September is National Disaster Preparedness Month. If you haven’t made an emergency plan yet, now’s the time.
While some events like hurricanes give you advanced notice, wildfires, floods, and earthquakes can happen in an instant. Having a disaster preparedness plan can help ensure your family’s safety and minimize property loss.
Your plan should detail:
- The steps to mitigate damage before the event if you’re able.
- Where and how to take shelter or where the family should meet if you have to evacuate and are separated.
- People you need to contact to make arrangements or to let them know you’re safe.
- What to put in your go-bag.
- When to review the plan each year.
Disaster preparedness planning: Where to start
Before you start planning, figure out which natural disasters are most common in your region. For example, Floridians may plan for hurricanes and floods, Californians may plan for wildfires and earthquakes, and Midwesterners may plan for tornadoes.
If you need some guidance about your area’s biggest risks, ask your insurance company.
Some of the most common disasters to plan for are:
- Tornadoes or waterspouts
Mapping out a plan for these events could make all the difference in getting you and loved ones to safety in time. Once you know what to expect, follow these steps to document your plan.
1. Outline safety measures to take before a disaster
For every type of emergency you may face, outline steps you need to take before it happens. For example, in any disaster, know where you and your family need to go. Other action items may be specific to the disaster. Here are some pointers.
Floods & hurricanes
Depending on the type of flood, you may have some warning. Flash flood warnings or news flashes may alert you to rising water from storm surges or an overflowing creek. If you have time, pack valuables and take them with you. What can’t come with you should be moved to higher ground or placed on counters. Never leave pets behind if you expect floodwaters or hurricanes to hit your home.
Plan for hurricane winds, too. Store patio furniture, outdoor decor, and hanging planters – these can easily become projectiles when lifted by high winds. Fill your bathtub with water before the storm hits in case water lines are shut off or damaged. You can use it to flush toilets. And if you have hurricane shutters, get them in place. Learn more about how to prepare for a hurricane.
There’s usually not enough time to evacuate before an earthquake, so you’ll often need to shelter in place. Be prepared to drop, cover, and hold on to what you can. Evaluate your home or workplace and designate a spot that’s far from windows and that has something you can shelter under, like a table or desk.
Many who have lost homes in wildfires say that they come on so fast that you only have minutes to react. If you live in a wildfire zone, plan on how you will get your family and pets out quickly and safely. Pay attention to wildfire conditions during hot summer days and always be aware of your surroundings. Know that when you must leave, you won’t have time to pack anything. Having a go-bag by the door or in your car can help make sure you have your essentials when you need them.
Tornadoes often happen with only moments to spare. If you live in an area prone to tornadoes, know where to shelter – usually a basement or a bathroom. Avoid exterior rooms, especially those with a lot of windows. If you’re able, get under something sturdy like a heavy table or workbench, and cover your body with a blanket to protect yourself from shattered glass.
2. Understand when to shelter in place & when to evacuate
When safe, local authorities and rescue workers may advise you to shelter in place. Sheltering in place means that you have enough food and water resources to stay in your home and hunker down through the disaster.
Some life-threatening disasters may call for a mandatory evacuation. In these cases, rescue workers may have to leave the area for their own safety, too, and can’t respond to distress calls if you stay. You may also need to evacuate after a disaster. For example, if an earthquake damages the structure of your home, it won’t be safe to shelter in place.
When evacuating, don’t leave your pets behind! They need you in times of upheaval more than ever. Bring a disaster kit with essentials such as food, water, toiletries, medicine, pet supplies, and basic emergency equipment like flashlights, batteries, and first aid kits. You probably have most of these items in your home – putting them in one bag that you can grab before you head out will ensure you have your essentials.
If you must leave, make sure everyone in your household knows where they’re supposed to go. This is your designated emergency meetup. It can be an aunt’s house out of town, a school, or a shelter. All that matters is that everyone knows about it so if you’re separated, you have a plan to find each other.
3. Know who to contact
Your state often provides emergency assistance in the form of shelters, recovery programs, and mass care. The specifics vary based on where you live, but it’s helpful to know where to turn after a major disaster when you need reliable information.
In Florida, the Division of Emergency Management is a great post-storm resource. It acts as a liaison between local and federal agencies to coordinate recovery efforts, and it maintains the State Assistance Information Line (SAIL). The SAIL hotline is 1-800-342-3557, and its operators can help guide Florida residents on road closures and alternate routes, available shelters in impacted counties, shelters designed for special needs patients, hotels and motels that accept pets, boaters instructions for moving watercraft to safer ground, and re-entry information once it is safe to return to the affected area.
California’s Office of Emergency Services manages the state’s emergency evacuation routes, mass care and shelter programs, recovery programs, and emergency repatriation. You can sign up for emergency alerts here for notices about earthquakes and other emergencies. The alerts will also let you know about evacuation orders and warnings.
Your contact list should also include family members to let them know you’re safe. That way, rescue workers know to spend their resources searching for folks who are missing. You can also mark yourself as “safe” on social media sites like Facebook, if you’re able to.
You might also designate an out-of-state family member everyone should contact in case the family is separated and can’t contact each other.
Make sure you have your insurance company’s contact information saved, too – you’ll need it if your home experiences damage and you need to file a claim.
4. Make a disaster supply kit
Because you might not always be able to shelter in place, a prepared survival kit is essential. Get a backpack that has a large main compartment, and fill it with:
- Water – one gallon per person per day for three days
- Non-perishable food – a three day supply for each person
- NOAA hand crank radio
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Multi-purpose tool
- Hygiene and sanitation items
- Medication for seven days
- Emergency blanket
- Cell phone charger
- Cash in small bills
- Local maps
- Copies of personal documents: proof of address, home deed, insurance policies, passports, birth certificates, medication list
- Written list of emergency numbers and personal contacts, including your insurance company
If you have pets, your bag should also have food and water for three days, an extra leash, and vaccination and microchip information. For smaller pets, build an emergency kit just for them with their essentials in a small carrier that you grab with your own bag. Learn more about how to keep your pets safe during an emergency.
5. Practice your disaster plan with your household
Once you have your plan together, practice it with your family. Start by sitting your family down to explain the plan step by step. Make sure they know whether to stay put indoors or evacuate the neighborhood by car for any given disaster. Flashcards can help children remember what to do in each emergency so they know what to expect.
For extra credit, run a drill with your family to meet at the emergency meetup spot outside your home.
Review your plan at least on an annual basis to make sure it's up to date and that your family is ready for whatever the future holds.