Being prepared for natural disasters - floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornados - is the best way to protect you, your family, your pets and your belongings. When a natural disaster is imminent, you'll have to act quickly, so it's important that you do everything you can before disaster strikes. Your pre-disaster prep should include assembling your supply kits, gathering food, water and medication for all family members and pets, developing evacuation plans and securing your possessions. The information below will help you get started.
The time to plan for disaster is before one occurs-you'll greatly enhance your chances of staying safe. Important components of disaster planning include:
- Preparing a disaster supplies kit.
- Developing an evacuation plan.
- Listing actions you can take to protect your property.
- Assembling and securing important documents.
Also, consider taking CPR and a basic first-aid course, especially if you live in a disaster prone area. The American Red Cross offers CPR and first aid courses; your local municipality and community college may offer them as well.
A disaster supplies kit should contain enough food, water, and essential supplies to sustain each family member for a minimum of three days. General categories include water, food, basic tools, clothing, bedding, and special items for medical conditions. Following are examples of items to include:
- Essential medications for each family member.
- Canned food and a manual can opener.
- At least three gallons of water per person.
- Supplies and instructions for purifying water.
- Battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries.
- Essential supplies for particular family members (e.g., disposable diapers, pet food).
- A well-stocked first aid kit.
- If you don't have one, get a phone that is not cellular and does not use household current. If you have no electricity, an old-fashioned phone will be valuable.
- An extra set of house and car keys.
- Some cash and an extra credit card.
In addition to the disaster supplies kit you assemble for your home, you should keep a small disaster supplies kit in your car. Include a well-stocked first aid kit, a blanket, booster cables, maps, a shovel, flares, a tire repair kit, and a pump.
Store disaster supplies in waterproof containers, where they're quickly accessible in an emergency (e.g., if you live in a flood-prone area, store them on an upper floor - not the basement). Check your kit every six months, and review the contents to see if there is anything that needs to be added (e.g., new prescriptions, pet food for a new pet). Replace products that are nearing their expiration date (check with your pharmacist to verify the shelf life of prescriptions in the kit), and review written instructions to make sure they're still valid.
The American Red Cross is an excellent source of information on disaster preparedness. The Red Cross has a comprehensive list of disaster supplies that you can use as a model to assemble your own kit. You can also obtain detailed instructions for purifying water.
Depending upon the predicted severity of the disaster and the amount of time until it strikes, you may be asked to evacuate (leave) the area. Evacuation orders usually come from local government officials; if disaster threatens, listen to local television and radio stations so that you'll know if an evacuation order is issued. Never ignore an evacuation order. Even though conditions may not seem bad where you are, government officials have access to far more information than you do. Bear in mind that safe escape routes may be closed or impassable if you wait too long to leave.
A good evacuation plan includes evacuation routes, destinations, and alternates (e.g., if roads are closed). Before making your plan, check with your local government (e.g., county, township) to see if they have disaster planning information. Many have helpful information on their websites.
Identify where you'll go if you evacuate. Possibilities include the homes of friends or relatives, motels, hotels, or a disaster shelter. Pets cannot be taken to disaster shelters unless they are assistance animals, so consider possible destinations with this in mind. Make sure you have more than one alternative. Once you've decided, write down the names, addresses, and phone numbers of your choices.
Choose route(s) to your destination and alternate(s) and test them. Put written directions in your disaster supply kit, as well as in your car. Keep a good map in your car. Bear in mind that you may need to modify your plan based on specific information from local authorities (e.g., impassable roads, traffic conditions). Don't be tempted to use untested shortcuts.
Make a list of actions you can take to protect your property. If it's possible to take the time without endangering anyone, there are things you can do to protect your property. Develop a list ahead of time, so that it will be there when you need it. For example:
Secure items that could do damage in high wind or floodwater indoors (e.g., trash cans, lawn furniture).
Prepare a list of written instructions for turning off utilities-water, electricity, and outdoor propane tanks. Do not turn off natural gas unless instructed to do so by authorities. The specific actions you list will depend on your individual circumstances. You might, for example, have instructions for securing a boat if you own one. Make sure family members understand the list and know what to do, and keep a copy in your disaster supply kit.
