With some two and half million Floridians under evacuation orders and fleeing Hurricane Ian's path, now's a good time to remember best practices when confronted with a natural disaster.
As weather events become more extreme and more frequent due to the effects of climate change, it's important to be prepared.
"You want to do most of your planning and preparedness in blue skies," says longtime emergency manager Chauncia Willis of Tampa, Fla. "Don't wait until the skies are gray. Begin to think about what to do to survive right now."
Willis, co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management, remembers working at the emergency operations center during a hurricane and getting a frantic phone call from a family wanting local officials to check on their mother, who had not evacuated ahead of the storm. She couldn't help because it was too late — winds were already above 40 miles per hour.
"It just wasn't happening because that would put the first responders in danger," says Willis. "[I had] to tell the family that we can't respond right now — there's nothing we can do."
Willis says when you wait to evacuate, you run out of options.
"You have those who say, 'I want to stay and protect my house,' or 'I don't want to pay to have to shelter my animals,' " Willis says. "When you talk to them afterwards, they're saying, 'Well, I should have left ...' "
Her message: "Don't do that."
Willis says it's crucial to do what you can to prepare ahead of time. Here are some of her tips on how everyone can set themselves up to bounce back after a natural disaster.
1. Prepare an evacuation plan
"Run from the water, hide from the wind," is the adage when it comes to fleeing your home ahead of a hurricane.
Willis says your evacuation plan is all about knowing your vulnerabilities. Are you in a flood-prone area? Do you live in a place that has only limited access in and out — the Florida Keys, for instance? Will you have to navigate around potential hazards?
She says to pay attention to weather forecasters and heed the advice from local emergency officials when they recommend an evacuation. Give yourself plenty of time to get out and map your route in advance, giving yourself alternative routes in case roads are blocked. Be sure to properly secure your house and any outside items that might become dangerous projectiles in a storm, like patio furniture or potted plants.
And don't forget to choose a destination ahead of time. "The ideal plan would be to go to family and friends," says Willis. Public shelters should be your last option. "Shelters are a life raft," Willis says. "They're not a cruise ship." If you do go to a shelter, know what you can and can't bring along with you. For instance, most shelters won't accept animals, so find a pet-friendly option if you're evacuating with family pets.
She says it's also smart to have a family communication plan in case you get separated and can't reach one another. "You know, calling Aunt Mabel," Willis says. "And telling her that, 'Hey, I made it to a safe location. And I just want you to know that our carload is fine. Have you heard from the others?' "
2. Have a go-kit ready
Have a bag or container full of all your essentials ready to go. Your go-kit should include "anything that would be deemed critical not only for survival but your everyday usage," says Willis.
Some suggested items are:
- nonperishable food and water to last a week;
- a full tank of gas if you are evacuating in a personal vehicle,
- spare car keys;
- cash, "because banks and ATMs may not be available after the storm has passed," says Willis;
- a two-week supply of medications and medical supplies you use, such as insulin and needles;
- cell phones, chargers and spare batteries;
- hygiene items such as soap, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, toilet paper, feminine products, face masks, first-aid kit, baby wipes, diapers or other supplies for children;
- battery-operated emergency radio, flashlight and rain gear;
- important household papers: identification, bank numbers, credit card information, insurance policies, a list of important phone numbers and documents to prove homeownership or lease agreement.
3. Use a checklist to make sure you don't forget anything in the stress of the moment
"One of my favorite resources that has a great checklist is the American Red Cross," Willis says.
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is also a good resource for evacuation planning.
4. If your resources are tight, be creative and seek help now to be ready
Keep a mindset of "perpetual preparedness," Willis says. You can do it on a budget by using what you have and tapping community resources. "Everyone doesn't have the financial wherewithal to purchase preparedness."
Worried about cost? Instead of buying gallon jugs of water, collect and clean used soda or juice bottles and refill them with water instead. To stockpile nonperishable foods, check out your local food bank.
Willis says it's especially important for people with disabilities or chronic medical needs to make sure local responders know they may need assistance in an evacuation. The same goes for people who don't have reliable transportation — register ahead of time with your local government to let authorities know you will need a ride out.
"This is a result, in large part, because of what we saw with Hurricane Katrina," Willis says. "Where many people wanted to evacuate, they wanted to leave in advance, but they had no access to transportation."
5. Take the threat seriously
Willis says the threat of a natural disaster is significant with climate change. "Storms have become much more powerful," she says. "They are moving at a more rapid rate. So think about that. The storms are becoming larger. They're costing more. They're creating more damage, so it costs more to recover from them, and they're becoming much more frequent."
This podcast portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.
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