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Guide to Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery

Whether natural or man-made, disasters devastate entire communities in the blink of an eye. We'll tell you everything you need to know to prepare for the worst.

Last Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery

If it seems to you that natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes get worse every year, it’s not your imagination. The frequency and severity of natural disasters have been rising since 1970.¹² And man-made emergencies like chemical spills or mass shootings can happen at any time and in any place. To put the risk of gun violence in perspective, gun deaths are the leading cause of death in US children as of April 2022.⁶

Being prepared for a disaster or emergency can mean the difference between life and death. But that seems like a lot to prepare for — maybe even too much for some. Fortunately, there are resources you can use and steps you can take to prepare yourself and your loved ones for any eventuality.

In this guide, we’ll show you how to:

  • Know your risks
  • Make a plan
  • Create an emergency kit
  • Stay informed throughout an emergency
  • Practice for any scenario

We’ll also share crucial information for people in specific circumstances, like those with disabilities or young children at home. There may be dedicated resources or shelters you can utilize in an emergency to meet your needs more appropriately.

Jump to:

Know your risks
Make a plan and share it
Build an emergency kit (or several)
Stay tuned to emergency alerts
Practice for any scenario
References

Know your risks

For most of the 20th century, droughts and floods were the most significant causes of death by natural disasters worldwide. Those numbers have dropped dramatically, and earthquake deaths — often the results of collapsed buildings crushing or trapping individuals — are now the leading cause of death-by-disaster in the world.¹⁰ However, flood risk and other potential disasters are still a very real threat.⁹

According to data from the CDC, Texas is the most dangerous state in the US¹³ for acute chemical incidents that could threaten surrounding neighborhoods. This is likely due to the state’s size and its critical role in the country’s oil refining infrastructure.

If you don’t know the risks associated with your area, some helpful resources can tell you what kind of disaster you’re most likely to encounter.

As climate change rages on, weather patterns stand to keep changing.³ That can mean things like tornadoes and floods in places that traditionally only dealt with them rarely or changes to the seasons¹¹ that can disrupt agriculture. Even hurricane frequency and landfall locations are liable to shift.

Whether you’re new to an area or wondering what threats your home may face in the future, following these trends is critical. You can explore how conditions in your hometown or a future city are likely to change by visiting Climate.gov and using their Climate Explorer tool. It can show you projected temperature and rainfall⁷ measurements based on future emissions. That can tell you whether your area will be more prone to flooding, drought, fire, or extreme weather in general as the years go on.

You can also see the current expected return period for major hurricanes along the entire east coast with the help of these charts and data from the NOAA.

As storm intensity increases, we’re also likely to see major flooding in cities that have long suffered floods as well as cities where flooding would normally seem unlikely. Los Angeles, for example, has one of the greatest numbers of properties at risk for flooding. This is due as much to the risks posed by strengthening storms as it is to a lack of flood-resistant infrastructure.

Top 10 cities with a growing flood risk

Here are the cities where flood risks are growing at the highest rate⁴ approaching 2050 along with their projected increase in risk percentage:

  • New Orleans, LA: 207.6%
  • Jacksonville, FL: 65.6%
  • Virginia Beach, VA: 62.9%
  • San Diego, CA: 24.7%
  • Tampa, FL: 22.4%
  • Cape Coral, FL: 20.5%
  • New York, NY: 20.2%
  • Cleveland, OH: 19.0%
  • Henderson, NV: 18.3%
  • Memphis, TN: 17.7%

You can see a comprehensive breakdown of these stats from First Street Foundation. Knowing variables like these will help you formulate a plan and build an emergency kit that has the highest likelihood of providing you and your family with what you’ll need.

Mitigating Risk

Once you know the likelihood of any disaster hitting you, you can make structural and practical changes to mitigate that risk. This FEMA presentation packet is filled with useful tips and strategies to prepare structures and communities for potential disasters, including:

  • Earthquakes
  • Floods
  • Hail
  • Storm surges
  • Severe winter weather
  • Wildfires
  • Tsunamis
  • Landslides
  • Extreme temperatures

You can apply some of these ideas to the construction or renovation of a home or present them to your municipal government for future consideration.

Make a plan and share it

Having a plan in place for any potential emergency scenario is critical. Equally important is making sure everyone in your household knows the plan and contributes to it. You’ll want to plan for likely scenarios: floods if you live in a flood zone, earthquakes if you’re near a fault line, and so on.

Once you have a plan, feel free to share it with those you trust, such as neighbors, coworkers, and extended family. These contacts can become lifelines between you and your loved ones if a disaster occurs when you’re separated.

Here are some key points to consider when creating your plan:

  1. Where to go - make sure everyone knows where to go if they’re away from home. This should be situation-dependent.

  2. Communication protocols - Cell service can suffer during an emergency. Use text messages, as these tend to get through more reliably.

  3. Evacuation routes - many natural disasters will trigger evacuation orders. Know the fastest, safest way out of your area.

  4. Consider shelters - FEMA offers shelter in the most significant disasters. You can stay updated on shelter locations and availability by downloading the FEMA app. You may also receive an order to shelter in place, which you should certainly heed.

These are some outstanding resources to help you develop a plan for any scenario:

  • Head over to Ready.gov to find comprehensive plan-building resources, including how to plan for seniors, young children, people with disabilities, and pets.
  • The Red Cross has family disaster plan PDFs you can download for free in either English or Spanish. They cover everything from important contact information to strategies for evacuation and shelter.
  • If you or anyone in your family suffers from behavioral or mental health issues, disasters can be particularly dangerous. SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has a mobile app and useful links to access care and treatment during and after a disaster.

