Disaster Preparation Guide: How To Be Ready To Survive An Emergency

Disasters disrupt hundreds of thousands of lives every year. Each disaster has lasting effects—people are seriously injured, some are killed, and property damage runs into the billions of dollars. If a disaster occurs in your community, you need to be ready. Local responders may not be able to reach you immediately, or they may be focusing their efforts elsewhere.

We know that disaster preparedness works. We can take action now that will help protect our families, reduce the impact an emergency has on our lives, and deal with the chaos if an incident occurs near us.

Being prepared and understanding what to do can reduce the fear, anxiety and losses that accompany disasters. People can also reduce the impact of disasters and sometimes avoid the danger altogether. You should know how to respond to severe weather or any disaster that could occur in your area—hurricanes, earthquakes, extreme cold or flooding. You should be ready to be self-sufficient for at least three days. This may mean providing for your own shelter, first aid, food, water and sanitation.

This guide introduces many important concepts for disaster preparedness. Topics range from at home preparation, planning for evacuation, and dealing with the aftermath and points in between. This guide also introduces various types of natural disasters and man-made disasters. Continue reading below for more disaster preparedness guidance. 


Why plan for an emergency?

Immediately after an emergency, essential services may be cut-off and local disaster relief and government responders may not be able to reach you right away. Even if they could reach you, knowing what to do to protect yourself and your household is essential.

One of the most important steps you can take in preparing for emergencies is to develop a household disaster plan. If you have a disability or special need, you may have to take additional steps to protect yourself and your household in an emergency. If you know of friends or neighbors with special needs, help them with these extra precautions.


What Should be in my Disaster Supply Kit?

You may need to survive on your own for three days or more. This means having your own water, food and emergency supplies. Try using backpacks or duffel bags to keep the supplies together. Assembling the supplies you might need following a disaster is an important part of your disaster plan.

  • Water: the absolute necessityEmergency Water Supply

Water is critical for survival. Plan to have about one gallon of water per person per day for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene. You may need more for medical emergencies.

Treat all water of uncertain purity before using it for drinking, food washing or preparation, washing dishes, brushing teeth or making ice. In addition to having a bad odor and taste, contaminated water can contain microorganisms that cause diseases such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid and hepatitis.

  • Managing food supplies

You may need to survive on your own after a disaster. Basic services, such as electricity, gas, water, sewage treatment and telephones, may be cut off for days, even a week or longer. You may have to evacuate at a moment’s notice and take essentials with you. You probably won’t have the opportunity to shop or search for the supplies you’ll need. Your household will cope best by preparing for disaster before it strikes.

Read more here about keeping your food safe during an emergency.

  • First aid supplies

In a disaster situation, you may need to render first aid to injured family, friends, or neighbors. It might take longer than normal for emergency responders to be able to help. To be effective, you will need a first aid kit with supplies for your home and for each vehicle. It will be important to assemble these items in a disaster supply kit in case you have to leave your home quickly. Even if you don't have to leave your home, if you lose power it will be easier to have these item already assembled and in one place. Remember to consider the needs of infants, elderly persons, disabled persons, and pets and to include entertainment and comfort items for children.  

You should prepare emergency supplies for the following locations:

  • A disaster supply kit at home with essential food, water, and supplies for at least three days—this kit should be kept in a designated place and be ready to “grab and go.” 
  • You should also have a disaster supply kit at work. This should be in one container, ready to "grab and go" in case you have to evacuate the building.
  • A car kit of emergency supplies, including food and water, to keep stored in your car at all times. 


Will I Ever Really Need to Evacuate?Evacuation

Evacuations are more common than many people realize. Hundreds of times each year, transportation and industrial accidents release harmful substances, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes. Fires and floods cause evacuations even more frequently. Almost every year, people along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts evacuate in the face of approaching hurricanes.

The amount of time you have to evacuate will depend on the disaster. If the event can be monitored, like a hurricane, you might have a day or two to get ready. However, many disasters allow no time for people to gather even the most basic necessities. This is why you should prepare now.


When Will I Need to Take Shelter?

Taking shelter is often a critical element in protecting yourself and your household in times of disaster. The appropriate steps to take in preparing for and implementing short-term in-place sheltering depend entirely on the emergency situation.

Sometimes disasters make it unsafe for people to leave their residence for extended periods. Winter storms, floods, and landslides may isolate individual households and make it necessary for each household to take care of its own needs until the disaster abates, such as when snows melt and temperatures rise, or until rescue workers arrive.

Your household should be prepared to be self-sufficient for three days when cut off from utilities and from outside supplies of food and water.


How Important is Mitigation?

One of the most effective means of protection is to take steps to make your home and your household safe from the potential effects of disaster like floods, tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. This is called mitigation. Ideally, mitigation measures are implemented before disaster strikes since they can help protect your household as well as your property.


How are Animals Affected by Disaster?

