6 Ways to Weather a Natural Disaster

You can't stop them, but you might be able to plan for them.

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Summer ought to be the season for easy, breezy beach vacations and evenings spent beside a bonfire, but sometimes Mother Nature has other plans. The year's warmer months are also peak time for some natural disasters, like hurricanes, wildfires and tornadoes, all threatening to stamp out your summer fun.

Worldwide, there were 330 natural disasters in 2017. These events threaten to destroy property, at times uprooting entire communities, but they also pose a risk to your health—even after the dust has settled.

Of course, unexpected emergencies happen, but some approaching disasters can be planned for. To help you weather any storm, we spoke with Scott Hayes, MD, a doctor of emergency medicine with Trident Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, who shares the biggest disaster-related dangers, plus proven ways to avoid them.

Medically reviewed in June 2018.


2 / 7 Floods

Defined as water in typically dry areas, floods are the most common natural disaster in the US. They can develop slowly over time or strike quickly without warning. Floods can occur for a number of reasons, like heavy rain, coastal storms or an overflow of dams and other water containment systems, and can cause property damage, shut down services and result in injury and death.

There are some way to stay safe from an impending aquatic rush. If you know flooding could be a possibility, make sure your supplies are stocked and packed in case you need to leave. Medications, batteries, bottled water and portable charging devices are a few items to have ready, and can help keep you safe if services are cut off, or in the case you have to flee.

"The best preparation is actually to follow what the officials are telling you," Dr. Hayes says. "If officials are encouraging you to evacuate, absolutely evacuate." If you're unable to vacate, take cover in a designated shelter, which are often available during emergencies.

Don't put yourself in danger on your way to safety. Avoid walking, riding or swimming in flooded areas, even a small amount of water—about six inches—can knock you down. Floodwater can also be contaminated with sewage and bacteria, so it's best to steer clear. Driving through floodwaters is another danger. It can be hard to judge from the driver's seat just how deep water could, and as little as two feet can float your vehicle.

Water can remain polluted after the catastrophe. Patients can develop anything from diarrheal diseases, like cholera, E. coli, skin rashes and even tetanus, according to Hayes. So avoid coming into contact whenever possible.


3 / 7 Landslides

It's possible one disaster actually makes way for another. A period of flooding, an earthquake or big storm can increase the likelihood of a landslide, the movement of earth and debris down a hill or gradient. Landslides can strike quickly, which can make preparation difficult and cause miles of damage.

There are still some safety measures you can take. Landslides can happen in any state, but some US regions, like the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains are at higher risk. Officials will be able to provide you with information about previous incidents and can recommend ways to protect your home in the case landslides have been an occurrence in your area. Channels and retaining walls are two options, but consult a professional before building.

Being familiar with evacuation procedures and having an emergency kit prepared are also safe steps. Your kit should include a first aid set, nonperishable food, bottled water, a flashlight, extra batteries and personal items like medications, blankets and cash or traveler's checks.

"People with health issues really need to plan ahead," Hayes says. "If a known storm is coming, make sure you have medications for a week or two, a list of all your medications, allergies and medical problems, as access to general healthcare can be delayed."

Stay abreast of warning signs, such as a changing landscape, new cracks that appear in walls, the foundation of your home or sidewalks and shifting or tilting fences or walls. Pay attention to sounds like trees snapping or falling debris. These may be an indication you and your family should evacuate.

When returning home, it's important to follow certain protocol, as danger may still be lurking. Hayes warns of electrocution from downed powerlines, injuries sustained from removing debris and falls from ladders. Stay out of harm's way by:

  • Avoiding the area where the landslide occurred
  • Reporting damage to the proper authorities
  • Listening to latest emergency information
  • Replanting damaged ground to prevent further erosion, as soon as it’s safe

4 / 7 Hurricanes

In recent years, the US has experienced a fair share of hurricanes, storms that form over the water and cause devastation as they move towards land. Hurricanes can cause high winds, heavy rain, flooding and increase the likelihood of subsequent tornadoes. Annually, an average of 12 storms form over the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, six of which become hurricanes. Of the estimated three tropical storms that form over the Pacific Ocean between June 1 and November 30, two will reach hurricane strength.

Strong winds, rapidly-moving floodwaters and tornadoes not only pose a risk to your property—they can be life threatening. Your plan for preparing for a hurricane should be two-fold: safeguard your home in the case you'll be hunkering down and be ready to leave in the event of an evacuation.

Ensure storm shutters are installed, gutters are cleared and outdoor toys and furniture are stowed in a safe place. It's a good idea to have your emergency kit stocked and ready, your car gassed up and your bathtubs and sinks filled with fresh water. If time permits, moving furniture and other valuables to a higher level may also be advised.

In the event of an evacuation, know the recommended routes, and stay safe while traveling. Don’t walk along bodies of water or in flooded areas and don't attempt to dive through a flood zone—water can cause damage, and as little as two feet can sweep your vehicle downstream. Beware of lightning as you make you way out of town—it's best to stay indoors as thunder booms and lightning strikes.

