Before I jump into tips on preparing for specific types of disasters, there are a few preparedness practices that apply to just about any natural disaster:
1. ALWAYS FOLLOW EVACUATION ORDERS AND DIRECTIVES FROM YOUR LOCAL OFFICIALS.
Maybe you have stayed in your house for the last four hurricanes and been fine, but guess what, there’s a decent chance that the next one you’re going to be that guy getting airlifted off his roof on the five o’clock news – and that’s not the worst case scenario. Experts are not perfect in predicting the movements of natural disasters, but they are experts for a reason, and they aren’t throwing darts here. Warning systems save lives. A great way to make sure you receive emergency warnings is to download the FEMA app on your phone and sign up for alerts for your zip code.
2. MAKE A PLAN AHEAD OF TIME.
Take time with your household to talk through a family plan of what to do and where to go in case a disaster happens when you’re not together or can’t go home. If you live alone, it’s important to let a nearby friend know that they will be your planned destination in case of an emergency, then they can look out for you. Communication lines often get knocked out or overwhelmed during natural disasters. Text messages will be more likely to go through than calls, but sometimes calling outside of your area will work too, so it’s helpful to designate a family member in another state as the call-in person who everyone can check in with and communicate through.
3. KEEP EMERGENCY PROVISIONS ON HAND.
The type of emergency kit you build should be customized to the type of emergency you’re most likely to encounter, especially whether it’s likely you’ll need to shelter in place or evacuate (I’ll get into those details more in the section below), and customized to the number of people in your household and any special needs they may have (think: prescription meds, diapers, formula, glasses, pet food, leash, etc…) As you build your kit, the goal to keep in mind is having the essentials needed to keep your family safe and sane for 72 hours without power or support in any season. If you have children, don’t underestimate the importance of comfort items like a favorite lovey – if you don’t have a backup one you can keep in your kit, make sure to add this to your family’s list of “most important items to grab in an evacuation”.
PREPPING BY REGION
EARTHQUAKES: WHEN THE GROUND IS SHAKING, DON’T STAND IN THAT DOORWAY.
In the moment: Earthquake protocols have changed over the years, but many people still think that the classic Hollywood move of standing in a doorway is what you’re supposed to do – it’s not. The safest thing to do, according to FEMA, is to immediately lay down and cover your head with your hands, if you can easily get under a table, do so, then grab onto a leg to anchor yourself. If you’re outside, great, stay outside and away from buildings and power lines. If you’re in a car, pull over and put on the parking brake.
Preparing ahead of time: Unfortunately, an earthquake early warning system in the U.S. is still in the development phase (learn more about USGS ShakeAlert here), however there are many ways you can prepare ahead of time. Talk through your family emergency plan, research where your local shelters will be, anchor TVs and top-heavy furniture to the walls, and have an emergency go-bag packed. I recommend a go-bag rather than a traditional home kit because in a serious earthquake situation there is a good chance you will need to evacuate, but you should still store extra water and food in your house and use the bag for your other survival items in case you are sheltering in place. Some of my friends in California keep their emergency bags in weatherproof trunks or sheds outside their home. This way, even if their home is unsafe to enter, their emergency supplies are accessible.
WILDFIRES: THEY MOVE FAST – SO SHOULD YOU.
In the moment: Wildfires are unpredictable and susceptible to rapid changes in size based on wind and other natural elements. If you are under a warning or evacuation order – take it seriously and leave the area. If the fire is very close, N95 masks are great for filtering out smoke and particles, but a bandana will help too. Once in your car, the filter will help do the trick.
Preparing ahead of time: If you live in a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) or a Grassland Urban Interface (GUI) you should have a Go Bag packed in case of an immediate fire evacuation, and a car emergency kit with food, water, a flashlight, blanket, and phone charger in case you’re not able to return to your home. You should have a discussion with your family members of the single most important item in the home to each of them. If you have time, grab those items along with your Go Bag and call it a day. Do not linger, if a fireman comes to your door and tells you have five minutes to clear out, they don’t mean ten. Fires are scary. My intention is not to scare you here, it’s for you to be prepared and therefore less scared in case you find yourself in one of these situations.
