28 Oct Be Prepared.
As climate change has dramatically accelerated the threat of natural disasters, we all need to take steps to increase the odds that our families and homes are safe
By Kylie Ora Lobell
On October 8, 2017, a major wind event started the North Bay wildfires in Northern California. The 250 wildfires burned over 245,000 acres, forcing 100,000 people to evacuate. According to California’s Statewide Fire Summary, the fires destroyed 8,900 structures and killed 43 people.
When the fires first arrived, Shannon Kelley was at home with her newborn daughter and her husband, a firefighter. It was 11:29 p.m., and her husband’s fire pager began to go off. Kelley was hoping it wouldn’t wake their daughter, who had finally fallen asleep in the bassinet next to their bed.
“As [my husband] rushed out the door, I did a quick check on our daughter, and an orange glow in the distance caught my eye,” says Kelley, who runs the website Home Sweet Farm Home. “Out of our bedroom window, I could see what appeared to be 100-foot-tall wind-whipped flames barreling down our valley. Before my husband’s taillights had even vanished down our driveway, I knew I had to act fast.”
Within minutes, the 70-mile-per-hour wind-driven fire had engulfed homes and pastures and was burning up Kelley’s ranch. Luckily, it was headed away from her house.
Still, she stayed up all night watching the flames, ready to leave at a moment’s notice with her daughter and three large dogs. When the sun came up the following day, she was able to see some of the damage from her house.
“Over 5,500 structures burned within our area, and over 40 people lost their lives,” she says. “It was devastating, and we had no idea what had happened and was still happening because we had no phone, power, or Internet connection. The fire made its way back to our property by day two, and I had to evacuate.”
In the end, Kelley lost 2,000 acres of land and vineyards, some structures on her property, and hundreds of miles of fence line. The power was out for seven days. But she and her family—as well as their home—were safe.
Kelley says she learned an important lesson: how to prepare for the next natural disaster. “Being prepared for a natural disaster emergency can mean the difference between loss and survival,” she says. “Depending on where you live or how big the disaster is, first responders may not be able to get to you and your family right away, or you may not be able to evacuate safely.”
Kelley’s story is becoming increasingly familiar and applies to pretty much everyone in the United States (and beyond). Weather-, climate-, and water hazard–related disasters have happened every single day, on average, in the past 50 years, according to an August 2021 report from the World Meteorological Organization.
Additionally, the number of natural disasters that has occurred has “increased by a factor of five over the 50-year period,” the report states. That increase is due to more extreme weather, climate change, and improved reporting. From 1970 to 2019, there were more than 11,000 reported disasters, just over two million deaths, and $3.64 trillion in combined losses.
Now, in response to the rise in natural disasters, people all around the United States are planning for emergencies.
“It’s important to prepare for natural disasters because they can happen at any time, and often without warning,” says Alan Duncan, CEO of Solar Panels Network USA. “By being prepared, you can help reduce the impact of a natural disaster on yourself and your family.”
To ensure that you and your family will be safe should an emergency occur, here are some tips for getting prepared.
Follow News about the Weather and Conditions
It’s a good idea to check up on the weather and conditions in your area, especially if you live where natural disasters frequently happen.
“Watching the weather helps because you know when a natural disaster could occur,” said Kelley. “The news will tell you when there’s an impending red flag warning, an incoming hurricane, an arctic blast, or tornado weather. While it’s not always 100 percent accurate, you usually have some time to prepare.”
Discuss Your Plan with your Family
When an emergency happens, you have to snap into action; you don’t have time to come up with a plan. But if you sit down with your family beforehand and decide what to do just in case, you’ll be more prepared.
“I always make sure to have a plan in place so that my family and I are safe and our business can operate smoothly,” says Kate Zhang, cofounder of Kate Backdrop, which provides printed microfiber backdrops for photographers. “Talk to your family about what to do in an emergency and ensure everyone knows where to go and what to do. It’s also essential to have a designated meeting place if you are separated.”
