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How to Prepare for a Natural Disaster – Emergency Preparedness Plan

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Today, we can predict with more accuracy than ever dangerous hurricanes, winter storms, and floods. We know which areas are prone to earthquakes and tornadoes or susceptible to wildfires, and we can tell hours in advance whether a tsunami will hit our shores.

However, thanks to our global economy, it’s not just local disasters we need to consider. Disasters in other parts of the world now have a direct effect on our economy. We’ve already seen that diseases like COVID-19 can rapidly spread across oceans and affect every nation within months. Food shortages elsewhere can cause food riots, leading to speculative price swings, which can quickly raise the cost of food. A cyberattack from international hackers could threaten our financial industry or even our electrical grids.

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Local and global disasters are in the news weekly, but Americans are still quite poor at preparing for them. According to a 2019 survey conducted by The Harris Poll for the American Institute for CPAs, 61% of Americans believe they are likely to be impacted by a natural disaster in the next three to five years.

Although the majority of Americans believe they’re at risk from such an event, few are prepared to survive one. According to a 2018 survey conducted by YouGov, an international data and research firm, 41% of Americans say they’re not prepared for a natural disaster.

The COVID-19 pandemic in particular has shown people the grim reality of empty grocery store shelves when panic-buying and food supply disruptions happen during a crisis. We’ve seen sobering images of packed emergency rooms and heard stories from people who couldn’t get the care they needed as quickly as they needed it.

The result is that more people now have a long-term food pantry. They’ve realized the benefits of having a well-stocked first-aid kit. According to The Atlantic, this particular crisis means more people are likely to take on the prepping habits of survivalists.

However, preparing for a natural disaster involves more than having a well-stocked pantry. It requires careful planning, and it might mean having the ability to survive on your own for several days until help arrives.

Types of Natural  Disasters

Here in the United States, we face a multitude of risks ranging from landslides to tsunamis. Each of these natural disasters creates varied threats and requires different levels of preparation.

  • Tornados. Tornadoes can cause such complete destruction all your emergency supplies can literally be blown away or destroyed. If tornadoes are a risk in your area, you can build a storm shelter to store supplies and keep your family safe.
  • Hurricanes. Hurricanes can cause intense flooding, so storing emergency supplies in a basement or crawlspace can result in disaster if your home floods. You also need to keep your supplies mobile if you’re forced to evacuate.
  • Earthquakes. Earthquakes strike very suddenly and without warning. A major part of preparing for an earthquake is checking your home for potential hazards before one strikes and knowing how to keep your family safe.
  • Wildfires and Tsunamis. Wildfires can spread quickly, and people in its path must often evacuate with little warning. You must keep your emergency supplies in a backpack or bin you can easily transport. If your area is at high risk for these disasters, you should also keep a pair of walking shoes and a flashlight next to each household member’s bed in case you have to evacuate unexpectedly in the night.
  • Pandemics. Preparing for a pandemic means being ready to shelter in place for several weeks or longer and having specific supplies, such as face masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies. It also means preparing financially for unemployment or forced leave if your city or state orders a long-term lockdown.
  • Avalanches. Part of being ready for an avalanche involves having specialized equipment, such as an air bag and avalanche beacon.
  • Winter Storms. Winter storms can lead to power outages during the coldest months, which means you need the ability to keep your family warm and fed when electricity isn’t an option. It’s also vital you prepare your car for winter storms in case one strikes when you’re on the road.
  • Landslides. Landslides are another disaster that happens without warning. Preparing for this disaster involves understanding the risks in your area, following proper land-use guidelines to lessen the risk on your property, and being ready to evacuate to higher ground if one occurs.
  • Volcanic Eruptions. Volcanic lava flow can travel 100 miles per hour, and it destroys everything in its path. Volcanic ash can also cause severe health problems if you inhale it. Preparing for this natural disaster means keeping supplies in a backpack and being ready to seal off your home from falling ash if you do have to shelter in place.

How to Prepare for Disasters

Some simple preparations could make the difference between life and death for your family. Take these steps to help prepare for almost any disaster.

1. Create an Emergency Plan With Your Family

Some disasters — such as floods, wildfires, tsunamis, hurricanes, or a terrorist threat — may require you to flee your home. Creating an emergency preparedness plan can feel overwhelming, but Ready.gov has a clear step-by-step guide.

One of the most vital plans is an escape plan. That’s especially crucial if you live in a large metro area. If disaster strikes a major city, instances of looting and crime will likely increase dramatically. There will be more people requiring food and medical assistance, which means less help for you and your family. Getting out of the city and into a less populated area is almost always safer than staying in a densely populated area.

