Between 2015 and 2019, there was an average of 13.8 natural disasters per year. Natural disasters can range from hurricanes to hail storms and wildfires to tornadoes. They might be unavoidable, but with a bit of planning and preparation, you can reduce severe weather damage and its effects on your home and family.
The first step to take toward emergency preparedness is to recognize and understand the types of hazards and disasters your home and family are likely to face. From there, you can focus on creating a disaster preparedness plan that outlines what to do and where to go if a storm or other natural disaster is headed your way.
1. Identify Hazards
Some types of natural disasters are more likely to occur in certain parts of the U.S. than others. It’s important to plan for the type of hazards your household could potentially experience based on your location. A few possible hazards to include in your planning are:
- Earthquakes: Earthquakes can happen across the U.S., but they are much more common along the West Coast in Hawaii, Alaska and along the Mississippi River Valley. When an earthquake occurs, the ground shakes suddenly as rocks beneath the surface shift. Preparing your home for an earthquake often involves securing loose objects and furniture. During an earthquake, it’s important to know where to go for cover and protection.
- Floods: Flooding occurs when water rises and covers dry land. A flood can happen anywhere and can range from mild to severe in terms of damage. They can occur as a result of rain and storms or as a result of an overflow of water from a dam or storm system. Floods are one of the most common natural disasters in the U.S.
- Hurricanes: Hurricanes occur along all coasts of the U.S. The effects of hurricanes can also be felt further inland. They bring with them heavy rains, strong winds and the potential for flooding. Depending on the severity of a hurricane, your preparedness plan might involve leaving your home and moving out of the path of the hurricane, or you might shelter in place until the storm is over.
- Snowstorms and extreme winter weather: Heavy snow, ice, high winds, freezing rain and excessively cold temperatures can all be part of extreme winter weather. Although extreme winter weather is more common in the Northern and Midwestern parts of the U.S., some warmer parts of the country have also experienced out-of-the-ordinary snowstorms. Preparing for snowstorms and winter weather can involve prepping your home to protect it against freezing temperatures, stocking up on supplies and knowing what to do to keep your family warm and safe throughout the storm.
- Tornadoes: Although tornadoes most commonly occur in the Southeastern and Midwestern parts of the U.S., they can develop anywhere across the country. Tornadoes can bring with them wind speeds above 200 mph. They can pick up cars and destroy buildings. Preparing for a tornado means knowing where to go in your home to seek shelter and learning how to recognize the signs that a funnel cloud is on its way.
- Wildfires: Wildfires are unplanned and often burn through natural areas such as forests, prairies and grasslands. If not quickly controlled, they can spread to surrounding communities and cause damage to houses and other buildings. If you live in an area that experiences wildfires, it’s vital that you have a home evacuation plan and emergency response plan. You can also take steps to protect your home from fire damage before a wildfire occurs.
In addition to the more common hazards above, you might need to make a plan to prepare for a volcanic eruption if you live in an area with active volcanos or a plan for a tsunami if you live in a coastal area.
2. Create a Preparedness Plan
Everyone in your household should be on the same page when it comes to emergency situations and how you’ll handle them. Part of the process of developing an emergency response plan should include holding a family or household meeting. During the family meeting, focus on creating a disaster preparedness plan.
Who attends the meeting and who is responsible for what in the event of an emergency largely depends on who is in your household and their ages. You can explain the basics of natural disasters and emergencies to young children, for example, but you most likely won’t expect them to take on responsibilities if a disaster or emergency strikes. As you put together your home evacuation plan, consider the following factors:
The Types of Disasters Likely to Occur in Your Area
Different types of natural disasters and emergency situations require a different response. Research the variety of potential disasters to find out how many typically occur in your region during the year. You should also investigate the risk of one or more of those situations being severe enough to require evacuation or sheltering in place.
How You Can Get Information in the Event of an Emergency
During an emergency, power might go out and the internet might not work. Decide how you’ll stay connected to the outside world. You might invest in a battery-powered radio or a wind-up radio. If your mobile phone still works in an emergency, you may be able to receive emergency alerts on it.
