What to Do in Case of a Disaster

IN A DISASTER, TIME AND PREPARATION are the most important things. The better prepared you are, the better you can maximize your time and improve your odds against whatever nature or human beings have thrown at you. For working people, this is especially important since we are often the ones left out or left behind when disaster strikes.

Beginning to prepare for a disaster can start any time. Things you can do in advance of a disaster include:

  1. Having the name and number of an out-of-town contact you and your family can reach. When a disaster strikes, local phone service is often disrupted, and it is usually easier to reach someone out of town than down the street. An out-of-town contact would be able to reach family and friends, and serve as a central contact point for your family or friends to check in with and relay if they are alright or not.
  2. Making sure you and your family have the names and essential information (date of birth, height, weight, age, Social Security Numbers, phone numbers, home, work and e-mail addresses, medical information, etc.) of each person in your family or household. The RSS has a family preparedness form that includes cut-out wallet-size fold-up cards for you and others in your family, including children, that you can put all this information in.
  3. Make sure that all of your family or household knows how to use text messaging on a cell phone. Text messages can sometimes get through locally when regular calls cannot, due to the small amount of bandwidth needed to send them.
  4. Know the local emergency radio and television stations. More often than not, you can get the basic information you need about whether or not it is safe to stay in a disaster area from these local sources. Some rural and small-town areas also employ emergency workers or volunteers to pass along information.
  5. Have meet-up locations planned out, in case not everyone is at home or meeting at home is not possible. A child’s school or your place of work can be locations that everyone can remember. Be sure to have two or three locations planned and prioritized (“If we can’t meet at my job, then we’ll meet at your job; if we can’t meet in either place, then we’ll meet up at Henry’s school”).
  6. Check to see what kind of disaster plans your or your family members’ work or school may have in place. Some workplaces and schools have specific evacuation plans, with their own meet-up locations and protocols that may initially clash with your own preparations. You may have to alter your preparations to coincide with their existing plans. Many times, these plans are public, and you can review them yourself to see if they are viable.
  7. Make sure your disaster survival kit(s) are accessible and its contents are up-to-date. Believe it or not, even bottled water can go stale if it sits too long, so check the expiration dates on the consumable contents of your kit every so often, just to be safe. This few moments can, of course, be made easier by making sure your kit is somewhere you can access it easily. If disaster strikes, you’ll be glad it is easy to get to.

After disaster strikes, these small tasks can translate into big advantages in the battle against the elements and after-event problems. But there are other key things you can do after a disaster to ensure the well-being of yourself and your family. Among these after-disaster tips are:

  1. Try your best to stay in one place. If you have to move on, leave a note where a family member, friend, neighbor or rescue personnel can find it. It is preferable that such a notice be done in such a way that climate or other people cannot remove the note prematurely (i.e., paint on a piece of plywood or drywall works best for this).
  2. You or a designated member of your family who has been with you should try to get to the other meet-up points your family agreed to before the disaster. Just because you were able to make it to Meet-Up Point A doesn’t mean that your other family members can. This includes meeting points designated by workplaces or schools where your family may be.
  3. If there are any missing members of your family, be sure to pass on all their information and a physical description to emergency responders. They may be able to find missing people and reunite you with them.
  4. If you live in an apartment complex or neighborhood, you can try to get together with your neighbors to pool resources. This can be particularly effective and helpful if you have neighbors with resources such as generators and space heaters, or neighbors with special medical needs. Also, you can designate one house or apartment as a staging/return center for when teams go out to find supplies or to try to find emergency responders.
  5. Try to gather relevant information quickly. Television and radio stations will have basic information on what has happened and what official emergency response agencies are doing. Be sure to pass this information on to others who should know as soon as possible. But also be alert and look around where you are to get an idea of how your surroundings have been affected and to pinpoint any potential dangers.
  6. If it is safe to stay at home or your apartment, begin clean-up as soon as possible. Debris presents all sorts of hazards for you or your family. The sooner it is cleared, the sooner the dangers of falling objects, puncture wounds and bacterial illness is removed. But be careful! If you think moving something might cause other debris to fall or collapse, don’t move it! Always err on the side of caution. If you cannot move any debris, or cannot move enough to clear away potential dangers, then it may be best to move to a safer location.
  7. Hygiene and sanitation are crucial. In addition to the dangers associated with debris, human waste can present numerous problems. With water turned off, most plumbing and septic systems will not effectively prevent problems with bacterial or viral illness. Proper sanitation and hygiene practiced by you and your family will decrease chances of becoming ill from common post-disaster diseases.
  8. Be sure to communicate your presence and condition at all times. This can be done by painting a message on a piece of plywood or drywall (e.g., “3 PEOPLE – 1 MALE/2 FEMALE – 2 ADULTS/1 CHILD – 1 W/HEART CONDITION – NEEDING MEDICINE, WATER, FOOD”). Also, do not be shy about letting any neighbors or emergency responders you meet while out know about your presence and condition.
  9. If it appears that you, your family and your neighbors may be without services for an extended period of time, you can organize block or neighborhood committees to handle collection of necessities and carrying out of basic services, including disposing of waste, moving debris safely, sealing up windows and structural holes to make dwellings livable, checking on survivors with medical conditions, babysitting, preparing meals, arranging sleeping space, looking out for potential criminal actions, organizing basic recreation or activities to pass the time, and so on.

While the above serves well to inform about what to do, there are key things that you and your family should not do in case of a disaster. Sometimes, what you don’t do is more important than you, when it comes to a disaster. Some examples of what not to do are:

  1. DON’T PANIC. A clear head is sometimes the best thing you can have in case of disaster. It may be hard, but try to keep calm and collected in the face of a natural or human-made disaster.
  2. DON’T RELY ON RUMORS. It’s easy to let other people do your thinking for you in a disaster situation, since there is already so much to think about. Rumors spread in the aftermath of a disaster faster than anything else. Even if it comes from a trusted friend, family member or neighbor, information can sometimes be distorted by word-of-mouth. Try to verify any information you hear, including what you hear on the radio or television about your area.
  3. DON’T ACT UNSAFELY. Sometimes, you’ll want to do things to improve your conditions or the conditions of others. While helping others out is never a problem, you should always look after your own safety and well-being while doing it. Don’t get yourself in a situation where you may be jeopardizing your health or safety because you “just wanted to help.” Look for ways to do things safely — in groups, preferably. If it’s not possible to do something without risking your own well-being, look for alternatives that can meet the needs.
  4. DON’T ISOLATE YOURSELF. There is a tendency to want to isolate yourself when a disaster strikes — to not want to deal with others, to think that you have enough of your own problems that you don’t want to be bothered with others’ concerns, and so on. The best thing you can do is to realize you’re not alone in such a stressful time. Your family, friends, neighbors and even complete strangers are dealing with many of the same problems you are, and sometimes working together to resolve problems is the way to go.
  5. DON’T GET IMPATIENT. If experience is any guide, the odds are that poor and working-class neighborhoods will be among the last to be “rescued” or have their services restored after a disaster. Expect that it will be a few days, at least, before they get to you with any kind of help. In the meantime, keep your mind occupied with taking care of yourself and those around you, with little things that keep your attention away from the frustration of waiting. Work together with your family and neighbors to improve your conditions. Doing so will pass the time and may even get the attention of emergency responders.
  6. DON’T BE STUPID. Sounds easy, sure. Basically, this means that you shouldn’t do something you wouldn’t normally do, just because a disaster has happened. By keeping your head, staying informed and alert, acting safely, being patient, and working with others, you can improve your chances of making it out of a disaster situation in the best condition possible.