For example, a 2018 report titled “The HayWired Earthquake Scenario” by the U.S. Geological Survey anticipated how a 7.0 magnitude earthquake on the Hayward Fault would impact San Francisco and the surrounding area. Their scenario was that an earthquake of this magnitude would damage up to 2 million buildings and that residents in San Francisco could lose freshwater access for six weeks to six months. Over 2,500 people would require rescue from collapsed buildings. Around 800 people would die, and 18,000 would experience nonfatal injuries. Widespread fires and landslides would also complicate evacuation and rescue efforts.

Imagine you and your family live in San Francisco and a major earthquake like this occurs.  What’s the fastest route to escape the city? What if your primary route is blocked? Do you know of any backroads you can take if highways become clogged with traffic? Once you get out of the city, where would you go? How would you connect with your family if you were separated?

These are uncomfortable questions to consider, but they’re at the heart of a thorough disaster plan.


2. Plan Communication

It’s smart to figure out how you’re going to communicate with your family in an emergency. You can’t always count on your cellphone to work, especially if towers are down or the thousands of people trying to call loved ones overloads the network. You can use social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter or text messages to stay in touch with your family since they might still work even if cell service doesn’t.

Ensure everyone in your family has these social networking apps on their phone and that they know to use them if their calls don’t go through.

You should also print a copy of the family communication plan by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and fill one out for each member of your family. The document prompts you to copy down important numbers and emergency hotlines so your family can connect during an emergency.

Keep copies of your family communication plan in your home, your car, your purse or briefcase, and each of your children’s backpacks. You can also seal these documents with self-laminating sheets for additional protection from water and wear and tear.

During an emergency, it’s essential you do whatever you can to extend your cell battery life. Make sure you keep an external solar charger in your car and your emergency kit so you have a backup power source. You can also extend your battery life by:

  • Putting your phone on airplane mode
  • Reducing your screen’s brightness
  • Closing apps you don’t need
  • Switching on your phone’s low power mode
  • Disabling any voice assistant (like Siri)
  • Turning off the vibrate setting for notifications, as it uses more power than a ringtone
  • Turning off any cloud services like iCloud or Google Drive to avoid automatic backups
  • If you’re with your family, turn off everyone’s phone but one (when you deplete the initial phone’s battery, turn on another phone)

3. Plan a Meeting Space

Families aren’t always together when a natural disaster strikes. That’s why it’s vital to have an agreed-upon meeting place so you can all reunite if your home is unsafe or it’s in an area where local authorities have ordered evacuations.

That’s where good communication is critical. Your family should know how to connect and communicate with each other so everyone knows the specific threat you’re facing and where to go as a result.

Consider these options:

  • In Your Neighborhood. Choose a familiar tree or neighbor’s home for your family to gather if your home is unsafe, such as during a wildfire.
  • Outside Your Neighborhood. This location should be outside your immediate neighborhood, but still within an easy walking distance of home. Consider using a nearby park, police station, or library for your secondary meetup location. Use this location if emergencies such as a flood, civil unrest, or landslide threaten your immediate neighborhood.
  • In Your Region. Last, choose a regional meetup location within a few hours’ drive of your home in case your town or city becomes unsafe. Ideally, the location is a nearby friend or family member’s home.

Print copies of your meetup locations along with a Google Map showing each location and how to get there from places you are frequently, such as home, school, or work. Keep a copy of your meetup location plan in your purse or briefcase and each of your children’s backpacks or cars.

It’s also essential you talk with your family about how each of you would get to each location during an emergency. That’s especially vital for children and teens. A parent or caregiver must pick up young children at school, but teens can drive themselves or take public transportation. Discuss each option and create contingency plans for meeting if public transportation is unavailable or unsafe.


4. Use Your Phone

Today, many smartphone apps help you and your family during an emergency. Some direct you to the nearest emergency room while others can give first responders lifesaving information.

  • FEMA. The FEMA app (for iOS and Android) has many vital features to help you prepare and survive a natural disaster: emergency alerts for up to five locations nationwide, preparedness information, and what to do, to survive many different natural disasters, locations of open emergency shelters in your area, and more.
  • NOAA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) app (for iOS and Android) offers real-time weather alerts and radar images to keep you informed of weather situations and emergencies.
  • ICE Medical Standard. This app (for iOS and Android), the name of which stands for “in case of emergency,” puts your medical information on your phone’s lock screen. That allows first responders to immediately access your name, contact information, and medical information (such as blood type, current treatments, and allergies).
  • EMNet findERnow. This app (for iOS and Android) helps you find the nearest emergency room with one click based on your phone GPS coordinates.
  • Zello Walkie Talkie. The Zello app (for iOS and Android) turns your phone into a walkie talkie so you can communicate with family and friends if cell towers go down or are overloaded during an emergency. The app works over 2G, 3G, and 4G networks and Internet connections.

