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If a disaster strikes, will you be ready? Here’s how to prepare and respond to most natural emergencies.
“Emergencies can happen anytime, anywhere. Families may not be together and you may not have access to cell phones, gas stations, grocery stores or some of the other things that you are used to having every day,” says Darryl Madden, Director of the Ready Campaign of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA ). “By taking a few simple steps now, each of us can make sure we are better prepared for the next emergency or disaster.” FEMA, along with other government agencies and nonprofit associations such as the Federal Alliance of Safe Homes (FLASH) and Firewise offer a wealth of tips. The Ready Campaign has suggestions for basic emergency preparations. The new FLASH Web site provides videos, “Pick-a-Peril” by state information and a consumer forum.
While each household is unique — young children, disabilities, pets, high-rises, isolated rural homes — proper preparations can help bring potentially bad situations to better conclusions. We’ve rounded up the essentials here, as well as tips for specific emergencies: flooding, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and severe winter storms.
No matter which type of natural disaster your area is prone to having, each household should have some type of emergency prep. As soon as possible, you’ll want to do the following — before disaster strikes:
1. Gather Information
• Take pictures. To help recoup any insured losses, create a room-by-room inventory now. Take photos or videos to better document items. Record serial or model numbers. Write down purchase dates and prices (best if kept on a computer and emailed to yourself for safe-keeping). For valuables like jewelry, have copies of expert appraisals. Put one inventory in your safety deposit box and keep a copy at home in a waterproof container.
With any disasters, you will need to provide information about your losses for an insurance claim. According to Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO of FLASH, one of the best ways to reduce confusion and to accurately account for belongings is a photo or video inventory after a disaster. With items documented, you then can remove property that could pose a health risk, like wet, moldy furniture or items with sharp, damaged edges.
• Make appointments. Schedule phone time or a visit with your insurance agent each year. Discuss updates that might be needed. If you live in an area with specific natural disaster risks, learn about any extra policies needed.
• Stay informed. Check local radio and TV stations. Visit the Web site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA ) (or become a fan on Facebook). Its Storm Prediction Center and National Weather Hazards pages can help you learn what’s shaping up, from blizzards to flash floods, fire to high winds. NOAA Weather Radio provides weather and emergency information 24 hours a day.
• Safeguard documents. Prepare a vital records kit with copies of important documents to store in a waterproof and fireproof container in a safe place in your home. Include copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records, proof of vaccinations for pets, mortgages, passports, and birth/marriage certificates, as well as irreplaceable keepsakes and family photos.
2. Develop a household emergency plan
• Choose a contact person. Arrange with a friend or family member outside the area to be the emergency contact. Landline and cell phones are the quickest and most available technology and do work in many cases, says Michele Steinberg of Firewise. She suggests that if family members regularly use Facebook and Twitter, these may be good tools but since many “tweets” arrive via cellphones or computers, they, too, could be limited. “But the ‘viral’ nature of these media mean those folks who have Facebook open all day or follow Twitter will have immediate access to information about what is happening to their friends/relatives and an ability to mobilize help in some situations.” Make sure family members and the emergency contact have details including information about your Facebook page, Twitter handle, and email address.
• Determine an escape plan. Decide on reunion spots via foot or car, depending on the type of disaster. If it is an emergency isolated to your house or block, choose a nearby rallying point that will allow a headcount. If the emergency involves a larger area, decide on a destination further away — perhaps a relative’s home or a public emergency shelter — and a backup to that in case that site also is affected.
• Learn evacuation routes. Run a few practice drills out of your area so you will know where traffic congestion might occur.
• Locate public emergency shelters. Get their rules. Find out if they can accommodate pets, for instance.
• Plan with neighbors. If a flood occurs or a tornado hits when you are not at home, have a plan with neighbors, sitters, or relatives for your kids and pets. Decide on how you will get in touch, what will be done and where everyone will go.
• Shut down. Determine who will handle utility shut-off.
• Learn basic safety and emergency first aid skills. The American Red Cross offers courses through its local chapters. Find classes near you through the ZIP code look-up on its site.
