Natural disasters are extreme weather events that can cause serious personal injury and property damage. Depending on where you live, certain natural disasters may be more common than others, but they can happen at any time to anyone.
There were 980 natural disaster events worldwide in 2020. These events affect millions of people each year, sometimes causing them to lose their homes, or even their lives. This is why it’s important to have an emergency plan in place to protect yourself and your loved ones. With an emergency plan, not only can you reduce your likelihood of personal injury, but you can also reduce harm incurred by side effects of natural disasters. Increased risk of infectious diseases often follows after a disaster due to people living in poor circumstances, or housed en masse in storm shelters. Food insecurity and power shortages can also increase significantly after natural disasters. Even in less extreme cases, being cut off from food, power, and clean water sources for even a few hours can result in serious consequences.
This guide will help you prepare an emergency disaster plan for all major types of disasters. It will provide tips for how to respond to each disaster occurrence, as well as provide a list of items to have in your emergency kit.
Flooding can cause structural damage to your home, and make it unsafe to travel even short distances. You can take steps before a flood to prevent flooding and excess flood damage. However, depending on what causes the flood, there may be nothing to do but withstand it. If flooding is imminent, you should:
- Anchor large furniture, such as fridges;
- Turn off your main power to prevent electricity hazards;
- Evacuate as soon as possible if told to do so;
- Store important documents, such as social security numbers and insurance policies, in a watertight safe, or send them to a secure digital account.
If you’re caught in a flood and unable to evacuate, you should:
- Get to high, solid ground, such as the roof;
- Do not drive if the water is above six inches;
- Do not try to walk or swim through water that is above six inches.
The longer you wait to evacuate or move to higher ground, the more likely it is that conditions will get worse, increasing your risk of injury. Helicopters are often dispatched as a part of search and rescue efforts after floods, so if you are stuck at home, try to make your way to the roof, if not already there, to increase your visibility.
Hurricanes pose many of the same threats as floods, with the added threat of flying projectiles due to high winds. Hurricanes typically happen in areas with tropical coasts, such as Florida, Texas, and Louisiana. They are incredibly destructive, but often avoidable by individual citizens. Areas that are at high risk for hurricanes have employed advanced warning systems, to determine when to evacuate people and at what time the storm is most likely to touch down. Though these warning systems are a great boon to those who live in areas with hurricanes, you should still practice hurricane safety on your own.
Hurricanes have different categories of intensity determined by the speed of the wind within the storm. This can tell us a lot about what steps need to be taken to prepare, how fast the storm is moving, and the kind of danger the storm poses. The categories include:
- Category One: Winds 74 to 95 miles per hour.
- Category Two: Winds 96 to 110 mph.
- Category Three: Winds 111 to 130 mph.
- Category Four: Winds 131 to 155 mph.
- Category Five: Winds greater than 155 mph.
Hurricanes have caused some of the greatest coastal city devastations in U.S. history. This is why it’s advisable to not only have an emergency plan in these areas but to invest in disaster insurance. In some places, like Florida, insurers are required by law to include windstorm hurricane coverage in their homeowner’s policies.
Thunderstorms and Lightning
Thunder and lightning storms can cause brownouts and blackouts, which can leave you without a reliable power source for hours. This could mean no way to charge devices, cook food, or provide adequate lighting. Electric mechanisms in your home, such as your thermostat and garage door, can also be taken offline by thunder and lightning storms.
All of these outages can seriously affect your ability to communicate to others in your community, as well as evacuate your home. In most cases, you won’t need to evacuate your home during a thunder and lightning storm, and in fact, staying put can be the safest thing to do. Unless:
- Rain during the storm causes a flash flood with waters higher than six inches;
- A lightning strike starts a fire nearby;
- Someone in your household is experiencing a medical emergency.
During a thunder and lightning storm, you should expect delayed responses from emergency vehicles and especially delayed responses from non-emergency vehicles due to poor driving conditions.
Tornadoes occur when a hot weather front and a cold weather front meet. The biggest danger posed to individuals by tornadoes is flying projectiles, making it unsafe to travel during a tornado warning. Tornadoes are most common in the Great Plains area of the U.S., with Texas and Oklahoma getting the most amount of Tornadoes per year. You can prepare yourself for a tornado by building a storm shelter in your home. Storm shelters should ideally be below ground, as this will decrease the likelihood of getting damaged, or picked up, by tornado winds.