5. Stock Up on Emergency Supplies

A critical part of being prepared is having the right supplies to survive the disasters most likely to occur locally.

For example, someone living in Alaska needs to prepare more for winter storms and extended power outages. A family in California can invest in fire blankets and face masks to prepare for a wildfire. Someone living in Florida needs to focus more on tornado and hurricane preparedness. Each of these disasters requires unique supplies and planning along with more general gear that helps in any type of emergency.

No matter where you live, having a portable 72-hour emergency kit is essential in case you and your family have to evacuate your home quickly. Also stock up on the following for general preparedness at home:

  • Flashlight
  • Headlamps (for hands-free lighting)
  • Extra batteries
  • Face masks
  • Lighter and matches
  • Hand-crank radio with NOAA weather radio
  • Multitool (such as the Leatherman)
  • Local and regional maps of your area
  • Compass
  • One change of clothing for each family member
  • Sleeping bags
  • Copies of personal ID documents like driver’s licenses, birth certificates, Social Security cards, and passports
  • Extra medications
  • Personal care products such as toothbrushes, toothpaste, wet wipes, travel-size shampoo and conditioner
  • Two-way radios (invaluable if your family has to take multiple cars to evacuate)
  • Emergency blankets or sleeping bags for everyone in your family
  • Emergency tent
  • Extra cash
  • Plastic sheeting, duct tape, and scissors (for sealing your home from outside contaminants)
  • Emergency whistles
  • Infant care products like wipes, diapers, bottles, and formula
  • Work gloves
  • Entertainment options, like playing cards or classic tabletop games like Life or Scrabble

Keep all your emergency supplies in one location, such as a closet or basement. Ideally, store these supplies in backpacks or bins you can carry if you need to evacuate or take shelter in one room of your home.

In addition to these proven supplies, you may also want to keep helmets. In 2012, NPR reported a moving story about a young boy, Noah Stewart, who lived through a tornado that hit his Alabama home. The boy survived a serious blow to the head because he was wearing a football helmet.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can’t say whether helmets save lives during a natural disaster. However, it still seems wise for anyone in a tornado or hurricane-prone state to keep several helmets ready.

You don’t have to buy new helmets — picking up used bicycle, football, or baseball helmets at thrift stores and garage sales can save money and keep your family protected.

However, it’s essential you keep these helmets in an easily accessible place. Don’t use them for any other purpose, or you may misplace them. Remember, when a tornado hits, you might only have minutes — or even seconds — to find shelter. You don’t want to find yourself running around the house in search of helmets.

Emergency Supplies Stock Up Useful Essemtial


6. Have Several Ways to Purify Water

It’s also smart to know where your nearest source of fresh water is and have several different methods to purify it if city water is unavailable.

Commercial Water Filters

There are many effective water filters on the market, and choosing the best water filter for your needs takes some research. One option is the portable LifeStraw, which typically sells for around $20 on Amazon. However, Amazon often reducesLifeStraw prices significantly during special sale events like Prime Day and Black Friday.

Another affordable water filter is the Sawyer Mini, which filters 100,000 gallons of water before you need to replace it. It also sells for around $20 on Amazon.

For in-home water purification, you can’t go wrong with a Berkey water purifier. The American Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders use gravity-fed systems like the Berkey because they remove 99.9999999% of pathogenic bacteria and 99.999% of viruses. They also remove 99.9% of heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and pesticides.

If no fresh water is available during a natural disaster, rivers, creeks, and stormwater runoff will likely be full of harmful chemicals and bacteria. However, with a Berkey, you can purify this contaminated water so it’s safe to drink. Another significant advantage to the Berkey is that it’s gravity-fed and doesn’t require electricity to work.

You can also use Potable Aqua tablets to make water safe from bacteria and viruses. However, these tablets don’t remove heavy metals or chemicals, which are commonly found in the water during floods and hurricanes.

Boiling

According to the CDC, boiling water is the surest way to destroy disease-causing organisms, bacteria, viruses, and parasites. However, boiling cannot get rid of toxins like toxic chemicals, fuels, or heavy metals. If you suspect the water is contaminated with chemicals or other toxins, do not boil and consume. Drink bottled water instead.

