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Disaster Preparedness at Home: Filter Out the Damage

Are you prepared for a natural disaster? While it may seem like you're not at risk, the statistics indicate that most people will be affected in some way by a natural disaster in their lifetimes, either indirectly or directly. Between 1994 and 2013, 6,873 natural disasters occurred around the world, claiming around 68,000 lives each year and affecting 218 million people. No matter where you live in the world, you can be affected by a natural disaster, and most likely will be exposed to one at some point in your life.

Natural disasters are disasters that occur due to some force of nature. They may come with plenty of prior warning, or they may strike without warning. Regardless, the effects are far-reaching, and can disrupt your family and your health significantly. Those effects extend beyond the tragic loss of life that can occur when the disaster strikes.

Even after the initial wave of acute devastation and casualties ends, there can be risks that continue to mount over time, including disease, insect infestations, toxic mold, ongoing problems with properties, and even mental health concerns. In fact, the CDC warns of how common outbreaks and epidemics of infectious diseases are following major disasters, contributing to additional deaths and suffering. Add to this the fact that healthcare facilities and other essential infrastructures are often compromised in a natural disaster and you have a serious problem that must be addressed.

This damage extends through to daily life at home, as structures – while intact – might be compromised in latent ways. One of the most common issues that arises involves reduced air quality indoors, as it is often compromised when power is disrupted, the environment rapidly changes in extreme ways, and allergens are introduced to the environment. The National Institutes of Health have found a correlation between national disasters an fungal respiratory infections, and lung problems are common after most types of natural disasters. Mold and water damage can easily destroy your home and put your health at risk yet again. Disruption of power can lead to increased risk of CO poisoning, hypothermia, and extreme heat.

While communities across the nation are doing what they can to prepare responses to natural disasters, you can take measures yourself to ensure you, your property, and your family would be properly protected. This starts with understanding the risk associated with the disasters common with your area, and then continues with taking measures to be prepared both for the event itself, and for its aftermath. This guide will provide you with the guidance and instruction you need to truly prepare for natural disasters.

  • Blizzards and Ice Storms
  • Flooding
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Earthquakes
  • Droughts

Disaster-Specific Risks You Need to Know

All natural disasters carry risks, but the risks are unique to each type of disaster. As you think through disaster safety for your family, you need to know what the risks are for the type of disaster you might face. Here are some of the most common natural disasters and the specific risks they carry.

Blizzards and Ice Storms

If you live where it snows, then you could face a blizzard or ice storm event. Blizzards are defined as severe snow storms with winds over 35 mph and visibility of less than 1/4 mile. To be a blizzard, the storm must last for 3 or more hours. Ice storms are storms that occur when precipitation freezes, creating a layer of ice over everything. Though these are two different types of storms, they carry similar risks, which are as follows:

  • Winter storms often lead to power outages when heavy snow or ice damage power lines. This causes loss of hot water and heat, and in extremely cold temperatures this can increase the risk of hypothermia.
  • Heart attack admissions increase by about 23 percent in the days following a storm. Often people with heart conditions, whether they've been diagnosed or not, will need to shovel snow, and after a blizzard that workout can be more than the heart can handle.
  • The risk of house fires also increases with winter storms, because many homeowners have to rely on alternate heat sources, like fires, when the power and heat are out. Since water supplies may be frozen and firefighters may not be able to get to the home, winter fires may cause more damage than fires at other times of the year.
  • When heating systems don't work, some individuals will utilize unusual sources of fuel, and this can increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. For example, using charcoal briquettes to heat a home puts its occupants at risk for CO poisoning. Each year around 430 Americans die from unintentional CO poisoning, and the risk of death is higher in cold months, so this is a risk to take seriously.
  • When the heat goes out, the risk of frozen and burst pipes increases. This then increases the risk for water damage when water escapes form the burst pipe. Water damage leads to mold and mildew, which can contribute to respiratory problems.
  • A generator can help keep power on during a power outage, but don't bring it inside. This can contribute to CO poisoning.
  • Blocked vents when the snow piles up are a surprising risk of winter storms. Both oil and gas furnaces have exhaust pipes, one for air intake and one for exhaust. The intake pipe provides oxygen to the system. If it's blocked, the furnace won't work. The exhaust allows poisonous CO fumes to dissipate into the outdoor atmosphere. If it's blocked, the system will eventually shut down. However, before that happens, the heat from the system may melt the snow right outside the vent. This causes a snow cave to form around the vent, which will trap the exhaust fumes. This forces the CO back into the home through cracks in the building's envelope. Because CO is odorless and colorless, this can kill your family before you're even aware you have a problem.

