Today coach Danielle Sullivan is discussing how her family evacuated a natural disaster successfully several years ago, and how families with neurodivergent children and family members can better prepare for potential disasters and emergencies.
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Transcript: Emergency Preparedness for All
Thanks to n. henderson for their work on the transcription!
DANIELLE: Hi everyone, and welcome back to the Neurodiverging podcast. My name is Danielle Sullivan, I am your host. I am the founder of Neurodiverging Coaching and an autistic parent of two neurodivergent kids. I’m really glad you’re here joining us today. I want to thank my Patrons for supporting this podcast. Patrons pledge a small amount of money every month to keep the podcast rolling, and any extra goes to support our lower-income sliding scale clients who really appreciate the help. If you’re interested in joining us on Patreon, you can check out patreon.com/neurodiverging where you can pledge three bucks a month for ad-free podcasts on up to get lots of other perks and rewards. Thanks so much for thinking about it!
Today, I need to talk to you about something that no one wants to think about, which is what you’re gonna do if you have neurodivergent children or other adults in your house who are neurodivergent and there is an emergency situation of some kind.
A couple of years ago in late December, in 2021, there was a fire in Colorado called the Marshall Fire which ended up being the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history, and we have a lot of wildfires. A couple of people died, hundreds, maybe thousands, of homes were lost, there was smoke damage everywhere. The fire started at around 11 AM and moved very, very, very quickly to the point that at 5 PM it was thousands of square miles big, tens of thousands of people had been evacuated and there was smoke in the air for miles and miles and miles around.
Here in Colorado, we do have a number of potential weather disasters that can happen. Just in the time I’ve moved here since 2011, we have had significant flooding in my area, significant wildfire concern in our area, most years there is hail damage to someone in my nearby area, if not my neighbor then a friend from down the road a little bit has significant hail damage to their vehicle, to their home, often to our gardens. So, in many ways, we’re used to handling some significant disasters. The Marshall Fire came within a couple miles of our home and prompted myself and my two children and our two cats to evacuate up to a family member’s home in Greeley, about an hour north.
We had had, as I said, some knowledge that the fire was happening. It became very clear, very quickly that it was growing fast, that it was moving quickly. They had evacuated two huge towns, there was this case of — We were watching it on Instagram, just watching people’s stories and following it on Facebook, and there was a Costco where it had been safe, people had been shopping, people had been doing their thing, and within minutes it became very clear that the fire was moving in that direction and the Costco had to be evacuated, and there were these videos of people running from the Costco with the flames in the back, and luckily everyone in that situation was okay, but it was really frightening.
The reason — and I’ve had this on my list to talk about for several years, and it’s just — I guess it’s just never felt like a good time to be like, “Hey, natural disasters happen.” With the weather and the temperatures that we’re seeing, we saw this year in the summer, and with just everything else going on, I think it bears talking about now how you and your family can be better prepared to evacuate if you ever need to.
So, for my perspective, there’s lots of resources you can go get from your government, from your local authorities, from all the survivalists that are home on the internet. If you want to learn to make a bugout bag, if you want to learn how to make an emergency plan, there are lots of resources to do that with. That’s not what I’m trying to do, today. What I would love to do is just talk to you about my experience of having to evacuate for this fire on very little notice with two small children and two cats, and to tell you some of what I learned that I hope can be helpful for you in your thinking about how you’re going to create safety plans, and how you’re going to talk to your family ahead of time of something happening so that you have a plan in place.
If nothing else, this experience really, really, really drove home for me that you do need to have a plan in place, and we were very lucky that we had some things already in place, though we could have done better. I feel like you can always do better, right? And somehow I feel like many of us think, well, either something will happen and there’ll be lots of time like I’ll know it’s happening and I’ll be able to pre-evacuate or get my stuff together or join my community efforts, or something will happen so quickly that it won’t matter that I’ll have prepared, right?
And the reality I really think this really drove home for me is that in most cases you have some warning. You might not have days of warning, but you do have some warning and you do have time to do something. You do have time to take care of the people and animals, perhaps, in your life that are the most important to you.
