Disaster and Emergency Planning Resources

Disasters don’t always come with advanced warning. Weather related disasters like hurricanes seldom provide more than a few days notice, and even then, predictions of severity often miss the mark. Planning is the key to not only surviving, but minimizing impact.

A survey of 2,000 Americans by the GE Foundation found that 64 percent of families don’t have a disaster survival plan. The survey also found that different regions of the country were more or less prepared than others.

  • West – 45% prepared
  • South – 39% prepared
  • East– 34% prepared
  • Midwest – 30% prepared

Thinking ahead should include an understanding that, when many types of disaster strike, property damage is unavoidable; hence, a good disaster plan also accounts for aftermath and recovery. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners commissioned a study that found that the majority of consumers do not have enough insurance to cover losses from risks they are exposed to:

  • 69 Percent don’t have earthquake insurance
  • 65 Percent don’t have flood insurance
  • 56 Percent don’t have insurance for a water line break
  • 55 Percent don’t have insurance for a sewer line break

To reiterate it simply: when it comes to disasters, most costs and dangers will stem from lack of preparation.

The Basics

Disasters and emergencies come in all shapes and size, and when we are in the midst of such a crisis, our first thoughts go to missing family members. Where are they? Are they safe? Understandably, communication is key.

And since telephone lines and SMS services may be spotty following a disaster, selecting an out of town relative or friend as the go-to person for family communications is a good idea. This is especially useful in the event that family members have to leave the location they are sheltered in to make or receive calls. The distant relative can serve as a reliable relay of external information, including public safety ordinances.

FEMA has developed a form that can be filled out and kept someplace safe, such as a school backpack, notebook or wallet that contains all the important phone numbers and contact information for children to use in the event of a disaster. There is also a parent’s version of the form available from Ready.gov.

General purpose disaster kits have sufficient food and supplies for three days. The following list will give you an idea of what you should gather for your kit:

  • Food – Non-perishable food is food that does not require refrigeration or special storage; examples are canned or freeze-dried food items
  • Water – An adequate supply of fresh, clean drinkable water is 1 gallon per day per person
  • Battery-powered or hand crank NOAA Weather Radio with extra batteries
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • A whistle to signal for help
  • Dust masks for everyone
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape
  • Moist towelette
  • Garbage bags and ties for sanitation
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Manual can opener
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar charger

Specialty items may not apply to everyone, but they could be lifesavers. These include

  • Medications – Prescription medications, like non-refrigerated insulin
  • Infant formula & disposable diapers – along with an adequate supply of sanitized bottles and nipples
  • Pet food & water – A supply of water for pets in addition to the water stored for people
  • Cash – ATMs and credit card machines may not be available for purchases without electricity
  • Blankets or sleeping bags – Important for cold weather climates
  • Feminine hygiene supplies
  • Books, games, puzzles and other children’s activities

Planning for Specific Emergencies

When Benjamin Franklin said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure he might as well have been talking about disaster prep. The first step to effective planning is knowing what to prepare for. Planning for hurricanes in Idaho makes as much sense as preparing for forest fires in New York City!

Some natural disasters have a higher likelihood of occurring in certain regions of the country. Regions like the Atlantic and gulf coasts are at greater risk of Hurricanes than the rest of the country, as this map from Penn State shows. The United States Geological Survey produced a map indicating the risk of earthquakes. Tornado risk is indicated on this map from NOAA.

Not all risks have easy to read maps that indicate their likelihood, and not all disasters occur with enough regularity to make mapping possible. Often the best way to access the risk of disasters for your location is by contacting your local Red Cross, state or local office of emergency management.

Situational awareness is also a valuable tool in disaster preparation, particularly when it comes to man-made disasters like chemical or gas leaks and nuclear accidents. By knowing what facilities are located in your region, you will be able to make a judgment about what is and is not a concern for you – that way, you can take the appropriate steps ahead of time.


