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Emergency Preparedness: Special Considerations for People with Rheumatoid Arthritis

Adapted from a presentation at the Living with RA Support and Education Program at Hospital for Special Surgery

Many people view making preparations for emergencies as an isolated necessity and prepare only when there is an impending emergency. As more emergencies occur, such as the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, it has become clear that it is critical to be prepared throughout the year. Advance planning is particularly important for people with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), and people with disabilities, who face additional challenges.

The following are some important tips to help those who have these challenges cope confidently and prepare for possible emergencies by acquiring needed supplies and devising plans in advance. It is essential to have an emergency plan in place, well before any such event occurs.

Establish Contacts and an Exit Plan

The first part of a comprehensive emergency plan should include creation of a contact list of family and friends. If possible, include contacts that do not live in the immediate area. Even if local phone service has been impacted, friends and family in other areas may be able to get through.

Designate a pre-planned meeting place with loved ones. To accommodate different weekday and weekend routines and schedules, it is a good idea to select two separate meeting places depending on when the potential emergency takes place.

Connecting with neighbors is particularly important for those living with a chronic condition, such as RA, in case extra help is needed during the emergency.

People with physical limitations should be aware of all entrances/exits in their homes. This is particularly important in apartment buildings. Assessing whether it is possible to go down steps and/or exit the building if the power goes out, are key considerations when devising a practical plan. Some individuals may want to consider relocating temporarily before a storm or other comparable event.

Put Together a Go-Bag

As the name implies, a go-bag is a bag that can hold necessary supplies and can be easily taken along in case of emergency. People with RA may find it easier to manage two smaller go-bags instead of a single large one, but the essential items remain the same. Check the contents of the go-bag every 6 months to make sure everything is up-to-date. Doing this at the same time as smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are checked can make it easier to remember. Finally, store the go-bag in a place that is easily accessible.

Go-bag essentials should include:

  • flashlights
  • batteries
  • a battery-operated radio
  • a small first aid kit that contains Band-Aids, alcohol swabs, and hand sanitizer 
  • 3-7 day supply of medication a full list of medications, with pharmacy and doctors’ names and phone numbers
  • copies of all important documents placed in a Ziploc bag (scanning these documents and sending them to a personal email address is a good back-up strategy)
  • non-perishable food items
  • a Mylar blanket
  • rain poncho
  • personal hygiene items such as face wipes, and shampoo
  • a whistle to call for help if necessary
  • a pad and pen
  • cell-phone charger
  • an extra set of house keys

Preparation at Home

People with RA or other disabilities can take several steps in order to make their homes safer. These are particularly important if the emergency involves widespread loss of electricity.

Maintaining communication is essential in any emergency. Having both a land-line and a charged cell phone is recommended.  A lesson learned during Hurricane Sandy, was that although calls from cell phones weren’t working, text messages were going through.

Additional emergency supplies include:

  • A battery-operated radio with extra batteries
  • Matches or a long lighter (for individuals with RA who have difficulty using matches). These may be needed to light candles and reignite a pilot light on stoves
  • Cash: experts suggest acquiring small amounts of money in a variety of bills to keep in the house. Remember, if the electricity goes out, debit or credit cards cannot be used.
  • Water: the recommended amount during an emergency is 1-3 gallons a day per person. To make purchasing and transporting water easier, buy smaller amounts at different times and then store them. In addition, Ziploc bags can be filled with water and stored in the freezer. If power is lost, the frozen Ziplocs can be moved into the refrigerator to help keep food cool, longer. If the refrigerator door is not opened frequently, food can stay good for 2-3 days during a power outage - especially if Ziploc baggies are used. As an added benefit, as the ice begins to melt, extra drinking water will be available.  If an emergency situation is anticipated within the following day or several hours, filling the bath tub can ensure the availability of extra water in case it is needed to wash dishes or help flush the toilet.
  • Food preparation before the storm or other emergency is essential. Make a big batch of food that will keep well and can be eaten at room temperature; pasta is a good option. Store the food in an airtight container, in a cool, dry place. Don’t place it under a kitchen window. Canned food is a great option, but keep in mind that electric can-openers won’t work during a power-outage; those who have difficulty using a regular can-opener should have other options available. Special packages of tuna, peanut butter and jelly and granola bars are some good choices.
  • Many medications for RA, particularly injectable biologics which need to be refrigerated, should be handled with caution. In a power outage, it’s safest to assume that any medications that have not been continuously refrigerated, (i.e., if electricity is out for more than 12 hours) should not be used. To get guidance on a specific medication, check the manufacturer’s guidelines and suggestions.
  • Keep candles on hand. Placing them in small glasses (and adding some water if desired) will make it safer to use them. Battery-powered lanterns are an even better choice and can be found at almost any camping supply or other large retail store. Have 2 flashlights available as well as a few extra batteries. One flashlight should have batteries in it so that it is ready to go and the other flashlight should have batteries taped to it in the correct direction. Flashlights can be attached to walkers or other assistive devices in case they are needed.

In addition to stocking up on supplies, food and water, the environment should be as free of clutter as possible. This might mean taking such precautions as moving furniture or rolling up area rugs. A complete power outage will result in extremely dark conditions and walking may be hazardous, even in familiar surroundings. 

People with RA or other disabilities should begin taking steps soon to prepare for possible emergency situations. As an event approaches, consider what special supplies and arrangements might be needed to get through the event. Planning ahead of time is the best way to weather the storm as safely as possible.

Visit these links for additional information and resources on how to best prepare for emergency situations:


Linda R. Leff, RN-BC-BSN, MPA

Nurse Manager, Infusion Unit
Hospital for Special Surgery

    Summary written by Lysa Petrsoric, MSW, MPH

    Edited by Nancy Novick.

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