Now, obviously — Well, maybe not obviously, but I’m an autistic adult, okay? I have significant anxiety, I don’t handle changing plans very well — Though I am much better at it than I used to be, I’m much more flexible than I used to be. Nobody handles an evacuation particularly well. My children are autistic ADHDers, we have some PDA traits, we have a lot of anxiety. So, my memories are around 11 in the morning we got the news from various, like, government texts and seeing it on Facebook and the news sites and stuff, that there was a fire starting in the Louisville/Superior area, which is only a couple of miles from us.
I got online and was looking at the mapping data that the Office of Emergency Management was putting out on Twitter, and I just remember that the fire was still pretty far away from us and it wasn’t moving in our direction, so I decided to keep an eye on it. I talked to my partner, the kids’ parents, about what our plans could be if we did need to evacuate. We also heard that some of our friends, a little later in the afternoon, closer to two, three, four o’clock, had been evacuated from their homes in the Louisville/Superior area.
Around that time, I started feeling like even though the fire, the barrier, was a couple miles from our house, it was only a couple miles from our house, and the fire, although it was not moving in a direction we expected it to lead to my house it was very, extremely windy that day, and if you go and look up the fire for any reason you can see that part of the reason that the fire expanded so quickly and did so much damage was we had very, very high winds.
Winds can change speed unexpectedly, they can push fires in different directions unexpectedly, it was late enough in the day that I was concerned that we would go to sleep and the fire would move. Or that I would just be up all night, panicked, that the fire was going to head in our direction. So I decided to evacuate myself and the kids and the cats to a family member’s north of — significantly north, so that at the very least nothing would happen and I would sleep because I knew we were safe. We would be out of the local area, we would not be breathing in the smoke — That was a huge concern for us, that the smoke was really, really bad near us by the time it was 5 PM that day, that even if the fire didn’t approach us, that we would be breathing in all this harmful, gross, terrible stuff.
So at best, we were going to get away from the smoke, I was going to be able to sleep at night not feeling like we might be evacuated — or burned in our beds at any moment. And at worst, we’d lose the house but we’d be safe. It was a really challenging couple of hours. It was not enough time between when we decided that we were in significant enough danger that we should evacuate from when we actually had to leave because of the traffic and other situations of trying to actually get to another location. There was a lot of people evacuating, the roads we very busy. I had a friend who told me that it took them, I think two hours to get a mile down the road out of Louisville. So, there was significant concern that we needed to be able to leave early enough to actually get somewhere.
I had told the kids as soon as people started evacuating and as soon as you could see some of the smoke over the horizon that there was a bad fire near us. I didn’t say it in a threatening, scary way, but I let them know that there was a really bad fire and we should maybe not go outside too much today because of the smoke, and it was going to potentially hurt us and make us cough and things.
As we made the decision to evacuate, my co-parent was not in the home with us and was not able to be, so I was evacuating the two kids by myself. It was about five days after Christmas, the fire unfortunately was on December 30th, and so I told my children that we were going to have to leave. That I thought the house was going to be okay, but I wasn’t sure, and that it was more important that we were safe than anything else.
They had significant reactions to that. They were very scared, they were very sad, they were very worried about their things. They were about six and eight at the time I believe, I could be getting the math wrong. They were young. I gave them each a big plastic trash bag and I told them, “Please pack anything that is really, really, really important to you in this plastic trash bag.” They both packed their bags full, full of their stuffies, which was cute, but then I went back and I packed some clothes for them, I packed their toiletries, I packed all the things. They both brought their Christmas candy which I thought was a good choice considering how stressed everyone was that maybe we should have some sugar with us.
We obviously packed the cats up, we packed some towels. We had some bugout bags, we did pack them and some water with us even though we were going to a family member’s, because I thought, “Well, if the roads —” if something happens, at least we’ll have water and some food. The bugout bags would only last us for a couple of days, but it’s something, and we left the house.