Build an emergency kit (or several)

An emergency kit should be able to provide you and your family with essentials like food and water, but there are dozens of other valuable tools and supplies you can invest in that could save your life.

We recommend that you create at least two kits:

  • A mobile kit that fits in a backpack or two and carries the absolute essentials
  • An at-home kit for sheltering in place that can last you at least a week

What you’ll need in your kit will depend on things like your geographical location and the nature of a given disaster, but there are some basics that every kit should include:

  • Food and water for at least several days¹
  • Extra cell phone batteries and a charger
  • At least one flashlight and plenty of batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Loud whistle to signal for help
  • Moist towelettes and garbage bags for sanitation²
  • Facemasks
  • Can opener
  • Local maps
  • Solar or hand-crank radio
  • Copies of critical documents
  • Emergency blankets

When you build your kit, ensure that food supplies are safe for any allergies⁵ or intolerances. You should have enough water to provide each person with one gallon per day to cover hydration and personal hygiene.

Several companies sell emergency kits containing all these supplies and more, but things like personal documents, medications, and local maps are among the things you’ll need to add on your own.

If you live in a flood zone, look for containers or backpacks that are water-resistant. You can also use Ziploc bags for an additional layer of protection.

The Red Cross has a great list of materials for any emergency kit. Their site also has a short quiz you can take to test your readiness knowledge.

Stay tuned to emergency alerts

Any time there’s an impending event like a storm, local emergency alert systems will broadcast regular packets of information on television and radio. When building your kit, look for a hand crank or solar radio that can access NOAA weather alerts.

If your phone can receive emergency alerts, you should get them there, as well.

Here are some resources that will keep your information current:

  • The FCC maintains a helpful page with information on various emergency communications systems, how to access them, and what to expect from them
  • Weather.gov allows you to click on any area of the country to see current weather conditions and any watches or warnings in effect.
  • FEMA has a similar page where you can search for active disaster declarations by state.

Practice for any scenario

Having a plan and a kit assembled is essential, but if you aren’t ready to execute your plan or make proper use of your kit, you could put yourself or your loved ones in danger. That’s why we recommend practicing the parts of your plan that you can. Schools run active shooter drills⁸ for a reason, so you and your family should have some experience reacting to emergencies or disasters before they happen.

Practicing for an emergency can include anything from a communication exercise to a fire drill (particularly important if you live in an apartment building). Just make sure you practice these strategies as safely as possible; you don’t want a rehearsal to end up causing more harm than good.

The California Childcare Health Program offers an excellent guide to emergency and disaster drills you can do to prepare for various scenarios. Even if you don’t have kids in the house, these drills can be useful.

Their guide includes drills for:

  • Earthquakes
  • Fires
  • Tornadoes
  • Floods
  • Sheltering in place
  • Reunification

The drills are designed to prepare you for specific actions you should take in a crisis, including:

  • Notification - how everyone learns there is danger afoot
  • Action - taken indoors or outdoors, these are the basic steps you’ll take toward safety
  • Communication - how you’ll get in touch and keep in touch through a crisis
  • Care and supervision - how to stay safe once you’ve reached safety or shelter
  • Conclusion - a useful review for each drill

References

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, January 26). Creating and Storing an Emergency Water Supply. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/emergency/creating-storing-emergency-water-supply.html

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Potential Sanitation Solutions During an Emergency Response. https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/global/sanitation/sanitation-emergency-response.html

[3] Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.) Climate Change Indicators: Weather and Climate. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/weather-climate

[4] First Street Foundation. (2020). The First National Flood Risk Assessment Defining America’s Growing Risk. https://assets.firststreet.org/uploads/2020/06/first_street_foundation__first_national_flood_risk_assessment.pdf

[5] Gupta, R.S., Warren, C.M., Smith, B.M., Jiang, J., Blumenstock, J.A., Davis, M.M., Schleimer R.P., and Nadeau, K.C. (2019, January). Prevalence and Severity of Food Allergies Among US Adults. JAMA Network Open. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6324316/

[6] Goldstick, J.E., Cunningham, R.M., Carter, P.M. (2022). Current Causes of Death in Children and Adolescents in the United States. The New England Journal of Medicine. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2201761

[7] Hausfather, Z. (2018, January 19). Explainer: What climate models tell us about future rainfall. Carbon Brief. Retrieved on April 27, 2022 from https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-what-climate-models-tell-us-about-future-rainfall

[8] Nierenberg, A. (2021, December 8). Do Active Shooter Drills Work? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/08/us/do-active-shooter-drills-work.html

[9] Porter, J.R., Shu, E., Amodeo, M., Hsieh, H., Chu, Z., Freeman, N. (2021, November 5). Community Flood Impacts and Infrastructure: Examining National Flood Impacts Using a High Precision Assessment Tool in the United States. Water. 13(21) https://doi.org/10.3390/w13213125 Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4441/13/21/3125

[10] Ritchie, H. and Roser, M. (2014). Natural Disasters. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from: https://ourworldindata.org/natural-disasters

[11] Song, F., Leung, L.R., Lu, J. et al. (2021) Emergence of seasonal delay of tropical rainfall during 1979–2019. Nature Climate Change. 11, 605–612. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01066-x

[12] World Meteorological Organization. (2021, August 31). Weather-related disasters increase over past 50 years, causing more damage but fewer deaths. https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/weather-related-disasters-increase-over-past-50-years-causing-more-damage-fewer

[13] Young, R. (2015, April 10). Geographic Distribution of Acute Chemical Incidents — Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance, Nine States, 1999–2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6402a5.htm