How You’ll Evacuate if Needed
Talk to your household members about how you’ll leave home if needed due to an emergency. Your evacuation plan should include a route to take to get to a safe place and a mode of transportation to get there safely, such as a car. Also, have a destination in mind if you need to leave. Can you go to a family member’s house or the home of a friend? If not, you might need to learn the location of the nearest emergency evacuation shelter.
Where You’ll Meet if You Need to Leave and Get Separated
It might be the case that you and your household members have to split up when you get an evacuation order. To be on the safe side, have a plan for where you’ll meet up if you get separated.
How You’ll Communicate With One Another
Along with knowing where to find your household members in the event of an emergency, make a plan for staying in touch during a natural disaster. Make sure everyone in your household has each other’s phone numbers stored in their cellphones and written down on a piece of paper.
It’s also a good idea to have the contact information for your family doctor, your children’s schools, your work and your children’s caregiver written down on a piece of paper that members of your household have with them at all times. Also, include the contact information of a relative or friend who lives in another town. That person can serve as the central contact point if you and your family need to evacuate and lose contact with each other.
What You’ll Do About Household Pets
If you have pets in your home, you want to protect them in the event of an emergency. Include your pets in your plan by deciding who will put them in their crates or carriers and transport them to the car when you’re evacuating. You might want to make a sign and put it by your front door letting emergency responders know there are pets in the house who may need to be rescued.
The Safe Spot in Your Home
While some situations will require you to leave your home, not all of them will. Determine an ideal location in your home to seek shelter during an emergency event. For example, in the event of a tornado, a small room without windows on the lowest floor of your home is usually the best place to seek shelter.
3. Gather Supplies and Prepare
Stock up on supplies to keep your family fed, hydrated, comfortable and warm in the event of an emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend having a three-day supply of food on hand in case you are unable to leave your home or in case of supply chain disruption. The foods you keep on hand should:
- Not require refrigeration or cooking.
- Have a long shelf life.
- Be low in salt.
- Be appropriate for babies and any adults who follow a special diet.
You may need to swap out the foods in your disaster preparation kit from time to time, as they approach their expiration or “best by” date. Keep an inventory of your emergency food stash that also includes the expiration dates of the products. As the dates approach, consume the food to keep it from going to waste, then replace it with new products.
Along with food, the CDC also recommends having an adequate amount of water on hand for each person in your home, in case a disaster affects the plumbing. Have at least one gallon of water per person and pet in your home per day. If you live in an area with a hot climate, or if people in your home are ill or pregnant, you might want to have more than one gallon per person. The CDC recommends having at least three days of water on hand, if not two weeks’ worth of water.
Food and water aren’t the only things to stock up on and include in your emergency preparation kit. You should also have a first-aid kit and an adequate amount of medication. Make sure you have enough prescription medication on hand in case of an emergency, as well as a supply of over-the-counter medicines, such as pain relievers and cold medicine. You’ll also want to have a thermometer.
First-aid supplies to include in your disaster preparedness kit include:
- Antibacterial ointments
- Antibacterial wipes
- Burn creams
- Vinyl or another type of non-latex gloves
Your kit should also include any items your family or household members need, such as contact lenses and cleaning solution, asthma inhalers and diabetic testing strips. Don’t forget about comfort and warmth when stocking your kit. Include blankets and sweaters for each member of the family, in case you lose power or the heating goes out as a result of a storm.
It can also be worthwhile to learn certain skills to complement your kit, such as first-aid skills. If possible, take a CPR certification course and a first-aid course. Also, become familiar with your home and the location of shut-off valves in case you need to turn the water or electricity off during a disaster. Make sure others in the home know the locations of shut-off valves, too.
4. Practice Your Plan
Practice makes perfect, including a family emergency plan. Doing test runs or drills of your plan can help you smooth out any wrinkles or find solutions to any problems that come up before a real emergency occurs.
