By definition, emergencies and disasters are difficult to prepare for—they are unexpected events with dangerous, destructive, and often deadly consequences. Even though we cannot predict exactly when a disaster might occur, plenty can be done to prepare for one. For families, institutions, businesses, and governments, the occurrence of disasters isn't a question of if, but of when; preparing and knowing what to do when an emergency inevitably comes will minimize the threat and the damage. This guide provides the basics of emergency disaster preparation across many possible emergency situations to protect yourself against these types of threats.
There are a few things that you can do to prepare that will help you in almost any disaster situation. Every home or workplace should be equipped with enough food and water to support all members for up to three days. Stock a gallon of water per person, per day, and if you have pets, include a gallon for each pet per day as well. Make sure your food supplies are non-perishable and do not require refrigeration, cooking, or extensive preparation. Your kit should also include first aid materials, flashlights, and batteries,
Be sure that your home or office has an emergency plan. Establish two places for everyone to meet during an emergency, one within the home or office for when the danger presents outside (such as in power outages or chemical attacks), and one outside for when the danger presents inside the building (such as a fire or gas leak).
Everyone in your home or office should know where each exit is located, where the fire extinguisher is kept and how to use it, where all the structural "safe spots" and exits are located, and how to turn off the gas, water, and electricity.
Part 1: Common Types of Natural Disasters
Part 2: Domestic Technological Hazards
Part 3: Acts of War and Terrorism
Part 1: Common Types of Natural Disasters
Section 1.1: Floods
Floods can result from several different kinds of natural occurrences. Torrential rains, tsunamis, or rising tides can all cause flood waters that threaten homes and other buildings. These can also lead to overflowing or broken dams, levees, or dikes—manmade structures designed to prevent flooding can fail in extreme conditions or as a result of damage and poor maintenance. In the case of extremely sudden flooding scenarios, such as tsunamis or flash floods, it is crucial to move to higher ground and follow evacuation orders as soon as they are received. Do not wait until you see rising waters—flash floods can occur much more quickly than people expect, and you need all the reaction time you can get. If you are unable to move to higher ground, get on the roof of your home—if the water rises high and quickly enough, you could be trapped in your home. Be careful of the force of rushing water, as even only a few inches can be very powerful.
If you hear of a flood warning, turn off your home's electricity immediately. Even minor basement flooding can be deadly if it becomes electrified. Do not eat or drink water or food that comes in contact with flood waters, as it is often contaminated. More information on flooding is available at the Disaster Center.
Section 1.2: Hurricanes
Hurricanes are large, long-lasting tropical storms characterized by strong inward-spiraling winds. Hurricanes often cause another kind of disaster, such as fires, floods, tornados, or blackouts, making them not only one of the most threatening natural disasters but also one of the most complicated for which to prepare. Most deaths related to hurricanes come from flooding, especially from the "storm surge," which is a dome of ocean water that can be twenty feet high at its peak and 50 to 100 miles wide.
The storm surge is also often the primary cause of the coastal devastation caused by hurricanes. One of the first casualties of a hurricane is the marina, it is necessary to move boats out of the water and to more secure locations, even in small hurricanes.
Evacuation is always the best course of action during a hurricane, and if you live in a hurricane-prone area it is crucial that you pay attention to warnings. During an evacuation, shut off your utilities and lock your home behind you to prevent any possible looting.
Be wary of suddenly calm conditions—you may just be at the center of the storm, or the "eye of the storm," where winds are neutralized, and leaving your shelter is still still extremely dangerous as the position of the eye will shift away from you suddenly. For more information, visit the National Hurricane Center.
Section 1.3: Fires
The most common kind of disaster that people and structures are likely to experience is fire. It is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury and death in the U.S., after motor vehicle accidents, falls, poisoning, and drowning. Fire also ranks as the first cause of death at home for children under the age of 15. The threat of fire is very serious and very real, and the best way to prepare for a fire is to educate yourself on threat sources and escape tactics.