To ensure your family is protected, take these precautions before a blizzard:

  • Insulate pipes to ensure they don't freeze during a winter storm. Use plastic and newspapers to wrap exposed pipes. Consider leaving them insulated throughout the winter to ensure you're ready for any pending storms.
  • Stock up on safe alternative fuel, like wood for your wood-burning stove or fireplace. Keep in mind that burning wood can cause indoor air problems as well, but as long as you burn it in a fireplace or stove, it is a safer option than other fuels.
  • Gather blankets and coats to help keep your family warm if the power and heat are out.
  • Have a fire extinguisher on hand in your home, and teach the adults and teenagers how to use them safely.
  • Locate the water shutoff valve so you can shut off the water if a pipe bursts.
  • Have the chimney inspected and cleaned.
  • Test CO alarms to ensure they're working as they should.
  • Ensure that air filters do not get clogged.

During a winter storm, keep these important safety reminders in mind:

  • Never use a gas or charcoal-burning device indoors, including inside the garage, even if power is out.
  • Heat the home with wood fires if you have a power outage.
  • If the CO alarm sounds, move to a location by an open window or door, or outdoors if it is safe to do so, and call emergency services for help. Stay in this location until help arrives.
  • Avoid over exertion when shoveling the driveway. If you can't hire this out and don't have a plow or snow blower, take breaks. Also, try to push the snow instead of lifting it.
  • Note signs of hypothermia, including uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness, and disorientation. If you notice these signs and symptoms, take the person's temperature. If it's below 95 degrees, get medical attention immediately while taking measures to warm the person. Warm beverages, dry clothing, and blankets can all help.
  • Keep a drip of water in your sinks, but if the drip stops, you may have a frozen pipe. Try to thaw the pipe before it bursts. To do so, turn on the faucets all the way, then pour hot water over the pipes where they were the most exposed. Continue until water starts to flow again, and keep the water running.
  • If using kerosene heaters to heat the home, ensure proper ventilation. Consider closing off rooms you aren't using to conserve fuel while keeping the home safe.

For more information about safety during blizzards, visit:

Flooding

Flooding is the top natural disaster in the United States, and all 50 states have experienced flooding events. Each year the total number of flood insurance claims are over $3.5 billion, and flash flooding is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States. While many of the deaths occur due to vehicle incidents during floods, flooding can cause serious damage and health risks at home. Here are some of the risks you need to be aware of:

  • The biggest risk during a flood is drowning when people attempt to drive through rising waters. Often waters are deeper than they appear, and it only takes about two feet of water to carry away the average car.
  • Disease is a largely hidden risk from flooding. Floodwaters can contain over 100 types of parasites, viruses and bacteria. Even tap water can become infected after a flooding event.
  • Any food items or water that has been contaminated by flood water can lead to diarrheal disease. This includes eating with hands that were in contact with flood waters. Even children laying with contaminated toys and then eating can contract diarrheal disease.
  • Open wounds exposed to flood water can easily become infected.
  • Flood waters can contain hazardous chemicals that can cause other problems. Be alert for chemical spills, but also know that flood waters could have come in contact with hazardous chemicals long before they reached your home.
  • Water damage to homes can lead to the growth of toxic mold. Mold loves warm, damp environments, and flooding creates the perfect breeding ground for mold. This is a long-term effect, because long after the flood waters recede the mold will continue to grow.
  • Loss of power can make air conditioning, heating, and water treatment inaccessible. This can contribute to problems like overheating, hypothermia, and disease or toxin remission in water.
  • Fallen power lines that connect with floodwaters expand the risk of electrocution.
  • The risk of respiratory tract infections increases significantly after a flood. This is due to both the contaminants found in the air and the increase of toxic mold growth after flooding.
  • CO poisoning is a risk because of fumes generated by lanterns, gas ranges, burning charcoal, generators, and stoves. When electricity is out, people may turn to these alternate sources of heat and cooking fires, increasing the risk.