To make water safe by boiling, follow these CDC instructions:

  1. Filter the water through a clean cloth, paper towel, or coffee filter, or allow it to settle.
  2. Draw off the clear water by slowly pouring it into another clean container, taking care not to shake or mix the water. Leave several inches of water at the bottom, as it contains the contaminants that have settled.
  3. Bring the clear water to a rolling boil for 1 minute (at elevations above 6,500 feet, boil for 3 minutes).
  4. Let the boiled water cool.
  5. Store the boiled water in clean sanitized containers with tight covers.

Bleach

If you don’t have the tools or fuel to boil water, you can make water safe using household bleach that contains 5% to 6% sodium hypochlorite. To check your bleach’s sodium hypochlorite levels, read the ingredients label. Most brands include this information, but some generic brands don’t.

How much bleach you use depends on how much water you have to decontaminate:

  • 1 quart or liter: 10 drops, 1/2 milliliter, or 1/8 teaspoon of bleach
  • 1 gallon: 40 drops, 2.5 milliliters, or 1/2 teaspoon of bleach
  • 5 gallons: 200 drops, 12.5 milliliters, or 2 1/2 teaspoons of bleach

Note: The CDC advises that if the water is cloudy, murky, colored, or very cold, double the amount of bleach.

To make water safe using bleach, follow these instructions from the CDC:

  1. Filter the water through a clean cloth, paper towel, or coffee filter or allow it to settle.
  2. Draw off the clear water by slowly pouring it into another clean container, taking care not to shake or mix the water. Leave several inches of water at the bottom, as it contains the contaminants that have settled.
  3. Follow the bleach bottle’s instructions for disinfecting drinking water, if applicable. If the bottle provides no instructions, use a medicine dropper, teaspoon, or metric measure (milliliters) to add the CDC’s recommended amount of bleach.
  4. Stir the mixture well.
  5. Let it stand for at least 30 minutes before you use it.
  6. Store the disinfected water in clean, sanitized containers with tight covers.

7. Buy Emergency Medical Books

Imagine that a tornado has just destroyed half your town, including your own neighborhood. Someone in your family has been severely injured. Do you know how to stop severe bleeding? Would you know how to treat them if help were hours away?

There are a million medical emergencies that can happen during disasters, and you can’t always rely on emergency medical services when so many people are injured or roads are blocked. It’s just smart to know how to handle some common emergencies yourself and keep a well-stocked medicine cabinet to treat mild to moderate injuries.

You also need to keep a well-stocked first-aid kit in your car in case you have to evacuate or you’re in a car accident when fleeing a disaster. You may also want to keep a backup first-aid kit and some emergency supplies in an alternate location, such as a shed or storm shelter, just in case a tornado hits your home.

Field medicine is the type of emergency medical care that takes place “on the field,” often without a lot of supplies or a qualified medical professional available for guidance. In a disaster, this type of emergency first aid can save lives.

Many useful books cover field medicine. One is “Where There Is No Doctor,” by David Werner. The World Health Organization uses this book in their field offices, and it teaches you everything from how to treat serious illnesses to how to help a woman through childbirth — all without a doctor.

Another is “Tactical Combat Casualty Care and Wound Treatment,” by the U.S. Department of Defense. This book is the official manual for emergency medical treatment for the U.S. military, and it focuses more on severe wounds and traumatic injuries.

While it’s essential you have these books on hand, it’s just as important to read through them before disaster strikes to learn how to handle common emergencies. If you prefer watching videos, check out SkinnyMedic’s Medical YouTube and Trauma YouTube playlists. SkinnyMedic is an emergency medical technician based in South Carolina who produces informative and in-depth tutorials on emergency trauma care. These tutorials are geared toward nonmedical personnel with little or no prior knowledge of trauma care.


8. Have a Well-Stocked Food Pantry

According to a 2019 report by the American Trucking Association, significant shortages can occur in as little as three days if trucks can’t get through with regular deliveries. Trucks haul 80% of all freight within the U.S. If store shelves were barren or trucks were unable to reach stores in a region hard-hit by a natural disaster, how would you and your family get food? What would happen if food deliveries couldn’t arrive for a week or two?

Ready.gov recommends you keep the following on hand for emergencies:

  • Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, vegetables, and a manual can opener
  • Protein or fruit bars
  • Dry cereal or granola
  • Peanut butter
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts
  • Crackers
  • Canned juices
  • Nonperishable pasteurized milk
  • High-energy foods like nuts, trail mix, and canned tuna
  • Multivitamins
  • Food for infants
  • Comfort/stress foods like chocolate, cookies, or other high-calorie sweets

FEMA recommends that every family has enough nonperishable food and water to survive for at least two weeks. Keep in mind that shelf-stable foods don’t last forever. You must keep an eye on expiration dates and rotate out foods that are close to expiring.

