Preparing Yourself and Your Community for Disaster

Having both endured disasters and helped people before, during and after disasters, I have found it helpful for individuals and community leaders to review this checklist, which includes some information and points of preparation that a lot of people don’t usually think about.

  1. Follow evacuation orders. For what could be weeks after disaster, there will be many needs that can best be met—or only be met—outside the disaster-affected area. Evacuation not only takes you out of the way of harm. It places you within easier reach of any assistance you may need.
  2. Encourage and be part of evacuation planning that helps the most vulnerable members of communities get out of harm’s way. Evacuations are physically and financially demanding. Those who are limited physically or financially are too often left behind. Be part of the effort that determines, well in advance of disaster, the best way to get people to safety. Many will be able to take care of themselves. Others may need the help of family, neighbors, church groups, other nonprofits, healthcare providers or government agencies. Know how you and others in your community will get out and get access to resources, including low-cost and no-cost resources, for meeting basic needs.
  3. Encourage employer policies and local laws that encourage cooperation with calls for evacuation. Many don’t heed the call to evacuate because they will not be able to replace pay for work hours missed during evacuation, or don’t even know if their jobs will be there upon return. Know what laws protect jobs and provide for disaster unemployment benefits. At present, there is no provision for wages lost during evacuations not followed by actual disasters. In some locations, these kinds of precautionary evacuations can—or should—take place several times per year.
  4. Know how your community will secure affected areas, and don’t return until you know that you won’t be doing yourself and your community more harm than good. It’s frightening to think of your most treasured belongings possibly exposed to the elements or to thieves—but there are no objects in any home that are worth the risk of life and limb. Disaster zones are dangerous, and lack many necessities. Early return, at best, slows efforts to make areas safe and bring utilities back on line. At worst, those who return early create danger for themselves and responders. Responders can better focus on helping those who were unable to evacuate–and on protecting evacuated properties–if there are fewer people to manage in the danger zone.
  5. Help your community be a good host to those affected by local disasters and disasters in other places. If your community is likely to be the nearest safe place for evacuees, be realistic about how long help may be needed. Shelters and assistance centers may need both material and moral support to keep operating for extended periods. Local nonprofits and government agencies may need to provide more assistance to more people for some time to come. Find out how you can help, and how your community can prepare and, if needed, get help from state and federal sources.
  6. Take care of yourself and your family. Think about how long it can take the best-organized relief efforts to get up and running in and near disaster-affected areas: Storms can take 24 hours to pass through an area. It can then take another 72 hours just to clear debris, water, live power lines; etc. in order to access an area even enough to begin assessing need. Even with the best advance planning, determining precisely what is needed, exactly where, and by whom can take another 24 to 48 hours. Needs must be prioritized. Then implementation of plans to meet those needs can begin. This is why it’s best to evacuate to safer areas, and to help others do the same. If you or your family must remain in an affected area, or return shortly after disaster, you should be prepared to be completely self-sufficient with no infrastructure for at least three days, and for as long as several weeks.
  7. Be a good neighbor by offering help—and accepting help. Long before your community is in danger, think about how you and your neighbors will help one another. What goods can each of you store and share? What skills do each of you have to offer? Who are the most vulnerable people in your neighborhood? How will you help yourselves and each other evacuate? How will your neighborhood function in the weeks following a disaster? How will you help yourselves and each other start the recovery process in your area? How will you help yourselves and each other to get through the period following the disaster? If the people in your immediate vicinity are in a position to take care of themselves, ask if there are other neighborhoods or nearby health facilities; etc. that aren’t as fortunate. Are there ways you and your neighbors can be prepared to help out in other neighborhoods? If you or a neighbor rely on services delivered at the local or state level, how would those services be accessed during an extended evacuation to another locality or state? And remember that you make things easier for yourself and others by letting people know, in advance, what your needs may be.
  8. Know that volunteering is great—and that volunteering before the disaster (especially, long before the disaster) is even better. All help is appreciated, but there is more to most volunteer tasks than meets the eye. The farther in advance you receive training, the more tasks you’ll be able to handle, and the better you’ll be at those tasks. If you volunteer during a disaster, you may have to spend time waiting to pitch in, or to receive even rudimentary training because your trainer has to be pulled away from providing disaster assistance. Please be patient if, after training, you are assigned to relatively simple tasks and are asked to work only beside more experienced volunteers. Remember, there hasn’t been time for the organization to screen you or get to know you. And remember that volunteering in a disaster can be demanding and unpleasant in the best of organizations. Conversely, if you are relying on a volunteer who doesn’t seem to have all the answers (because the experienced people don’t have all the answers either), appreciate that they have stepped up to do very hard work, are now living in the midst of the same disaster you are living in, and have control over almost nothing. It’s very likely that this volunteers neighbors several states away are taking it easy at backyard barbecues and not being yelled at by anyone. Everyone needs to be patient with one another.
  9. Understand that everyone has a role.
  10. Understand who does what. People sometimes get confused about who serves which function—and direct anger at agencies that have nothing to do with the problem at hand. FEMA and state/local Offices of Emergency Management do advance preparation for disasters, moving supplies and personnel as close to the anticipated impact area as can be predicted. During and after a disaster, it takes time to access areas, and to locate and evaluate effects on people and property. Then, efforts to bring assistance to where it is most needed are coordinated. The Red Cross and other organizations actually leave affected areas as soon as disaster occurs or is known to be imminent. This allows these organizations to provide for immediate shelter and other basic needs in safe areas outside the affected areas, moving closer to and into the affected areas as doing so becomes safe for residents, responders and volunteers. Once the disaster occurs, entities like the Army Corps of Engineers inspect (and sometimes even rebuild) roads and bridges, and work with utilities to provide safe access to affected areas. Then, first response agencies-the Coast Guard, fire and police departments; etc. (not FEMA or the Red Cross) begin search and rescue. While the Red Cross et al provide for immediate needs (shelter, food, water, ice, home clean-up kits, personal hygiene items, referrals to community resources meeting longer-term needs), FEMA begins Individual Assistance for other needs likely to last somewhat beyond the initial post-disaster period. They also offer direct assistance and/or loans to help with home repairs not covered by insurance or personal resources. Both FEMA and the Red Cross can help people access other resources for longer-term needs. Neither FEMA nor the Red Cross can (or should) tell state or local agencies what to do or who to rescue. Most organizations operating shelters do not own or lease the structures in which shelters are located, and have limited control over specific uses of the structures, or how long the structures remain available.
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