Featured Expert
Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen Natural Hazards Program Specialist, FEMA View bio

This guide was written by

Money Geek Team

There's no part of the country that's completely immune from natural disasters. If you live far from earthquake or flood zones, you could still be hit with a blizzard or tornado. You can't control the wrath of nature, but you can prepare for the worst. A little disaster planning—and the right insurance—can help you and your family weather any storm. This guide will show you how to get ready for an emergency, and what to do if disaster strikes.

Preparing for an Emergency

While nobody expects a disaster, everyone should be prepared. When disaster does strike your community, you might not have access to food, water, or electricity for several days. If you haven't done so already, take the time to ready yourself for an emergency. We turned to experts at the Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other groups to identify the steps everyone should take before a disaster takes place.

Learn about the risks in your locale

In order to prepare for disaster most effectively, it's good to educate yourself on what kinds are most likely to happen in your community. Check with your city and county government - many have offices of emergency planning - to find out. If those resources aren't available, FEMA, the Red Cross, and the CDC offer helpful databases.. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and the National Weather Service keep up to date information about weather all over the world.

Develop an emergency plan

Before you ever find yourself in an emergency, create an emergency plan to share with any family members or housemates:

  • Identify a role for each member of your household so you can work as a team.
  • In case you are separated, choose two places to meet: Right outside your home in case of a sudden emergency, such as a wildfire, or outside your neighborhood, in case you cannot return home or are asked to evacuate.
  • Memorize and/or carry emergency contact information in writing and on your cell phones (don't forget to take cell phone chargers with you if you evacuate. Better yet, get one that charges your phone in the car).

Choose two safe havens that you can get to most quickly, and map the routes you would take to get there. Once you've created Plan A and Plan B meeting places, practice evacuating your home (ideally twice a year) along different routes. And in case you need to ask for assistance along the way, know where local fire, police and other city services are. Try to keep your gas tank half full at all times.

Have an emergency plan for your pets, too.

Pets are especially vulnerable in a natural disaster. They're used to a pampered life, and they may run away and hide if things get rough.

  • ID your pets with tags and microchips
  • Get to know their hiding places
  • Prepare an emergency kit with food and water and medical supplies for them just as you do for yourself, a minimum of three-day's worth
  • Check out pet-friendly locations to stay in case of evacuation on such websites as Petswelcome.com and Tripswithpets.com.
  • Plan for someone to check on your pets if you are not home.
  • If you evacuate, take your pets.
  • If you stay home, bring your pets inside, even those that may not usually stay inside all of the time.
Take daily preventative measures
  • Keep a pair of sturdy shoes under the bed; if you live in earthquake territory, this is a must-have in case you're in need of a quick exit.
  • Carry "ICE" in your wallet (and phone). These are "In Case of Emergency" numbers for your friends and family, as well as first responders like emergency medical technicians, fire and police officers. Don't be a hero, get help!
  • Create a home emergency kit and emergency food supply. It's essential to have an Emergency Preparedness Kit in your home, but also consider a second one in your car and ask your workplace to provide them as well. For general info on kits you can visit the CDC's list.
  • Have the essentials ready to go.
  • Three-day supply of water—one gallon of water per person, per day
  • Three-day supply of foods that are easy to make and don't spoil, like canned foods and dry pasta.
  • Can opener
  • Utensils
  • Three-day supply (at a minimum) of all medicines and medical supplies such as syringes.
  • Soap
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste
  • Toilet paper or baby wipes
  • Contact lenses or glasses
  • Emergency blanket
  • Band-aids and bandages
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Ibuprofen or other painkiller
  • Multipurpose tool (that can act as a knife, file, pliers, and screwdriver)
  • Whistle
  • Radio: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides weather updates during emergencies. Look for a radio labeled "NOAA Weather Radio." Or get battery-powered, solar, or hand-crank radio to stay informed during a crisis.
  • Flashlight
  • Radio
  • Cell phone (with chargers)
  • Extra batteries
  • Maps
  • IDs (State ID, Driver's License, Passport)
  • Copies of important documents such as insurance cards, immunization records
  • Paperwork about any medical condition
  • Extra cash
  • Extra set of car keys and house keys
Disaster-proof your home

A few simple steps can help protect your home from almost anything nature has to offer. No matter where you live, you should have weather-tight doors and windows. You should also be sure your homeowner's insurance policy and home inventory are up to date. Here are some DIY (Do-It-Yourself) tips for some of the most likely forms of disaster:

DIY Tornado and Hurricane security
  • Make sure walls are securely bolted to the foundation.
  • Wall studs should be attached to the roof rafters with metal hurricane clips, not nails.
  • Move chairs and beds away from windows, mirrors and large pictures.
  • Do not keep heavy items on shelves more than 30 inches high.
  • Secure large items that might fall over.
  • Make sure toxic materials are safely stored.
  • After a tornado or hurricane, shut off electricity and gas until you know there are no gas leaks or sparks that can cause fire.
DIY Fire Security
  • Clean your roof and gutters of debris on a regular basis
  • Keep an all-purpose (ABC) fire extinguisher on every floor of your home
  • Keep smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors on each level of the home
  • Check your smoke alarms each month to make sure they're working
  • Connect garden hoses long enough to reach any area of the home.
  • Keep your home clear by approximately 30' of anything that will burn, such as wood piles or dry leaves.
DIY Flood security

If your house wasn't specifically built to withstand flooding, it's very hard to keep water out. If you live in an area where floods are a real possibility, check out FEMA's guide for retrofitting your home in case of flood.

DIY Earthquake security
  • Strap or fasten down TVs, computers, big appliances, and hazardous electronic components
  • Secure cabinets and bookshelves to wall studs
  • Brace water heaters
  • Be sure all gas appliances have flexible connectors and shut off automatically in case of a gas leak
  • Make sure ceiling fans and light fixtures are secure
  • Know how to shut off your utilities
  • Consider earthquake retrofitting for your home. It's more expensive to repair damage after an earthquake than it is to pay to retrofit in advance.
DIY Power outage security
  • Make sure you have battery-operated candles and flashlights.
  • Move food from refrigerator to freezer to keep it fresh longer.
  • Prepare a cooler full of ice, if possible, for food storage.
  • Leave one light switch on so you know when power returns.
  • Turn off and unplug all unnecessary electrical equipment (when power comes back on, surges or spikes can damage electronics).
  • Travel as little as possible since traffic lights may be out and roads may be congested.
Prepare an emergency financial first aid kit

No matter your income level, rebuilding your life after a disaster can be incredibly costly and complicated—especially if you aren't financially prepared and properly insured. By creating an emergency financial plan in advance, you might stave off unnecessary, and costly, headaches down the road.

Follow these steps:
  • 1.

    Compile your important docs, such as the deed to your home and car and bank account info.

  • 2.

    Review your insurance policies and financial paperwork to be sure it is all current

  • 3.

    Safeguard paper and electronic copies of all files in safe locations

  • 4.

    Update your emergency financial preparedness kit on a regular schedule, such as your birthday, at tax time, or other major marker you're likely to remember. Bills don't take a break. It's important to remember that even in the event of disaster, you are still responsible for paying bills, such as mortgage, utilities and credit cards.

  • 5.

    Figure out how to access your money in an emergency. The best plan is to have some sort of emergency cash stash in a protected place where you can access it immediately. However, you'll want to be sure you can access your bank accounts as well. Consider choosing a bank that has many locations and ATMs. If possible, set up direct deposit with your employer so don't have to worry about the loss of paper checks.

Install the Red Cross's disaster apps

Now that we live in such mobile-friendly times, the Red Cross has made several emergency apps available for your smart phone or tablet. There are first aid apps for you and your pets and disaster-specific apps with detailed information on pre- and post-disaster preparation. Another app will direct you to places offering emergency food and shelter. The Red Cross also has a friend-and-family locator you can use to locate loved ones. These apps are all free through the Apple Store and Google Play.

Take a thorough home inventory

You may have the best insurance on the planet, but without an accurate inventory of your possessions, your insurance claim in the face of loss will be harder to process. Your insurance company will need proof of every loss.

  • Take written and video inventory
  • Start from the smaller possessions to the large
  • Include only your most valuable possessions, not every spoon, dish or tapestry

Try a home inventory app to keep it simple:

Getting Insured Against Natural Disaster

If you have a mortgage, you're legally obligated to have homeowner's insurance. Hazard insurance, which offers financial protection from damage and theft, is usually part of your homeowner's insurance policy, though you can purchase extended hazard insurance depending on your needs. A standard homeowner's insurance policy protects homes as well as the contents, such as clothes, furniture, appliances and books. Certain basic hazards are covered, but some natural disasters are not. If you don't already have flood or earthquake insurance but you live in an area where those are real threats, check to see how much it would cost to add such coverage. You should have enough insurance to cover the cost of rebuilding your home, if it ever comes to that.

