When a disaster damages or destroys your home or neighborhood, everything changes. Whether it's a flood, fire, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or storm, suddenly many things don't work and aren't available - food, water, electricity, refrigeration, and the ability to drive. You may need to move quickly to obtain food, water, and shelter; avoid unaccustomed dangers; and recover property and financial losses.
Immediately after a disaster
After making sure that you and those you live with are safely out of harm's way, you should do the following:
- Check on others. If anyone is injured, weak, extremely distressed, or has any other unusual symptoms, seek medical help right away. Check on your neighbors, especially elderly persons, disabled persons, or children who may have been alone.
- Turn off your gas and electricity if you can safely do so. If your home has been damaged, your power lines and gas lines may have sustained damage also. Let utility crews turn them back on when they determine it's safe.
- Don't be in any hurry to go back into your home. There are many risks, from floors or ceilings giving way to live wires and gas leaks. Don't go in if the gas and electricity haven't been turned off, and don't try to turn them back on yourself.
- If you live on a military installation, check with the military police for information on returning home. Military installations also have emergency plans that may include help for families after a disaster.
- Report any downed power lines or broken gas lines right away.
- Stay off the roads so emergency workers can move quickly.
- Keep listening to the radio or TV for news about what to do, where to go, what places are dangerous, and how to contact local disaster relief services.
- Know whether your community has a "reverse-911" notification system. Many communities notify residents of potential dangers by leaving messages on their telephones.
- If there is a fire hydrant near your home, clear away any debris so the fire department has easy access to it.
- Notify your employer if you can't get to work because of the disaster.
- If there is any damage to your property, contact your insurance agent or company. Ask what steps you need to follow to submit a claim.
Making sure you and your family have safe water, food, and shelter is your first priority after a disaster.
- Water. A normally active person needs at least a gallon of water each day. If the water supply is disrupted, you can use water from your hot-water tank, pipes, ice cube trays, or the reservoir tank of your toilet (but not the bowl). You can also collect rainwater and water from streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and natural springs. But be sure you boil any water you drink or use for cooking.
- Food. You'll need to keep your strength up, so eat at least one well-balanced meal each day. Canned food doesn’t need to be heated, but if you want to heat food in the can, be sure to open the can and take off the paper label first. If you are without power and refrigeration, first use up perishable food from the refrigerator, then from the freezer.
- Shelter. The American Red Cross and other volunteer agencies set up shelters for people whose homes are destroyed or are too dangerous to stay in. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can provide housing assistance if your home was damaged or destroyed. Call (800) 462-9029.
- Locating and contacting family members. The American Red Cross maintains a database to help people find relatives after a disaster. Your family members in other cities can call their local chapters, but should not call the chapter in the disaster area.
After a disaster, there are many potential dangers. It's important to be aware of what can harm you or your loved ones.
- Electrical lines - Don't turn the electricity back on after a flood if the system was flooded or if you smell gas. Don't handle electrical equipment in wet areas. Avoid puddles and other standing water - you could get a shock from underground or downed power lines. Assume all wires on the ground are dangerous, including cable TV lines.
- Natural gas, propane, gasoline, and other flammables - Don't turn the gas back on after a flood. Let the utility crews handle it. Use a flashlight, never matches or candles. Beware of leaking gas lines and propane containers, gasoline that has leaked from vehicles, and lighter fluid or paint thinner that has spilled.
- Carbon monoxide - Using fuel-burning devices (such as kerosene lamps, wood stoves, fireplaces, gas-powered pumps, and generators) for indoor cooking, heat, or light can be very dangerous. The carbon monoxide these devices give off is invisible and odorless, but can be deadly. Provide plenty of ventilation and watch for symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning: mild headaches that persist or get worse, shortness of breath, irritability, poor judgment, memory loss, or rapid fatigue. Never try to heat your house with a gas stove. Never burn charcoal in the house or garage.
- Floodwater - Stay out of floodwater as it can be surprisingly powerful. Water only six inches deep can sweep you off your feet. Floodwater is highly contaminated. Don't eat or drink anything the floodwater has touched - throw it out.
- Unsafe buildings, roads, bridges, and sidewalks - Stay on the ground, as structures that are still standing may fall in on you or collapse under you.
- Exposure - Watch for symptoms of frostbite - numbness and loss of color in the toes, fingers, nose, or ear lobes - and hypothermia, when body temperature drops dangerously low. Warm the victims gently and wrap them in blankets, but don't rub the hands, arms, or legs.
- Animals - Disease-carrying animals and poisonous snakes may also find themselves homeless. Avoid putting your hands or feet under debris where they may be hiding, and wear boots, work gloves, and long, heavy pants when clearing out debris.
- The return of the disaster - Listen to radio or TV reports to be alerted if a storm, hurricane, or flood is likely to strike again.
- Fraud and crime - Unfortunately, disasters can bring out looters and con artists. Be careful, and keep an eye out for elderly neighbors who may be easily conned. Be wary of people who offer to help if you don't know them and they aren't part of an identifiable organization, especially if they offer to come into your home.
The importance of maintaining routines
When so much of your everyday life has been disrupted, it is especially helpful to maintain as much of a normal routine as possible. This is worth some extra effort, because maintaining order and routines helps you deal more effectively with all the work of recovering from a disaster.
- Make sure your child gets to school (if it's open) and keeps up with homework.
- Have meals together as a family.
- Find time to be together. Watch a TV show together, listen to a favorite radio program, do the daily crossword puzzle, or get together with friends.
- List important jobs and chores, get them done, and then check them off your list.