You should also include emergency provisions in your storm shelter. Things like nonperishable food, clean water, blankets, and waste disposal are of utmost importance, even if you’re only going to be sheltering for a few hours. A battery-powered radio is also an incredibly important tool, as this will allow you some way to know when it’s safe to leave the shelter.
A wildfire is an uncontrolled fire that burns in a wildland area. Wildfires can be caused naturally or by people. Not only can these fires cause serious property damage, but they can devastate natural ecosystems, which can take years to recover. Dry areas are most susceptible to wildfires, as sparks can catch easily and spread fast. When it comes to disaster preparation, wildfires are another phenomenon that experts can provide advanced warnings of. Not only does the presence of large amounts of smoke help alert people, but by their very name, wildfires typically start away from residential areas and move inward.
It’s important to evacuate immediately upon advisement if you’re in an area near a wildfire. Wildfires can be incredibly hard to contain, depending on the time of year, the weather conditions, the topography of the land, and the number of people available to help fight the fire. Because of this, wildfires can go on for days, or even weeks. Unlike storms, there is no way to shelter-in-place during a wildfire. This is why it’s important to evacuate as soon as possible, as high-risk areas can experience traffic slowdowns due to large amounts of people evacuating.
Human-caused wildfires are more destructive than naturally caused wildfires, scientists found. This is why it’s incredibly important to practice wildfire prevention when you’re in a rural area.
Landslides occur when large amounts of earth are disrupted off of mountain and cliff sides. Landslides pose a particular danger to drivers, as they can push cars off the road and cause serious traffic blockages. Outdoor enthusiasts, including skiers, hikers, and mountain bikers should also be aware of landslide conditions before heading out on any trails. Getting caught in a landslide can result in serious injury, and can leave you stranded for days.
To avoid being trapped in a landslide, check the conditions before you head out on any mountain drives, hikes, or other activities. You should be able to do this on the U.S. Geological Survey website, or with your local forest service. A satellite phone is a great thing to have if you frequent areas prone to landslides, as it can help you call for help if you are stranded.
The U.S. endured the hottest summer on record in 2021. Extreme heat can cause increased dehydration, fatigue, and heatstroke in both people and animals. This can cause death or permanent disability if not avoided. To avoid this, it’s best to prepare for extreme heat by:
- Having ice on hand;
- Increasing fluid intake;
- Staying out of the direct sun;
- Wear loose-fitting, breathable clothes.
In addition to this, avoid leaving pets in a parked car for any period of time, even with the windows down. Car interiors, including leather seats, plastic dashboard’s and so forth, magnify the heat inside a car. This makes it hotter inside the car than outside. If you have to travel with your animals, take them inside with you, or tie them up outside with plenty of water.
If you notice anyone showing signs of extreme fatigue, dry mouth, nausea, fainting, or dizziness take them to the nearest urgent care facility as they may be experiencing heatstroke.
Winter storms and temperatures were also breaking records in the last year. In Texas, an unprecedented winter storm knocked out the state’s power grid, and left roads impassable. This left many citizens, as well as commercial properties, without electricity, regardless of their electricity provider or whether they had prepaid the electric bill. It can be a struggle to stay warm without power. This can lead to illness, or even more serious conditions like frostbite. If there’s a winter storm advisory in your area, you can prepare by:
- Stocking up on no-cook foods, like granola bars;
- Ensuring you have extra batteries;
- Purchasing heat packs and other non-electric warmers;
- Winterizing pipes;
- Clearing the roof of ice dams to prevent roof cave-ins.
A winter storm advisory doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be stuck at home without power. However, being prepared for a winter power outage can reduce your risk of going cold or hungry during poor or impassable travel conditions.
Disaster Supply Checklist and Kit
A disaster supply kit is something every household should have. The contents of these kits will vary, depending on your specific needs and priorities. The basics of your emergency kit should include:
- Non-perishable food;
- First aid kit;
- Trash bags;
- Sanitary wipes;
- Battery-powered radio;
- Extra batteries;
You can buy fully assembled kits or create your own. Just be sure that you check your kit periodically, to ensure that all medical supplies and foodstuffs are in date, and still safe to use.
Staying Safe After A Disaster
Once the immediate danger has passed, it’s still important to practice caution. Structural damage caused by storms, displacement of vehicles and other large detritus, and chemical exposure are just a few of the risks to your safety that can be left behind by natural disasters. Before embarking on any travel, you should listen to your local government’s advice. They will keep you updated about safe travel in your area. Other ways to practice post-disaster safety include:
- Avoid driving unless specifically cleared: There are many reasons to avoid driving in the aftermath of a disaster. Road conditions may not be safe, roads need to be cleared for emergency response vehicles, and driving in unsafe road conditions can cause you to get stuck. If you must travel during a disaster, do so on foot, or via an emergency response vehicle.
