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When it comes to preparing for natural disasters, expats can be excused for feeling lost. They might not have grown up in a country or city prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tropical storms, wildfires or tornadoes. So they don’t have the experience of watching parents of friends prepare themselves for the inevitable. They don’t know what to do, if it’s better to evacuate early, what they might need with them, or who to contact.
For any expats out there staring down the barrel of severe weather warnings, there have been plenty of others in the same boat that you find yourself in now (no pun intended).
PREPARING FOR NATURAL DISASTERS
Since I’m in San Francisco (and luckily) insulated from wild fires and yet to experience an earthquake that I actually noticed, I turned to the brainstrust. That is, the Australians in America Facebook group. Australians from all over the USA were happy to share their experiences, tips and expertise with me. So a big thank you to everyone who contributed.
This Expat’s Guide to Preparing for Natural Disasters is based on their input, as well as officially sanctioned preparedness planning suggestions from government agencies. It should go some small way to helping you feel as prepared as possible.
Take It Seriously
No matter what the looming warnings are, take them seriously, Michelle warns. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and at times, listening to relatives back home isn’t the best idea. “It took me years to explain to my parents why the kids don’t play in the rain when we are under a tornado watch or warning,” Michelle said.
Government agencies and weather warning services have to be careful when sending out advisories, since the public has a short attention span and can get sick of waiting for a disaster to arrive and return to their homes. That’s according to Center for Advanced Public Safety director and senior research scientist Dr Laura Myers (read more on the psychology of safety warnings here). Dr Myers also warns that repeated warnings that don’t produce any weather abnormalities can also make people complacent.
Knowing that you’re predesposed to downplay the seriousness of a warning can help to avoid that behaviour, and make you more likely to weather the storm a little better.
Make a Plan Early
Don’t wait for the authorities to start organising you, especially if you have a family with young children. Sitting down and working out evacuation routes from your home in case of a fire should be common practice in every home. But when it comes to preparing for natural disasters, you’ll have to think outside the box a little. The best place to find resources and ideas is at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster preparedness website. It includes details on putting together a family emergency plan, building a supply kit and the different types of emergencies you might encounter.
The video below describes six important things to know and prepare BEFORE a disaster. Part of it is creating a family plan.
Talk to your family about where they should go, do and how to reconnect with other family members if a disaster occurs. This could means practicing different escape routes from a house in case of fire, knowing the safest place to take shelter in the event of an earthquake, or a designated meeting zone in case flood or hurricanes separate you. Use these PDF templates to help create your plan.
Claudia was one of many to experience the might of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, as it tore through the Florida Keys. It was tied with three others to be the Atlantic Ocean’s strongest storm and prompted authorities to issue mandatory evacuations. Claudia said that while it was a scary experience, the main thing she took from it was “don’t panic and don’t leave everything till the last minute. We were not in an evacuation zone but if you are, go sooner rather than later. People were leaving it till the last minute and got stuck with no gas because everywhere was sold out”.
Breatte made sure her four-year-old child slept in a life vest while they were flooded into their home during Hurricane Harvey. They weren’t able to wade out of their home until two days later.
Evacuate As Soon As Possible
Don’t hem and haw about whether you should evacuate. The odds are many others are doing the same thing and if you decide to leave at the last minute, you’ll be stuck in traffic, possibly without enough petrol to get you to a safe place. Travelling in a car when a years’ worth of rain cascades down is definitely one of the least safe places to be. Christine was also caught up in Hurricane Irma and was part of the evacuation process.
“Roads become crazy quickly, make the move quickly after making [the decision to evacuate]. Since Irma we are always now ready,” Christine said. “We have one carry case that all important docs stay in. We are lucky to have a panic room, so even though we can’t use it for these situations, we can for the rest of the year keep all these important docs in a carry case…. Most importantly, material items can’t love you back, so keep yourself and family above all. Be prepared once back home for power to be out for days or even weeks. So I guess my best advice is act as if [a disaster] is coming to your area tomorrow and get prepared now. Remember it’s like insurance – you’ll never need it when you have it.”
If you are leaving, Maree recmomends putting a penny on top of an ice cube in your freezer. If the penny has sunk to the bottom of that ice cube when you return, you’ll know that your house lost power and the food in your freezer is most likely spoiled.