Disaster disrupts and affects everything in its path, including pets, livestock, and wildlife. Pets need to be included in your household disaster plan since they depend on you for their safety and well-being. It is important to consider and prepare for your pets before disaster strikes. If you have large animals, such as horses or cattle on your property, be sure to prepare before a disaster. Disaster and life threatening situations will exacerbate the unpredictable nature of wild animals. To protect yourself and your household, learn how to deal with wildlife.


What Can I Do To Recover From Disaster?American Red Cross

Your first concern after a disaster is your household’s health and safety. Returning to a damaged home can be both physically and mentally challenging. Above all, use caution.

Direct assistance to individuals and families may come from any number of organizations. The American Red Cross is often stationed right at the scene to help people with their most immediate medical, food and housing needs. Other voluntary organizations, such as the Salvation Army, may also provide food, shelter and supplies, and assist in cleanup efforts.


I Need to Talk to Someone - Mental Health and Crisis Counseling

The emotional toll that disaster brings can sometimes be even more devastating than the financial strains of damage and loss of home, business or personal property. Children and the elderly are special concerns in the aftermath of disasters. Even individuals who experience a disaster “second hand” through exposure to extensive media coverage can be affected.

Crisis counseling programs often include community outreach, consultation, and education. If you feel you need assistance—get help.

Disasters can leave children feeling frightened, confused and insecure. Whether a child has personally experienced trauma, has merely seen the event on television or heard it discussed by adults, it is important for parents and teachers to be informed and ready to help if reactions to stress begin to occur.


Natural DisastersNatural Hazards 


Floods

Floods are one of the most common hazards in the U.S. However, all floods are not alike. Riverine floods develop slowly, sometimes over a period of days. Flash floods can develop quickly, sometimes in just a few minutes, without any visible signs of rain. Flash floods often have a dangerous wall of roaring water that carries a deadly cargo of rocks, mud and other debris and can sweep away most things in its path. Overland flooding occurs outside a defined river or stream, such as when a levee is breached, but still can be destructive. Flooding can also occur from a dam break producing effects similar to flash floods.

Read more here about how to prepare for a flood.


Hurricanes

Hurricanes can cause catastrophic damage to coastlines and several hundred miles inland. Winds can exceed 155 miles-per-hour. Hurricanes and tropical storms can also spawn tornadoes and microbursts, create surge along the coast, and cause extensive damage due to inland flooding from trapped water.


Thunderstorms

Thunderstorms are very common and affect great numbers of people each year. Despite their small size in comparison to hurricanes and winter storms, all thunderstorms are dangerous. Every thunderstorm produces lightning. Other associated dangers of thunderstorms include tornadoes, strong winds, hail, and flash flooding. Flash flooding is responsible for more fatalities than any other thunderstorm-associated hazard. Some thunderstorms do not produce rain that reaches the ground. These are generically referred to as dry thunderstorms and are most prevalent in the western United States. Known to spawn wildfires, these storms occur when there is a large layer of dry air between the base of the cloud and the ground. The falling raindrops evaporate, but lightning can still reach the ground.


Lightning

The ingredient that defines a thunderstorm is lightning. Since lightning creates thunder, a storm producing lightning is called a thunderstorm. Lightning occurs during all thunderstorms. Lightning results from the buildup and discharge of electrical energy between positively and negatively charged areas. The unpredictability of lightning increases the risk to individuals and property. Although most lightning victims survive, people struck by lightning often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms, including memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, irritability, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, depression, and an inability to sit for a long period of time.

Tornado


Tornadoes

Tornadoes are nature’s most violent storms. Spawned from powerful thunderstorms, tornadoes can uproot trees, destroy buildings and turn harmless objects into deadly missiles. They can devastate a neighborhood in seconds. A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. Every state is at some risk from this hazard.


Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

Heavy snowfall and extreme cold can immobilize an entire region. Even areas that normally experience mild winters can be hit with a major snowstorm or extreme cold. The impacts include flooding, storm surge, closed highways, blocked roads, downed power lines and hypothermia. You can protect yourself and your household from the many hazards of winter by planning ahead.


Extreme Heat (Heat Wave)

Heat kills by pushing the human body beyond its limits. Under normal conditions, the body’s internal thermostat produces perspiration that evaporates and cools the body. However, in extreme heat and high humidity, evaporation is slowed and the body must work extra hard to maintain a normal temperature.

Most heat disorders occur because the victim has been overexposed to heat or has over-exercised for his or her age and physical condition. The elderly, young children, and those who are sick or overweight are more likely to succumb to extreme heat.


Emergency Water Shortage

An emergency water shortage can be caused by prolonged drought, poor water supply management or contamination of a surface water supply source or aquifer.

Conserving water is very important during emergency water shortages. Water saved by one user may be enough to protect the critical needs of others. Irrigation practices can be changed to use less water or crops that use less water can be planted. Cities and towns can ration water, factories can change manufacturing methods, and individuals can practice water-saving measures to reduce consumption. If everyone reduces water use during a drought, more water will be available to share.  