One of the reasons floods are so deadly is they're often unexpected. However, you may have warning if heavy rains or hurricane conditions are expected, so take these precautions ahead of time:

  • Store tap water in reusable bottles or buy a few cases of bottled water to have on hand in the event of a flood.
  • Ensure that your family is up-to-date on vaccinations appropriate for your area, as floods can cause epidemics.
  • Stock up on canned foods that don't require cooking to eat in the case of a power outage.
  • Place battery-operated CO detectors on every level of your house. Detectors that plug in won't be useable in a power outage.
  • Ensure your home has a functioning sump pump. Consider a backup power source for it. While this won't protect your home from a city-wide flood, it will protect you from a flooded basement, which can still be quite dangerous and costly.

During and after a flood, the biggest concern is disease and infection prevention, as well as mold growth prevention. Use these measures to protect yourself:

  • Always cover exposed skin when working in flooded areas. Use rubber gloves and goggles to prevent contact with flood-borne pathogens.
  • Use appropriate footwear to ensure you don't injure your feet by stepping on hazardous objects in the water.
  • Use a life-jacket if entering flooded areas, as the water may be deeper than it appears or fast-flowing water may come.
  • Use insect repellent to prevent the risk of insect bites.
  • Always shower after working in flooded areas, and wash clothing in hot water separately from uncontaminated clothing.
  • Watch for electrical wires in contact with the water. Assess whether connections or wiring are wet before turning on items or restoring power to an area.
  • If flooding was minor, you may still be at risk, specifically for mold.
  • Don't drink tap water without treating it first, unless you hear from the authorities that it's safe to do so.
  • If using an alternate source of heat or cooking fire, ensure adequate ventilation in your home. If possible, cook outside or use wood-burning fireplace and stoves for heat and cooking.
  • Learn to spot signs of mold and mildew. Musty smells, dark or black spots in your home, and areas that remain damp long after the flood water recede are all warning signs. Have mold removed professionally to ensure your home is safe.
  • Watch for respiratory warning signs that may indicate a hidden mold problem. Have the home's air tested if people are struggling with respiratory disease after a flood, even if no noticeable signs of mold are present.
  • Look for signs of rotting wood. Rotting wood means the structure of the building may be compromised, and also can mean that mold is going to develop. Remove rotting wood and replace it with new, dry lumber.
  • Remember that water under carpets may not be visible, but will create a breeding ground for mold. When repairing a home after a flood, it's usually best to remove and replace carpeting that was wet.
  • As flood waters evaporate, the air will become humid. This can cause respiratory discomfort and increased mold risk. Consider using a dehumidifier in your home.
  • Don't forget to have your ducts cleaned after a flood, as contaminants and mold may have taken root.
  • Clean and utilize indoor air purifiers and filtration once power is restored to remove allergens and reduce the risk of respiratory disease.