It’s a good idea to practice both a shelter-in-place plan and an evacuation plan so you can see how your household members respond in each type of situation. When you practice your plan, try to complicate the situation. For example, you might practice what you would do if you and your spouse became separated just before you had to evacuate, or if you have to evacuate from your home while your spouse is at the supermarket or their workplace.
Since situations can change from year to year, practicing your plan once or twice a year allows you to make adjustments as needed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, your evacuation plan should include a plan for protecting your household members from the virus, particularly if you end up having to go to a public shelter.
Along with performing dry runs of your emergency plan, make an effort to keep track of your supplies. Rotate out older foods and water every few months, replacing them with new items. Test the items in your kit, such as the radio and thermometer, to make sure they still work and that the batteries are fresh. If contact information for anyone in your family changes or if your emergency contact changes, make sure to keep that information up to date.
5. Protect Your Home and Family
In addition to having a plan in place in the event of an emergency, there are steps you can take to protect your family and house from the damage caused by an event such as a hurricane, tornado or winter storm:
- Install the right equipment: Some home features, such as a sump pump, can help reduce the damage caused by flooding and strong storms. It’s also a good idea to have alarm systems installed at home, such as smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, to alert you to any potential hazards.
- Keep the area around your home clutter free: Outdoor furniture, toys, grills and gardening equipment can blow around during a storm with strong winds, causing damage to your house or other structures. If possible, limit the number of items you store outside. If you do have outdoor furniture or other gear, find a way to secure it before a storm comes. You can tie it down or store it in a garage or shed.
- Care for trees and shrubs: Prune trees and shrubs to reduce the chance of branches breaking away and falling off during a storm or other disaster.
- Clean your gutters: If leaves and other debris collect in the gutter around your roof, water damage can occur. The damage can be severe after a snowfall or during a storm with excessive rain. Cleaning the gutters at least once a year can help reduce water damage to your roof.
- Barricade your windows: Hurricane-strength winds can easily shatter windows. Tornados can also break windows. Covering up the windows of your home with plywood or shutters before a storm strikes can help keep the home in one piece and can protect the people inside the house.
- Maintain your home’s systems: Keeping your home’s systems in good working order means they will be more likely to keep functioning in an emergency. Have your heating system maintained each year to make it more likely to keep working during a blizzard or other winter storm. If you live in an area that experiences frequent, long-lasting power outages, installing a backup generator can be a smart move. The generator can kick on when the main power goes out, keeping you and your family warm and comfortable in the midst of a storm.
- Purchase the right amount of insurance: Depending on your location and the risk level for certain types of disasters, you might need to purchase special homeowners insurance to keep your home adequately protected. If you live in an area with a lot of flooding, you’ll need flood insurance in addition to your basic policy. Talk to your insurance agent to make sure you have the right amount of insurance for your property.
What to Do After a Disaster Occurs
What you do after a disaster largely depends on whether you had to evacuate your home or not. If you did have to leave your home, it’s best to wait until local officials give you the all-clear that it is safe to return. When you get to your home, proceed with caution. You might want to inspect the outside of the house first, walking around the perimeter to assess any damage.
Be sure to give your insurance company a call, as someone from their team will need to come out and evaluate the damage before you can file a claim. If you are concerned that the event caused structural damage to your property, you may want to call a structural engineer to evaluate the condition of the building before you go inside.
When you do go back into your home, keep an eye out for the following:
- Cracks in the walls, ceiling and along the foundation
- Damage to water pipes
- A rotten egg smell, which is the sign of a gas leak
- The state of the electrical system — if possible, turn the electricity off
- Standing water in your basement — avoid going into a basement with standing water and arrange to have it pumped out
Now is also the time to reconnect with loved ones who were in the area or any family members you might have been separated from. If you have young children, check in with them to see how they are coping with the situation. Some children might show signs of distress immediately after a disaster or emergency, while others might seem calm at first but have concerns later on. You might consider scheduling therapy for your children or yourself and arrange for everyone in your family to see a doctor after an emergency situation.
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