Every year, nearly 200 million people are impacted by natural disasters, another 99,000 are killed, and over $162 billion a year is spent on the emergency situations they create – a staggering impact that is just the beginning of the far reach of natural disasters. Serious injury, displacement, loss of family, and even the effects PTSD are just a few of the traumatizing results that can be felt long after the disaster itself.
Even though every state in the Union has risks of natural disasters, only about half of American adults are prepared. Many don’t have a plan or even have enough food or water to get the family through a few days. And when utilities get shut down and grocery store shelves are empty, they’re left with little to do but panic.
While you can’t stop a disaster from happening, you can prepare for it. Because in dire situations when first responders may not be able to reach you, being prepared keeps you from needing emergency help while allowing responders to handle the cases that do. Staying prepared also reduces the impact of an emergency on your life and makes you more capable of dealing with the chaos of the unknown – not to mention potentially avoiding danger altogether.
This guide walks you through how to prepare for a natural disaster, how to act if one occurs, and what actions to take once it ends – because disasters happen quickly, which means you must be prepared to act quickly.
- Why You Need to Prepare for an Emergency
- How to Prepare for an Emergency
- Building Your Emergency Supply Kit
- After the Disaster
- Practicing Your Plan
- Preparing for Specific Disasters
Why You Need to Prepare for an Emergency
There are many reasons to prepare for an emergency, but these are some of the most important:
- Immediately after an emergency, services and utilities may be cut off. If you’re not prepared, you may not have access to water, refrigeration, or communication to stay updated on the situation.
- Emergency responders may not be able to reach you, which means you may need to fend for yourself from a few hours to a few days.
- Even if you can get out during or after an emergency, it may be hard to get things you need. Grocery stores sell out, and once those shelves are empty, it can be a while before they get restocked.
- With some emergency situations, you have time. You may have two to three days to prepare before a hurricane hits, but if you’re involved in a terrorist attack or flash flood, there’s not much time to get things in order.
- Depending on the situation, things may be dangerous right after a disaster. Small earthquakes could hit at any time or there may be people looting on the streets. Try to stay inside to avoid danger.
- If you or a family member have a disability or special needs, it’s even more important to stay prepared. Without preparation, you may not have the items you need to maintain health.
- While the rate of natural disasters typically remains stable, the amount of climate-related disasters is increasing. And with a growing number of people living in and working around danger zones – such as floodplains and high-risk earthquakes zones – the risk of being a victim in a disaster is more likely.
- More than anything, a natural disaster can happen to you. Nine in 10 Americans say they have either been in a disaster or have been impacted by one.
How to Prepare for an Emergency
To prepare for a disaster, be ready to be self-sufficient for a minimum of three days. This means having the ability to provide the following for you and your family:
- First aid
To meet these needs, you can build an emergency supply kit – which contains just about everything you’ll need, all in one easily accessible place.
Building Your Emergency Supply Kit
When building your emergency supply kit, start with the right container. Choose something that is waterproof and easy to carry, like a plastic tote or waterproof duffle bag. For your home kit, you may need multiple containers.
Here’s the basics of what you need to make it through three days:
At a minimum, keep one gallon of water per person per day. That means if your family consists of five people, you want 15 gallons of water. If you can store more, do so. Those who’ve been faced with an emergency situation have said that the gallon a day is hard to stretch when it comes to drinking water, cleaning yourself and your surroundings, and cooking – especially if and when medical treatment needs to be administered.
Make sure that any water you use for drinking, washing or preparing food, cleaning dishes, brushing your teeth, or making ice is not contaminated. Anything with a bad odor or taste should be avoided, as it may cause diseases like dysentery, cholera, typhoid, or hepatitis.
Non-perishable goods such as canned vegetables, soups, and powdered milk provide your family with nutrients when the possibility of cooking or preparing food is minimal. Strive to have around 2,000 calories per person per day to consume, with some to spare. Keeping a variety of foods in stock, including vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, and meat will give you a balanced diet and keep everyone healthy and well-fed.
If you end up in an emergency situation, there’s a good chance you’ll have to do some level of first aid on someone. While it may be as simple as putting a bandage on a toddler’s knee, it could also be as stressful as stitching a wound on that same child’s head.
For your emergency disaster kit, include more than just bandages and creams. Have syringes, splints, and a suture kit to ensure you’re prepared no matter what happens. You never know when you’ll end up needing to render first aid to not only family, but also friends, neighbors, or even strangers who stumble upon your disaster sanctuary. Include a week’s worth of any and all prescription medications you and other family members take, as well as things like ibuprofen, antihistamines, and antibacterial creams.