Building and maintaining long-term home food storage doesn’t take a big investment. You could save money by buying some foods on sale, using coupons, and downloading the Ibotta app.

You can also purchase freeze-dried foods like those from Augason Farms. They have a shelf life of 20 years or more. These emergency foods are more expensive than grocery store foods. However, you don’t have to worry about using them up within the next 12 months. Use a browser extension, such as Capital One Shopping, to keep an eye out for better prices when shopping on Amazon.

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9. Prepare for Power Outages

Some natural disasters can cause power outages that last days — sometimes a week or longer. That’s why it’s critical you prepare your family for a long-term power outage.

Cooking

For example, how would you cook food if you had no electricity or your natural gas were shut off before a storm hit? Having a way to cook — such as a portable stove, gas grill, or solar oven — is one way to prepare for a power outage and ensure your family has a hot meal during a crisis. You can also cook in your fireplace on a wood stove if you have one.

Another factor to consider is the food in your refrigerator and freezer. If your electricity is out more than a few hours, this food will be unsafe to eat. Investing in a portable generator long before a disaster strikes ensures all this food doesn’t spoil before you can eat it.

Staying Warm

If blizzards or ice storms are a risk in your area, it’s essential you have ways to keep your family warm when there’s no electricity.

A fireplace or wood stove is your best option for staying warm as long as you have plenty of dry firewood to fuel it with. As a bonus, you can also cook your meals over the flames (if you have a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven to withstand the open flame) or on the wood stove itself.

Other options for staying warm when the power is out include:

  • Layer Clothing. Put on several thin layers of clothing with one thick insulating layer on top to stay warm.
  • Huddle. Keep everyone in your family in one small room, and close off all rooms you’re not using. If the room doesn’t have a door, try hanging a quilt to cover the opening and keep heat inside. The ideal room is on the south side of the house, which gets the most light, so the sun can provide additional warmth or a room with few windows to minimize heat loss.
  • Use Blankets. Put extra blankets in front of windows and in front of doors and window sills to keep out drafts. You can also seal windows with plastic sheeting or Bubble Wrap for added insulation.
  • Use Sleeping Bags. If you have high-quality sleeping bags, use them. Often, sleeping bags keep you much warmer than a regular blanket.
  • Hand Warmers. Use body and hand warmers to keep your extremities warm. HotHands is a reliable brand.
  • Drink Warm Fluids. Drink plenty of warm liquids like tea, broth, or hot cocoa to stay warm.
  • Wear a Hat. Make sure everyone is wearing a warm hat, preferably made from fleece or wool.
  • Use a Tent. If you have a camping tent, set this up inside the house and get in. The tent traps your body heat and helps you stay warm.

10. Check Your Insurance Coverage

Last, check that your homeowners insurance or renters insurance coverage is adequate for your needs. And make sure you understand what your policy covers and what it doesn’t.

For example, according to the Insurance Information Institute, flood damage isn’t covered under standard homeowners insurance policies. You have to purchase separate flood insurance for this type of coverage. Earthquake damage also isn’t covered unless you have a separate policy. If you live in a coastal area, you might need wind insurance (again, a separate policy) to protect your home against hurricane damage. As you might imagine, these policies can be prohibitively expensive. However, if you live in an area at risk from these hazards, they’re likely worth the peace of mind.

Your policy might not cover frozen pipes resulting from a power outage during a winter storm, mudslides or landslides, or damage from a sinkhole opening up in your yard (yes, that can actually happen). So, check your policy carefully and make sure you’re covered for the natural disasters you’re most likely to experience in your area.

Pro tip: Comparing insurance policies can be a time-consuming process. However, websites like PolicyGenius can help make it simple. With PolicyGenius, you’ll answer a few questions and receive multiple quotes in just minutes. Request a quote from PolicyGenius!


Final Word

It’s human nature to avoid thinking about these worst-case scenarios. After all, none of us wants to imagine a hurricane hitting our state or a wildfire searing through our neighborhood. But these things do happen, and the best thing we can do is prepare. Even a little bit of preparedness can make a big difference.

If a natural disaster strikes your area, it may be impossible to get what you need from local stores. Learn how to use ordinary household items in emergencies so you can use what you have available to deal with the situation. Simple supplies like duct tape and garbage bags have many uses in an emergency, and they could fill a need when you have nothing else.

Are you prepared for a natural disaster?

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.

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