- Wear face masks or other protective gear: Face masks, heavy footwear, and high visibility clothing are all important to wear in the direct aftermath of a disaster. These will decrease your risk of injury and exposure due to things like ash, mold, exposed metal, broken glass, and other rubble that has been disturbed by a disaster.
- Avoid Using Electricity When Possible: Anything that uses an outlet or an electric current should be avoided in the direct aftermath of a disaster. The integrity of the electrical grid could be compromised, and the presence of floodwater can create electrocution hazards. Stick to battery-operated devices until you hear otherwise.
The most important thing that you can do in the direct aftermath of a disaster is to stay calm. Acting rashly can worsen the situation. Remember, information in the direct aftermath of a disaster can change rapidly, so be sure to continue to listen for updates from your local authorities.
Disaster Planning for Special Populations
Certain populations have heightened needs when it comes to disaster planning. This includes children, seniors, people with disabilities, and even pets. Reduced mobility, physical health considerations, or the ability to understand the risks posed by disasters all impact disaster planning. Below you can find some considerations for each of these special populations when it comes to disaster planning.
Disaster Planning with Children
It’s important to include children in your disaster planning, not only for their physical safety but for their emotional wellbeing. If your child is of the age to understand what a natural disaster is, involve them in your planning process, or even give them a small job, such as locking the door on the way out. This can help them feel less panicked in the event of an emergency. Practicing your emergency plan with your children can also decrease feelings of panic, as they will have gone through the motions before.
Having young children will also affect what goes into your emergency kit. In addition to the basics, you may need:
- Dry formula;
- Extra water;
- Extra diapers;
- Wipes and other sanitary items.
Including comfort items can help keep your children calm, especially if you will have to shelter in place outside of your home for an extended period.
Disaster Planning for Seniors or People with Disabilities
Disaster planning for seniors or people with disabilities can require more preparation to reduce the risk of injury. For example, sheltering in place may not be an option for certain individuals with mobility restraints, or certain medical needs. If this is the case, part of your disaster plan will need to include coordinating with local emergency services or hospitals to meet care needs.
Your emergency kit will also be affected if you have a senior or person with disabilities with you, as it will need to have:
- Any necessary medication;
- Any medical equipment;
- Extra batteries or power sources for medical equipment;
- Important medical documentation.
If you are a senior or have a loved one who is a senior that lives alone, creating a communication plan should be an integral part of your disaster planning as well. This way, if you or your loved one is unable to evacuate themselves or reach the medical services they need, someone can advocate for them and ensure that they aren’t stranded. Medical alert systems can be useful in this instance, on top of having a family or friend as a contact point.
Disaster Planning with Pets
Pets are often viewed as part of the family, and therefore you will need to include any pets in your disaster planning. You can purchase rescue alert stickers to put in your window to notify emergency personnel that there are pets inside. This is a great contingency for if you have to suddenly evacuate, are incapacitated, separated from your pet, or are generally unsure if they made it out.
Assigning a designated caregiver for your pet is another good contingency to have in place if you require medical care and can’t watch over them yourself. A trusted neighbor or nearby family member would be ideal, as they will have quick and easy access to your pets, even if driving is unavailable.
Your emergency kit will also change if you have pets. It should include:
- Nonperishable pet food;
- Indoor potty solutions;
- A leash or harness;
- A blanket or toy.
If you have large pets, such as horses, pigs, or other livestock, then you should create an evacuation plan. You can communicate with your local vet, stable, or other facilities that can accommodate large animals when creating this plan. They can provide temporary shelter until the disaster passes.
You should create a copy of this evacuation plan and keep it in a high visibility area, this way anyone who may have to evacuate your livestock on your behalf can have clear instructions. Similar to household pets, you may want to purchase an emergency rescue sticker, or assign a caregiver in the case that you are unable to oversee the evacuation of your livestock.
Additional Disaster Planning Resources
The following resources can give you more information, as well as templates to help you create your emergency plan. These resources may also provide information on getting financial relief after an emergency.
- FEMA Planning Guides;
- ADA Emergency Preparedness Resources;
- Red Cross Emergency Plan Templates;
- CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response.
Creating an emergency plan can decrease your risk of injury, and increase your peace of mind. This can reduce the amount of panic you feel during an emergency, which can increase your ability to respond efficiently.