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How to Prepare for a Disaster

  • June 1, 2023
  • Americares U.S. Director of Emergency Response Mariel Fonteyn surveys flood damage as part of Americares response to a flood disaster (Photo/Mike Demas)
Mariel Fonteyn

Mariel Fonteyn

Mariel Fonteyn leads responses to hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other sudden-onset disasters in the United States. She has been on the frontlines of dozens of emergencies including Hurricanes Florence and Michael in 2018, Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Hurricane Ian in 2022. A preparedness expert, she has led disaster preparedness bootcamps for thousands of health workers providing instruction on how to maintain operations during emergencies.

By Americares U.S. Director of Emergency Response Mariel Fonteyn

As we enter the Atlantic hurricane season and peak season for extreme heat and wildfires, Mariel Fonteyn offers tips from her years of experience, as well as some common mistakes and misconceptions.

Heed the Warnings

Even if you’ve ridden out similar or higher-level storms in the past, if local authorities order you to evacuate you should go. Don’t assume that you’ll be safe because you survived previous storms. Oftentimes people in the path of a storm focus on the Category it has been designated—whether it is a Cat 1 or a Cat 5. But those designations only speak to wind speed. Slow-moving tropical storms or Category 1 storms can still cause major flooding, which is a major cause of death during hurricanes. Climate change is causing storms to intensify rapidly and become more unpredictable, often in the hours before landfall when it is too late to safely evacuate. Additionally, climate change is causing the storms to carry more moisture, meaning heavier rainfall and flooding. While weather forecasts continue to improve but hurricanes are unpredictable and uncontrollable. It might seem inconvenient to evacuate, but it could save your life and the lives of the first responders who would be sent to rescue you.

street with utility poles damaged and debris in street
Debris and downed power lines in Houma, Louisiana after Hurricane Ida made landfall on August 29, 2021.

Plan Ahead

One thing I often see during emergencies is that people wish they had planned ahead. Create a list of your most critical survival items – food, water, medications and first aid supplies. Store them in an easily carried tote or backpack, if possible. If not, keep them where they can be quickly found and packed. It’s helpful to include a flash drive or hard drive in the bag that contains copies of important medical documents, including prescription information, as well as photos and further documentation of your valuables in case they’re needed later for insurance purposes. Proper documentation is critical when applying for disaster assistance and getting replacements can be cumbersome.

Expect the Utilities Will Go Out

The power is often out for days, if not weeks, after major storms. Clean water and waste disposal can also be badly affected and require extensive repairs. Most of us don’t remember phone numbers now that we rely on our contact list to place a call, and finding a place to recharge your cell phone can be a chore. Keep important phone numbers written on a card in your wallet, that way if your phone doesn’t have enough juice to turn on, you can still contact friends and family members. Consider keeping a portable solar lantern in your go-bag or car.

Don’t Forget Medications

When leaving in a disaster, it can be easy to forget every single one of the essentials you need to grab at the last minute. Prescription medications, and even over-the-counter ones, are frequently left behind and can be challenging to replace when pharmacies and doctors’ offices are closed. I make it a habit to take photos of the labels on all my medications, particularly new or recently changed ones, and keep them stored in a folder on my phone. The label includes the dosing information required to replace the medicine as well as information about your doctor and how to reach them. If you have loved ones who take medications regularly, store photos of their medication labels as well.

Don’t forget basic over-the-counter medications for minor aches and pains, as well as care for minor injuries that will be helpful if you are in a shelter or doing the physical work of cleaning up after a disaster.

Person in storm damaged street in the distance with damaged houses and debris on either side.
Homes are damaged and destroyed near Fort Myers following the devastation from Hurricane Ian in 2022. (Photo/Mark Taylor)

Check on Your Neighbors

Disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes can move quickly, and evacuation orders change just as fast. When you know there is a hazard or immediate risk in your vicinity, monitor local news and emergency notifications closely so you are ready to move to safety quickly. Keep your vehicles fully fueled to facilitate the evacuation. Access to vehicles can be a critical component of evacuating and those who are unable to drive or move quickly enough are at high risk of injury. Check in on family members and neighbors who may have trouble evacuating and provide what support you are able.

Think Beyond the Necessities

Evacuations are high-stress times filled with a lot of sitting around and waiting. You have to wait for news, wait for information, wait to be allowed home. When you evacuate, whether you’re going to a public shelter, a private hotel room, or a friend’s home – don’t forget to bring something to distract you and pass the time. A good book or two, a deck of cards, puzzles can all help you decompress. Bringing your favorite snacks of comfort food can also help. If you have kids, it’s especially important to bring things for them to do.

If you are going to a public shelter, remember that there will be a lot of people around you who may be on different schedules and coping with the stress in different ways. Earplugs or headphones and an eye mask, a comfortable pillow or blanket, are all simple things that can make your stay in the shelter a little bit easier to manage.

Manage Your Expectations

Disasters can devastate communities and the recovery can take longer than expected. Be patient with yourself and your neighbors. As with any major loss, emotions can change from day-to-day and week-to-week as you come to terms with what has happened. Recognize that it takes years for a community to rebuild, and most likely the community will not go fully back to what you knew before. As community members, you should feel empowered to speak up and participate in recovery planning—attend community meetings and communicate with local leadership to make your voice heard.

Read more about how climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of storms and other extreme weather events and get more tips for getting ready.

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