How to File a Claim Post-Disaster

Before trouble strikes, have a plan for documenting and filing your claim. Here's the basic approach:

  • Take photos and video of the initial damage
  • Set up appointments with local contractors you trust to get estimates
  • Keep a log of all claim-related conversation with the company or agent (write down the name of the person you speak with, the date/time, subject of call)

Note: If you have a mortgage on your home, the payment for structural damage may be made out to you and your mortgage holder.

What is Disaster Assistance?

Disaster assistance is aid that comes from the federal government in the wake of a disaster. However, there are many limitations. Most disaster assistance requires a presidential declaration of disaster. If a situation is severe enough to earn that label, state and other local resources are likely to be overwhelmed. Individual assistance in the form of cash grants (on average, no more than $4,000) is sometimes available, but most disaster victims receive a loan that must be repaid with interest. It could also come in the form of a home loan or small business loan.

All things considered, homeowners should not rely upon disaster assistance when protecting their home. Insurance is a much better option: Claims are paid regardless of declarations by the president, and you don't have to pay back that money. Insurance policies are usually continuous and won't be canceled even if you've suffered repeated loss. Insurance is likely to reimburse you by many tens of thousands of dollars more than disaster assistance. Check with your insurance agent to see what kind of disasters your policies cover and whether you need extra protection.

Expert Q&A

Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen Expert View bio

Sarah Owen is a Natural Hazards Program Specialist for FEMA, Region 9, which covers Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Islands. She also has worked as a staff geologist at Cambria Environmental and as an ecology volunteer with the Peace Corps.

How should you determine your disaster risks for your community?

View flood maps from FEMA at www.msc.fema.gov/portal. Check out state "Office of Emergency Services" or "Department of Emergency Management" sites. Preparedness is your personal responsibility, then the city, the state, and federal agencies. The best resources are local because local institutions are more intimately familiar with their specific hazards, resources and challenges.

What are the most affordable ways to prepare your home for disaster?

First, consider making an emergency plan and preparing an emergency kit, which will be relevant to all natural hazards — www.ready.gov has examples. It depends on the hazard but for earthquakes you want to use screws, tape and straps to secure objects that might fall on your head. If you live in an area prone to tornadoes, have access to a safe room. To mitigate the damages from fire, have fire alarms with batteries that work and have access to appropriate fire extinguishers. For hurricanes, consider reinforcing joints with hurricane ties and clips and hurricane shutters.

For floods, consider buying flood insurance to insure your structure and contents, even if you're a renter or a business owner. If you know a flood is coming ahead of time and you have flood insurance, you can move your things to higher ground or another location and get reimbursed for that expense. In terms of flood, fire or earthquake, don't build in a high-risk zone, but if you did, follow flood-related building codes and consider insurance.

Is disaster assistance reliable or should folks definitely get insurance?

Most forms of federal disaster assistance are only available once the president declares a disaster. Assistance is in the form of grants and low interest rate loans. Insurance coverage can be more comprehensive than disaster aid and claims can be paid out faster than government assistance and are available even if the president doesn't declare a disaster. You have more recovery options if you use both.

What steps should you take immediately after a disaster?

Make sure you and your family/people around you are safe. Hopefully you have been trained by Red Cross or CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) to give basic first aid. If you are not safe, and you are ambulatory, get to a safe place. If phones work and you need help, call 911. Listen to the radio or TV for public safety announcements. Hopefully you are following your emergency plan and have access to your emergency kit. Once you're out of imminent danger, assess property damages. Take photographs and serial numbers of damaged items for insurance claims.

Have enough food and medicines, water and supplies to last you for three days- in a serious disaster it might take that long for rescue crews to get to you. But on the local level you can also join a CERT team. You should have a disaster plan for when disaster strikes in middle of night when you're at home, and one for the day when you're at work and your kids are at school. Remember to include provisions for pets, the disabled and elderly. Have disaster supplies in car in case you're on road when something happens.

What hazards should people be aware of after a disaster?

Be wary of downed power lines; gas leaks (don't try to turn them off yourself unless you're trained). If you smell gas, get away. Have all your vaccinations, including tetanus, because you might be exposed to higher risk of disease or cuts. When it comes time to rebuild, beware of predatory contractors, insurance hoaxes, or misinformation.