Earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, forest fires. These terms pop up on news headlines more and more frequently. Recently, hurricane Dorian left more than 70,000 people homeless on Grand Bahama and the Abaco islands, and its heavy rains and powerful winds left hundreds of thousands without power all along the east coast and up into Nova Scotia. Typhoon Faxai sparked evacuation warnings for tens of thousands, leaving nearly a million homes without power.
Reports of the frequency and widespread impact of these natural disasters can be frightening. While we may not be able to avoid being personally affected by a natural disaster, but we can increase our likelihood of survival by preparing now – before disaster strikes.
The late computer sciences professor Randy Pausch stated that a good way to be prepared is to think… negatively. As he puts it: “Yes, I’m a great optimist but, when trying to make a decision, I often think of the worst-case scenario… One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist, is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose.”
On that note, let’s “think negatively”. In this article, we’ll consider a few potential natural disasters we may face, and how we can create a contingency plan for these disasters. That way, if a disaster does strike, we can feel like optimists.
We’ll examine how we can minimize the impact of an emergency situation, and increase our chances of survival in three areas:
- What steps can you take before a disaster?
- What should you do during a natural disaster?
- What steps should you take after an emergency or natural disaster?
Before: Prepare Well
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” ―Benjamin Franklin
Nations and their armies strengthen their forces and defenses in peacetime, not when they are at war. Similarly, we need to “strengthen our defenses” before a disaster, not during one. In what ways can we be well-prepared for the worst?
Recognize that disasters happen and that anyone can be affected, regardless of where you live. Accepting the reality of a potential danger and being organized and prepared helps us remain calm and have a sense of control in an emergency.
Identify the hazards that can most likely happen in your area. Find out the fastest way to receive emergency alerts. Research where the local shelters are and what community programs are in place in the event of an emergency in your area.
Make an emergency kit
When disaster hits, electricity, water, and transportation services often become unreliable. Thus, many government agencies strongly recommend having an emergency kit in your home.
When building your emergency kit, keep in mind that the needs of your family will differ depending on where you live, whether you have children, seniors or pets in your household, if any family members have special needs or require medical supplies. You can download a printable version of a basic list here and adapt it to your family’s requirements.
It is recommended that you keep a two week supply of drinking water and non-perishable food in a safe place in your home for emergency use.
Prep an emergency “go” bag
Sometimes disasters can happen with little to no warning. Thus, it is also helpful to prepare “go” bags containing necessary items that you can simply grab and run with, in case of an evacuation. Having these items already packed in an easy to carry bag will help your family leave as quickly as possible.
Some basic items to include in your “go” bag are:
- At least 3 gallons of water per person and 3 days of non-perishable foods
- Blankets, a change of warm clothes, and close-toed shoes
- Flashlight, battery or hand-crank radio, charging cords and a power bank for devices, and spare batteries
- First-aid kit and a whistle to signal for help
- Eating utensils, can opener, pocket knife, and waterproof matches
- Dust masks, waterproof tape, and plastic sheeting for shelter
- Toothbrushes, soap, towels, and toilet paper
- Moist towelettes or hand sanitizer
- Keep needed medication, copies of prescriptions, and other important documents in a waterproof container
- List of emergency contacts and meeting places and a local map
- Credit cards and cash
- Extra set of house keys and car keys
Keep contact information close by
Most of us rely heavily on our phones to remember important phone numbers of our loved ones, but power for our devices may not be available in the event of a disaster. Keep a list of phone numbers (both in your home and in your “go” bag) of family, friends and neighbors, including some who do not live in your immediate area.
Create and practice an evacuation plan
There is often little time to think in an emergency. Thus, planning an evacuation plan ahead of time is key. Determine the best ways to exit your home and decide on a meeting place for the family.
You can find your city’s public emergency plan on their local police website. Learn your community’s evacuation routes. Find out the emergency plan for your children’s school. The Red Cross website has detailed checklists and a home plan template to help you organize a complete emergency evacuation plan.
During – Take Action
“Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.”
–Norman Vincent Peale
Studies have found that in some disasters, those in danger areas waited around for too long, with sad consequences. Preparing ahead for a disaster also involves knowing in advance what action needs to be taken during an emergency.
With that in mind, let’s consider some steps that should be taken in the event of a natural disaster.
In the event of a fire (during a natural disaster or otherwise), it’s important to act quickly. It takes only 30 seconds for a small flame to turn into a life-threatening fire. A home can become completely consumed in flames just 5 minutes.
- First, sound the fire alarm and alert others.
- Before opening a door, feel the doorknob. If it is hot or there is smoke coming under the door, don’t open it and look for another way out.