For more information about protecting yourself during a flood, visit:

Hurricanes

Hurricanes are types of storms that typically come with quite a bit of warning. While you can evacuate your home to protect your family, when you return you may be facing quite a number of health hazards that you may not be aware of at first. In addition to the risk of wind and water damage to your home, some of the hidden risks during and after a hurricane include:

  • Serious flooding after a hurricane can contaminate drinking water and cause diarrheal disease outbreaks throughout the affected area. The water damage to homes may contain sewage that contributes to this problem.
  • Mosquito populations thrive after a hurricane due to the flooding and humid conditions. This can contribute to problems from mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus.
  • Pest infestations are common after a hurricane, when garbage and debris provide food for unwanted houseguests.
  • Food is often damaged during a hurricane as it comes in contact with contaminated flood water or falls victim to mold. Power outages can cause food in freezers or refrigerators to go bad as well. All perishable food is at risk.
  • When the power goes out, the risk of CO poisoning increases as with other natural disasters when homeowners turn to alternative fuel sources.
  • Mold infestations often pop up months after the initial storm, because the spores take time to take root and grow.
  • A surprising risk is the risk of mental health concerns. Stress-related heart attacks, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and even suicide rates spike after a serious hurricane or similar storm. Traumatic events, like a storm, cause feelings of aggression, anxiety, and helplessness, which can lead to mental health issues.

To prepare for a hurricane, consider these tips:

  • If your area is recommended for evacuation, evacuate. Don't put your life at risk by staying put.
  • Close storm shutters to prevent damage from broken glass and broken windows. If you don't have storm shutters, use 5/8-inch exterior grade or marine plywood.
  • Turn the temperature on the freezer and refrigerator as cold as possible, and keep the door shut as long as possible. This will help your food last longer if the power goes out.
  • Purchase a battery-powered radio to ensure you can check on weather conditions and emergency instructions.
  • Install a battery-operated CO detector.
  • Fill the tub and sink with fresh water. Water and power may be disrupted after a hurricane, and the water in the tub and sink can be used for washing and flushing the toilet.
  • Keep the gas tank in your car filled so you can evacuate if needed.
  • Unplug your appliances and disconnect your air conditioner to prevent CO poisoning risk and damage to the appliances from unexpected power surges.
  • Bring in items outdoors that may get washed away during a flood.
  • Move valuable items to a higher level in your home so they weren't exposed to flood waters.
  • Consider turning off your gas to prevent CO poisoning and fire risk. Keep in mind that you will have to have this restored by the gas company if you do turn it off.
  • Stock up on bottled water and non-perishable food that doesn't need to be cooked.
  • Keep pets with you at all times, using crates to keep them contained if needed.

After a hurricane, take these measures to be protected:

  • Assess the damage to your property, taking pictures to help with insurance claims.
  • Be cautious about using alternative sources of heat, because this could lead to CO poisoning.
  • Never touch standing water without proper protection, as it could carry disease.
  • If you've been evacuated, don't return home until the authorities indicate it is safe to do so.
  • Be cautious about downed power lines. Keep in mind that standing water can hide power lines and be electrically charged.
  • Protect your property however possible to prevent looting or further post-storm damage.
  • Watch for signs of mold growth, and take measures to prevent its spread by encouraging wet parts of your home to dry.
  • Make sure to replace any air filters and let your HVAC system dry, as it may have flooded.
  • Use flashlights if the power goes out, not candles. Candles and other open flames increase the risk of fire.
  • Make a plan for your pets. Consider putting them in a crate during the storm, as many pets are spooked by storms and may bolt. It's unsafe for a pet to be loose during a hurricane.
  • After a hurricane, humidity levels often remain high, and this can lead to additional mold problems. Dehumidifiers may help remove humidity from your home.

For more information about hurricane risks and preparedness, visit:

Tornadoes

Each year, around 1,000 tornadoes are reported in the United States, and 70 people are killed with an additional 1,500 people injured as a result. Tornadoes are sudden storms that can quickly raze an entire city block, but typically only cause damage in a specific and confined path. Homes outside of that path are not likely to be damaged, while those within the path can suffer significant damage and even be destroyed completely. A tornado's path can be over one mile wide and 50 miles long, depending on the size and power of the tornado. Some of the risks associated with tornadoes include:

  • The risk of direct damage to your home is the most obvious risk. If your home is in the path of the tornado, the devastating winds could completely demolish your home.
  • Flying debris is another serious risk. When 300 mph winds from an EF5 tornado rip through a community, they can pick up things as heavy as cars and move them around the neighborhood. Smaller tornadoes can turn small items into dangerous projectiles, which can damage your home or strike you if you are exposed outdoors.
  • Power outages are common during a tornado when the tornado strikes power lines or the winds pull power lines. If the power goes out, heating and cooling systems will not be accessible.
  • Mobile homes are incredibly dangerous during a tornado. Even if tied down, they provide very little protection. Those who live in mobile homes should go to a nearby building with a basement if possible.