If you have infants, young children, elderly parents, or disabled family members, keep their needs in mind as you pack and prepare your emergency disaster kit. Things like diapers, formula, insulin, and a walker can mean the difference between keeping things calm and controlled and swimming in absolute chaos.
If you have your stockpile of food and water, but no can opener or pot to heat things up, you’ll be in a bit of trouble. That’s why it’s important to have utensils included in your disaster kit. Anything you need to prepare and eat meals, include it. Better to be over prepared than under.
Almost as important as first-aid supplies, safety supplies are essential. Include emergency blankets, equipment to start fires, flashlights, a multi-tool, a knife, and a whistle. A NOAA weather radio keeps you updated on weather alerts and helps you stay prepared.
In your emergency kit, keep copies of all your important documents. These include your insurance cards (medical, house, auto, and life), birth certificates, passports, social security cards, marriage licenses, state identification or driver’s licenses, and your emergency disaster plan – which includes the contact information for everyone in your family, as well as out-of-state family, emergency services in the area, and anything else you might need. Keep these inside a waterproof container within your disaster kit.
The list doesn’t stop there. Here are more items you should have in your kit to ensure you get through an emergency or disaster.
- Personal care items like toothpaste and shampoo
- A battery-operated or crank-style radio
- Extra batteries of all sizes
- A small amount of cash, preferably in small bills
- Spare credit card
- Map of the local area
- Extra set of car and house keys
- A list of things that should be done before you leave and how to do them
- Emergency contact list, including names, phone numbers, and addresses
Children and Pets
If a coloring book and crayons may not seem like they deserve a place in your emergency disaster kit, you’ve never spent an afternoon in a doctor’s office with a four-year-old. By including a few items that can entertain, comfort, and soothe a child, you’re making your emergency situation a little less stressful – for both you and the child in question.
And if you have pets, their needs and safety must be taken into consideration when it comes to disasters and emergencies. Make sure to have food and medications, as well as any other immediate needs your pets will require. Include ways to transport and clean up after pets, as well as any supplies you need in your kit.
Every six months, revisit your disaster preparation kit. Make sure the things included are still relevant and replace what’s needed. Check the expiration dates on food, water, and medications – and if they’re getting close, renew them.
Kits for Your Vehicle and On-the-Go
While having a home disaster emergency kit is vital to staying prepared, it’s also important to have emergency kits in your vehicles and one that you can grab and go, even if it’s on foot. These kits should have water and non-perishable food, but should also have a way to purify it. Hardy snacks like granola bars or dried fruit should be included, as well as blankets to get you through the night if the weather’s cold.
Yet, there are those times when staying isn’t the safest solution. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and man-made chemical spills can all warrant an evacuation. And any time local government says to evacuate, you should do so. While you may want to stay home just a little longer, the government agencies could have more information than you, escape routes may be blocked and emergency personnel non-reachable.
When it comes to having to evacuate, you need to be prepared. Here’s how:
Have a Plan
Planning is essential in disaster preparedness, and it’s no different with an evacuation. Before an evacuation is even suggested, you should know the evacuation routes for your area, know where you’re headed, and be ready to leave within 30 minutes of being told to go.
What’s more, having one plan isn’t enough. You need to have a plan B, including a different evacuation route and a different destination – because you never know what’s going to happen and you need to be prepared when your first plan is no longer possible.
Your on-the-go emergency bag should have everything you need. Be sure to include copies of your important documents (insurance cards, social security cards, birth certificates, wills, etc.) in your kit, as well as some petty cash, just in case.
For extra security, have the name and number of an out-of-state friend or family member and ensure everyone in your party has it. This is your emergency contact person. If by chance your group gets separated, this is the person that everyone contacts to let the others know where they are and if they’re okay. Before you leave, discuss what to do if someone gets separated, and be sure to set a specific amount of time that everyone should “report in” to the out-of-state contact.
Never park your car at home with an almost empty tank. Always, no matter what, keep at least a half tank in the vehicle. If there’s ever a disaster that strikes without warning, you don’t want to worry about getting gas before evacuating.
Secure Your Home
Before evacuating, secure what you can to protect your property. Take things inside and strap down patio furniture and picnic tables that are too large. Take down umbrellas and lawn chairs and pack them away. Inside, unplug your electronic devices and small appliances, such as televisions, computers, and microwaves. If told to, turn off the water and outside propane tanks.
Before leaving the house, check the list in your emergency kit to ensure nothing was forgotten. Preparing to evacuate is a stress-ridden experience and it’s easy to forget things you normally wouldn’t.
Lastly, before you close that door behind you, leave a note on the kitchen table. Include the date, the fact that you’re evacuating, where you’re going, and a way to contact you there. That way if something happens and people are looking for you, they’ll know where you headed.
