Natural Disaster Advice

Many don’t know it, but I used to work for FEMA and dealt with disaster survivors on several occasions (two earthquakes, several hurricanes, and flooding situations). Here is some advice based on my personal experience for those facing hurricanes, tornados, or other natural disaster.

First, remember provides lots of information and resources such as how to prepare for disasters and create emergency kits. If you a victim of a natural disaster, you may be eligible for disaster assistance. You can find out more about this at or calling 1-800-621-3362.

The news focuses on getting bottled water. Yes, bottled water is good, but if the water from your facet is good for drinking, you can also fill up all of your containers (pitchers, empty juice bottle or milk jugs, etc.). Also, getting other drinks such as juice, Gatorade, etc. will provide you with fluid.

If you are evacuating.

Money – think small bills and lots of change. I recommend a hundred dollars in ones and fives, and about ten dollars in quarters and other change. Of course you will put the money in several locations (in your toilet kit, in socks, in a book, etc.) but you need to understand if the electricity goes out, stores cannot give you change and ATMs won’t work. Fortunately, if you are in a shelter, most of your basic necessities will be provided.

Records – I recommend putting the important records (medical files, prescriptions, insurance papers, deeds and rental contract, etc.) on a flash drive and take it with you. Another option is to email these to you in an encrypted file, but be warned, you may not be able to access this file on a shared computer.

Pets – more than half the people with pets will not evacuate because they don’t want to leave their pets behind. There are pet friendly shelters and places that will take care of pets. You should already have your pets microchipped and their shots up to date. Make copies of their medical files. Take photos of your pets and email these to yourself. That way you can access the photos which will help you find your pet if you are separated from it. Also, include information about your pet – name, age, medical issues, personality (does it get along with other pets, is it friendly or will it bite, etc.). Include this information with the pet, along with food and any favorite toys it might have. Remember, the people taking care of your pet are animal lovers and they will do everything they can to keep your pet safe and healthy.

Your medication – have at least a 30-day supply with you, as well as a record of all your medication, both prescription and over-the-counter. Have the name, email address, and phone number of your doctor and the pharmacy where you get your medication.

Personal comfort items – Don’t forget things you use every day. Things such as lotion, powder, skin care products, tampons or menstrual pads, etc. may not be provided by shelters and may be hard to purchase due to limited items in stock. Also recommend taking some toilet paper with you.

To-go-bag – If you are evacuating, take with you whatever you need for at least five days. I would recommend taking large bath towels that can also serve as a pillow and extra blanket. You will need identification for everyone in your family – be sure to have their Social Security Numbers. I also recommend taking cell phones, chargers, and non-electronic games such as cards or puzzle books.

Shelter – if you are relocated to a shelter, understanding and kindness are the key to dealing with the situation. The people at the shelter want you to return to your home as soon as it is safe. There are lots of organizations such as the Red Cross and Catholic Charities to help you with your issues; but remember they can only do so much. Find out who is running the shelter; they are the people who can help you if you have an issue with the shelter. DO NOT go from one agency to another. Only one agency, the one running the shelter, can help you with issues in the shelter.

If you are sheltering in place.

Fill up your bathtub or several clean plastic buckets with water for flushing the toilet and doing laundry.  

Food – think of pantry food you can eat without any preparation. For example, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, granola bars, boxed cereal, canned food that doesn’t need cooking, snacks, etc.  DO NOT stock up the refrigerator or freezer. If the electricity goes out, most of what is in there will spoil. BUT do put plastic containers of water in the freezer. When the water freezes, it will extend the amount of time the food remains cool. If you put a coin on top of one of the frozen containers, you can tell if the electricity went out while you were away due to evacuation.

Preparing your home – take everything outside that is not nailed down and put it in a shed or garage. That small pot the bug repellant came in will fly around, break windows and cause damage. Put it in a building. That goes for the garbage cans too. Park your car between houses if you do not have a garage. Use only one cell phone at a time. Have the others charging.

After the storm – go on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, any social media account you have and let people know your situation. It will be easier to text a message than make a phone call. During the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in Northern Japan of 2011, we could NOT make calls on our cell phones, but we could send text messages. Also, check on your neighbors. Make sure they are okay and help them if you can.

Damages – if your home is damaged, take photos – lots of photos, before cleaning up or making any kind of repairs. After taking photos, contact your insurance company.

After the disaster, aid workers will come into the area and inform you of programs you may be eligible for. Two things to remember. First, all aid workers will identify themselves and will have photographic identification displayed on their person, and usually some kind of clothing identifying the organization. Second, the aid worker is moving through the neighborhood and may not be able to come back at another time; BUT any program being offered will not expire when that person leaves. If you are uncomfortable with the situation, take the information, the person’s name and agency, and call the agency. I used to go from home to home, asking people if they wanted to register for a government program. Those people who wanted to think about it were given a flier with information about the program and how they could apply for it themselves either by phone or the internet. DO NOT allow yourself to be bullied into doing anything. This is how scam artists work – they insist it has to be now or never.

There will also be Disaster Relief Centers. These take a while to set up, put they usually have information on other agencies that can help you. Remember, the language of business in these places is English. They do try to get bilingual people in there, but if you can get someone to come with you who can translate, that would be useful. We had plenty of people who spoke Spanish, but very few for other languages.

Last piece of advice – keep all receipts from all expenses. Some of them can be reimbursed, others can be used as a tax credit. Be sure to label what the receipts are for.