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Preparing for a Natural Disaster

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 08, 2021

Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, tornadoes. Experts say natural disasters like these will become more common due to climate change. As stressful as that may be to think about, it’s important to plan how you’ll respond.

“The most common mistake one can make is thinking, ‘It won’t happen to me,’” says Meaghan Enright, executive director of Love City Strong Inc., a disaster preparedness and response group in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “Unfortunately, we know that this just isn’t the case. Disasters can happen anytime, anywhere, and the more prepared you are, the better off you and your family will be during times of crisis.”

Here’s where to start.

Know the kind of plan you need. “Start by talking about what types of emergencies are most likely where you live,” says Nigel Holderby, director of disaster public affairs for the American Red Cross.

For instance, are heat waves and wildfires a concern? Do you have annual blizzards? Knowing the types of danger you’re likely to face can help you create the most useful plan.

Get your family involved. “Talking about making preparations will help everyone know what to do and how to plan,” Holderby says. “Discussing ahead of time helps reduce fear, particularly for younger children.”

As a family, decide things like:

  • Where to go if you have to leave your home
  • How and where you’ll meet up if you’re separated
  • Which tasks you’ll each have (like making sure your pets are safe or listening to the news for storm updates)
  • Who’s your emergency contact (Choose at least one person who lives in a different area in case your phone lines are down)

Put these details into a family disaster plan. Save it on your computer, print a copy and post it in your house, and email a copy to a loved one, just in case.

Build an emergency kit. During a natural disaster, it’s common to lose access to some things you depend on every day, from heat and electricity to gas or ATMs. Think about supplies you may need during this time.

Ideally, you should put aside enough basic items to tide you over for 3 to 5 days. “If you live in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, consider having supplies to last at least 10 days,” says Michael R. Hart, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Stock up on:

  • Water (1 gallon per person per day)
  • Food (non-perishable food like canned fruits and veggies, protein bars, peanut butter, dry cereal, as well as some comfort foods like chocolate)
  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio/weather radio
  • Batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle (or another way to signal for help)
  • Dust mask (choose a brand that can filter out toxins)
  • Plastic sheeting
  • Duct tape
  • Baby wipes, garbage bags, and twist ties (in case you can’t use a toilet)
  • Wrench and pliers (to turn off utilities like your gas or water)
  • Can opener
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with charger and extra battery

Items like books, crayons, playing cards, and stickers can help distract kids during what can be a scary time. Pets will need their own food and water (plan for at least 5 days’ worth) plus a manual can opener if you need it. Include bedding, a favorite toy, and a leash or pet carrier with their name on it. (Don’t forget to pack a picture of your pet in case you get separated).

Keep your emergency kit in a marked plastic bin or duffel bags. Everyone in your house should know where they’re stored.

Know how to stay informed. Once disaster strikes, up-to-date information will be key to figuring out what’s safe, what’s not, and how to get help. You’ll want to get information from a site you can trust. Make sure you’re signed up for:

  • Text alerts from your local government
  • Emergency updates from your energy company
  • Social media accounts of local newspapers and radio stations, as well as emergency management agencies like the Red Cross and FEMA.

The Red Cross and FEMA also have free apps that let you track weather alerts and warnings, find nearby emergency shelters, and let loved ones know you’re OK.

Think about your health. If you or a loved one has a health concern, you’ll need to have a plan for that, too. For instance, you can:

  • Put together a “go bag” of your medications. Try to include at least a week’s worth of all the prescription and over-the-counter drugs you take. Don’t forget special items like syringes, contact lenses, or hearing aids with extra batteries. Throw in your insurance card, too. And set a schedule to check the bag and make sure nothing has expired.
  • Have ice packs handy in case your medications need to be kept cool.
  • If you have an ongoing health condition like cancer, it’s important that you continue to get the care you need. Once you’re out of harm’s way, contact your doctor or treatment center for next steps. (If you’re at an emergency shelter, a disaster relief nurse or the shelter director can help get you in touch.)

Build your community. “If you truly want to be prepared, the best thing you can do is to get to know your neighbors,” says Jamie D. Aten, PhD, founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. “Our research has shown that having positive social support can help families navigate disaster preparedness and recovery challenges with greater resilience. And your neighbors may just be willing to let you borrow the supplies you didn’t know you needed until it was too late.”

Find ways to manage your anxiety. When we worry about an impending natural disaster, we have “anxiety about the unknown and how something may happen which could be far worse than what we anticipate,” says Edward V. Singh, MD, a psychiatrist with Orlando Health in Orlando, FL.

It’s hard to draw the line between staying informed and letting wall-to-wall disaster coverage on news and social media ramp up your worries. Again, go with trusted sources of information and limit exposure as much as you can.

If your anxiety is mild, “educating yourself and being prepared will help,” Singh says. For more intense anxiety, you can also try relaxing through yoga poses, visualization, or deep breathing exercises. (Learn and practice these techniques now instead of waiting until you’re in the eye of a storm.)

If you still have a high amount of anxiety about natural disasters, ask for help. Talking to a mental health expert could help put your mind at ease.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

Meaghan Enright, executive director, Love City Strong Inc., St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Nigel Holderby, director, disaster public affairs, American Red Cross, Springfield, MO.

American Red Cross: “Disaster Preparedness Plan,” “How to Use the American Red Cross

Family Disaster Plan PDF Template,” “Mobile Apps.”

Michael R. Hart, spokesperson, Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Ready.gov: “Build a Kit,” “Food.”

Select Health: “8 Unexpected Items to Pack In Your Emergency Kit.”

The Humane Society of the United States: “Pet disaster preparedness.”

U.S. Department of Energy: “Staying informed.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency: “FEMA Mobile App and Text Messages.”

Consumer Reports: “When Disaster Strikes: What to Put In Your Medical Go Bag.”

FDA: “Safe Drug Use After a Natural Disaster.”

American Cancer Society: “Coping With Cancer After a Natural Disaster: Frequently Asked Questions for People With Cancer and Their Caregivers.”

Jamie D. Aten, PhD, founder and co-director, Humanitarian Disaster Institute, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.

Edward V. Singh, MD, psychiatrist, Orlando Health, Orlando, FL.

Mental Health America: “Coping With Disaster.”

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