Emergency Preparedness: Experts Weigh In on How to Best Prepare for Natural Disasters and More


“Disasters Don’t Plan Ahead. You Can.” That’s Ready.gov’s theme for National Preparedness Month, observed every September.

And it’s true. There’s a reason why the Scout motto is “Be prepared.” Emergency preparedness can improve safety and reduce stress. Widespread panic can result in empty grocery store shelves or creates a “gas crisis” — making a bad situation even worse.

What is emergency preparedness? What can we do to plan ahead? What should we expect during and after? How can we help others impacted by a disaster? We reached out to experts to share their advice and experience on emergency preparedness.

Before Disaster Strikes

Know the dangers that are likely in your area. Whether it’s a hurricane or a wildfire, there are certain precautionary measures you should take to keep you and your family safe.

Prepare an Emergency Kit

For your vehicle

Some of the essentials include: jumper cables, spare tire, a car jack, flash light, drinking water, a swiss army knife, blankets. (You can read our complete car emergency kit list of items here.)  

If you’re able to splurge a little, consider a combination battery jump starter with air compressor (like this Black+Decker one). Just make sure you keep it fully charged.

For your home

Some of the same advice applies here. Have bottled water and non-perishables handy (don’t forget the can opener!). Flashlights, spare batteries, and battery-powered lanterns are other essentials.

A weather radio is another must-have for weather emergencies. It’s part of an “All Hazards” radio network, and broadcasts warning and post-event information for all types of disasters including natural, environmental, and public safety. You can buy one at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Amazon, among others.

Know Your Local Emergency Plans

Hurricane Harvey wrecked havoc in the Texas Gulf Coast. An estimated 30,000 people went to emergency shelters due to the storm and flood waters.

Save agency phone numbers, both emergency and nonemergency, to your cell phone. Consider printing them out on a small card and saving it in your wallet or the glove box of your car.

During a natural disaster, officials advise against calling 9-1-1 unless it is a life threatening emergency. For all other requests, they’ll ask you to contact your local officials instead, so you’ll want to make sure you have all of those numbers handy.

Know where to go and what to do

Follow all emergency official instructions, including evacuation orders. If a mandatory evacuation is in place, follow the orders. Failing to comply could hypothetically result in charges against you, depending on your local ordinances and state laws. It also means that emergency officials will not be able to reach you during the emergency, and there is a chance that they won’t be able to reach you for days after.

Do you know where your local disaster shelter is? This Red Cross guide will locate emergency shelters near you.

Airbnb and HomeAway even offered free or heavily discounted housing for evacuees. Even airlines and cruise ships aided in evacuation efforts.  

If you’re unable to for financial or medical reasons, contact your local officials. During Hurricane Irma, officials had a phone number to call for assistance.

Create a household emergency plan

Don’t wait until a disaster is imminent to create a plan. Ready.gov has PDF guides to help you create a plan for everyone in your household – family members, roommates, anyone.

Make sure to involve everyone in your home in the planning. Then practice. Fire drills, tornado drills, where to meet, who to call… these are all things everyone should know ahead of time.

Plan for your pets

Austin Pets Alive!, a nonprofit animal rescue, worked with shelters along Hurricane Harvey’s path to evacuate animals. The organization took in over 2,500 animals and worked with fosters to take in hundreds of additional pets. (There are usually about 200 pets at their shelter at any given time.)

What can you do to plan ahead for your pets?

  • Make sure your pets are microchipped and your contact information is up to date.
  • Keep a crate that your animals fit in.
  • When hitting the road, you’ll need: a bag of pet food, all medication, veterinary records, an extra collar and leash.
  • Keep a list of pet friendly hotels in your area and your evacuation route. (Good to know: nearly all La Quinta hotels are pet friendly.)
  • If you’re unable to travel with your pet, contact your local shelter to find out options for boarding. Leaving your pets at home alone may place them in great danger.

During natural disasters, your local shelters may be overwhelmed with animals. If you’re able to foster an animal in need, offer assistance.

Mary Mattia, APA!’s director of communications, told KHOU in Houston, “We were already dealing with a pretty full shelter when the hurricane hit. But there really wasn’t another option for us. We needed to make sure that every animal had a legitimate chance at life.”

Insurance Considerations

The best time to check your insurance coverage is before disaster strikes. Once an emergency has been declared (like a hurricane), insurance companies will place binding restrictions in high risk areas. You won’t be able make changes to an existing policy or purchase a new one at the time.

Home insurance policies will not cover flooding and earthquakes. Flood insurance takes 30 days to take effect. This means that by the time a flood-related emergency has been declared, it’s too late to purchase coverage

Car insurance may or may not cover flood damage. It depends on the type of coverage you have.  

Contact your agent to find out the details of your policy and make changes to make sure you’re covered to your satisfaction.

After a Disaster

The recovery process can take weeks, months, and even years. This is a devastating time for those impacted by a disaster, which can leave people vulnerable and susceptible to additional financial and emotional turmoil.

Beware of Scams

After a major disaster, scamsters make an appearance to take advantage of people desperate to be made whole again. More than 1,460 people were charged with disaster-related crimes after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This includes contract corruption, document fraud, identity theft, and other crimes.

Don’t hand over your personal information to just anybody claiming to be associated with disaster relief. Do you really need to give out your social security number or credit card information?

Another major scam: traveling contractors who take off with claim money. If your personal property was damaged by a hurricane and it’s covered by your insurance company, you’ll go through the claims process with an insurance adjuster, and ultimately receive a check in order to make repairs. In hard-hit areas, it may be difficult to find a contractor due to the high demand. But before handing over your claims check to a contactor, vet them. Check references. Check with state or local homebuilding situations. Never agree to pay in full upfront or in large installments. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. These door-to-door contractors lure victims by offering discounted prices for repairs.

How to Help Others After a Disaster

It’s amazing how a community will come together to help those in need. If you’re interested in helping out, here’s what you need to know.

Find Out What Is Most Needed

Before dropping off canned foods or bags of clothing, find out what local organizations and nonprofits need. They’ll often publish a wish list of items on their website. Maybe they need diapers and baby formula instead of canned items, or volunteers to help organize and distribute donations.

Donate to a reputable charity

Be careful of online fundraisers. Use websites like Charity Navigator or GuideStar to learn how about how organizations are spending their money. News organizations will often share lists of charities in the area that are accepting donations.

Volunteer

Sometimes all an organization needs is an extra set of hands, but don’t just drop by a nonprofit unannounced without learning about their signup process. Sometimes volunteers need to sign paperwork or go through an orientation.

September #ZebraChat Questions: Emergency Preparedness

We invited experts to join our #ZebraChat to share advice on how to best prepare for emergencies and what to do after. Here are some highlights from our Twitter chat.

Q1. What is emergency preparedness, and why is it important to plan ahead?

Q2. What are some examples of events/disasters to prepare for?

Q3. What apps, resources, equipment might be useful for emergency situations?

Q4. What are some items we should keep in our emergency kits at home and in our cars? How can you prepare your home or car in advance of natural disasters?

Q5. Where can you find emergency information and resources for your city/county/state?

Q6. What are some options for those who can’t take action (ex. evacuate) for financial or medical reasons?

Q7. What are some things we can expect after an emergency has passed (ex. hurricane)?

Q8. What are some options for seeking financial assistance after an emergency?

Q9. What else can we do to help others after an emergency?

Q10. Do you have any other tips or advice you’d like to share that we haven’t covered yet?