Most people (in a three-to-one ratio) die of asphyxiation during a fire, not burns. The fire consumes the oxygen in the air and any people in the space will inhale carbon monoxide, lose consciousness, and die within minutes. The visual threat of a fire is often underestimated—the black, impenetrable smoke will probably completely obscure your vision, so it’s crucial that everyone in your home or office is familiar enough with finding exits, as they may need to do so with little to no visibility. If you have children, make sure they know to stay low in the case of a fire—not only will visibility be better, but there is more oxygen closer to the ground. Feel closed doors with the back of your hand to determine if there is fire behind them, and don’t open the door if it is warm or hot to the touch. If all your exits are blocked, you will likely need to exit through a window, hopefully with the assistance of a fire fighter. Do not go back for anything.
Every day, at least one child in America dies from a house fire, and another 293 children are injured from burns or inhalation of smoke. The most important thing you can do to prepare against fire is to ensure your family or office staff understand the danger, know what to do if a fire does break out, and maintain working smoke detectors. For more information, visit the National Fire Protection Association.
Section 1.4: Earthquakes
Earthquakes are very common in some parts of the U.S., and yet it’s impossible to predict exactly when they will strike how forceful they will be. The movement of tectonic plates causes earthquakes, which means that cities built near fault lines are at greater risk when these disasters are more severe.
As with fires, the best preparation for earthquakes is education. Make sure that you, your office, and your family are all aware of the "Drop, Cover, and Hold On” action sequence that is the best established course of action. There are many myths surrounding earthquake protection that must be dispelled; most of which are related to fears that buildings will collapse. Though most of the footage and photos of earthquakes depict buildings or tunnels collapsing, this rarely happens in America, where most buildings are constructed according to rigorous earthquake-proofing standards and seismic retrofitting. You are far more likely to be injured by falling or flying objects than the collapse of a building when an earthquake occurs. For example, you should never go outside or try to escape the building you're in, nor should you try to practice the "triangle of life” theory that has been widely regarded as a dangerous myth. With "Drop, Cover, and Hold On,” you need to get under a table or flat surface, be sure your head and neck are protected, and hold onto the object you're beneath to ensure it remains over your body. Practice doing this with your office or household to ensure everyone knows the proper procedure.
Section 1.5: Tornadoes
Tornadoes are a very common occurrence in America—we have over 1,000 tornadoes annually, and though they are more common in flat areas, they have been reported in every state and all kinds of terrain. This means that even areas without tornado watch or warning systems in place are vulnerable. Tornadoes are funnels of rotating winds produced from severe thunderstorms or unstable air between warm and cold fronts. A severe tornado can have winds of up to 250 miles per hour or more, resulting in extreme damage and danger. Although only two percent of tornadoes are considered violent, they are responsible for nearly 70 percent of tornado fatalities.
To prepare for a tornado, identify the place in your home or office that's the “tornado room,” where everyone will know to go in the event of this kind of emergency. This room should ideally be underground, in something like a basement or cellar, and windowless. If you live in a particularly tornado-prone area, you may want to reinforce your tornado room to make it more secure. If you live in a trailer, you should designate a nearby sturdy building as your tornado room. If you work in an office, particularly a high-rise, or live in an apartment building, go toward the center of the building and crouch in a hallway or door well, which are typically the most structurally reinforced, and do not use the elevator.
Make sure everyone knows about the designated tornado room, and is also informed that if they're caught outside and not near a potentially shelter that they should lay flat on the ground, where they are most likely to be beneath the blown debris. For more information, visit the Storm Prediction Center.
Section 1.6: Landslides
Landslides occur in every state in the U.S. It’s usually easy to tell if your home or business is at risk for a landslide because these disasters are always motivated by gravity, and places where landslides have previously occurred are where they are most likely to strike again. A landslide can be caused by a number of things, but the result is a mass of rock, earth, or debris—often saturated with water—rushing downhill at avalanche speeds and destroying anything in its path.