Assemble and secure important documents. Keep important documents-legal, financial, and insurance-in one place so you can lay your hands on them quickly. Store these documents in a kit-something small, portable, and waterproof-so that you can grab it in a hurry if you evacuate. Social security cards, birth and marriage certificates, wills, and financial records should be included. Additionally, insurance policies-auto, life, health, and renters or homeowners-copies of prescriptions, and some emergency cash can be vitally important when fleeing from or dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster. Make a duplicate copy of these documents and store them in a remote, safe location (e.g., safety deposit box).
Prepare an emergency contact list of friends and relatives — those persons you'd want to contact either to say you're okay or to ask for help. Include addresses and phone numbers of all persons important to the welfare of you and your family (e.g., physicians, attorneys, insurance agents). Keep your contact list with your important documents. Choose a friend or relative-one living out of your area-to be the designated contact in case family members become separated during an emergency. Instruct family members to "report in" to your designated contact, so you can keep track of everyone.
Damage caused by natural disasters often can't be prevented, but there are things you can do to mitigate personal and financial loss.
Make a record—visual or written—of all of your possessions. Make the record as detailed as possible (e.g., receipts, serial numbers of expensive equipment or appliances). Include furniture, silver, jewelry, etc. Store the record in a safe place — not at home — like a safety deposit box. Keep a copy in your important documents kit. This record will help prove the value of damaged or destroyed possessions, and may help you claim a deduction on your taxes if you suffer a loss. You may also want to give a copy to a close friend or relative.
Get advice from professionals. Schedule meetings with your advisors (e.g., attorney, accountant, insurance agent) specifically for the purpose of finding out how best to minimize your financial loss from natural disasters. You don't want to find out your homeowner's insurance is inadequate after the roof has blown off of your house.
Consider your computer. Many people use their computer for storage of financial records, etc. Most computers are not portable on a moment's notice. Consider storing computer records on a USB flash drive (a small device that holds a lot of data) and update it regularly. There are also online storage services you can use. Photos can also be stored on a USB flash drive, or you could use an online photo storage site.
If you must evacuate your home, do not leave your pets behind. Due to state health and safety regulations, shelters, including Red Cross shelters, cannot accept animals, except for assistance animals. Plan where and how your pets will be cared for in advance. You might, for example, contact possible hotel destinations to find out what their policies are regarding pets. Ask if they make exceptions during emergencies. Keep important pet items, food, medications, leashes and carriers in an accessible place. Planning and preparation will enable you to evacuate with your pets quickly and safely. For more information, contact the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) or the American Red Cross.
Floods take various forms: river floods, caused by blockages or excessive rain; coastal floods caused by winds, storm surges, and rains from tropical storms or hurricanes; and urban floods, which occur when storm sewers are unable to handle a torrential downpour and city streets become swiftly moving rivers. Flood conditions can also trigger dangerous mudslides.
Flash flood is a term used to describe the fastest moving kind of flood; one for which there is usually little warning. Flash floods are the number one weather-related killer in the United States. According to the National Weather Service, flash floods claim more than 120 lives each year.
The most dangerous type of flash flooding usually occurs within minutes or hours of a tremendous rainfall, a dam or dike failure, or a large break in an ice jam. Flash floods have the power to uproot trees, topple buildings, and wash away bridges. Most flash flooding is caused by prolonged, heavy thunderstorms or heavy rains from tropical storms or hurricanes.
Preparing for Floods
Know the risk of flooding in your area and the elevation of your home above flood stage. This information is available from your local Red Cross chapter or your local emergency management agency.
Check your insurance coverage; flood damage is generally excluded from homeowner's insurance policies. Carefully review policies that protect your property and possessions. If you live in an area prone to flooding, consider purchasing special flood insurance from the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). To find out what's best for you, ask your insurance agent for advice about flood insurance and NFIP. Remember, it will be easier to file an insurance claim if you have a complete inventory of your property.
A flood watch or a flash flood watch means a flood is possible in your area.Watches are generally issued for flooding that is expected to occur at least 6 hours after heavy rains have ended. If you live in an area included in a flood watch, stay tuned to local radio or television for further advisories, and do what you can to be ready to act quickly as the situation develops (e.g., make sure you have a full tank of gas).
A flood warning or a flash flood warning means flooding is actually occurring or is imminent in the warning area. You need to take precautions immediately. Precautions include:
Store water for drinking in sturdy containers and fill a clean bathtub in case water service is interrupted.