3. Stock Supplies
Prepare an emergency supplies kit to ride out any event. Downloadable lists of suggested kit contents and disaster protection devices are available on the FLASH site (search “disaster kit”). FLASH’s Chapman-Henderson recommends buying only products that are tested and approved to a national or certified testing standard.
Among items to include:
• A radio capable of receiving NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards transmissions available on seven VHF frequencies from 162.400 MHz to 162.550 MHz. Remember extra batteries.
• A First Aid kit that includes such items as a first-aid manual, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic cream, sharp scissors, and tweezers. Include prescription medications, including those for your pet.
• Water. Have about a gallon per person and pet per day. Stock enough for at least three days. Include extra water for sanitation.
• Nonperishable food and the all-important manual can opener. Have enough food for at least three days. Don’t forget pet food.
• Flashlights, extra batteries, and portable chargers for cellphones and such. Charge all cell phones and PDAs the night before any storm is due.
• Garbage bags.
• Matches in a waterproof container.
• Personal hygiene products and moist towelettes.
Plans for Specific Disasters
Next, organize for specific emergencies that can occur in your area. FEMA offers advice for individual disasters. Here are a few quick tips:
Floods are the most common severe weather-related disaster in the U.S., but one that many assume will affect the “other guy.” With their risks misunderstood or ignored, floods also are the most expensive and deadly natural disasters. From rapid snowmelt to burst dams, hurricanes to major rainstorms, flooding affects many. But according to FLASH’s Chapman-Henderson, floods don’t have to be catastrophic. Just a few inches of water can cause thousands of dollars in damages. And typical homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.
Here’s what you can do to help protect yourself:
• Check the FEMA-NOAA interactive flood impact map . It features searchable data about floods over the past few years; offers tips on what to do before, during and after a flood; and encourages flood insurance protection.
• Learn what a flood could cost you. Check out the interactive tool and learn more about the Flood Insurance Protection Program at www.floodsmart.gov. What may surprise you is that areas susceptible to flooding can change each year.
• Check with your insurance agent to see what is covered in your present policy and if you need flood insurance. Most policies take 30 days to become effective.
• Make sure your sump pump works. Install a battery backup.
• Raise electrical components. Have your furnace, water heater, washer and dryer set at least a foot above any possible flood waters.
• Consider waterproofing your basement. Check your basement drainage systems for blockages.
• Clear the drainage outlets and fix any eroding foundation walls.
• Keep eavestroughs and gutters clear.
• Consider certified flood vents that prevent water pressure buildup, thereby reducing structural damage and costly repairs. Smart Vent (www.smartvent.com) offers an online demonstration of how foundation flood vents work.
If you are in an area where dry or drought conditions persist or occur at certain times, prepare for possible wildfires. Find advice at FEMA . Firewise, a program of the National Fire Protection Association in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior, offers interactive educational tools . Michele Steinberg, Firewise manager, says the advice is based on the science of wildfire behavior. Its catchphrase, “Homes that don’t ignite, can’t burn,” sums up the idea behind the tips.
Here are suggestions to prevent your house from burning down:
• Build new or retrofit with nonflammable materials. Particularly important: a noncombustible roof.
• Choose double-pane or tempered glass windows that typically better withstand a fire’s intense radiant heat.
• Select nonflammable siding or keep combustible materials away from your present siding.
• Keep the gutters and roof clean. Flying embers can ignite debris and spread fire to the house.
• Modify landscaping and materials storage to keep an area five feet from your house fuel-free.
• Within 30 feet of your home, keep the lawn well-watered and mowed.
• Consider xeriscaping, landscaping that focuses on drought-tolerant plants. Firewise offers plant suggestions .
• Remove tree limbs that hang over your roof. High winds can knock flaming branches onto your home.
• Ensure your street number is clearly marked for emergency vehicles.
Most earthquake-related deaths and injuries result from collapsing walls, flying glass and falling objects. One vital preparation can make a big difference: Have your home checked to make sure it meets the seismic code and is tied to its foundation. With the house properly tied together, the load can be redistributed, the house shouldn’t slide off its foundation, and it should be able to handle a quake’s rocking and sliding actions.