The best landslide prevention and preparation usually starts with a cautious approach to surrounding development. Landslides are caused by instability of slopes, and a tremor or sudden rainfall can trigger a massive collapse of the land. Areas where the integrity of the topsoil has been compromised are the most likely to experience landslides, such as places where fires have burned away the plant life or have been clear-cut, excavated, or mined. If you live on a slope that has undergone any of these, you are at risk. You can get property assessments that will determine your level of risk more accurately, and you can take measures such as constructing retaining walls or channels. More information is available at the US Geological Survey.
Part 2: Domestic Technological Hazards
Section 2.1: Household Chemical Emergencies
Households are actually full of very dangerous and toxic materials, and children aren’t the only ones in danger. It’s crucial that you know what chemicals could present danger to you and your family—every day, over 300 children in the U.S. are sent to the ER due to poisoning, and an average of two die. To prevent poisoning, be sure to clearly label all toxic chemicals, and also lock them away in a secured place. Post the poison control number near every telephone. And if you don’t need it, dispose of it—this goes not only for cleaning products, but medicines, fuel, rodent control substances, and other chemicals. Be sure to keep all substances that might be hazardous in their original containers, since putting them into an alternate container can confuse both children and adults.
Be very careful not to smoke cigarettes or have any open flames while using combustible household chemicals. Also, be wary of the possibility of lead-based paint in your home, especially if your house was built before 1978. If you have pets, be sure that they’re protected, too—keep their food and water far from any cleaning products, be very careful not to over-apply flea or lice treatments, and don’t let your pet consume plant life that has been exposed to pesticides. Explore the Center of Disease Control and Prevention website for more information.
Section 2.2: Blackouts
Blackouts, also known as power outages, can be caused by a host of things, and the threat of the situation varies according to the length and scope of the outage. Most power outages are brief and affect only a small localized area. They can be caused by downed power lines, lightning strikes, or overloaded electricity mains. Usually, a “blackout” is how you refer to a long-lasting power outage that affects a wider area, such as an entire city, and blackouts are usually caused by disasters such as explosions or hurricanes.
To prepare for an outage or blackout, be sure you have flashlights and plenty of batteries on hand. You can also use candles or lanterns if you practice careful fire safety. If your power has been out for more than two hours, throw away any perishable food in your refrigerator, or use a quick-response thermometer to determine the internal temperatures of food. If any member of your home or office is reliant on electric-powered life-sustaining equipment, such as an oxygen tank, be sure you have a backup generator in your home. If you experience an outage during the winter, try adding warm clothing and blankets before attempting alternative heat sources such as fire or kerosene-powered lamps.
In the case of blackouts, do not attempt to leave your home or business unless absolutely necessary. Stay inside with the doors locked, as looting and other crimes are common during outages. For more information about how to prepare for an outlet, visit the Energy Education Council website.
Section 2.3: Hazardous Material Incidents
There are many chemical risks that can come from outside your home, and in this day and age accidental public chemical disasters should be something every household is prepared to deal with. The challenge, of course, is that there is often no precedent for incidents, and therefore no certainty of how an incident will play out. Many communities have Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) who collect information on hazardous materials, develop plans, and notify the public. If you have an LEPC, get in touch with them before an incident, and if you’re concerned about your community’s ability to respond to an incident and you don’t have an LEPC, maybe you should start one!
Hazardous material incidents can be either sudden or very gradual, and both are equally dangerous. Chemical contamination in local reservoirs (also known as groundwater) and low-level long term pesticide exposure can cause brain damage, birth defects, respiratory problems, and even cancer, and the best prevention for these risks is awareness. If you live near farms that use pesticides distributed by crop-dusting, for example, don’t be outside and downwind during spraying. If you suspect your water is contaminated, call the EPA for testing.
In the event of a sudden chemical emergency, evacuate immediately when you are asked to do so. If you are caught outside, try to stay uphill, upstream, and upwind of wherever the contamination is located, and try to get half a mile, or 8-10 city blocks, from the danger area. If you are inside your home, close and lock all doors and windows, turn off any ventilation systems, and close any vents or chimney dampers. Your home emergency kit should include plastic wrap or sheets, duct tape, and scissors, and you should use these supplies to completely cover any cracks to the outside, such as those around door frames. Visit the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry for more information about HazMat Emergency Preparedness Training.