Stock up on Food and Water
As Christine pointed out, don’t just think about the actual natural disaster, but also plan for the days and weeks that follow it. You might be without electricity, petrol for your car and clean running water for days or weeks afterwards. Don’t be caught without the essentials to keep you and your family safe. Zena, her husband and four children went through Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. The storm devestated a swathe of land between Houston, Texas and Lousiana, leaving many homes and businesses underwater for weeks, and killing 39 people.
Zena found it was the things that seemed “little” before the hurricane, that really helped maintain a sense of calm in its aftermath. “Being stocked up on water and groceries helps maintain normalcy in the house,” she said.
Fill your bathtub and sinks with water before so that you’ll have fresh water in case the supply is cut off, and freeze bottled water beforehand in case the power is cut and you need ice to keep perishable food fresh.
Have a Emergency Preparedness Kit
Building a supply kit to tide you over for 72 hours isn’t too difficult or expensive, and it can prove to be lifesaving to have in an emergency. Colette moved to South Mississippi a few years after Hurricane Katrina. The news of that disaster was enough to make Colette make sure she’s prepared for a similar event. “So far we’ve been pretty lucky. We tend to take every storm pretty seriously. We have a Hurricane preparedness kit with food, water, candles, flashlights, trash bags., important documents ready to go etc.,” Colette said. “Also having pets and kids, gotta be even more prepared especially with one of our pets requiring a constant heat source.”
What you should put in a survival kit:
- A gallon (3.8 litres) of water for each person per day (three days)
- A three day supply of non-perishable food and a can opener
- Battery-powered or hand crank radio
- Flashlight (torch)
- First aid kit
- Extra batteries
- Whistle to call for help
- Dust mask to filter the air or plastic sheeting and duct tape
- Garbage bags and moist towelettes
- Basic tools like hammer, wrench and pliers
- Local maps
- Phone chargers or back up batteries
Take this survival kit into consideration if you have pets, young children, or are caring for an elderly relative. You should also have an emergency kit in your car, including items like jumper cables, sand or kitty litter for traction, a jerry can (gas can), and an ice scraper.
Stashing Important Goods
There are some things that you won’t have room for or can’t carry. If they’re that important, store them in garbage bags and stash them in your (closed) dishwasher. This will help them remain undamaged by water from floods. You should take insurance policies, birth certificates, passports, rental agreements or mortgage documents with you when you evacuate. But if you have a lot of other important documents, consider buying a fire and waterproof box, or leaving them in a safe deposit box. Keep your electronic documents on a password-protected USB drive or external hard drive, or on the cloud.
Consider whether you want to leave these items in a basement, or move them to a place that’s less likely to be flooded, depending on where you live. Those in earthquake-prone areas should be securing appropriate furniture to walls.
When you’re busy packing your car and trying to secure everything left in your house, it can be easy to forget about checking over the vehicle you’ll use to evacuate. Ready.gov has a few tips for making sure your evacuation trip is as safe as it can be:
- Make sure your petrol tank is as full as possible
- Keep your tyres in good condition and replace them when necessary
- Check your winter tyres regularly
- Never drive through flooded water – just six inches of flood water can make you lose control of your car.
- Some flood-damaged roads and bridges may have been weakened by the disaster even after water has receded
- Watch for fallen power lines
- Avoid overpasses, bridges, powerlines, signs and other hazards
As a rule of thumb, stay alert to your surroundings wheverever you are, as high winds, fire, or floods will change the safety of them.
Have Cash on Hand
Sarah experienced a typhoon in Guam, that was slated to be a category 4, but ended up hitting as between a category 1-2. Her biggest tip is to make sure you have cash on you, because a power outage will mean no ATM service and no EFTPOS available at shops where you’ll need to stock up on essentials like food and water.
Pay Attention to Warning Sirens
Some cities and towns that are more likely to be hit by storms or tornadoes should pay attention to warning sirens. Anne has lived through some winter storms and tornadoes, but before that, she thought that the storm siren was just a “bell system for the school near our house”. She quickly learned that they are usually tested monthly, so it’s a good idea to find out the usual date and time for tests so you don’t confuse a trial run with an emergency.
The wireless emergency alert system will let you know life-saving information as quickly as possible. They can be issued by the National Weather Service, state and local public safety officials, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or the US President. Find out which local and state authorities are able to issue emergency alerts in your state here. You don’t need to sign up for these alerts, they are sent to mobile phones automatically, however you should check with your phone service provider that your handset is capable of receiving these alerts.