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What To Do When Disaster Strikes At Home
Dated: October 22 2019
We never wish for our home to be damaged by a storm, or fire, or flood. Nature can be unpredictable however, so sometimes unfortunately, it happens. After all family members and pets are out of harm’s way, here are the steps you need to take to start putting the pieces back together again.
Prepare in Advance
If you’re reading this and have not been impacted, we’ve put together some tips to help you come up with a disaster plan ahead of time. If you’ve already been hit and are looking for the next step, skip to the next section now.
Know the risk factors in your area and have a plan for each. In Texas, we are vulnerable to severe storms that can produce hail, lightning, downburst winds, tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding. Some parts of Texas have experienced mild earthquakes as well. Unfortunately, each of these natural disasters can damage your home, so it is important to have a disaster plan.
Prepare a backpack or other easy-to-carry container of emergency supplies. Consider adding things like a gallon of water, non-perishable foods that don’t require cooking (don’t forget a manual can opener, if using canned goods), flashlight, extra batteries, a first aid kit, emergency radio, a portable cell phone charger, pet food, gloves, a pair of socks & shoes for each family member, etc. A small amount of cash and disposable camera wouldn’t be bad ideas, either. If storms knock power out, many companies will be unable to process credit or debit cards if you’re in need of any immediate supplies or food. A camera will be needed to photograph damage for insurance purposes. The same goes with any essential medical equipment for family members with additional needs, and pet carriers or leashes. Check your emergency supplies once per year (write it on your calendar, or do it regularly on a particular day such as Spring Forward) and replace any foods or medications that have expired as well as any batteries that have lost their charge. Identify other items like mattresses, blankets, and pillows that can be used gathered quickly as well to provide extra protection. Helmets are great ideas, too.
If you have young children, you may want to make bracelets or order temporary tattoos with names and phone numbers to place on your children in a true emergency situation, in case you’re separated. Update these as needed. Older children should know their names, parents’ full names, address, and parents’ cell phone numbers. Consider adding a game, puzzle, book, or other items to help keep children calm while taking cover, and to entertain them if you end up needing to evacuate.
If you don’t have a storm shelter, designate an interior room without windows or exterior walls as your shelter location and store the supplies in or near that room. Small bathrooms, laundry rooms, and even closets make great places. Once you’ve chosen an area, take care to keep the area clear. It may be tempting to use all that space for storage, but if you receive a tornado warning and have just minutes to take cover, you won’t want to be moving things out of your shelter! Some areas have grant programs available to help with the cost of installing storm shelters in your home, or reinforcing your safe room, if you wish to participate.
Decide on meeting places outside of our home, such as a neighbor’s house or neighborhood school, in case your home is ever to be destroyed, and then practice meeting at this place regularly so that each family member is familiar with where to go and how to get there. Designate an emergency location outside of your neighborhood as well. If a tornado were to destroy your home and your local meeting place, where else would you go? A friend or family member’s home, police station, or church could be great meeting places for this purpose.
Designate 2 emergency contacts- one local and one in another town. A local contact person is great for emergencies like a house fire, because they are nearby and can provide immediate assistance. But if a wide-spread disaster, like a storm, strikes your area, a neighbor is likely to be affected as well, so you’ll need to reach out to someone that’s further away. Be sure to communicate with each contact person on a regular basis, and especially when a severe storm or other emergency situation is possible to occur. Talk to them about notifying other friends or family members that you’re safe, too. Create a contact in your cell phone labeled as “ICE- In Case of Emergency” or “Emergency Contact” and save their information. Many cell phones have an emergency card or medical ID that can be accessed by first responders, without your passcode. Be sure this is filled out and up to date for each family member as well.