Buy the Proper Insurance
Melanie Musson, an insurance researcher with Clearsurance.com, has studied climate-related patterns and how natural disasters have impacted home insurance risk and premiums. She recommends making sure you have policies that will cover you should something happen.
“Insurance is a significant part of the preparation process,” she says. “You can do things to protect your home and belongings, but even with the best plans, a storm can destroy a home. The right insurance policy can help you rebuild your life.”
Some insurance policies you might need include homeowner’s insurance if you own or renter’s insurance if you rent, as well as earthquake, hurricane, fire, and flood insurance. Check your policies to ensure they cover the natural disasters that typically occur in your area.
Prepare Your Finances just in case
It’s critical to save up between three and six months’ expenses worth of emergency fund money, says Helen K. Bow, vice president, Media Relations Center of Excellence for Wells Fargo.
“It’s also important to have a strong reserve of cash available for basic necessities if you encounter an emergency [so you can] buy food or gas or [pay for] a hotel room farther away from where the disaster is happening,” she says. “Banks and ATMs may not work for days after a hurricane or wildfire.”
Know the Escape Routes
Like Kelley, Nellie Akalp, CEO and cofounder of CorpNet and a mother of four, was affected by fires in California. She and her family managed to avoid earlier wildfires in 2017 and 2018, but then in 2019, the Woolsey Fire swept through their town, and they had to leave their home.
“Before that very close call, when my family had to evacuate our home and my team had to evacuate our offices, I did not prepare for such an event,” Akalp reflects. “However, now that we’ve experienced [it], I’ve learned that you always have to prepare for any scenario.”
What she also learned from the incident was the importance of having a plan for where to go immediately in case you need to evacuate.
“Have a place readily available that you can go [to], whether [it’s with] family or friends or a hotel that’s outside of the evacuation zones,” she advises. “Even before that evacuation order was put into place, I booked us hotel rooms for a week outside of the city. This is important since you can always cancel these, but if you miss that window, the hotels all get booked immediately.”
Staying Safe in an Emergency
There’s no telling when disaster could strike. However, if you plan for the worst, you’ll be much more likely to keep yourself and your loved ones protected.
Also, if you prepare, you won’t need to think. You can act right away, which is what’s necessary in an emergency.
“Being prepared can reduce fear and anxiety when a disaster hits because you will know what to do and have what you need,” says Kelley. “Proper planning and prevention can reduce the catastrophic impact of a natural disaster on your family and home. And knowing how to keep everything functional after a loss can help you recover more quickly.” DW
Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer who has been published in Diversity Professional, New York magazine, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Jewish Journal.
The Essential Emergency Kit
Having an emergency kit you can grab if a natural disaster occurs is crucial. You can purchase a premade emergency kit for yourself and your family members online; find them on websites like Amazon.com and Walmart.com. Another option is to create a kit.
Whether you’re purchasing a kit or making your own, Ready.gov recommends that it include these items.
- Water—a several-day supply of one gallon per person per day, for drinking and sanitary purposes
- First aid kit
- A several-day supply of nonperishable food like canned goods
- Manual can opener
- Prescription medications
- Over-the-counter medicine like antacids and pain relievers
- Cash or traveler’s checks
- Cell phones with chargers
- Extra batteries
- Plastic sheeting and duct tape in case you need to shelter in place
- Whistle to signal for help
- Dust mask so you’re protected if the air is contaminated
- Pliers or a wrench to turn off your utilities
- Hand-cranked or battery-powered radio
- Local maps
- Paper and pencil
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Feminine supplies
- Pet food and water for your pets
- Infant formula, bottles, diapers, and diaper rash cream for babies
- Books, games, and activities for children
- Copies of your identification, bank account records, and insurance policies; store them in a portable, waterproof container
Remember: You may need more items than those on this list. Think about what you use in your everyday life and supplement this list based on your needs.