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How to Prepare for Storms and Natural Disasters

Be prepared to protect your family and your home when disaster strikes.

Sandbags To Prevent Flooding iStock

No matter what region of the country you live in, natural disasters are virtually unavoidable. The question is not if a storm or natural disaster will occur but when. The next question you need to ask yourself is if you’ll be ready.

When preparing for natural disasters, you should focus on three goals: 1) Keeping you and your family safe 2) Keeping your home safe and 3) Evacuating if necessary.

How to Prepare for Natural Disaster Emergencies

Goal 1: Keep You and Your Family Safe

In a disaster, nothing is more important than the preservation of human life. While natural disasters come in many forms—earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and more—preparing for human safety and comfort is the same in many cases.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) suggests that you learn the following:

  • Where is your main power breaker? Learn how to turn it off following a disaster if necessary to prevent accidental electrocution.
  • Where is your main gas shut-off valve? Learn how to turn it off following a disaster if necessary to prevent injury from hazardous fumes or an explosion.
  • Where is your main water shut-off valve? Learn how to turn it off following a disaster if necessary to prevent flooding.

While you’re standing in front of your main power breaker, think hard about you and your family’s well-being if there is suddenly no power going into the house. No lights. No TV. No computers. No charging electronic devices. No refrigerator.

Ask yourself: What does my family need at a time like this? How do I prepare? Here is a list of essentials that you should consider.

Power: A gas-powered backup generator can keep the refrigerator going, power some lights, maybe even power a heater or air conditioner as needed. To find out what size you need, determine the amperage draw of each critical appliance. When the neighborhood goes dark and you hear your neighbors starting up their generators, you want to be among that group. More: How standby generators work.

Light: Keep battery-operated flashlights with charged batteries ready. Though romantic, candles are not a safe alternative. Keep the flashlights where you can find them quickly. Keep solar-powered lights for extra safety. Hand cranked lights work in all conditions.

Warmth: If you have a fireplace or wood-burning stove, have plenty of wood on hand. When power goes out, natural gas or other fuels may continue to flow. If your heat is all electric, a backup generator (used outside far from windows) to run electric heaters might be in order. Indoor-rated propane heaters are on the market. Do not use them without a functioning carbon monoxide alarm.

Food: Canned foods and a can opener are a sure bet for meals that require no cooking. If you have backyard grill, and frozen meats that are thawing fast, this might be the time for a feast. Dry goods like cereals, powdered milk, and cookies come in handy.

Water: The standard rule is to have one gallon per person per day of the water outage. For a family of four without running water for three days, that means 12 gallons on hand. For hurricanes, FEMA suggests enough water for 10 days.

Medicines: It’s always a good idea to have a month’s-worth of prescription medicines on hand, rather than waiting for the last pill or tablet to call in a refill. Disasters can strike at any time.

Hygiene­­: Keep you and your family clean with baby wipes. Have plenty of paper towels on hand.

Pet Care: Your pets also need water, food, and medicines during a disaster. Plan for that.

Communication: We can’t turn on the local news when the power is out, so how do we find out what’s happening? Have a battery-powered emergency radio and spare batteries on hand. Keep cell phones charged, and consider buying a small solar panel that can be used just for that purpose.

Goal 2: Keep Your Home Safe

Natural disasters come in many forms according to your location. Make sure you are covered by reviewing and updating your homeowners insurance. Consider these tips for each situation.

Floods

  • Consider elevating critical utilities, such as electrical panels and heating systems.
  • If your area floods frequently, consider elevating your entire home.
  • Purchase flood insurance (not covered in standard homeowners insurance policies).
  • Check the FEMA site for flood insurance tips.
  • After the flood, avoid exposing yourself to mold that grows on walls or other surfaces. Mold can be extremely hazardous, and usually requires professional remediation. More: How to clean up mold.
    Hurricanes and Windstorms

Take down dead trees located near the house. Remove dead branches from live trees near the house.

  • Nail down loose siding and other loose boards on the house exterior.
  • Strengthen your roof.
  • Protect your windows.
  • Brace your garage and entry doors.
  • Clean up landscaping.
  • Put away unsecured objects in your yard.
  • Keep photos and papers in waterproof containers.
  • More: Hurricane safety lessons

Blizzards and Snow Storms

Goal 3: Evacuate If Necessary

Many natural disasters call for sheltering in place. But when it’s time to evacuate (which is often the case with wildfires and hurricanes), you and your family should be ready. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure at least one vehicle has more than half a tank of fuel. Gas lines get long when it’s time to evacuate.
  • Know the evacuation route beforehand, such as are determined with hurricanes.
  • Know the nearest evacuation center.
  • Have a plan for your family to communicate and meet up if separated during the emergency.
  • Have pet crates ready for easy transport of pets in an emergency. They may be required at emergency shelters.
  • More: What to do to your home before evacuating for a storm.

Get the Kids Involved

Kids are naturally alarmed that natural disasters can strike without warning. You can try to shield them from this knowledge, or you can let them get involved in the planning. The latter may actually calm them down. The Ready Kids website from the U.S. Dept. of Homeland security provides some tips:

  • Talk it through—Sit down with the family and discuss who to contact during a disaster.
  • Text don’t talk—Texting is better than phone calls during a disaster.
  • Decide on meet-up places—Write down places in the house, in the neighborhood, or out of town.
  • Practice—Keep the plan and lists ready and visible so if and when they are needed, it’s second nature for the kids.