clear instructions on how to use it properly. If you faint, the person injecting you with glucagon should turn you on your side BEFORE administering the injection. More times than not, glucagon induces vomiting.The one time I received it, I threw up for a solid three minutes. Choking is a serious concern here, so the danger of giving the shot to someone lying face up should be clearly stated. 

If choking occurs after glucagon administration, the Heimlich Maneuver is your best bet. Prop the individual up, wrapping your arms around the body, above the navel. Make a fist with your left hand, clasping your right hand on top. You’ll feel where the ribs start to separate at the very top of the abdomen, place your fisted hands here, and thrust firmly. More times than not, this will propel debris out of the airway. The maneuver can break ribs, but it’s a small price to pay. Store a phone charger there in case you have access to an outlet, so you can call 911 if needed.

Have An Exit Plan

The American Red Cross suggests having an evacuation plan in addition to an emergency kit;

  1. Have a meeting place if a disaster were to occur, especially since it’s likely you could lose phone service. Choose at least two locations, each one appropriate for specific disasters.
  2. Know evacuation routes if you had to leave, driving them a couple of times a year to be sure you know the way.
  3. Assign specific duties to each family member. Who will grab the pets? Who will make sure medications and food are up to date? Who will be in charge of retrieving the insulin from the fridge?
  4. Make sure family members call the Red Cross Safe and Well line, 800-733-2767, to report they are okay if separated. Families can check in to see if their loved ones are safe.
  5. Know the specific disaster risks in your area, and plan accordingly.
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