11 Things You Can Do Right Now to Prepare Before a Natural Disaster Strikes

updated Aug 22, 2023
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Natural disasters can strike anywhere at any time, and you need to be ready to either take shelter in your own home or hit the road in a hurry. Whether it’s a hurricane, tornado, flood, or other disaster, these emergency circumstances are most harmful when you don’t have a plan in place.

The reality is, many things are out of your control when natural disasters happen. You may have a warning of a few hours or days as the weather forecast takes shape, but no one can predict with 100 percent accuracy how the events will unfold. And it’s stressful to think that your safe space — your home — could be at risk. 

But there are several steps you can take to prepare ahead of time and feel more in control of your surroundings. These aren’t tasks like boarding up your windows or filling a bathtub with ice, which are important in the immediate moments preceding a disaster. Rather, these are the steps you can take right now that will give you peace of mind and an easier route to find safety in your own home (or elsewhere) if needed in the future.

Here are 11 ways you can prepare for a natural disaster before disaster strikes, according to experts.

1. Sign up for emergency alerts.

The best way to prepare for a disaster is to make sure you have an idea that it’s coming. You can watch the news or check news sites, but it’s also helpful to receive alerts straight to your phone. You can sign up for alerts from FEMA, the Red Cross, or your region may have an alert system. These will come across your phone if there’s a flood watch, tornado warning, severe thunderstorm warning, or anything else that could put your safety in jeopardy.

2. Do a walk-through of your home.

Next, figure out where the safest spaces are in your home. Walk through and around your home to determine the best shelter-in-place spots for a tornado, hurricane, or earthquake

“Take note of where utility turn-offs are in your unit, locate fire extinguishers, find a safe interior area without windows that you might go to in order to ride a storm out (that might even be a basement area), and look for posted emergency exits and plans,” says Kristin Cormier Robinson, director of FEMA strategic programs at IEM, a disaster management company in North Carolina.

If you’re a renter, Robinson advises talking to your building management services or landlord about expectations in a disaster. Ask what their expectations are around building prep and how they plan on ensuring the space is safe.

3. Have a plan for everyone in the household.

Once you’ve done a walk-through, formulate a plan and make sure everyone in your household is on board. Know where you’ll go if you have to evacuate and how you’ll get there. Consider who you may need to notify both in the area and elsewhere. 

“Talk about it now, rather than at the peak of hurricane or fire season or another event that requires evacuation,” advises Robinson. She suggests looking to resources like Ready.gov or the American Red Cross for outlines on how to develop your disaster plan. Additionally, FEMA has an app and text notification system for locating the nearest shelter during a natural disaster.

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4. Take preventative measures to mitigate impact.

Vanessa Castillo, deputy director of mitigation for Hagerty Consulting, explains that her organization often talks to homeowners about the low-cost and no-cost actions they can take to protect their homes from disaster, particularly wildfires. This includes simple preventative actions like maintaining the roof, cleaning gutters, removing dead vegetation from decks, and keeping vents free of debris. Additionally, be sure to follow local laws when it comes to landscaping. That could mean keeping trees a certain number of feet away from your home or using ember-resistant materials within a certain proximity of the structure, like gravel instead of wood chips.

5. Plan structural changes when necessary.

While there are many simple maintenance preparations for wildfires, floods require more structural changes, says Castillo. She advises residents in flood-prone areas first check with their local floodplain administrator on zoning requirements. Mitigation efforts could include elevating your home or, at the very least, elevating the more expensive items like an HVAC or water heater. A higher investment option is to retrofit the foundation with water-resistant materials or to install flood vents that would help alleviate the pressure from water in the case of a flood.

6. Invest in a generator.

If you live in an area that frequently sees hurricanes (among other disasters), it could be worth investing in a generator to power your home when the power goes out. While it’s an initial investment, it could save you significant money if you’re able to save the items in your fridge or stay in your home rather than going to a hotel.

7. Organize all your documents and make digital copies.

Legal documents can be difficult, costly, and timely to track down, so it’s critical that you leave your home with copies of items like birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, citizenship papers, wills, financial documents, and even your driver’s license. All should be kept in one place, and as Robinson recommends, “Have a binder of your important papers ready to go if you have to leave your residence. It’s even better if you have a fireproof and waterproof safe.” But, most importantly, make sure it’s accessible and easy to transport in a hurry.

However, when the clock is ticking, it’s not always possible to grab anything. For that reason, Kristen Bolig, CEO of SecurityNerd, says, “I would recommend storing digital copies in a secure cloud database so that you don’t need any kind of physical flash drive to retrieve them, but can access them on any device that has an internet connection.” 

8. Make sure you have insurance.

Most homeowners have insurance. If you have a mortgage, it is likely required. However, not all leases require renter’s insurance — and skipping it can be a costly mistake. Renter’s insurance may cover living expenses, hotel costs, and replacements on belongings and valuables if you’re affected by a natural disaster.

Robinson says, “Renters are eligible to purchase a separate flood insurance policy from their insurer. Renter’s insurance alone won’t cover floods — water coming in from the ground is only covered by flood insurance.” If you live in a basement or low-level ground floor apartment, this can be a critical addition to your policy. 

9. Have three days of supplies on hand.

There could be circumstances where you don’t need to or can’t evacuate, but you’re stuck in your home without power or utilities. In these situations, you should have at least three days of supplies to help tide you over until your community is back up and running or help arrives. If the water were to become contaminated or stop working, you need several gallons of water at the ready. Ideally, you should have one gallon of water per person, per day. Additionally, you’ll need non-perishable food and meals you can prepare without electricity.

10. Keep a go bag.

If you have to evacuate in a hurry, there won’t be time to run all over the house looking for what you need. A bug out bag with important papers, checkbooks and cash, clothes, necessary toiletries, a flashlight, blanket, and snacks will let you pick up and leave in minutes. 

Brad Greer, CEO of DrySee, also recommends keeping an emergency supply kit with necessary first aid items and ensuring everyone in your household has access to it. In the kit, include basic medical supplies like sterile gauze, bandages, pain killers, gloves, wound cleanser, emergency blankets, and whistles, as well as any prescriptions your family may need.

And, given some of the recent tales of motorists stuck on icy roads, Robinson says a go bag at home may not be enough. “Some of the people involved in these incidents shared that they wished they had food and water, blankets, flashlight, phone battery banks and chargers, and hand and foot warmers,” she says. These items should have a permanent place somewhere in your car, just in case!

11. Know when it’s time to leave.

When it comes to disasters, Castillo says, if you’ve never lived through one (or even if you have), you may think it can’t happen to you or it won’t happen again. Despite your best mitigation and preparation efforts, she says, “There may come a point at which you do just have to leave your home.” And that’s when it’s time to put your evacuation plan into play.