Your guide to emergency and disaster preparedness at home
Posted by AMH Team
11m read time
Apr 12, 2023
Living in a home offers many unparalleled joys, including privacy, more room, and often yard space, which is why millions of Americans choose to buy or rent a house. But single-family living also requires that residents take certain safety and preparedness measures into their own hands to prevent damage or injury during events like fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. To make this daunting task a little simpler, we’ve compiled a basic emergency checklist so you can start protecting your household. As always, these are general practices only; be sure to research and follow recommendations from local authorities about your specific circumstances, and contact 911 in an emergency.
Disasters come in various forms and sizes. But there are some basic guidelines that apply universally. Whether it’s a flood, building fire, wildfire, or hurricane, we can take action to prepare and protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our homes.
Learn what hazards are common in your region
Understand and educate yourself on risks that are more likely where you live. Some hazards, such as floods and home fires, can happen anywhere. Others, including earthquakes and hurricanes, are more common in certain areas. Reach out to your state or local office of emergency management agency to learn more about your local risks, and be sure to follow their guidance during emergency situations.
Learn what you’d need to survive
In certain events, utilities may be offline for a period of time. Consider what you would need to live without power, gas, and water for several days. Plan for those needs, including medical equipment and medications, and customize kits for each member of your household with contact cards and basic supplies like a flashlight, extra batteries, personal hygiene items, extra cash, regional maps, non-perishable foods, a can opener, water, and a blanket.
Learn how to stay connected
In a disaster, it’s important to stay connected and informed. Sign up for free emergency alerts from your local government, have a backup battery or way to charge your cell phone, keep a battery-powered radio, and monitor weather conditions in your area. If you and your loved ones are separated during any event resulting in a power outage with cell service disruptions, remember that a text may go through when a phone call will not.
Learn emergency skills like CPR or first aid
Knowing how to respond to a medical emergency is a critical survival skill. Many agencies, like fire departments, offer training on basic techniques by professional first responders, sometimes even for free. Investing in these critical skills today can make a big difference in a future crisis.
If a fire starts in your home, you may have as little as two minutes to escape, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Prevention, early warnings, and an escape plan are all safety tools that can help save lives.
Follow these basic tips to avoid a fire in the place:
Cooking fires are the leading cause of home fires and home fire injuries. Always stay in the kitchen when you’re cooking, keep anything flammable like oven mitts and food packaging away from the stove, and purchase and learn how to use a fire extinguisher. If a small fire catches while cooking, immediately turn off the heat and close the oven door or cover your pan with a lid to contain it.
Avoid lighting candles, pretty as they may be. If you do, don’t leave them unmonitored.
Store matches and lighters out of children’s reach and sight, and teach them not to play with them.
Test smoke alarms every month. If they’re not working, the batteries need to be changed.
Check power cords to make sure they’re never under carpets where they might get pinched or wear out.
Make and annually practice a home fire escape plan with your household so that everyone knows what to do and can escape in less than two minutes.
A plan should include considerations like:
Finding two paths to the outside from every room. The first path will often be a doorway. The second path may be a window or a second doorway, in case your first path is blocked by smoke or flames.
Making sure your escape paths are clear and not blocked by clutter, furniture, or equipment.
Accounting for anyone who many need extra assistance in your planning, like children, pets, older adults, and individuals with a disability. Make sure that someone is assigned to help them, if needed, and that everyone can use the escape routes.
Agreeing on a designated meeting place outside, where everyone in your household should plan to meet after evacuating.
Sometimes, a fire happens anyway, no matter what preventative steps you take. Stick to your plan and remember these key tips:
When a fire breaks out, get out and stay out. Leave everything behind and exit as quickly as you can. Never go back into a burning building.
If smoke or fire blocks one of your ways out, use another way out.
If you must go through smoke, get low and go under the smoke to escape.
Call 911 from a safe place outside your home.
Earthquakes can happen anywhere, and there is no way to predict them. But understanding your risks, securing your space, and knowing what to do during and after can help mitigate their impact.
Secure your space before an earthquake
Walk through your home and identify items that might fall during shaking. Consider things such as televisions, shelves, mirrors, pictures, refrigerators, and bookcases. Secure as many of these items as you can with straps, hooks, and latches to reduce their chances of falling over in an earthquake.
Pro-tip: Earthquakes may not be covered by household or renters’ insurance. Additional earthquake insurance policies may be available. Check with insurance providers for more information.
What to do during an earthquake
An earthquake is a sudden, rapid shaking of the earth caused by the shifting of underground rock. Deaths and injuries may occur when people fall trying to walk or run during shaking or when they are hit by falling debris.
During an earthquake, you should drop, cover, and hold on to protect yourself from falling debris. Practice this with your entire household so everyone knows what to do:
DROP where you are onto your hands and knees. This position protects you from being knocked down and allows you to crawl to a protected space.
If you’re in bed, stay there and cover your head and neck with a pillow, lying face down.
If you’re outdoors, drop, crawl towards open space if you can, and stay away from buildings, power lines, and trees.
If you’re driving, stop and stay in your vehicle. If possible, avoid stopping near buildings, trees, overpasses, and utility wires. Even once the earthquake has passed, remember that outages may have impacted traffic signals, so proceed with caution.
If you’re in a wheelchair, lock your wheels and remain seated until the shaking stops. Protect your head and neck with your arms, a pillow, a book, or whatever is available.
If you’re unable to drop, brace yourself and protect your head and neck.