Part 3: Acts of War and Terrorism
Section 3.1: Explosions and Bombings
Explosions and bombings are unfortunately the most common act of terrorism, mostly because the materials and knowledge required to construct an explosive device are fairly easy to access. Preparation for acts of terrorism is important for both individuals and communities. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings at all times, and follow the principle, “If you see something, say something.” Do not hesitate to report suspicious items or people. Security experts have described some common features of suicide bombers or terrorists planting explosives, including: nervousness, sweating, lip-licking, wearing clothing inappropriate for the weather (to conceal explosives), or wearing a baseball hat or hat with a wide brim (to conceal the face from closed circuit cameras). If someone is carrying a parcel, they may check it frequently or abandon it suddenly. Radical Muslim suicide bombers will often have shaved off all their body hair for religious reasons. In general, you want to keep an eye out for people or packages that don’t seem like they belong.
It’s also important to be aware of the possibility of a radiological dispersal device, or “dirty bomb,” which is radioactive material combined with explosives to disperse radioactive material through a densely-populated area. This causes potential long-term radiation poisoning and widespread panic. Though no attacks with dirty bombs have yet been recorded, there is a tremendous amount of radioactive material unaccounted for and loose in the world, and it is considered a serious threat. If you hear an explosion nearby, assume it is a dirty bomb until you hear otherwise—don’t leave your home, office, or car, seal your windows, and use recirculated air.
The best thing you can do during an attack is remain calm. If you are in your home or office, stay where you are for several hours after an attack or explosion. If you are near the detonation, lay flat on the ground as quickly as possible to avoid flying debris. Learning basic first aid skills such as CPR and how to create and apply tourniquets is excellent preparation against an explosion.
Section 3.2: Biological and Chemical Threats
Terrorists and national enemies can attack with more than just explosives—there is also potential for chemical or biological attacks. Chemical attacks would be in the form of the release of engineered toxic gasses, liquids, or solids that poison and harm civilians, while biological attacks would involve the release of germs, viruses, or bacteria.
Bioterrorism threats are classified by the Center for Disease Control into A, B, or C classes. Class A agents present the greatest threat to national security because they have the highest mortality rates and are most easily transmitted or disseminated. Class A threats include agents like anthrax, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. Most prevention efforts for a Class A bioterrorism attack occur at a federal level, including close regulation of Class A agents and careful inspection by the Post Office and airport security. On the level of individual preparation, make sure you are up to date on all your immunizations. Also, having a High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance (HEPA) installed in your home or office or keeping a portable HEPA filter nearby will help you filter particles of most biological threats out of the air in an enclosed environment.
A HEPA filter, however, will not protect you from most chemical agents. In the event of a slow-acting, odorless attack, one warning sign you can look for is the presence of many dead birds, insects, or small animals. Chemical attacks are usually faster-acting than biological attacks.
In the case of either a chemical or biological attack, do not come in contact with people and things that might have been contaminated, and if you have been exposed to contaminants, quarantine yourself so as not to spread them to others. For more information on warning signs and recommended action, visit the Homeland Security News and Information website.
Section 3.3: Nuclear Disaster
A nuclear attack is a worst-case scenario disaster, and can be mounted by either hostile terrorist organizations or other countries. The size and delivery of a nuclear weapon can vary wildly, from intercontinental missiles to small portable devices transported by an individual. All nuclear blasts combine intense light and heat in the form of thermal radiation. This creates a damaging pressure wave and radioactive “fallout” particles that are the source of residual nuclear radiation. Find out if there are any buildings designated in your community as fallout shelters. If there aren’t, make your own list of potential shelters—these places should ideally be underground, windowless, and sturdily-constructed, such as basements or subway tunnels. Make sure everyone knows never to look into the flash caused by the blast, as it’s potentially blinding. Anyone near the detonation site should take cover for 24 hours even if they are miles away to avoid the radioactive fallout particles, especially if they are downwind.
Your risk for being near a nuclear explosion is significantly higher if you are in a large metropolitan area, near centers of government, and important industrial, transportation, or communication sites. For more information, visit ready.gov.