If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, you should:

  • Fasten shelves securely to walls
  • Place breakable items on low shelves
  • Hang mirrors, pictures and TVs away from where people sit or sleep
  • Repair faulty wiring and gas connections
  • Repair cracks in walls and foundations

Prepare your family, especially children, by practicing what to do when shaking begins:

  • Take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture or in a doorway
  • Stay away from exterior walls and glass
  • Stay inside
  • If outdoors, move away from buildings, streetlights and power lines

Earthquakes are rarely one and done events. They come in clusters, with a primary quake followed by a series of aftershocks that can go on for hours, days or months. After an earthquake:

  • Be prepared for more shaking
  • Help injured and trapped people to safety
  • Clean up spills
  • Use caution when opening cabinets, closets and refrigerators
  • Inspect chimneys, walls and foundations for damage
  • Check utilities for leaks and damage
  • Stay out of damaged buildings

Additional Resources

Forest Fires & Wildfires

While forest fires are primarily a concern for western states, it is important for everyone living in a rural, forested area to be aware of drought conditions and heightened fire danger status as posted by the National Park Service and state agencies.

Before fires start you can prepare your home and business by:

  • Clearing a safe zone around your property, keeping clear of vegetation and debris
  • Use fire resistant-roofing materials on your home and surrounding structures
  • Monitor regional fire progress and follow evacuation instructions
  • Have an evacuation plan for your family and pets

When there is a wild fire or forest fire in your area before you have been issued an evacuation order, be sure to:

  • Close windows, vents, doors and blinds to prevent smoke from entering your home or business
  • Shut off utilities such as gas, including propane tanks
  • Move flammable furniture to the center of your home
  • Remove flammable furniture and toys from the exterior of your home
  • Turn on a light in each room to improve visibility in case of heavy smoke

Do not return to your home or business until local fire officials indicate that it is safe to return. Numerous people are injured or killed every year by mistakenly assuming that the risk has passed rather than relying on officials.

Additional Resources


Tornadoes are responsible for hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries every year. While little can be done to prevent property damage, a great deal can be done to protect and save lives. While most tornadoes strike in the spring and summer, no season is immune, which means if you live in a tornado prone area, you should take precautions year round.

In order to be prepared for a tornado you should:

  • Monitor local weather reports and storm warnings
  • Watch the sky for dark ominous often greenish colored clouds
  • Watch for large hail
  • Listen for loud roaring sounds like a train
  • Have a NOAA weather radio with audible alerts on at all times
  • Have an evacuation plan in place for your family
  • Designate a safe location in or near your home or business

During a tornado:

  • Go to a public shelter or designated safe room or location in your home, such as a basement or storm cellar
  • Find the lowest point in your home or location and go there
  • Stay away from exterior walls and windows
  • If you are in your car fasten your seat belt, drive to the nearest sturdy location and stay there

After a tornado:

  • Account for everyone and check for injuries
  • Monitor your weather radio and watch the sky for signs of another tornado (they often come in clusters)
  • Do not enter or reenter any structure that appears to be damaged
  • Get out of any structure that is damaged
  • Stay away from downed power lines
  • Report any gas odors immediately
  • Listen to and follow emergency officials instructions

Additional Resources


Hurricanes primarily occur on the east and gulf coasts from the late spring through autumn. Hurricane warnings are usually posted no less than 24 hours before a storm makes landfall. If you live or own a business in a hurricane prone area, follow these quick tips:

  • Have an evacuation plan
  • Familiarize yourself and your family with local and regional coastal evacuation routes
  • Select an evacuation location
  • Board up windows
  • Bring outdoor plants and furniture indoors
  • Trim tree branches that overhang your home or business
  • Install special roof clips to fasten your roof to exterior walls
  • Clear gutters and downspouts
  • Follow the evacuation orders of local authorities

During a hurricane:

Shelter in an interior room away from windows and doors, even if they are boarded.
If you are in a high-rise building, seek shelter below the 10th floor

  • Listen to the TV or radio for instructions
  • Stay indoors
  • Do not travel during the storm
  • Be mindful that a temporary decrease in wind may only mean the eye of the storm is passing – do not venture outside
  • Stay out of elevators

After a hurricane passes:

  • Inspect your home or business for damage
  • Avoid downed power and utility lines
  • If you live on or near a river be aware that flooding can occur up to 24 hours after the wind stops
  • Do not wade into standing water
  • Test tap water before using it for cooking or drinking

Additional Resources

Flooding and Mudslides

These events are usually localized and climate dependent. If you are uncertain about whether or not you live in an identified floodplain, check the FEMA National Flood Plain Index. And even if you don’t live in a known floodplain, be aware of surrounding rivers, streams, bays and inlets.

