What to Do When Natural Disasters Strike
September is National Preparedness Month, and in the words of Stephen King, “There’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.” If there’s anything the 2000s have taught us, it’s that we should expect the unexpected. From unprecedented weather and industrial pollution disasters to domestic terrorism, there’s certainly no better time to equip your family and community with the know-how to survive, render aid, and help prevent the next emergency situation.
In light of 9/11—and for the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established National Preparedness Month in 2004. The awareness month was set for September to encourage and enable citizens to be useful, trained responders in the event of natural and man-made disasters.
Each year, FEMA’s Ready campaign joins forces with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Citizen Corps, and other government agencies and private organizations tasked with emergency planning and management to help prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from disaster. The Ready campaign can be implemented in three basic parts: plan, learn, and practice.
Discuss Possible Hazards
As the first step to safety planning, mentally prepare for possible emergencies by having calm and candid conversations with your family. Best judgment must be used when discussing these situations with young children. However, allowing the whole family to plan and implement will increase the likelihood of their success. In the long run, arming children with honesty and knowledge will do more good than avoiding awkward conversations.
Before starting the discussion, research your surroundings, and know which hazards are most likely to occur in your area. Good places to begin are city or state government websites. But remember, preparedness isn’t just about natural disasters any more. Today, Ready.gov informs families about the potential for other emergency situations as well.
- Poisonous chemical or natural gas leaks
- Medical emergencies
- Extreme heat, drought, wildfires
- Extreme cold, snowstorms
- Earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, mudslides
- Tornadoes, severe storms, lightning
- Floods, hurricanes, tsunamis
- Power outages
- Water contamination
- Hazardous-material pollution
- Chemical or radiation exposure
- Infectious disease outbreak
- Cybersecurity, identity theft, or data loss
- Active shooter or home invasion
- Foreign weapons attack
Create a Plan
The next step is developing plans for the events that seem most likely to occur in your area. Don’t forget to carefully consider the specific needs of your family. Ready.gov recommends that families draft and share an emergency plan of instructions for communication, shelter, and evacuation.
- Download and register for local emergency alerts and warnings in your area.
- Be aware of weather information sources, such as Weather-Ready Nation.
- Download a group texting app so your entire family can stay in constant contact.
- Build an emergency supply kit specific to the needs of your family.
- Contact your utility companies to learn how to safely check and turn on or off connections.
- Build an emergency financial kit with offline copies of important family documents.
- Find out what resources (temporary shelters, food banks, etc.) are available in your community, and learn how to gain access to them.
- Plan for temporary housing or unemployment with an emergency savings account based on your family’s needs.
- Review your insurance coverage and reimbursement policies. For example, flood insurance policies typically have a 30-day waiting period before they go into effect.
After developing an immediate plan to protect yourself and your family, learn what more you can do to aid family, friends, and neighbors—especially single adults, those with small children, and the elderly or disabled—until help arrives. In an emergency, loved ones and strangers are often our first responders, but many of us would feel powerless until professional help arrived. Boost your own confidence—and those who depend on you—by seeking opportunities for training in preparedness and basic medical skills.
- Take the FEMA IS-909 online Course Two Pager on Individual and Community Preparedness.
- Join a local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) to learn and practice skills.
- Learn what campus emergency plans are in place at yours and your children’s schools. Colleges and universities are also encouraged to practice resilience activities to prepare for new kinds of emergencies.
- Prepare your business or workplace by signing up for a Ready Business Workshop.
- Community centers, churches, and other faith-based venues should also prepare plans, as public gatherings can also become vulnerable targets.
The Guardian reported that “approximately 140,000 people every year die in situations where their lives could have been saved if somebody had known first aid … however, fewer than one in five of us knows even basic first aid.” While learning to provide emergency medical care is a personal choice, it really does save lives. Citizens who attempt to perform CPR and other life-saving measures are protected in all states by the Good Samaritan Law, so one should never hesitate to act.
Be prepared to render basic medical aid by finding training opportunities, such as FEMA’s online Until Help Arrives materials. Expand on this information by taking courses in first aid, Basic Life Support (BLS), CPR, and use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). Consider additional training if your family has small children or special medical needs. Contact your pediatrician or healthcare provider to learn what you can do. Share this information with older siblings or other caregivers for your family, in case primary guardians aren’t available.
Search your community for training opportunities, and ensure the instructors are well-credentialed. Those associated with or recommended by professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Heart Association (AHA), or the American Red Cross (ARC) are suggested. Contact health staff at these community locations for information or referrals on the following training courses and workshops in your area.
- Your employer
- Preschools, public schools, colleges, or universities
- Emergency clinics or hospitals
- Public libraries, recreation centers, YMCAs
- Online materials from the AHA, AMA, or ARC websites
Planning and training yourself is all well and good. But if you and your community don’t regularly practice together and share the information, your well-developed plans may become woefully ineffective.
- Practice emergency drills at home, at school, at work, at church, and at community centers. According to FEMA, “almost half of Americans expect to rely on their neighbors a great deal after a disaster,” so practice together to maximize the effectiveness of your planning efforts.
- National PrepareAthon! Day is September 15. Hold an event for your community by reviewing these planning guides for 10 ways to participate.
- Share preparedness information on social media. Ready.gov is using the #NatlPrep, #PlanAhead, and #PrepareAthon hashtags to share updates on Twitter.
- Keep your skills fresh by volunteering with organizations such as the Citizen Corps. Volunteering also makes for good community service opportunities for young people or those considering a career in emergency planning, healthcare, or urban development.
The theme for this year’s National Preparedness Month is “Disasters Don’t Plan Ahead. You Can.” When we hear about disaster striking somewhere else in the world, it’s easy to think, “It won’t happen to me.” But it’s possible that at some point in our lives, each of us will experience an unexpected emergency, and in that moment, all that will matter is how we react when the unexpected does happen.