HURRICANES & TROPICAL STORMS: DON’T BE THAT GUY ON THE ROOF.
In the moment: One benefit of hurricanes is that they aren’t stealthy. They are huge, relatively slow-moving storms that can easily be tracked and therefore people can be warned of their arrival ahead of time. These benefits are also what can make them so devastating. They are huge and can take down power grids and cause devastation over hundreds of miles. They are slow moving and wet, bringing large storm surges and dumping tens of inches of rain before heading inland. If you do find yourself in a scary situation with rising waters, move to the highest interior point in your house but where you could still get to a window to climb out if waters came that high. Never walk, drive, or swim through flood waters. Call for rescue.
Preparing ahead of time: Know your evacuation routes and heed local evacuation warnings. Make a plan with your family, and have an emergency Go Bag packed ahead of time. If you need to pack for your whole family quickly, just grab everyone’s hampers – that way you know it’s a variety of clothes that currently fit. If you are in an area that isn’t at risk for flooding or storm surge and plan to wait out the storm, make sure to have a well-stocked Home Emergency Kit with extra water and food. When it comes to large storms you should have provisions for the grid being down for at least a week, and water supplies can be tainted for even longer. Two weeks after hurricane Katrina, only 30% of the area’s drinking water facilities and 40% of the areas wastewater facilities were operating (more details here).
TORNADOES: HIDING IN THE BASEMENT, IT’S THE RIGHT THING TO DO.
In the moment: If you hear sirens or receive an alert, move to a basement or secure interior room without windows immediately – tornado winds can move at over 200 MPH. If you’re outside and can’t get in, do not seek shelter under a bridge – they can create wind tunnels that blow debris even faster at you. Lay down flat in a ditch and protect your head and neck, cover yourself with blankets, jackets or anything to help protect you from flying debris.
Preparing ahead of time: Be familiar with your local sirens and sign up for digital alerts from FEMA in case you can’t hear the sirens during a storm. Meteorologists are often able to issue tornado warnings ahead of time – there is no shame in heeding these and moving to the basement. Growing up in Indiana we had our fair share of tornadoes, but my parents did a good job of not making it too scary. We just got to do a basement “campout” and all bring our sleeping bags down for the night. Tornadoes are unpredictable and not something to be taken lightly. Even if they miss your house, they can do serious damage to an area and leave you without power for days, that’s why it’s important to keep a well-stocked home emergency kit if you live in the Midwest or South.
BLIZZARDS: IS THAT A “POLAR VORTEX” OR A “BOMB CYCLONE”?
In the moment: There are a lot of severe winter weather terms out there that the media loves these days, but good old snowstorms and cold can cause serious emergency situations. If you live in Colorado, you know that sometimes they are predicting 3” and we get 30”. If you live in Buffalo, you know it might end up being 50”. It’s good to be safely indoors when a storm hits. If you have a generator, do not use it in the house or garage. Generators emit high levels of carbon monoxide and have led to many post-disaster injuries and deaths – check out this article by Consumer Reports for generator safety tips. If you are in a car and lose visibility, pull over and turn on your hazards – stay in your car. At the end of the storm, if you are healthy, safe, and home (and maybe have a good snowblower or shovel), use the opportunity to go check in on older neighbors and friends who may need help.
Preparing ahead of time: Keep a Car Emergency Kit stocked with food, water, blankets, flashlights, etc…in case you need to stay in there overnight. At home, if you have a stocked pantry, flashlights, water, and a wood-burning fireplace, you’re in pretty good shape. If you have a gas fireplace, you’ll have a heat source, but if the power’s out and it requires a switch you might think you’re out of luck. However, most gas fireplaces have either an igniter bypass to the switch, or a box that you can put batteries in to turn it on. Look into this before an emergency situation so you’ll know how it works. Always have working carbon monoxide and smoke detectors in your home as well. And, as I suggest to most anyone, keep a well-stocked home emergency kit.
Strong community ties are essential in preparing for and rebuilding after disasters strike. You are our community and we value your feedback. If you live in an area that is prone to any of the disasters listed above and you have valuable tips to share, please leave them in the comments section below.
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