Move valuables (including disaster supplies, important documents, etc.) to the highest ground you can (e.g., the attic).
Stay tuned to local TV or radio for the latest information and evacuation advisories.
Evacuate at once if asked to do so, before safe escape routes are shut down.
If you need to evacuate and you're absolutely certain you have time, shut off water, electricity and aboveground, outdoor propane tanks.
If flooding is expected, don't go near areas prone to sudden flash flooding, such as canyons, dry washes, rivers, streambeds, and drainage ditches.
If you're outdoors or in your car, remember that even low levels of rushing water can be extremely dangerous:
Avoid crossing flowing water on foot if the water is above your ankles.
Never drive over a flooded road. If you come upon a flooded road or a barricade, turn around and find another route. Two feet of water will carry away most automobiles, and roadbeds may not be intact under floodwater.
If your car stalls, get out and climb to higher ground.
Be particularly careful driving at night, when it's more difficult to recognize flood dangers.
By being prepared, you can lessen the hazards of a flood. Teaching your family exactly what to do will help them come through the event safely.
After a Flood
Assume tap water has been contaminated unless officials specifically say it's safe. Do not drink floodwater. If you have no drinking water, emergency supplies may be found in toilet tanks (not the toilet bowl), water heaters and melted ice cubes.
Purify water if you're not certain it's safe to drink.
Throw away food that has come into contact with floodwater.
Watch for power lines that are down, and report them to authorities as soon as possible.
Stay away from disaster areas — you may hamper rescue or other emergency work.
Use flashlights — not matches or open flames — to examine buildings. There may be flammables or a gas leak inside.
A hurricane is a tropical storm with winds that have reached a constant speed of at least 74 miles per hour. Hurricanes produce huge waves and torrential rains that can cause flooding and devastation- not just along the coastline, but hundreds of miles inland as well. Hurricanes are grouped into five categories with category five being the most powerful and, consequently, the most damaging. Category five hurricanes have sustained winds of at least 155 mph.
Hurricane season runs from June 1st through November 30th for people living along the Atlantic seaboard of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. Although numerous "tropical disturbances" formed during the season have the potential to turn into hurricanes, on average only 10 become tropical storms (i.e., maximum sustained winds of 39-74 mph) and, of those, only six become full-fledged hurricanes.
The National Weather Service issues a hurricane watch if hurricane conditions are possible in the watch area within 36 hours or less. If you live in an area included in a hurricane watch, stay tuned to radio or television for further advisories, and prepare to act quickly as the situation develops.
A hurricane warning is issued if hurricane conditions are expected in the warning area within 24 hours or less. If a warning is issued, take appropriate precautions immediately. You may be advised to evacuate, depending upon the severity of the storm and your location. If you live on the coast, in a low-lying area, in a mobile home, or near a river or flood plain, you are especially vulnerable. Listen for news about the severity of the storm, and heed advice from local authorities.
Preparing for Hurricanes
If you live in a hurricane-prone area, check your disaster supplies kit and review your evacuation plan before hurricane season starts. Stock plywood, nails, and other items needed to protect your home; it may be difficult or impossible to obtain these items as a storm approaches. Also, be sure to keep your car's gas tank full during hurricane season.
If a hurricane watch is issued, stay tuned to local radio or television for the latest information and instructions. Take whatever steps are necessary to be ready to leave quickly if an evacuation order is given.
If a hurricane warning is issued:
- Bring children and pets indoors.
- Check mobile home tie-downs.
- Cover outside windows with storm shutters or sheets of plywood. Tape is not sufficient protection.
- Turn off utilities, if appropriate.
- As time permits, secure outside property (e.g., boats, barbecues).
- Stay indoors, away from windows and doors. Don't go outside until you are sure it is safe. Remember, a lull in the storm could be the eye passing overhead; violent winds may return suddenly from the opposite direction.
- Evacuate immediately if instructed to do so.
After a Hurricane
Observe safety precautions:
- Watch for downed power lines and report them to the proper authorities.
- Report broken or damaged water, gas, and sewer lines.
- Stay off roadways whenever possible. If you must go out, avoid flooded roads, bridges or causeways.
- Make sure buildings are structurally sound before entering them.
- Don't use tap water until you are advised that it is safe.
- Purify water unless you're absolutely certain it's safe to drink.
- Watch for food contamination. Food in the freezer may last a few days if the door to the freezer is kept closed.