We did make it to my family member’s house fine, we slept fine that night, we woke up in the morning and our house was still there, I cannot tell you what a relief that was. Unfortunately, the damage was immense. We are still — the community as a whole, are still rebuilding from it, years, and years, and years later. We drive through Louisville and Superior regularly for my children’s appointments and houses are still being rebuilt. Many people lost everything, everything, and many people couldn’t afford to have their houses rebuilt because of insurance challenges. It continues to be a really challenging situation for our communities over here.
That said, our experience was way better than it could have been. It was an awful experience, it was an awful experience. But we had done some things ahead of time that made the whole thing a lot easier to handle. Here are my tips for if you have to deal — If you want to start a conversation in your household about getting ready for emergency situations and you’re not sure what to do. First of all: set some time aside. Recognize that talking about a potentially life-threatening situation is not something you want to spring on somebody unexpected, especially if they are, maybe, anxiety-prone, right?
So, set some time aside. You can say something like, “Hey so-and-so, I heard this podcast/was reading a book/heard about this thing in the news and it made me think that it would be really smart to have some kind of emergency plan in place for our family/household/partnership,” whatever, group, okay? “Could we sit aside sometime in the next week or two to talk about this?” If you get an immediate no, because some of us are immediate noers, that’s okay! Say, “Okay, thanks for thinking about it,” go away, honor them, and then come back a week or so later and say, “I’ve still been really thinking about this issue, it’s heavy on my heart. It’s really something I would like to work on. Would you be willing to sit and talk with me about it?”
If you continue to get declinations, if people continue to decline, which is their right, I would encourage you to sit down and make an emergency plan for yourself, right? Ideally, we want all of our adult people in our life to be in on the same emergency plan, you’ll have the best amount of success or likelihood of success. That said, sometimes people are just not gonna be able to meet you in that place, yet. And hopefully, once they see you working on it they’ll come around. But, they might not ever come around, and that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan in place for yourself and anybody else under your care, okay?
Second, take your concerns seriously. So a lot of clients that I work with when we’re setting up systems or framings for tasks that they have to accomplish, things they have to do, things they have to talk about with people, a lot of people feel like their worries, whatever they are, are weird or different or minuscule or maybe shouldn’t be a worry. And then what happens is when we’re trying to make an emergency plan the person is so hung up on this idea that they just shouldn’t worry about that, like it shouldn’t even be real, that they can’t get through the emergency plan.
So for example, say you’re in a car and there’s a car accident and you’re taken to the hospital and you’re worried that your partner will not be able to find you or know what happened, right? This — I mean I would say that’s a reasonable worry, but for whatever reason it might be that in your life people have told you, “Well that’s not something you should worry about.” Like, “You’d have ID on you, they would have the records, your person would call around for you, they’d find you.” So you might have been told and internalized that it’s not a “reasonable concern,” quote-unquote, right? My advice for planning for an emergency is if you have a concern assume it is a reasonable concern and plan for it. Okay?
Don’t let other people tell you that your concern is not a reasonable one, and don’t let that stop you from moving forward with your emergency plan. So in that case what we might do is say, “Well, what are the concerns behind why you think your partner might not be able to find you if you were brought to a hospital? What could we do to make sure they’d be able to find you if you were brought to hospital?” Right? And then once that’s out of the way then what’s the next thing on the list of planning for an emergency, okay?
Take your concerns seriously, even if other people don’t share them. Make a plan to address your concerns seriously even if other people don’t share them. And that will open you up to being able to handle actual big emergencies when they come up, because you’re not so weighed down by things that other people are telling you you shouldn’t take seriously. Your concerns matter, take them seriously, even if they’re not what other people are worried about. Okay?
Third, if you have children, dependents, or other people who live with you who might need some support in an actual emergency, there are some things you can do ahead of time to kind of get everybody on the same page so that in a situation where it’s really urgent that you move quickly, you’re not wasting time.
The first thing is just talk to them, communicate with them, however that happens. Let them know, at whatever level that they can contribute, please let them contribute even if they’re children, even if there’s a developmental disability, whatever it is, ask people what they would need to feel okay — as okay as possible — in that emergency, and help them incorporate that into the emergency plan, okay?