To prepare your home for the risks of a tornado before one strikes, take these precautions:

  • Secure materials outside your home that could turn into projectiles. For instance, patio furniture or fuel tanks can easily get tossed through the air in the event of a tornado, so secure these items.
  • Remove dead or rotting branches from trees and shrubs, as these could snap off and fly into your home in a tornado.
  • Use flexible cables or metal straps to secure large appliances inside your home.
  • Secure large furniture to the wall using corner or L-brackets.
  • If a tornado strikes or you hear a tornado warning, head to the lowest area of your home away from windows. If you have a basement, this is the best place to be. If you don't have a basement, an inside hallway or bathroom is the safest place to be.
  • Keep windows closed. There's no help for your home by opening windows, and doing so lets rain inside your home, which increases the risk of mold and mildew.
  • Cover your body as much as possible to protect from injury due to flying debris. If you can hide under a sturdy piece of furniture, do so. If not, cover yourself with a blanket. If a blanket isn't available, tuck into a ball and cover your face with your hands.
  • Like hurricanes, tornadoes can cause mental trauma to those affected, which can last for months and years after the storm.
  • After a tornado when cleanup efforts begin, the risk of CO poisoning also begins. While most of the time tornadoes happen in spring when heating isn't necessary, gas-powered equipment for cleanup can also create carbon monoxide, and must only be operated in well-ventilated areas.
  • Keep your pets confined and with you as the storm approaches.

After a tornado, do what you can to protect yourself and your family with these strategies:

  • Wear sturdy shoes and long sleeves while dealing with debris to prevent injury.
  • Be cautious around damaged structures, which may be unstable.
  • Try to maintain a normal routine as much as possible after a tornado to reduce the risk of mental health concerns.
  • Know that damaged homes may be unstable and could collapse. Get professional help for restoring and repairing your home if damage is significant.

For more information about preparing for a tornado and its aftermath, visit:

Earthquakes

The wide-spread devastation from earthquakes are typically due to the damage to structures, not from the shaking itself. However, the devastation can be quite wide-spread, with lingering effects as people work to recover and rebuild. Here's what you need to be prepared for in the event of an earthquake:

  • Power outages are almost guaranteed during a serious earthquake. The length of time it takes to restore power will depend on the extent of the damage.
  • Soil liquefaction, which occurs when soil mixes with underground water (groundwater), is a serious risk in the aftermath of an earthquake. When the shaking causes this mixing, the ground will behave like quicksand, and buildings can slide, tip, or sink as a result.
  • Ground displacement can rip apart buildings and other structures along the line of the fault.
  • When an earthquake breaks dams or levees, flooding will occur. Underwater earthquakes can cause tsunamis or tidal waves. Even lakes can have small tsunamis, known as sieches, so any earthquake occurring near a body of water can cause this type of damage.
  • Fires are a high risk after an earthquake. Broken gas lines or downed power lines can lead to wide-spread and catastrophic fires. Fires within homes or other buildings may occur when wood burning or coal stoves are tipped during an earthquake. Sometimes the water lines to fire hydrants will be broken in these instances, allowing the fire to spread and create more devastation even if it started small.
  • Gas leaks can occur in homes when gas appliances have non-flexible connectors which rupture after an earthquake.
  • In intense earthquakes people are often crushed under collapsing buildings, or may become trapped inside.
  • Dust from fallen buildings and other debris can cause respiratory discomfort and distress.