- Leave the building at the nearest exit, closing any doors behind you to prevent the fire from spreading.
- Do not use any elevators.
- Call 911, don’t assume this has already been done.
- If you can’t leave the building, crawl low to the floor and cover your mouth and nose to avoid inhaling smoke. Cover vents or openings around the door with tape or cloth to keep smoke out. Move to the nearest window or balcony.
While typhoons and hurricanes can allow for days to evacuate, earthquakes often happen without warning, leaving no time to prepare. They can also cause tsunamis, landslides, avalanches or fires. Here’s what you should do when an earthquake strikes:
- If you’re indoors, get low to the ground and take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture or next to an inside wall. Or, stay on your hands and knees and cover your head with your arms.
- Do not get in a doorway. Doorways being a safe space in an earthquake is actually a myth. Instead, see the above tip.
- Stay away from windows and glass.
- If you are outdoors, get into an open area. Move away from any buildings, street lights and utility wires.
- If you are driving, pull over and set your parking brake.
The first wave of a tsunami is usually not the strongest, waves grow bigger and stronger as they continue. Thankfully, because of advance tsunami warning systems, you may receive an alert with at least a few minutes to evacuate.
However, these can’t always be relied upon. But, there are some visual cues that can alert you to an incoming tsunami.
- If you see waters drastically pulling away from shore, it’s time to move.
- First, run. Get to higher ground as far inland as possible.
- Listen to emergency information and alerts.
- If you are in the water, it’s better to hold onto a floating object and flow with the current. Don’t try to swim against the current. It’s a fruitless endeavor that will only fatigue you, fast.
Hurricanes are one of the most devastating natural disasters on earth. A category 5 hurricane can unleash winds over 156 mph. But wind isn’t the only danger of the storm.
Storm surge, the seawater that gets pushed toward the shore by the storm’s strong winds, causes the majority of all hurricane-related deaths. Storm surges can very quickly cause massive property damage and create flash floods.
- Since hurricanes are usually detected in advance, be alert to weather warnings and emergency updates for your area. If an evacuation is ordered, leave immediately.
- Cover all your home’s windows with plywood.
- Set your fridge and freezer to the coldest setting. In case of power loss, food will last longer.
- Go to a storm shelter. Or, if an evacuation was not ordered for your area, you may decide to gather needed supplies for at least 3 days and take shelter in a small, windowless room on the lowest level of your home.
- Do not walk, swim or drive through floodwaters. Only six inches of fast-moving water is enough to knock you down.
Floods are caused by the aforementioned hurricanes, heavy rain, melting snow, a ruptured dam or storm surges. They can also result in landslides, power outages, transportation blockages, and damaged buildings.
- If warned in advance of a flood, move to higher ground if possible.
- Do not walk, swim or drive through floodwaters. A car can be swept away in just 2 feet of water. Also, floodwaters can be loaded with bacteria. So if your skin comes into contact with floodwater, wash with soap and water as soon as possible.
- Stay away from bridges over fast-moving water.
- If trapped in a building, go to the highest part of your home with an exit. Do not get trapped in a closed attic.
Here’s a tip that will help no matter what the situation: In any type of disaster, if authorities call for an evacuation, evacuate without delay! Don’t waste time gathering personal items or wondering if it is really necessary to leave. Just go.
After – Stay Safe
“Safety doesn’t happen by accident.”
Just because a disaster has passed, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of the woods. There many challenges and dangers post-disaster that can pose a threat to our safety. Here are a few ways you can ensure the safety of you and your family in the aftermath.
- Contact family and friends to let them know you are safe.
- If possible, stay with friends or relatives rather than a community shelter. Wherever you find refuge, keep your living space clean to prevent further injury or illness.
- Be sure to use protective gear, such as sturdy shoes, a hard hat, a dust mask and gloves, when cleaning up debris. Be aware of your surroundings and look for any hazards as you travel through the affected areas. There may be electrical wires, sharp surfaces or falling hazards overhead.
- Recognize and address the emotional impact. The stress of facing a natural disaster and the toll of seeking safety and caring for loved ones afterward can cause physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. Make sure you get enough rest. Talk to a friend or mental health professional about how you are feeling.
- Try to get back to a normal routine as soon as possible.
- Set aside time to think about what you are grateful for, perhaps making a list of 3 things you are grateful for each day. Taking time to think about what is truly important in life, puts things in perspective and makes stress more manageable.
It’s not pleasant to think about these worst-case scenarios potentially affecting our neighborhood and our lives. But by giving a little forethought and preparing in advance, we can make a huge difference in our ability to act decisively and exponentially increase the potential of surviving anything that comes our way.