Beyond that, secure fuel tanks, water heaters and shelving. FEMA offers downloadable instructions , but suggests that, since these affect the structure of your home, they be performed by licensed professional contractors.
If a quake does strike:
• Stay away from glass, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall; drop to the ground; hide under sturdy furniture; and hold on.
• Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go out.
• If you are trapped under debris, don’t yell so you won’t breathe in dirty air. Tap on a pipe to let others know where you are. Don’t light matches in case there are gas leaks.
• When you are out of your home, stay informed about the damage and assistance available.
• Avoid turning on the power if there is flooding from broken pipes.
• If your home has been damaged, consider getting a professional to conduct a thorough inspection to make sure it is safe to enter.
You can be hundreds of miles from the coastline and still feel the effects of a hurricane. The winds are destructive, turning debris into deadly projectiles. But the dome of water known as the storm surge and flooding bring much of the destruction.
The National Hurricane Center of the National Weather Service; FEMA ; and FLASH offer great tips. FLASH’s interactive Web tool can help you perform a wind-resistance inspection.
Here are some tips:
• Anchor things down. Bring in any outside items that could become airborne.
• Bolt doors at the foot and head using bolts with at least a 1-inch throw length. Have professionals reinforce the garage door and tracks with center support, and brace gable end walls with horizontal and/or diagonal braces.
• Cover large windows, doors, and patio doors with securely fastened, tested, and approved impact-resistant shutters. If you remodel, consider impact-resistant window and door systems.
• Trim trees and shrubs so they won’t break and smash into your home.
• Consider building a safe room. Check out FEMA’s downloadable publication .
• Turn off propane tanks.
• Have a roof covering rated for hurricane-force winds. Fasten rafters and trusses to walls with hurricane straps and clips.
• Disconnect appliances and equipment. Leave on one light to indicate when power is restored.
• Consider having licensed contractors inspect your home and help in repairs.
According to FEMA, almost every state is at risk for tornadoes. They can appear suddenly, with a damaging path that can be more than a mile wide and 50 miles long. Moving in any direction, they can occur at any time of day. Be prepared. Experts suggest you:
• Consider having a safe room since, even if your house is built to code, that does not mean it can withstand extreme storms such as tornadoes. You can have it site-built or install a manufactured safe room. A constructed or manufactured safe room or storm shelter should meet the guidance of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) and the International Code Council (ICC) Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters (NSSA/ICC-500).
• Notice of a tornado sighting is typically short — about 15 minutes, if at all. Be aware of changing weather. Look particularly for a greenish sky, large hail, and/or a dark low-lying cloud. If a tornado “watch” is issued, it means conditions are favorable for severe weather. You must remain alert and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio or commercial radio or TV for information. If a tornado “warning” is issued, it means one has been sighted or indicated by weather radar and you need to take shelter immediately.
• If you don’t have a safe room, contact local government leaders to learn if your community has designated tornado shelters and their locations.
6. Severe Winter Storms
Major winter storms can bring snow, hail, freezing rain, and extreme cold that can leave you powerless in more ways than one. Here are a few basics to help you prepare:
• Stay current on local and regional weather forecasts.
• Add rock salt, sand, and snow shovels to your emergency supplies.
• Make sure you have sufficient heating fuel to last more than what might be the intended length of the storm. In winter, it’s always good to be well stocked in case of changing weather conditions.
• Learn how to shut off water valves in case a pipe bursts. If pipes freeze, remove insulation, wrap pipes in rags, and open all faucets.
• Keep your home cooler than usual to save heating fuel. Layer your clothes and use blankets instead.
• If you need to use small portable kerosene heaters, ventilate the toxic fumes by opening a window to allow in fresh air.
• Stay dry and warm. Don’t wear yourself out, get cold and wet, or endanger your health by being out in the middle of the storm.
• Watch for a loss of feeling or a whitish color in your fingers and toes that may signal frostbite. The signs of hypothermia are shivering, disorientation, and slurred speech.
• Save the battery power of flashlights, radios, or other equipment. Use candles if you need light but be careful that a fire does not start.
• In case of a household emergency, try to keep your home exits and car clear of snow. You may want to arrange ahead of time with a shoveling and snowplow service to help you do this.