Don’t Forget the Pets
If you have pets or livestock, ensure their safety as well as your family’s. Pets should be evacuated with you, but be sure to have specific plans that do not include staying at an emergency shelter (which only allow medical-assistance animals to be present). Many hotels do not allow pets either, but given the circumstance, some may allow it. Otherwise, your destination needs to be a friend or family member’s house.
If you don’t know where to go or need help during an evacuation, seek out the American Red Cross. They have both staff and volunteers that can help you find an emergency shelter, help you locate loved ones, and assist in recovery efforts after the disaster. The organization also helps people to get their immediate needs met – including medical attention, clean water, and warm meals.
After the Disaster
If you’ve evacuated, return home as soon as the local government gives the okay – but don’t expect everything to be as it was when you left. Proceed with caution, especially if there were massive storms, flash floods, or other natural disasters – as damage could have occurred that isn’t necessarily visible at first glance.
It’s also important to prepare yourself mentally. Even if everyone is okay and made it through the disaster unscathed, it can feel devastating to return home and see your home and belongings destroyed.
Recovering Your Losses
When a natural disaster or emergency hits, it’s not unusual to experience physical and financial losses. But with proper preparation, you can minimize the impact.
Well before you’re faced with an emergency situation, talk to your home owner’s insurance company about what is covered and what’s not. You may be surprised to learn that the company will cover roof damage, but not flood damage. By knowing what’s covered and what isn’t, you can get extra coverage for the types of disasters that are most common in your area.
Make a written or photographic record of your valuable possessions. From jewelry to appliances to video games, know what things you have of value so that if they’re damaged during a disaster emergency, you can detail your losses. This list will also be of value when dealing with your insurance company and at the end of the year where you can account certain losses as a tax deduction.
When You Need Mental Health or Crisis Intervention
Dealing with a natural disaster or emergency takes its toll on emotions and mental health. Depending on what you’ve seen and had to deal with, you may suffer from depression, anxiety, panic attacks, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to your family, your doctor, or the Red Cross about seeking mental health assistance.
It’s especially important to watch children for signs of emotional stress, as these types of events can have a massive impact on them and they may not understand what happened or have the ability to verbalize how they feel about it. Even if a child didn’t experience the disaster first hand, it can still be traumatic, so be sure to keep communicating with them. Answer any questions to the best of your ability, and be sure to give them a little extra TLC.
Many communities have specialized CERT teams that are specifically trained in crisis intervention after a devastating event, whether it’s a natural disaster or a man-made calamity.
Practicing Your Plan
Regardless of how well thought out your emergency disaster plan is, and how much water you have stored, it’s only as effective if you can act on it. This requires practice. While you want to check your disaster emergency kits every six months, you should completely run through your plan at least once a year – including checking phone numbers, ensuring evacuation routes are the same, and that your documents are up to date.
Without practice, you’re only as good as your frazzled mind will allow you to be. You may forget important aspects, like including the dog or checking on your elderly neighbor. Practicing a dry run annually keeps disasters from getting the best of you.
Preparing for Specific Disasters
Here are some of the most common natural disasters Americans may become victims of, and what you can do to keep you and your family safe:
Every state in the U.S. is susceptible to flooding, making it a disaster everyone should be prepared for. Water levels can quickly rise, push into your home and wreak havoc on your things. But there’s more than just water damage to worry about. Flash floods carry unseen debris that, if given the opportunity, can damage both wooden and steel buildings, and knock unknowing people down and into the rushing water where they could be carried away.
To survive a flood, the most important thing to remember is never drive or walk through floodwater. Even if it doesn’t look deep and even if it doesn’t appear to be moving quickly – floodwaters are dangerous and kill at least 100 people a year.
Tornadoes are one of nature’s most violent storms, devastating everything in their paths. They strike quickly, sometimes without warning or thunderstorm in the area. Like other natural disasters, tornadoes are extremely dangerous – but it’s not just the funnel cloud you need to worry about. Tornadoes are filled with whipping debris, and you’re more likely to get hurt from debris than the actual tornado itself. With winds that can reach 300 mph and the ability to level everything in its path for a 50-mile radius, it’s best to be prepared.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Knowing the signs is instrumental in protecting yourself against a tornado – which include a dark or green sky, low-lying clouds, hail, and wind so loud it sounds like a freight train.
- Don’t rely on seeing a funnel cloud, which can easily be blocked by clouds or rain. Instead, if there are signs of a tornado, seek cover.
- Seek shelter that is preferably indoors and underground, like a basement.
- If that’s not possible, go to an inside room on the first floor that doesn’t have any windows – places like closets and hallways are typically the safest.