Write down important information like names, emergency contacts, your family meeting place, and a list of important phone numbers for people like insurance companies, doctors, etc. Also write down pet names with breed & descriptions, medication names with dosage, and insurance policy numbers. You can use FEMA’s emergency plan card (found here) or on a regular piece of paper. Laminate the paper, or seal it in a plastic zipper bag and place in your emergency supply kit. Also scan or copy your emergency information and provide copies to your emergency contact people. You may wish to have it stored in an online database as well, such as a Google Drive or your email folders (make sure it’s secure), that can be accessed if your home and cell phone were to be destroyed. Copy or scan important documents on insurance policies, home inventory list, healthcare plans, and identification cards as well and keep in an accessible online database. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a great worksheet for recording important account numbers and contact info (found here). You may wish to keep a locked note on your cell phone with this information as well, and keep a copy with similar information in each vehicle.
Subscribe to emergency alert services in your area. Many towns have services such as Red Alert, and most weather cell phone apps have notifications options as well, as long as you’ve enabled notifications from these apps. When a storm hits your area, be sure to continually check weather apps or listen to weather radios so you know when the threat has passed. Stay in your shelter until you’re positive that you’re no longer in the storm’s path!
Finally, practice! Practice grabbing the supplies and getting in to your shelter at least once per year. Talk about safety measures like what to do if you’re trapped, how to cover your nose and mouth if there’s debris and dust in the air, and how to get help. Make sure children know to avoid power lines if there’s been a wind storm! Also talk about what to do if an emergency occurs while you’re at work and/or kids are at school. Employers and schools each have their own emergency plans, but you’ll need to decide how to get in touch and who is to pick kids up if you’re unable. Severe thunderstorms especially are so often a threat in the afternoons and evenings, sometimes even late at night when everyone is in bed. This is not the most ideal time to think and figure out what you need to do, so practicing regularly makes you familiar enough that you can grab and take cover quickly with little thought. When seconds matter, this is so important!
One more handy tip- keep a small container of water in your freezer. Once it’s frozen solid, add an object on top of the ice- a coin, small toy, etc. and close it up. If you’ve been away from your home after a storm and are unsure if the power was out for any length of time, check your container. If the object is still sitting on top of the ice, you know it stayed cold, but if it has sunk to the bottom then the power was out long enough for the ice to thaw and your food may be spoiled.
After a Disaster
If a storm has hit, or your home was damaged due to a storm, fire, or flood, getting everyone out of harm’s way is the first step. Assuming you’re not reading this blog from your storm shelter immediately after a storm and you’re in a safe place, here are the next steps you’ll need to take. If for any reason you are, get to a safe place and get help for any injuries first.
Locate shelter and notify your emergency contacts that you’re safe and will get in touch with them once things have settled down. Text messaging is the best way right after a disaster, as the cell phone signals become jammed and bandwidth is reduced due to damaged or fallen cellular towers. Communicate only essential information- like who is with you and where you are, and let the rest wait until the lines are less congested. In the event of a wide-spread disaster, use common sense when contacting emergency personnel. They’re going to be very busy and could have been impacted as well, so only call if there’s an immediate medical emergency, fire, active power lines down, gas leaks, or someone is trapped. Do not call for trees blocking roadways, damage to your home when everyone is out, etc.
DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ENTER your home or any damaged buildings until it is safe to do so. Watch for power lines that may be down and sniff the air for the scent of natural gas. You may wish to return to your home to gather valuables, but if the structure is unstable, you could end up trapped or injured by debris. Never risk crossing roads covered in water, either, even if you think it’s only a few inches. Rushing water can carry a person or vehicle away quickly, and could be concealing washed out roads.