- If you had to evacuate, do not return until local authorities say it is safe to do so.
If the closest you've ever come to a tornado is watching the "Wizard of Oz," count yourself lucky. But keep in mind that twisters aren't unique to Kansas; they've been reported in every state except Alaska. Most often they occur east of the Rocky Mountains during the spring and summer months.
Tornados can happen at any time of day, but they're most likely to occur between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. They can strike in batches-in 1974 an incredible 148 tornados struck in 13 states and Canada in one 24- hour period.
The majority of tornados — 69 percent — are considered light-moderate, meaning that they last only one to ten minutes and have winds of less than 110 mph. Stronger tornados, with winds of 110 to 205 mph make up 29 percent of all tornados. They may last more than 20 minutes, and account for nearly 25 percent of tornado-related deaths. Violent tornados — winds greater than 205 mph — can last longer than an hour. While only 3 percent of tornados are considered violent, they account for 70 percent of tornado-related deaths.
In the 1990s, the National Weather Service modernized its weather surveillance radar. Consequently, the number of tornados for which warnings were issued rose significantly — from 35 percent to 60 percent. In addition, the average warning time increased from just over five minutes to more than nine minutes. These improvements have saved many lives - providing precious time for more people to get to safe locations.
Tornados — Keeping Safe
A tornado watch is issued when tornados are possible in your area. If a watch is issued, stay tuned to radio or television for further advisories. A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted or is indicated by weather radar. If a tornado warning is issued for your area and the sky becomes threatening, move to your designated place of safety. Many communities have sirens or whistles to warn the public of tornados.
If you live in an area prone to tornados, there are things you can do to protect yourself and your family before a tornado strikes.
Make sure you have a disaster plan for you and your family that includes directions for what to do at school, at work, and outdoors as well as at home. Discuss what you will do if there is a warning to evacuate. Make sure family members know who the designated out-of-area contact person is.
Learn your community's tornado warning signal and evacuation plan. Have frequent drills. Know where your designated shelter is before you need it.
Make sure family members know how and when to shut off water, electricity and gas at main switches and valves.
Pay attention to changing weather conditions, especially if you are planning a trip.
Keep a map nearby to follow storm movement in your area by monitoring weather bulletins.
Tornados can strike with little warning; there may not be time to reach a community shelter or even a basement. Make sure family members know how best to protect themselves.
At home, the safest place is the interior part of a basement. If an underground shelter is not available, move to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor and get under a sturdy piece of furniture and crouch down. Stay away from windows. Flying glass can injure or kill. Do not open windows.
In a public building, go to the innermost place on the lowest floor. Avoid windows, glass doorways and areas not sheltered by overhead floors and rooms (e.g., atriums). Don't use elevators - the power may go out and you could be trapped. Crouch down, protecting your head.
If you're in a car, get out of the vehicle and seek shelter in a nearby ditch, gully, or low spot; avoid trees. Don't get under a vehicle. Lie flat and put your arms over your head. Don't try to out drive a tornado. Cars, buses and trucks are easily tossed by tornado winds. The same advice holds true if you're caught outside on foot.
If you're in a mobile home, take shelter with family or friends who have basements, if time permits. Even if secured, mobile homes offer little protection from a tornado.
In an open building such as a shopping mall, gymnasium, indoor pool or civic center, stay away from the windows. If possible, get to the restroom, which often is made from concrete block and offers more protection. If there's no time to go anywhere, seek protection right where you are. Lean against something that will support or divert falling rubble. Always protect your head.
Say the word earthquake and most people immediately think of California. But did you know that earthquakes could happen almost anywhere in the United States? According to the U.S. Geological Survey, they occur most frequently west of the Rocky Mountains, but there are dozens of states around the country where an earthquake could happen at any time, without warning.
Preparing for Earthquakes
Learn the earthquake potential of the area in which you live. Faultzone maps can be obtained from your city or county planning department.
Develop a family earthquake drill and practice it periodically. Make sure children know both the safe and the dangerous spots in each room of your home.
Make sure all family members know who the designated out-of-area contact person is.
Check your home for potential hazards. Fasten down water heaters and gas appliances. Secure large appliances to the wall or floor. Bolt bookcases and other heavy furniture to wall studs.
Make sure family members know how and when to shut off utilities.
