How to Prepare For a Natural Disaster

Angela Colley — Ask an Insider

Natural disasters can strike at any time and the loss, both in terms of life and financial, can be catastrophic. While Hurricane Katrina is still the costliest hurricane to strike the U.S., causing 1,833 deaths and $160 billion in damage, most storm seasons can be devastating. On average, a single hurricane can cause 21.6 billion in damage while hurricanes between 1980 and April 6, 2018 have totaled $862 billion, according to USAToday.

When a storm hits, keeping yourself and your family safe and protecting the life you’ve built is the single most important thing, but preparing for a storm season can be a costly and confusing barrier for many families. On average, a family can spend $1,000 just to evacuate once. Knowing what you really need—and how to prepare for it—is challenging.

To help, we spoke with Jim Judge, EMT-P, CEM, member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, and emergency management director for Volusia County, Florida to talk preparedness, evacuations, and how to cope after the storm.

Make Change: When it comes to emergency kits, you see a wide range of options. Do you really need the thermal blankets and fancy add-ons?

I always say to people, if you make your provisions like you’re going on a camping trip and ask yourself, ‘What am I going to eat? What am I going to drink? And how am I going to stay in tune with what is going on in the local community?’ Those are the most important things people need to plan for. You might not necessarily need that multi-purpose tool or survival blanket but water, food, a battery-operated radio, that’s a good start.

Say you don’t have a ton of space to store a lot of provisions. What’s a good, average number of days to plan for?

Anywhere from five to seven days, and here’s why: You never know just how big an event is just going to be. It is going to take a while for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], the state, and even the locals to put a plan together to go out and provide those points of distribution, provide that water, provide that food.

Putting a kit together can be expensive, any tips?

That’s the truth. Statistics say that 70 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and that’s why it’s important to plan your preparedness over a period of weeks, if not months. Every time you go to the store, pick up a pack of batteries, some water on a sale, maybe a few dry goods for the pantry so by the time you get to hurricane season, you’ve spread those expenses out over time and you’re ready to go.

What’s the best way to protect your home?

You want to keep the wind out. The wind is the enemy. The weakest part of the home is the garage door. You may have a heavy-duty garage door, but it is the framework that with some strong winds are going to push that door in and once the wind gets in, it is going to blow through the house and likely take the roof off.

You see a lot of hurricane and storm proofing products on the market. Do you really need to buy something high-grade to get the job done?

Commercial grade products are great, but I just use plywood. In about 1 to 1.5 hours, I can board up my entire home. You want to really board up. If you have a swimming pool, pick up all your lawn furniture and throw it in the pool. It’s not going to go anywhere. Take the wind chimes down, bring the hanging plants in, pick up anything that may be loose around the yard because those can be projectiles.

What do you think people most often forget when preparing?

We see this in too many instances where people haven’t really thought about the financial aspects of a disaster. Having all those important papers in one location is critical. Get an old suitcase, the kind with the handle and the wheels. Put your important documents: passports, marriage certificate, birth certificates, and credit card info in there and put that under the bed. If something does happen and you need to go, you can quickly bring all that with you.

The credit card companies don’t care that you just had a disaster, they want their payments. Having all that with you gets you better prepared.

Should you also keep cash on hand?

Yes! Cash is king in a disaster when the credit cards don’t work. When the power is out, you might have to use cash to pay for goods like food and gasoline. How much really depends on the size of your family, what provisions you have, and if you’re getting out of town. If you’re staying home and have lots of provisions, you can get by with less. For most folks maybe $100 is good to get you a through a couple of days if you have your basic provisions ahead of time.

Speaking of getting out of town, you read horror stories of people getting trapped on highways or driving for hundreds of miles looking for a hotel room. What’s the best way to plan an evacuation?

Make your plans early and know where you’re going to go. During the last hurricane in Florida, a couple of universities planted people at different rest areas along i-95 and they’d query people, ‘Where are you going?’ Honestly, eight out of 10 people had no idea. Go ahead and book that hotel room early or make plans to stay with family or friends—you can always cancel it.

How far do you really need to go?

A lot of what we see time and time again, people evacuate thinking they’re getting out of harm’s way and put themselves even in further danger. You don’t have to go 100s of miles away. If you’re on a barrier island, in an RV or a mobile home, or your area is prone to flooding, then just drive inland 20 or 30 miles.

Evacuations can get expensive. If you can’t afford to evacuate, can you rely on shelters in place in your area?

Every community has hurricane shelters. In Florida, we primarily use our schools, they’re very safe. We evaluate them based on state criteria, so we know we’re only putting people in a safe location. If you are going to a community shelter, bring portable furniture like those aluminum chaise lounges, some snacks, extra clothes, and a book.

Whether you’re evacuating or going to a shelter, would you recommend leaving at the voluntary warning or waiting it out for the mandatory evacuation?

Just about two days ago, a friend of mine sent me about a dozen of the 911 recordings from hurricane Michael. There were people on the barrier island. They sent the cops out to get people off the island. The people refused. The weather was coming in and the cops left. So, then the sent the National Guard out there and they still didn’t evacuate. I’m an old paramedic and I’ve been in this business a long time. I could only listen to four of those 911 calls. They made a bad decision.

People have to make a choice but keep in mind, when the wind is blowing, we’re not coming. We don’t want to risk fire, EMS, or law enforcement resources to go out and try to rescue people that should have left. If you don’t get out, you’re asking for trouble.

It feels like we’re seeing storms to more and more damage to homes and businesses. Recovering from that financially can feel impossible. What kind of programs for help are available and when can people count on help coming in?

Here’s the deal with that: It takes time. That’s why you need five to seven days minimal for food and water. Here’s what’s going to happen. FEMA is going to come in and they’re going to set up a disaster recovery center, that may take three weeks. There’s a whole long list of things FEMA has to do before they can open that center. Once they’re set up, they may give you $2,000 or $3,000 thousand dollars to help you in the interim but you’re not going to get whole again on FEMA alone.

There are other programs that come in as well from local governments, community services, or places like the United Way. It is going to take time for them to mobilize, but they will offer programs to help. For example, the SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] can give you anywhere from $150 to $500 on a card to be able to go to the grocery store and get provisions.

Beyond that, you can always apply for a low interest loan to repair your home or get back on your feet, but you’re not going to be made whole by assistance programs alone.

When should people really start preparing?

Right now, under blue skies, call your local Red Cross or your local emergency manager. Find out if they’re going to do any programs. Red cross at the local level is there to support our communities. Local will be able to provide you with a wealth of information ahead of time then stay informed before, during, and after a storm makes landfall.

You may even realize you want to help with those local efforts. Remember to the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world. You know when a disaster happens and we’re searching for volunteers, that one person that may go in and help that family get the home cleaned out, prepare so they don’t have mold damage, whatever, I can’t say enough about the volunteer efforts after a disaster.

For more information and advice on preparing for disasters in your area:

  • Maintained by FEMA, has information on preparedness and weathering a storm before, during, and after.

  • The Red Cross: Information on preparedness. The Red Cross also offers premade emergency kits, battery powered radios, and other needed items in the Red Cross store.

  • The Red Cross disaster apps: Available for both iPhone and Androids, The Red Cross offers apps for hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes, and other emergencies. Through the apps, you can get tips, find local shelters, and more.

  • The Red Cross Amazon Alexa skill: Issues emergency alerts and provides tips.


This interview has been edited and condensed.