- Get under something heavy, like a table, and cover yourself with a blanket.
- Avoid rooms with large appliances that can be thrown or toppled by the wind.
- Protect your head and neck with your arms.
- If you live in a mobile home, DO NOT stay there. Find shelter in a nearby building, ditch, or ravine.
- If in a vehicle, do not try to outrun a tornado. Instead, get out and move to a ditch, covering your head and neck.
Hurricanes, which are called cyclones or typhoons in other parts of the world, are dangerous ocean storms that are known to cause high winds, flooding, heavy rain, and tidal waves. While the majority of damage typically occurs on coastlines, hurricanes often travel several hundred miles inland and their impact is devestating.
You must prepare ahead of time for hurricanes. Keep supplies stocked, have a family emergency plan, and evacuate when you’re told to. While you may not want to leave, there’s nothing you can do to protect your home once a hurricane has hit, and the futile attempt to try is not worth your life.
If you live in an earthquake zone, here are a few preparation tips:
- Anchor wall hangings and shelving units to studs to ensure they don’t fall over.
- Keep heavy items on low shelves.
- If you’re outside when an earthquake hits, get low to the ground and move away from buildings, utility wires, and any fuel or gas lines.
- If driving, slow to a stop as quickly and safely as possible, making sure to stay away from tall buildings, telephone poles, and utility wires.
To get through an earthquake unscathed, you must remember these three things: drop, cover, and hold on. Drop to the ground. Cover your head and neck. And hold on to whatever stationary object you can.
Volcanos occur when pressure from gases in molten rock becomes too great and cause an eruption. While this can be dangerous, the real risk with volcanos comes from the toxic gases and ash, flash floods of extremely hot water, earthquakes, landslides, and other natural disasters they can spawn.
While all of these can be dangerous, the most common cause of death is from suffocation. Infants, the elderly, and those with respiratory illnesses are the most likely to be impacted. In the U.S., you’re most likely to be affected by a volcano if you live in Hawaii, Alaska, or the Pacific Northwest.
If you’re caught in a volcanic eruption, here’s what you need to know:
- If a call for evacuation occurs, follow it.
- If you see lava flow, leave the area as soon and as quickly as possible.
- While driving, keep your doors and windows closed.
- If inside, close all access to the outdoors, including windows, doors, vents, and dampers.
- Do not run air conditioners or fans that pull air in from outside.
- If you have pets or livestock, put them in a closed shelter.
- Wear long sleeves and long pants if you must go outdoors.
Wildfires are dangerous and deadly and are becoming more so as homes and communities are being built in high-risk areas. If you’re in an area that is at prone to wildfires, here’s what you need to know to stay prepared and ready.
- Keep your roof and gutters clean.
- Make sure nothing burnable is within 30 feet of your home – this includes things like wood piles, picnic tables, brush, or dried leaves.
- Fill containers around the outside of your home with water – things like garbage cans, animal water troughs, and tubs work well.
- If you see a wildfire and have not had an evacuation order, call 911. It may not have been reported.
- Once an evacuation has been ordered, leave as soon as possible.
When winter weather hits, you must be prepared. Sometimes winter storms produce more snow, ice, and cold than people are ready for, and travel becomes extremely risky and dangerous.
Here’s what you need to do to protect both your home and your family from the extreme cold:
- When winter storms hit, be sure to listen to local weather forecasts so you know what to expect.
- Have a minimum three-day emergency supply of food and water in the home at all times.
- Bring pets and livestock indoors.
- Have a secondary source of heat in case power lines go down and your furnace stops working.
- Insulate water lines to prevent freezing.
- If you must go outside, dress in warm layers and cover as much of your skin as possible.
- Avoid getting wet at all costs.
- If you must travel, be sure to have an emergency kit, including blankets, in your vehicle.
To survive extreme heat, preparation and recognition are essential. When high temperatures mix with high humidity, it can become hard for the body to regulate itself, especially for infants and the elderly. Staying indoors in air conditioning and increasing fluid intake with non-alcoholic beverages is your best bet. Watch for signs of heat stroke, including the following:
- Body temperature above 103 degrees
- No sweating
- Red, hot skin
- Rapid pulse
When any of these occur, seek medical attention immediately. Extreme heat is dangerous and can kill you. If that’s not possible, or if emergency responders are delayed, get the person into a shaded area and cool them as quickly as possible by whatever means you have. Cool water, ice compresses, and fanning should be constant until the body temperature drops to below 102 degrees.
No matter where you live, you’re susceptible to emergencies and disasters – and the only way to get through them is to be prepared. In order to keep yourself and your family safe from the unexpected, you must know your risks, know what you need to do, and be able to act upon it.