Hayes also warns of post-storm hazards. Beware of fallen debris, downed power lines and floodwater that has yet to recede. Even after the storm, "it's dangerous to drive," he says. "People are going trying to see the damage and scout things out," but don't let your curiosity get the best of you.


5 / 7 Tornados

Many are familiar with tornadoes from Hollywood movies, but these spinning cyclones are a very real threat in the summer, and can take place anywhere, anytime. Tornadoes are violent cones of wind that stretch to the ground from a skyward thunderstorm. They can uproot cars and buildings and send debris flying at deadly speeds.

Knowing your area's tornado risk can help you prepare for an impending disaster—Midwest and Southeast regions of the US are at the high risk. Listen to your radio or local TV station for storm updates or sign up for your community’s alert system. If you know a twister is coming, get yourself to an underground shelter or basement. A small, windowless room or hallway at the center of a building's lowest level are also safe alternatives. Surround yourself with furniture and blankets.

If you happen to be outdoors when the cyclone strikes, and can't safely move inside, drive—don't walk or run—to the nearest shelter. If wind and debris make driving unsafe, park your vehicle on the side of the road, and with your seatbelt still fastened, duck your head below the windows and shield with your arms with a blanket.

When it's safe to move from your shelter or return to your home, do so with caution. Avoid fallen power lines, don't enter damaged buildings without authorization and take precautions when cleaning up debris. "Make sure you're wearing protective clothing and shoes," Hayes says. If you're out in the heat, "make sure you're protecting yourself against the sun and drinking plenty of fluids," he adds.


6 / 7 Wildfires

Droughts and dry conditions, combined with a lightning strike or careless use of fire, can increase the risk of wildfires, which can spread quickly across fields and forests. In 2017, the US experienced more than 66,000 wildfires which claimed more than 9.7 million acres of land. You can begin protecting your home before a wildfire ignites by clearing leaves and debris from roofs, gutters and around your home and using fire-resistant materials to build and repair your home. Regularly stock your emergency kit with items including N95 respirator masks that filter the air you breathe.

If there's a fire in your area, heed the warnings. It's best to follow the authorities' instructions, which might include evacuation via a specific route. If you're not asked to evacuate, but conditions have become smoky, stay inside your home or find a building with cleaner air. If you find yourself trapped outdoors, take refuge in a nearby body of water or lie face down, cover your body with soil and breathe the air nearest to the ground. Don't attempt to cover your mouth or nose with a damp cloth. This can cause more airway damage than inhaling hot, dry air.

Staying safe after the fire has been extinguished is especially important. Be wary when walking, as hot spots may exist, and can flare up unexpectedly. Enter homes and building only when officials say it's safe to do so. Check the property for any sparks or burning embers. Charred debris should be wetted down to minimize dust inhalation and protective gloves should be worn when cleaning and removing debris.

Take particular care in the kitchen and supply closet. Flammable chemicals like paint and bathroom cleaners need to be properly disposed of—ask your local authorities for assistance. Food and water that may be contaminated should not be consumed or used to clean dishes, brush teeth or wash hands.

In the event you or a loved one sustain a wildfire-related injury, don't hesitate to head to the nearest emergency room—as long as it's safe to do so. "Emergency rooms of hospitals are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 365 days, unless there is a significant disaster that has actually shut down the emergency room and hospital," Hayes says.


7 / 7 Earthquakes

An earthquake, or sudden and rapid shaking that results from breaking or shifting of underground rock, can damage roads and buildings and send heavy items plummeting. Although more common in areas like California, Alaska and The Mississippi Valley, quakes can happen anywhere, and often strike without warning. Earthquakes can cause property damage and injury, and may also trigger tsunamis, landslides and avalanches.

If you live in an area where quakes are common, secure items like televisions and bookshelves to the walls, and position heavy objects on low shelves. Preparing an emergency supply kit with a fire extinguisher and whistle is also a good idea.

If you're inside when the earth begins to rumble, drop to the ground, cover your head and torso and hold onto a sturdy object, like a piece of furniture, until the shaking stops. Do not attempt to move or walk during an earthquake. Leave the building only when it's safe to do so, or if you smell gas. If you find yourself outdoors during an earthquake, find a spot away from trees, buildings or power lines and lie on the ground until the shaking subsides. Drivers should avoid overpasses or bridges, trees and street lights, and park their vehicles and remain inside with seatbelts fastened.

Once it's safe to do so, check yourself for injuries and look to help those around you. Although the largest quake is likely over, be prepared for aftershocks to follow—drop, cover and hold on each time one of these occurs as well. It may not be safe to enter damaged buildings, including your home, so wait for officials to give you the go ahead before heading in.

If there's debris to be cleaned, be sure to take proper precautions. Wear protective clothing like long pants, closed shoes and gloves and don't lift heavy objects alone. The summer also poses a unique risk following a natural disaster in certain places—heat. Power outages often occur, resulting in increased risk for heat-related illnesses. "We see anything from dehydration to respiratory distress and heatstroke to rhabdomyolysis, which is a type of muscle breakdown," Hayes says.

Your first instinct may be to rebuild what a catastrophe has undone, but your health and wellbeing should be your first priority.

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