5 things you need to do before a disaster strikesEnsure your household is emergency-ready with these must-know tips
We all know floods, tornadoes and hurricanes happen, but for the most part we imagine that they won’t happen to us. But it’s better to be prepared—especially since natural disasters in the U.S. are increasing. For example, there were more than 1,000 preliminarily reported U.S. tornadoes in the first half of this year, with more than 530 fatalities. “It’s what climatologists have been predicting,” says Richard Bissell, PhD, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and chair of its Preparedness Sub-council. “And with more people moving into areas where there are hazards, like developments in the Midwestern floodplains, more people are affected each time.” In other words, in the next decade or so, there’s a greater chance you’ll be involved in a natural disaster—and a few hours of preparation could make all the difference between a family challenge and a family catastrophe.
1. Pick an emergency contact
If you only do one thing after reading this article, make it this: Take 5 minutes to designate a relative or friend who lives in another part of the country as an emergency contact, says Paulette Aniskoff, the director of individual and community preparedness at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It’s crucial that the contact live far away, because often in a weather crisis, cell phones and local numbers fail but you can still dial long distance on a pay phone or landline. Have everyone in your family memorize the contact’s phone number, and instruct them that in an emergency, they are to call the contact and say where they are. That way, rather than desperately trying to reach one another, you can call your contact for a full report, says Aniskoff.
Tip: List the out-of-town emergency contact as well as a local contact on school forms. "If cell phones are down, an additional relative who can be gotten hold of is really important," says Aniskoff.
2. Compile a disaster kit
Pull together a portable emergency kit that will keep your family warm and fed for three-plus days. Store food in two big plastic storage containers, and clothing and towels in a 30-gallon snap-lid garbage can. Go through your kit once a year to replenish supplies and replace any expired items.
3. Do an inventory of your possessions.
Spend an hour going through your house, documenting your belongings so you’ll have a record of anything you may lose.
Write down the names of the valuables in each room (“Ethan Allen sofa, bought approx. 1998”), including serial numbers and models, for insurance purposes. Photograph the items as you go—capturing everything of value in the room—and show the background in some photos to help prove ownership. Then go outside and snap pictures of cars and outdoor equipment (lawn mowers, gas grills). Don’t forget to take pictures of your home itself.
Save the photos and list on your computer, and on a flash drive that you put in your safe deposit box.
Tip: Photograph any important paperwork that isn’t in a safety deposit box: house deeds, vehicle registration, birth certificates. “The photos can be invaluable if your house and everything in it is suddenly gone,” says Dr. Bissell.
4. Identify your region’s top risks
“Have a sense of what the hazards are in the areas where you live and work, so you’ll know what you need to prepare for,” says Richard Bissell, PhD, a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council and chair of its Preparedness Sub-council. Go to Ready.gov and click on your state; then, click through the list of top weather hazards to get more details on each. If you have questions specific to your neighborhood—like, say, whether your block is actually at risk for landslide—call your city or county office of emergency management.
Tip: Be aware that almost every area has multiple hazards. “For instance,” says Aniskoff, “there is an earthquake fault line through a huge portion of the Midwest. Midwestern folks know about flooding because they’ve seen it before, but do most of them know about the fault line? Probably not.”
5. Plan for your family
Now that you know what kind of severe weather may affect your family, walk yourself through the steps you’d take if you suddenly learned that each natural disaster was imminent. Just thinking through the plan saves lives. “If you already have a plan, you’re much more likely to do it without fear,” says Aniskoff.
First, write down everyone who is dependent on you—family, pets, neighbors. Then, whom would you call? What would you do? Have a family meeting and inform everyone of each plan. Also, learn about emergency plans established in your area by your state or local government.
Tip: Disasters rarely happen when the whole family is together and you’ve got everything you need, so plan for that. Make a game out of periodically testing family members: “If a tornado warning were issued and I wasn’t home, what would you do?”
Arianne Cohen is a contributing editor to Woman’s Day, and author of, Help, It’s Broken!: A Fix-It Bible for the Repair-Impaired
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