Once the storm has completely passed, any power or lines or gas leaks have been controlled, and authorities give permission to return to your home, proceed with utmost caution. Inspect the outside first, looking for things like cracks in the exterior walls and chimney, dips in the roof, and damaged pipes or wires. If you are uncertain at all, stay out until your home has been cleared by an inspector or structural engineer. Once you’re confident it’s safe to enter, wear thick-soled shoes and work gloves when you enter, and proceed with caution- constantly watching for falling debris and for sharp hazards lodged in walls or on the floors. If you can get to the fuse box or water shut-off valve, it’s best to turn both off before going any further to reduce hazards. Watch out for animals that may have taken shelter in the debris, exposed wiring, and leaking water or even sewage. Listen for creaking in the walls and ceiling. You can use a stick to poke and move things first to scare animals away if you suspect any, and to inspect any puddles. Remember that boards will have exposed nails and splinters, and broken glass will likely be mixed in with other debris. If your home is not livable, make arrangements to stay with family, in a hotel, or in a temporary rental. Contact utility companies to disconnect or suspend services to your home for the time being as well. No sense in paying for services that you can’t use.
Take pictures of as much as you can before moving anything for insurance claim purposes, and then gather up any recoverable valuable items, then do what you can to prevent further damage. Place tarps over holes in the roof, board up broken windows, and remove broken tree limbs that may still be hanging in trees. File a claim with your homeowner’s insurance company as soon as possible, and keep every receipt for money spent on alternate shelter such as hotels, clean-up products, and repair services.
Ask your insurance company, local disaster relief organizations such as the Red Cross, or a trusted Realtor for recommended contractors for clean up and repair. It is important to take time and check out any company you’re considering before signing any contracts or making any payments, as unfortunately scammers love to prey on unsuspecting storm victims. Be wary of anyone asking for up front payments, going door to door, offering too-good-to-be-true discounts, or selling insurance policies that promise to cover damage afterwards. Verify that each company is legitimate by looking up their websites, checking the Better Business Bureau, and looking up license numbers. Make sure they’re bonded and insured as well, so that you aren’t further liable for worker injuries, should one occur.
When cleaning up, be aware of your surroundings at all times for falling objects and other hazards. Animals may be hiding in debris- whether wild or lost pets, and even people may have taken shelter in your home if it’s been empty for a while. Avoid touching any animal carcases, too, as they could be carrying diseases. Contact the police or animal control, if either are present. Unplug appliances before moving if they look like they’ve been wet or broken. Throw out any food that’s questionable, and avoid turning utilities back on until the utility companies have confirmed that the infrastructure and home have been cleared of issues. You may need to use a generator and bottled water, since utility companies only have so many workers to inspect homes. Don’t drink water or flush toilets until the water lines have been checked and the water provider has confirmed that their supplies were not contaminated during the disaster.
Take frequent breaks and bring plenty of water to drink to avoid exhaustion. If there’s been standing water inside the home, either from flood waters, rain, or broken pipes then mold is a possible health hazard to consider. Wear protective eyewear, gloves, and masks (an N-95 respirator is recommended), along with work boots, long sleeves, and pants to avoid contact with your body. It’s wise to take similar precautions for bugs, potential biohazards, and dust as well. Call in professionals for significant mold levels, or if your home was built prior to 1978 and has damaged walls or ceilings, as lead paint or asbestos may be present. Contact your septic servicer for inspection and care instructions if you have a septic tank.
When cleaning up, keep household chemicals out of regular trash bins and dumpsters. You may need to consult your local trash service or landfill for information on disposing of chemicals and bulk trash. For more information on clean-up hazards and chemicals to watch out for, visit: https://www.epa.gov/natural-disasters/dealing-debris-and-damaged-buildings.
Restoring your home may take some time and effort, but even more it will take an emotional toll on you and your family. Be sure to talk about your feelings together, and enlist professional help if needed. Counseling may be provided by local non-profit organizations and churches, too. You might consider adding safety features to your home as you rebuild, such as a tornado shelter, to help your family feel safe in the home after the event. Check with FEMA and other local government entities for grants and assistance that may be available for rebuilding and reinforcing homes after a wide scale disaster.
As always, if we can assist with resources like trusted vendors, temporary housing, or even just moral support, please reach out. GroupWatson is here for our community.
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Lauren is a lifetime North Texas resident and graduate from Texas Woman's University. She currently lives in Prosper and has been working in and around her community for the past six years, resulting ....
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