Place large and heavy objects on lower shelves. Store bottled goods, glass, china and breakables in low or closed cabinets.
Repair deep plaster cracks in ceilings and foundations.
Use closed-loop hooks to hang pictures, hanging plants or other dangling objects.
Make sure all family members know what to do during an earthquake:
Indoors, take cover under a sturdy table or desk or against an inside wall. Cover your head and face to shield them from falling debris. Stay away from glass (including windows and mirrors), hanging objects, fireplaces or anything that could fall on you.
Outdoors, move away from buildings, power lines, and trees.
In a moving car, pull to the side of the road as quickly as safety allows, stop your car, and stay inside. Stay away from overpasses, bridges, tall buildings, and power lines.
In a high-rise building, get under a desk. Don't scramble for an exit, since stairwells may be broken or jammed with people. Never use an elevator.
Don't use candles, matches, or other flames during or after the quake because of possible gas leaks.
When the Shaking Stops
Be prepared for aftershocks. Although they're usually smaller than the main quake, some may be strong enough to cause additional damage or bring down already weakened buildings.
Check for injuries. Don't move a seriously injured person unless there is danger of further harm. Be prepared to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if someone has stopped breathing. Stop any bleeding by applying direct pressure to the wound. Keep an injured person warm and comfortable.
Put out any small fires (those no larger than a foot or so in diameter or height). If a fire is bigger than that, or if it is producing a lot of smoke, leave the building immediately, alerting your neighbors on the way out. Call the fire department from another location.
Check for hazards. See if gas, water or electrical lines have been damaged. Also check appliances and disconnect them if they're damaged. If you smell gas or see a broken line, shut off the main valve. Then leave the building and don't return until a utility official says you can. Never search for a gas leak with a lighted match.
Check for cracks and other damage. If you find extensive damage, get out immediately — an aftershock could bring the structure down.
Be sure to wear shoes, especially in areas near fallen debris and broken glass.
Don't use the telephone. Lines are likely to be jammed; avoid making calls unless there is a serious emergency.
Make sure sewage lines are intact before using the toilet. Plug tub and sink drains to prevent sewage backup.
Check food and water supplies. Assume tap water has been contaminated. If you have no drinking water, use emergency supplies found in toilet tanks (not the toilet bowl), water heaters and melted ice cubes.
Purify water unless you're absolutely certain it's safe to drink.
Clean up spilled medications, bleach, gasoline and any flammable materials, if you can safely do so.
Open cabinets cautiously. Beware of objects falling from shelves.
Cover broken windows with plywood or plastic sheeting.
If you're away from home when an earthquake occurs, enter your home carefully. Check for structural damage. If anything looks dangerous or unstable, stay out of your home until a professional can inspect it.
Free Pamphlets and Brochures
The American Red Cross has detailed information about safety and natural disasters, including methods for purifying water. Call your local chapter of the American Red Cross and ask for free brochures. On the Internet, go to www.redcross.org.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers free brochures on preparing for natural disasters. Call 800-480-2520, or go to the FEMA website, www.fema.gov. Brochures include:
- After a Flood: The First Steps
- Repairing Your Flooded Home
- Earthquake Safety Checklist
- Earthquake Safety Activities for Children
- Safety Tips for Hurricanes
- Hurricane Safety Tips (card)
- Survival in a Hurricane (wallet card)
- Tornado Safety Tips
- Disaster Preparedness for People With Disabilities
- Emergency Food and Water Supplies
- Your Family Disaster Plan
- Your Family Disaster Supplies Kit
The quarterly Consumer Information Center Catalog lists more than 200 helpful federal publications. Obtain a free copy by calling 888-8-PUEBLO or on the Internet at www.pueblo.gsa.gov.
The Humane Society of the United States website provides information on pets and natural disasters. Search for "Disaster Preparedness for Pets."
The National Weather Service provides weather and climate forecasts and warnings.
Before you start cleaning up after Mother Nature cleans you out, stop and read about the hazards involved in the clean up phase. The Flood Cleanup Hazards Bulletin by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has all the information you'll need.
The NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory provides in-depth information about tornadoes. The science behind tornadoes is explained, and preparedness and safety tips are provided. Printer-friendly safety information is available.
For information about other Life Advice topics, go to www.metlife.com/lifeadvice. To order up to three free Life Advice booklets, call 800-METLIFE (800-638-5433).