Earthquakes

An earthquake is a sudden shaking of the earth caused by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the earth’s surface. Earthquakes can cause buildings and bridges to collapse, telephone and power lines to fall, and result in fires, explosions and landslides. Earthquakes can also cause huge ocean waves, called tsunamis, which travel long distances over water until they crash into coastal areas. Read more here about earthquake disaster preparedness.


Volcanoes

Volcanic Eruption

A volcano is a vent through which molten rock escapes to the earth’s surface. When pressure from gases within the molten rock becomes too great, an eruption occurs. Some eruptions are relatively quiet, producing lava flows that creep across the land at 2 to 10 miles per hour. Explosive eruptions can shoot columns of gases and rock fragments tens of miles into the atmosphere, spreading ash hundreds of miles downwind. Lateral blasts can flatten trees for miles. Hot, sometimes poisonous, gases may flow down the sides of the of the volcano.

Volcanic eruptions can be accompanied by other natural hazards: earthquakes, mudflows and flash floods, rock falls and landslides, acid rain, fire, and (under special conditions) tsunamis. Active volcanoes in the U.S. are found mainly in Hawaii, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.


Landslides and Debris Flow (Mudslide) 

Landslides occur in all U.S. states and territories and occur when masses of rock, earth, or debris move down a slope. Landslides may be small or large, and can move at slow or very high speeds. They are activated by storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, fires and by human modification of the land.


Tsunamis

Tsunami (pronounced soo-ná-mee), sometimes mistakenly called a tidal wave, is a series of enormous waves created by an underwater disturbance such as an earthquake. A tsunami can move hundreds of miles per hour in the open ocean and smash into land with waves as high as 100 feet or more, although most waves are less than 18 feet high.


Fire

Each year more than 4000 Americans die and more than 25,000 are injured in fires, many of which could be prevented. Direct property loss due to fires is estimated at $8.6 billion annually.

To protect yourself, it’s important to understand the basic characteristics of fire. Fire spreads quickly; there is no time to gather valuables or make a phone call. In just two minutes a fire can become life threatening. In five minutes a residence can be engulfed in flames.

Heat and smoke from fire can be more dangerous than the flames. Inhaling the super-hot air can sear your lungs. Fire produces poisonous gases that make you disoriented and drowsy. Instead of being awakened by a fire, you may fall into a deeper sleep. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of fire deaths, exceeding burns, by a three-to-one ratio.


Wildland Fires

If you live on a remote hillside, or in a valley, prairie or forest where flammable vegetation is abundant, your residence could be vulnerable to wildland fire. These fires are usually triggered by lightning or accidents.

Man Made Disasters


Technological and Man-Made Hazards


Hazardous Materials Incidents

From industrial chemicals and toxic waste to household detergents and air fresheners, hazardous materials are part of our everyday lives. Affecting urban, suburban and rural areas, hazardous materials incidents can range from a chemical spill on a highway to groundwater contamination by naturally occurring methane gas.


Household Chemical Emergencies

Nearly every household uses products containing hazardous materials. Although the risk of a chemical accident is slight, knowing how to handle these products and how to react during an emergency can reduce the risk of injury.


Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear power plants operate in most states in the country and produce about 20 percent of the nation’s power. Nearly three million Americans live within 10 miles of an operating nuclear power plant. These plants are constructed and managed to be safe, but accidents are possible. An accident could result in dangerous levels of radiation that could affect the health and safety of the public living near the nuclear power plant.


National Security Emergencies

In addition to the natural and technological hazards described in this publication, Americans face threats posed by hostile governments or extremist groups.

Terrorism is the use of force or violence against persons or property in violation of the criminal laws of the United States for purposes of intimidation, coercion or ransom. Terrorists often use threats to create fear among the public, to try to convince citizens that their government is powerless to prevent terrorism, and to get immediate publicity for their causes.

We have prepared a guide here with more information about How to Survive a Terrorist Attack.


Chemical and Biological Weapons 

Chemical warfare agents are poisonous vapors, aerosols, liquids or solids that have toxic effects on people, animals or plants. They can have an immediate effect (a few seconds to a few minutes) or a delayed effect (several hours to several days). While potentially lethal, chemical agents are difficult to deliver in lethal concentrations. Outdoors, the agents often dissipate rapidly. Chemical agents are also difficult to produce.

Biological agents are organisms or toxins that can kill or incapacitate people, livestock and crops. The three basic groups of biological agents which would likely be used as weapons are bacteria, viruses, and toxins. The best way to protect yourself is to take emergency preparedness measures ahead of time and to get medical attention as soon as possible, if needed.  


Nuclear and Radiological Attack

Nuclear explosions can cause deadly effects—blinding light, intense heat (thermal radiation), initial nuclear radiation, blast, fires started by the heat pulse, and secondary fires caused by the destruction. They also produce radioactive particles called fallout that can be carried by wind for hundreds of miles.

Terrorist use of a nuclear device would probably be limited to a single smaller “suitcase” weapon. The strength of such a weapon would be in the range of the bombs used during World War II. The nature of the effects would be the same as a weapon delivered by an inter-continental missile, but the area and severity of the effects would be significantly more limited.