If somebody is worried about an attachment animal, a weighted blanket, a piece of art, whatever, make a plan so that that is on your list of, “We need to handle this,” items in an emergency, right? Now, obviously, in some cases, there won’t be time and you’ll just have to move and you’ll not be able to bring the thing, right? But in some cases, like my situation, we had a couple hours, right? We didn’t have a lot of time, but we had a couple hours. Had there been a concern about say, I don’t know, an attachment item, an old stuffed animal, an important set of photographs, we could have popped those in the fire safe before we left, right? Or we could have taken them with us, we had time to pack the car. So, talk about it ahead of time and incorporate everybody’s needs as best you can into the list you’re making.
Second, depending on who you’re working with, consider whether you can make visual supports, visual aids, or any other kind of aids to pull out in an emergency. So, for example, you might be able to make an action strip of, “In an emergency first we do this, then we do this, then we do this,” you know, so, first we leave the house, second we get in a car, or first we listen to mom, follow her instructions, second we, you know, do this, do this, right?
Whatever it is, and you can make a set of action strips for different potential situations, right? Don’t make 30, but you can make like three of four for different kinds of situations, right? Where you have less time or more time. Have them available, make a binder somewhere in your house that’s like the emergency situation binder that has all your contacts, all your lists, all your action items, and all of your visual supports in one place.
Make copies if possible, and put them in friends’s houses or your support people’s houses, your emergency people that you might go to in an evacuation situation. If possible make a digital copy and keep it on your phone or in your Google drive so you can access it if something happens when you’re not at home, okay?
And the last thing I want to say is please practice. Please practice what to do in an emergency, okay? So, we’re homeschoolers which means that we have, for better or worse, managed to opt ourselves out of things like fire drills, active shooter drills, right? Emergency preparedness drills of all kinds that happen in school systems. That means that when we’re at home we have to be really on top of making — I have to be really on top of making sure that my kids know what to do. What do you do if someone comes in the door when I’m not there? What do you do if I fall asleep and you can’t wake me up? What do you do if there’s a fire? What do you do if there’s a flood? What do you do if? What do you do if, right?
And when I’m listing it all out like that it probably sounds overwhelming and like I’m traumatizing my kids, but you don’t do all this in one fell swoop. You do, like, one a month, right? And you just sort of bring it up the same way you bring up the earth is round and that oxygen is in the air when you’re teaching small children, right? You bring things up over and over again until it sticks.
The same way you drill your math equations by drilling, or how to read or write by drilling, or even how to knit by doing it over and over again. The more that you talk about and physically practice as best you can evacuation maneuvers, the more you talk about your safety plans, the more you talk about the fact that the binder exists, the more that you talk about the fact that, “If this ever happens and it probably won’t, this is our plan,” the more your kids and other people will internalize that plan and be able to pull it out themselves in an emergency if you are indisposed or something happens to you, right?
‘Cause that’s another concern, is if there’s only one main emergency person, and that’s me, if something happens to me in the emergency, right? Are my kids going to be able to get help, right? And so you have to be thinking about replicating what you’re doing and dispersing it so it’s not just you who has all the plans in your head, all those plans need to be in as many people’s heads as possible, and there need to be backups so that if something happens, we all forbid it, if something happens people still know what to do, people will still be safe, okay?
I know this is a stressful topic. I really appreciate you tuning in today, and I hope some of this was helpful for you. My best advice is don’t panic. Hitchhiker’s Guide all the way you guys. Don’t panic, take some deep breaths, and remember that most of us end up okay in the long term. But it does not hurt to be prepared, and if you are someone who gets nervous or who’s going to freeze in an emergency situation, and if you are someone who gets nervous or who’s gonna freeze in an emergency situation, making those plans — And you can do it with a coach, with a therapist, with a friend, right? With a teacher. Making those plans ahead of time and having them accessible is going to really support you in a potentially very difficult situation, and make sure everybody gets out okay. Alright.
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