There are two types of floods to be aware of: those that occur as the result of locally rising water and flash floods/mudslides. Flash floods or mudslides are the most dangerous scenario because they can occur without warning or local rain.

Before a flood:

  • If you have not built your home or business, avoid doing so in a floodplain
  • Raise your furnace, water heater and electrical panel off of basement floors to avoid damage
  • Install one more sump pumps in basements
  • Use waterproofing compounds on basement walls to minimize water infiltration
  • Follow evacuation orders and instructions

During a flood:

  • Retreat to the highest part of your home or business
  • Listen to emergency broadcasting services on a radio or television for updates
  • Be ready to react to sudden flash flooding, moving to higher ground if at all possible
  • If evacuation is necessary, turn off all utilities, including power and the main gas valve
  • Secure your possessions by moving essential property to the higher floors of your house
  • Safely unplug all electrical appliances
  • Avoid flooded roadways and walkways; do not attempt to walk or wade through water, especially moving water

After a flood:

  • Do not return until authorities indicate that the danger of flooding has passed
  • Check the structural integrity of your home or business before reentering

Additional Resources

Volcanic Eruptions

These natural disasters are primarily limited in scope to parts of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii. Most eruptions occur with some forewarning, and evacuation orders should be followed immediately. There is little or nothing that can be done to prepare for a volcanic eruption beyond having an evacuation plan.

During and after an event, which can last from hours to weeks or months, it is vital to monitor emergency officials instructions and not return to affected areas until it is indicated safe to do so by officials.

If you are in a safe zone, do not venture outdoors while there is ashfall, as the ash may contain small bits of volcanic glass that can result in lung damage and death. In the aftermath of an eruption, be sure to wear a mask when cleaning and removing fallen ash.

Additional Resources


These events can occur on any coast anywhere in the world and do not require a local event to trigger them. If a Tsunami warning is issued follow evacuation instructions and retreat to high ground immediately – do not return until you’re told to do so.

In the event you are near a coast and see rapid rise or fall in coastal water, immediately move to high ground. There are no preparations that can made to prepare property for a tsunami.

Additional Resources

Severe Storms – Power Outages – Winter Storms

Severe weather and power outages happen in every region of the country and sometimes result in power outages. Here’s a list of things you should have before the storm hits:

  • Battery-powered or hand crank NOAA weather radio
  • Charged cell phone
  • Flashlight with spare batteries
  • Battery-powered lantern
  • Generator – In many regions a generator is a necessity in order to keep a home heated during periods where power is out for an extended period of time

During a power outage, if the power is expected to be out for more than a couple of hours:

  • Limit opening and closing the refrigerator
  • Fill a cooler with ice and move perishable food to it
  • Turn off appliances such as computers and televisions to avoid damage in the event of power surge when power is restored

During and after a storm event, always be sure to avoid downed power lines.

Nuclear Meltdown

If you live within 50 miles of nuclear power facility, it’s important to prepare for nuclear accidents. While rare, nuclear accidents have the most straightforward contingency process: If authorities instruct you to evacuate, you must evacuate. No questions asked.


In the United States this would most likely involve the flu. The difference between an epidemic and a pandemic is the scale – pandemics being much more widespread. Influenza pandemics are very rare and are always unpredictable. Before a pandemic occurs:

  • Wash hands often using anti-microbial soap
  • Avoid contact and exposure to individuals with symptoms

During a pandemic:

  • Avoid large public places like shopping malls
  • Wear a surgical mask when away from home

Additional Resources

Being prepared for disaster is the key to surviving, avoiding injury and minimizing damage to your home and business. Some excellent books on disaster planning and survival are:

  • When Disaster Strikes by Matthew Stein – A disaster prep manual that offers detailed advice on getting through the worst case scenarios.
  • Disaster Planning and Control by William Kramer – An instructive look at the complexities of disaster planning and control. While this book is written from a disaster managers perspective, it is nonetheless engaging for anyone interested in disaster mitigation.

Top Organizations for Emergency Prep Guidance: