The Ultimate Home Emergency Preparedness Guide
It’s not something any of us want to think about, but all it takes is one storm, one wildfire, one extended power outage to toss our lives into a tailspin.
That’s why, as you move into your new home, or start spring cleaning around your current place, it’s a perfect time to do a bit of home emergency preparation.
If a raging hurricane roars into your town, chances are your local stores will be boarded up and closed. If the river rises and streets are flooded, you aren’t going anywhere. If you are outrunning a wildfire, you need to make sure you have everything with you.
Having a case of water and some flashlights won’t cut it in most emergencies. In fact, a government emergency prep survey discovered that “40% of survey respondents did not have household plans, 80% had not conducted home evacuation drills, and nearly 60% did not know their community’s evacuation routes.”
This guide will help you be better prepared for many types of home emergency issues.
4 Steps to Preparing for an Emergency
There are plenty of resources to use as you prep for emergencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a free “Preparing for Disaster” publication.
The emergency experts at FEMA suggest starting with these four points:
- Get informed
- Make a plan
- Assemble a kit
- Maintain your plan and kit
Step 1. Get Informed
Each part of the United States has its own hazards: Flooding in the South, tornadoes in the Midwest and wildfires in the West are just a few. It’s important that you learn what type of weather your area is prone to so you know what to prepare for.
For insurance purposes, for example, you’ll need to know if your home is on a flood plain or if there’s been a wildfire in recent years.
This guide will share information on common hazards further below.
Community Disaster Plans
Most communities that have existing issues like extreme weather events or drought-driven problems will have community response plans, evacuation plans, and designated emergency shelters already in place. Your task is to learn about them.
So, how do you find out? Call your city or town hall or visit their website. Call the non-emergency line for your police or fire department to ask where you can find these resources. Your public library and your child’s school should also have this information available.
If you find your community does not have such plans, make your own with your neighbors. Ready.gov provides a community preparedness toolkit to help you create a team and make evacuation and survival plans.
Community Warning Systems
As you investigate your area’s disaster plans, find out how local authorities will warn you of an impending disaster and how they will provide information to you during and after the emergency.
Some counties and states have alert programs you can sign up for online. Texts go out to your cellphone in an event of an emergency.
There are also Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) that are utilized by governments and the National Weather Service. Messages are directly broadcast from cell towers to any WEA‐enabled mobile device in a locally targeted area. Here are some guidelines to make sure your cellphone can receive those messages.
You may be familiar with the federal government’s Emergency Alert System. The system does frequent tests on radio and TV stations to ensure it is working properly. In a real-life emergency, after the alert sounds, a message about the emergency will be broadcast.
Step 2: Make a Plan
Preparation is key in anything we do, from cooking dinner to fixing our car. Preparing for a disaster is necessary for the safety of your family and your home, so take the time to make a plan.
- Hold a family meeting: Get everyone in your household together to discuss plans. Gently explain disasters to children and decide what responsibilities each family member will have. Don’t forget to include caregivers in planning.
- Designate escape routes and safe places: In a fire or other emergency, you may need to evacuate on a moment’s notice. Be ready to get out fast. Be sure everyone in your family knows the best escape routes out of your home, as well as where the safe places are in your home for each type of disaster. For example, pick a tree or structure as a meeting place after you escape from a house fire, just make sure it’s a safe distance from the fire.
- Plan for those with disabilities and special needs: Keep support items like wheelchairs, canes, emergency medicine or equipment, in designated places.
- Plan for your pets: When possible, plan to take your pets if you evacuate. Prepare a list of family, friends, boarding, vets, and hotels that would be able to shelter your pets in emergency situations. Most communities have evacuation shelters for livestock and larger pets.
- Prepare for different hazards: Your actions will differ depending on what type of emergency it is, so go over each scenario at your meeting, or hold separate meetings so you won’t overwhelm everyone.
- Once you have a plan in place, review it every six months, restock supplies and check for expiration dates. This is a great time to test fire extinguishers and alarms, too.
- Ready.gov offers a Family Communications Plan, downloadable here.
Step 3: Create an Emergency Preparedness Kit
You’ve probably heard the term “emergency kit” tossed around, but do you have one of your own? A kit contains all the items needed for a disaster in one place or general area. Having a designated box or closet — that you don’t routinely borrow from — is best to prevent you from scurrying around looking for items during urgent times of need. What should a kit include?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, recommends the following supplies for your kit:
- First aid kit
- Non-perishable food (at least a 3-day supply)
- Water for drinking and sanitation (1 gallon per person per day for at least 3 days)
- Extra batteries
- Local maps
- Can opener
- Wrench or plier to turn off utilities
- Whistle to call for help
- Mask to filter contaminated air
- Cellphone with chargers and backup battery
- Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
- NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
- Moist towelettes and garbage bags for personal sanitation
- Depending on your family’s needs, there are many other items to consider. Examples include:
- Prescription and non-prescription medications
- Extra glasses and contact lens solution
- Pet food and extra water
- Feminine hygiene products
- Infant supplies such as bottles and diapers
- Sleeping bags and blankets
- Most home improvement stores carry inexpensive emergency water filtration kits, it’s a good idea to keep one in your emergency supplies.
Preparing Your Home for a Natural Disaster
As the cost of natural disasters is often in the billions, it’s smart to plan ahead to minimize the damage to your property as much as possible, even if you have insurance.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report noting, “In 2021, there were 20 weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each to affect the United States. These events included 1 drought event, 2 flooding events, 11 severe storm events, 4 tropical cyclone events, 1 wildfire event, and 1 winter storm event.”
Whether you live in an area prone to wildfires or hurricanes, each scenario should have you creating the kits and the plans discussed above. Plus, there are additional steps according to the type of issue you are dealing with to ensure that your family remains safe and hopefully limit property damage:
If you live on the East Coast or along the Gulf Coast, you are most likely very familiar with hurricane season, running from June through November. However, seasons vary across the globe:
- Eastern Pacific Hurricane Season: May 15 to Nov. 30.
- Atlantic Hurricane Season: June 1 to Nov. 30.
- Central Pacific Hurricane Season: June 1 to Nov. 30.
High winds and floodwaters are the biggest dangers of hurricanes. Basic pre-storm preparation applies here:
- Remove debris: bring in loose objects like patio furniture, bikes, trash cans.
- Prepare an evacuation kit: See the list above.
- Learn your evacuation routes.
- Board windows: Hurricane-force winds can easily break the windows in your home.
- Fill your car’s gas tank: You may need to evacuate quickly, so have your car’s gas tank full and your evacuation kit loaded.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers a downloadable guide to “How to Prepare or a Hurricane.”
If you were evacuated, returning home can be difficult if power is not restored or if your community is flooded:
- Heed official instructions in case they suggest to delay returning home.
- Do not wade into floodwaters that could contain debris, chemicals, waste, or even be electrically charged from a downed power line.
- Document property damage with photos.
- Wear protective clothing during cleanup. Masks are recommended as some conditions can be worsened by exposure to water leaks and mold.
High winds, little rain and dry air is often a recipe for a wildfire disaster to strike. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, in 2021, about 90% of land in the Western states was experiencing moderate to severe drought.
“From January 1 to November 26, 2021 there were 52,729 wildfires, compared with 52,113 in the same period in 2020,” according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, the Top 10 states at extreme wildfire risk are:
You can help to mitigate the risk of a wildland fire destroying your home. Look around your home’s property … is it clogged with brush and trees in need of trimming? Create a fire-resistant zone that is free of leaves, debris, or flammable materials for at least 30 feet from your home.
Making defensible space can mean the difference between returning to your house from an evacuation to returning to an empty, burned-out lot. Clearing land can be expensive, but some wildfire-prone areas offer grants to homeowners for creating defensible space.
Ready.gov’s manual How to Prepare for a Wildfire can give you an in-depth plan of attack to protect your family and your home.
- Practice safety (know how to use fire extinguishers)
- Connect your garden hose
- If you live in a high-risk area, consider hiring a professional to re-roof with metal, tile, or composition
- Consider installing tempered glass panes in windows near trees or shrubs.
Although an earthquake can hit anywhere at anytime, according to a United States Geological Survey (USGS) study, the areas most likely to be hit with one in the U.S. “are found on the West Coast, the western mountain range, the Midwest south of the Great Lakes, the southern coast of Alaska, and the big island of Hawaii.”
If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, these tips can help you plan for the next one:
- Secure large furniture
- Locate your gas connection
- Check your building’s foundation
About 1,200 tornadoes hit the U.S. yearly, mainly located in the area called “Tornado Alley” that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio. However, all 50 states have recorded a tornado at one time or another.
According to NOAA, “The peak tornado season for the southern Plains (e.g., Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas) is from May into early June. On the Gulf coast, it is earlier in the spring. In the northern Plains and upper Midwest (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota), tornado season is in June or July. But, remember, tornadoes can happen at any time of year. Tornadoes can also happen at any time of day or night, but most tornadoes occur between 4–9 p.m.”
If you live in an area that has a history of tornado activity, these tips can help you:
- Create or identify a safe room. A lower-level basement or cellar is best.
- If you can’t get to your safe room, shelter in the bathtub.
- Prepare your home for high winds, bring in loose yard furniture, decorations
- Monitor the weather forecast
- Know your area’s tornado signal, it may be the only warning you get
Flooding is tricky. It can happen slowly, due to days of consistent rain, or suddenly, with a torrential downpour from a hurricane or violent storm.
Identify if your home is in a flood plain or has flooded in the past. Prepare your home for a possible flood by:
- Looking into extra flood insurance
- Keep your home’s gutters clear
- Raise your electrical system from ground level
- Protect HVAC systems if they are on the ground
If you are caught in floodwaters, some tips from ready.gov include:
- Do not walk, swim or drive through any floodwaters. Turn around.
- Just six inches of moving water can knock you down and one foot of moving water can sweep away your vehicle.
- Stay off bridges over fast-moving water.
- Depending on the type of flooding:
- Evacuate if told to do so.
- Move to higher ground or a higher floor in your building
- Stay where you are
Take Action Now, Not Later
- The whole “it’s not if, it’s when” mentality means that you should build your kit now, not later. Find yourself already making excuses — such as “I don’t have time or money” for this project? You don’t have to be a full-blown doomsday prepper or stockpiler to prepare a kit and plan.
- Many emergency kit components, such as these 25 preparedness items, can be found at discount stores. Buying in bulk over time at Costco or Sam’s Club is another way to get your supplies; just be mindful not hoard so that others can also build their supply kits. If you’re busy with all that a move entails (understandable!), order a few necessities off Amazon.
- Additionally, make sure you’re signed up for emergency alerts so that you’ll be notified if your area is affected by an emergency. Always keep your fire extinguisher in an identifiable place.
- Ready.gov: This federal site offers extensive resources including toolkits, checklists and downloadable information.
- FEMA Basic Preparedness: The agency has prepared this 34-page downloadable booklet to address may disasters and how you should prepare for them.
- CDC Emergency Preparedness and Response Website: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer a wide variety of prep and plans for everything from pandemics to natural disasters.
- Department of Homeland Security Plan and Prepare for Disasters: This site offers links to other resources for disaster planning.