To make sure your family and home are prepared for the event of an earthquake, which is especially important if you live in a high-risk area or along a known fault, take these precautions:

  • Assess your property for earthquake weaknesses in the structure. For example, weak walls in a crawl space or unbraced pier-and-post foundations can be weaknesses. Have these repaired.
  • Secure objects that could move, break, or fall in an earthquake, giving extra attention to tall, heavy, or particularly valuable items.
  • Identify the safest place to find shelter in each room of your home. You won't have time to travel far if an earthquake strikes.
  • Have household emergency supplies on hand, because if roads are damaged in an earthquake emergency, professionals may not be able to get to you quickly.
  • If an earthquake occurs, take cover and stay put. Try to sit or lay down if possible, as you may be injured if you fall from a standing position. Cover your head and neck to protect yourself from falling items.

After an earthquake, you need to:

  • Head out of the home or building you are in if possible. If the building collapses, you don't want to be inside. Head for an open space away from damaged areas as soon as the shaking stops.
  • If trapped, use a whistle if you have one or tap on a wall or pipe to alert rescuers to your location.
  • Know that aftershocks may occur. Though less intense than the original earthquake, aftershocks can cause already weakened buildings to topple.
  • Be aware of the risk of fire, flooding, and downed power lines. Avoid using open flames if possible, and be on alert for exposed wires and power lines.

For more information about preparing for an earthquake, visit:

Droughts

Droughts are less intense than major storms or earthquakes, but the effects of a serious drought can actually be more devastating than a storm. Drought also affects more parts of the United States than most other types of disasters, making it the most widespread natural disaster possible in the United States. Here are some of the risks associated with a drought that you need to know about:

  • Air quality suffers in dry times. Dry soil and wildfires can add airborne particles, including pollen and smoke, that make asthma and allergies worse. This can also increase the risk of respiratory infections, including bacterial pneumonia.
  • Wildfires are a serious risk during a drought, and they are hard to combat.
  • A specific disease known as valley fever is a high risk during a drought. This particular fungal disease is transmitted when spores found in soil are airborne and are inhaled. It causes flue-like symptoms and a rash.
  • A surprising risk of a drought is poor eating, which can lead to a long list of health problems. During a drought, healthy produce can be hard to come by, and people are often forced to eat less healthy items.
  • When farmers recycle water for agriculture use during a drought, they increase the risk of contamination of crops with pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.
  • Insect populations increase during a drought, especially mosquito populations. Mosquitoes love stagnant water, which is common when drought shrinks natural bodies of water. Insect-borne diseases, like West Nile, are a higher risk during dry spells.
  • Poor sanitation and personal hygiene can increase the rate of illness and other infections as well, and many people will be tempted to use less water for bathing and hand washing when water supplies are scarce.
  • Woodwork inside homes can be damaged by dry air, cracking and warping.
  • Dry air can cause skin irritation and dryness.
  • Recreational activities are more risky during a drought. Lower water levels increase the risk of injury for water-based activities, and water may be contaminated.
  • Surface water quality is often damaged during a drought when less fresh water flows into lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams. Children or pets who play around bodies of water can catch disease as a result.

If you're affected by a drought, here's how you can stay safe:

  • Install an indoor air purification system to remove the allergens and pathogens that are in the air during dry times.
  • Use sanitizer when hand washing may use too much water.
  • Continue to bathe as you normally would, and find other ways to save water.
  • Try to find healthy food options that may not rely on the local growers, such as canned or frozen produce, to keep your eating healthy.
  • Monitor air quality levels. If someone in your family suffers from asthma or allergies, stay indoors on days when outdoor air quality is particularly poor.
  • Avoid using open flames outdoors, whenever possible. One errant spark can quickly create a wildfire that decimates your area.
  • Make sure water areas are safe before allowing children or pets to play in them.
  • If you have enough access to water, install a humidifier to reduce dry air problems inside your home.

For more information about staying safe and being prepared for a drought, visit:

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