Oct 21, 2023

How To Prepare For Major Natural Disasters—From Wildfire To Hurricanes

A series of historic natural disasters have affected the U.S. so far this year, from tropical storms to deadly wildfires, and experts say planning ahead is critical to reduce the impact.

An aerial view shows destroyed homes and buildings that burned to the ground around the harbor and ... [+] Front Street in the historic Lahaina Town in the aftermath of wildfires in western Maui in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Since 1980, the U.S. has seen 363 natural disasters that caused $1 billion or more in damages, which combined have totaled more than $2.6 trillion in damages and caused nearly 16,000 deaths, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

The 18 natural disasters that occurred in 2022 resulted in 474 deaths and $177 billion in damages.

The U.S. has experienced several natural disasters in recent months, including the Maui wildfires, which killed over 100 people, and almost 400 people are still missing.

For the first time in almost a century, California was hit by a tropical storm earlier this month—Tropical Storm Hilary caused widespread flooding and desert and mountain areas saw record rain, with famously arid Palm Springs getting almost three inches of rain on August 20.

In July, parts of the Northeast saw severe storms and flooding and some areas reported up to eight inches of rain—Montpelier, Vermont, received a record-breaking 5.28 inches of rain, which severely damaged homes and businesses.

Floods account for 90% of all natural disasters in the U.S. and cause more loss of life, loss of property and economic damage than any other natural disaster, according to the Department of Homeland Security. There are several types of floods that operate differently, but the three most common ones are flash floods, river floods and storm surges, or coastal floods. Flash floods are caused by extreme rainfall over a short period of time, not by a surge from a body of water, and can cause water levels to rise quickly within a matter of minutes. So it’s important to be prepared to evacuate if local officials advise it. Storm surges happen in areas along the coast and are caused by either tsunamis or intense wind storms that happen at the same time as high tide. If local officials declare evacuation, going inland away from the coast is the safest bet. A river flood, though called that, can affect any type of body of water, like lakes and streams, and can typically be predicted, the U.S. Geographical Survey reports. Knowing what type of flood an area is prone to helps with making a plan for the household. The plan should include evacuation routes and zones, nearby shelter, a planned method of transportation, an identified place to stay and packed supplies, like food, water and a first aid kit, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For short-term flood preparation, you should unplug all appliances and electrical devices, elevate important things to the second floor, the attic or in cabinets and turn off the water supply and gas line. For medium-term preparation, place a sandbag barrier around the home to reduce water damage and anchor propane and oil tanks. For long-term preparation, elevate the home, water heater and electrical system and install a backflow valve.

In 2020, it’s estimated wildfires caused between $5 billion and $9 billion worth of damage. To prepare for a wildfire, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting emergency supplies, like first aid kits, battery packs and respirators and masks to protect against smoke inhalation. Pick a room that can be closed off to outside smoke and put a portable air cleaner in it to keep air pollution levels low. The Department of Homeland Security advises making a fire resistant zone at least 30 feet from the home, finding an outside water source with a hose that can reach the home in case it catches fire and knowing evacuation routes and evacuating immediately if told to. Be cautious of carrying highly flammable things, like hand sanitizer, hairspray and rubbing alcohol. Store important documents, like birth certificates and passports, in a “Go Bag” or fireproof safe via hard copy or on a flashdrive.

In an average three-year period, about five hurricanes hit the U.S., killing between 50 and 100 people. Of those five, around two are considered major hurricanes, with sustained winds of 111 mph or greater. Though both are potentially destructive, the sole technical difference between tropical storms, hurricanes and major hurricanes is wind speed. A tropical storm has winds between 39 and 73 miles per hour, and once they reach 74 miles per hour, it’s then considered a hurricane. The best time to prepare for hurricane season is before it starts on June 1, according to the National Weather Service. To prepare, figure out if an area is near the Atlantic or Gulf Coast and what hurricane evacuation zone it’s in. The CDC recommends making an emergency supply kit, locating the nearest shelter and various routes to take, getting a fire extinguisher and keeping an emergency power source, like flashlights and preparing an emergency health kit. It’s also important to move vehicles in a garage or under a cover, fill up gas tanks, fill water containers with drinking water, clear the yard of anything that can damage the home, cover windows and ensure carbon monoxide detector batteries are up to date. If needed, be prepared to shut off the power if there's flooding or downed power lines. If evacuation is necessary, the Red Cross warns against swimming, walking or driving through flood water to prevent drowning and avoid toxins in the water.

The National Weather Service calls winter storms “Deceptive Killers” because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm and are often caused by a loss of power, hypothermia and frostbite. Ready South Texas, an emergency response program, recommends adding a few things to an emergency response kit: Rock salt to melt ice in driveways, snow shovels and other snow removal equipment, sand for traction, blankets and clothes to keep warm and enough heat fuel, like wood, to last through the storm. You can also insulate the home with caulking, weather strips and insulation. Though it might be tempting to find different ways to warm up, don’t leave a car running in a garage, heat the home with a gas stove or oven or run grills or generators in the house to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Because winter storms can cause roads to be undriveable for days or weeks at a time, the Weather Channel recommends stocking up on food, water and other essentials to avoid leaving the house. Blackouts are common, so making sure electronic devices are charged, backup light sources (like candles and flashlights) are stocked and potentially getting a generator is essential. Cold water should drip from faucets if the temperature drops below 28 degrees for four hours or more to avoid pipes bursting or cutting off the water supply.

Hurricane Hilary Barrels Toward Southern California–Possibly ‘Devastating’ Storm Should Hit Sunday (Forbes)

Debris And Industrial Waste Makes Flood Waters Dangerous. Here’s What Californians Need To Know Amid Tropical Storm Hilary (Forbes)

Hawaii Officials Release List of 388 People Missing From Maui Fires (New York Times)