COVER your head and neck with your arms, and stay bent over to protect yourself from injury, if you can. Crawl under a sturdy table or desk nearby, if available, or an interior wall away from windows.
HOLD ON until the shaking stops. If you’re under cover, hold onto it. If you’re not under cover, protect your head and neck with both arms.
What to do after an earthquake
Earthquakes are often followed by smaller earthquakes, called aftershocks, and can also cause tsunamis, landslides, fires, and damage to utilities. Here are some safety tips to follow immediately after an earthquake:
Once the shaking has stopped, wait a minute before getting up. Check for any immediate dangers around you to protect yourself. Anticipate broken glass and debris on the ground, so put on shoes as soon as possible. Aftershocks are common. Whenever you feel shaking, repeat the “drop, cover, and hold on” process.
If you’re trapped, protect your mouth, nose, and eyes from airborne debris. You can use a cloth, clothing, or a dust mask to cover your mouth and nose. If you can’t use your cellphone, use a whistle or knock loudly on a solid piece of the building three times every few minutes to signal for help. Rescue personnel listen for such sounds. While you wait for support, care for any injuries you may have.
If you can leave and it’s safe outside, and especially if your home has been damaged, exit the building. Take your customized kit of supplies, if possible. Go to a clear area. Check to make sure nothing will fall on you, such as bricks from a building, power lines, and trees. If you’re near the coast, a tsunami could follow the earthquake. As soon as the shaking stops, climb to safety. Walk quickly to higher ground or inland away from the coast.
When returning to your home, inspect the outside of the building for damage before re-entering. If safe to do so, check the inside of your home. Check for damage to gas, water, electrical, and sewage systems. If there’s damage, turn the utility off. If you suspect a gas leak, leave your home, and call 911. If needed, have your home inspected by a professional or your property manager for damage and safety issues.
Pro-tip: Use flashlights, and avoid candles, matches, lighters, appliances, or light switches until you are sure there are no gas leaks. Sparks from electrical switches could ignite the gas, causing an explosion.
Avoid rushing through potentially life-saving measures by planning early, well before hurricane season begins in your region. Make sure you know how to receive and interpret forecasts and alerts, and what to do before, during, and after a storm.
Before a storm
Develop an evacuation plan. Plan where you would go and how you would get there. You don’t have to travel very far. Your destination could be the home of a family member or friend who lives outside a flood-prone area. Explore several routes to reach them. Be sure to account for transportation needs and for your pets.
Get your disaster supplies while the shelves are still stocked. Whether you’re evacuating or sheltering-in-place, you’ll want to plan enough non-perishable food, water, and medicine to last each person and pet in your family a minimum of 3 days. Don’t forget to include extra cash, a battery-powered radio, flashlights, a helmet, and a solar-powered USB charger for your cellphone.
Create a communication plan. Make sure to write it down and share it with your family. Include meeting places, both nearby and out-of-town in case of evacuation. Pen a list of emergency contacts on paper, including utilities and other critical services, since the internet may not be accessible during or after a storm.
Connect to regional forecast and alert systems. Make sure to have Wireless Emergency Alerts enabled on your phone to receive alerts. Follow updates as storm conditions can change quickly, altering course and intensifying to a hurricane.
During a storm
Evacuate immediately if advised to do so by local authorities. Follow recommended routes and do not take shortcuts, as they may be blocked. Be alert for road hazards such as washed-out roads or bridges and downed power lines. Pay attention to barriers and signage, keep a safe distance from damaged areas, and don’t drive through floodwaters or compromised bridges. A car can be swept away with only a foot of water, and the road may have collapsed under the water.
If you’re in an area at risk of storm surge or flooding, get to higher ground. If your house becomes flooded while you’re in it and you’re stuck inside, go higher in your house to escape the flood waters and call 911. Continue to listen to local officials and weather updates for changing conditions and new safety directives.
Wind can also be very destructive and deadly in hurricanes. To protect yourself from wind, put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. An interior room without windows is the safest place you can be in a building. Cover yourself with a mattress and wear a helmet for added protection. If your area is under an extreme wind warning, take shelter immediately until the threat is gone.
After a storm
Don’t let your guard down once the storm has passed. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearly half of hurricane fatalities occur after the storm.
Remember these top tips:
If evacuated, return home only when officials say it is safe. Check with local officials both where you’re staying and back home before you travel.
Remain vigilant of hazards. Be careful near damaged buildings. Check the outside of your home for loose power lines, gas leaks, and structural damage, including dangerous debris. Stay far away from downed power lines. Don’t drive or walk through flooded areas, which may contain harmful bacteria, chemicals, sharp objects, and dangerous animals.
When starting the clean-up process, make sure to take care of yourself by staying hydrated, wearing loose-fitting clothing, and working during cooler hours if possible. Take lots of breaks and make sure to check on your elderly neighbors and other vulnerable people in your community. If your area is under a heat advisory, use extreme caution.
If you’re using a portable generator, never do so inside your home or garage. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a leading cause of death in areas dealing with power outages. Only use generators outside, more than 20 feet away from your home, doors, and windows.
In an emergency or natural disaster, there’s a lot of variables you can’t control. But being prepared in advance can help protect you, your loved ones, and your home from injury, or mitigate worse outcomes. These events can also be extremely stressful. If possible, remember to take care of yourself and your physical health, which can help you better deal with anxiety and stress. You can also contact the Disaster Distress Helpline for free if you need to talk to someone by calling or texting 800-985-5990, a national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. For more information, please visit ready.gov.
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