Recently the world has seen a barrage of natural disasters: hurricanes in the Caribbean and southern U.S., earthquakes in Mexico, and monsoons in southern Asia. These events brought devastation to communities and questions around the world about what we can do to help—and to prepare ourselves for similar events.
The safest and best thing to do when facing an approaching natural disaster is to heed your area’s evacuation notices and take advantage of evacuation assistance when it’s offered. It’s possible, however, to be caught by an unexpected emergency or to be unable to leave a disaster-striken region. When faced with those situations, what should you do to stay safe? How can you be better prepared? What kinds of choices will you need to make to survive?
We spoke with three experts—Tim MacWelch, resident survival expert for Outdoor Life Magazine, survival instructor, and author of multiple New York Times bestselling survival manuals; Warren Faidley, extreme weather photographer, survival expert, and tactical EMT; and Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology at Weather Underground—about how to survive a disaster when you can’t evacuate. Each one shared tips on preparation, remaining safe during the event, and withstanding its often-dangerous aftermath.
Here are their tips and advice on surviving a natural disaster.
What is something people should do far ahead of any disaster to stay prepared?
MacWelch: It's easy to focus on gear and supplies when you start thinking about preparedness, though these aren’t the only things you’d need in an emergency. Every family should have an emergency plan that addresses the most likely disasters in their region. Practical survival skills should also be part of every family’s game plan. These skills need to be learned and practiced before things get tough, because you simply won’t have time to read a survival book or watch a how-to video in the midst of a crisis. Get some first aid training, find out how to cook without utilities, learn to source and disinfect water, figure out different ways to heat and cool at least one room in your home. Learn everything you can, since you never know what might be useful in a disaster.
Masters: Develop an emergency plan. Figure out where will you meet up if separated, what phone numbers you should have, what supplies you should stockpile.
Faidley: I’ve developed my own three rules over the years. First, know what possible dangers could arise in your area. Second, know what to do for each one of them. And third, don't delay taking action. Those three things will keep you alive.
What should people always have in their homes?
MacWelch: The government guidelines for preparedness supplies are a great foundation for someone to begin disaster prep. The basic list includes drinking water, no-cook food, non-flame light sources (flashlights instead of candles), first aid supplies, and a host of other handy supplies. Again, it’s a great place to start, though I’d encourage everyone to plan further than the recommended 72 hours. Even though many situations are significantly improved in the first 72 hours, some are not. If you’re willing to take your family’s safety seriously, why stop at three days? Stock up a week’s supply of food and water, and you’ll be far better prepared than 90 percent of the population.
Masters: A source of non-grid power. I have solar panels on my roof with a battery-backup. Tesla’s Power Wall is getting to be a good-value source of electrical power, without have to have a diesel generator. Also have a way to purify water. A micro-pore filter sold by camping stores is a good solution.
Faidley: That depends on what kind of money you have. A lot of people just can't afford to buy all the survival things you’d need, but there are some basic things you must have. The first thing is some type of lighting system or flashlight you can use for a week or longer, along with the batteries to run it. People do not realize how important that is until their power is off, and they're stumbling around to find a flashlight that’s 10 years old with corroded batteries inside. There are also solar-powered lanterns you can charge during the day or crank-power, which is even better, because you don't have to leave it out in the elements. Those are good ideas for a secondary source.
They used to say to keep three days of food, but you should have at least a week—and if you can afford it, two weeks—of non-perishable food. Even if you don’t have a big budget, just save a few things every year or two and replace them when their expiration dates come. And water is a big thing. If you can't buy bottled water, fill up everything in your house. Fill up the bathtub. Fill up the sink. Save old water cartons to fill. That way, you won’t have to spend a lot of money on bottled water, and you won't have to worry about going out and finding it, because water disappears quickly.
What is something people often don't realize would help them in the event of a disaster?
MacWelch: One of the recommended items on FEMA’s list of home disaster kit items is a battery-powered weather radio. This communication tool (and any other type of portable radio) can provide survivors with lifesaving information, such as emergency broadcasts, evacuation orders, shelter-in-place instructions and much more. While any radio is better than none, a weather radio is the best choice, as it can tune in your local weather radio bands—which are one of your most reliable sources of emergency information.
Masters: Cell phones are great, but the towers can go down, so a land line is handy. Another critical thing to have in your survival kit is a battery-powered radio that can receive NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts. Get one that has the feature to alert you when a weather warning is issued for your county.
Faidley: Old-fashioned AM/FM radios, the old ones that use batteries. Information is critical in today's world, and stations will give out information to people: where to get food, where to go for medical assistance, what hospitals are open.
Safety During a Disaster
What's the most important thing a person can do during a natural disaster?
MacWelch: Staying calm is the most important thing a person can do during any emergency. Of course, this is easier said than done in a scary situation, but think of it like this. A little fear is a natural and healthy response to a frightening event. Fear is like an instinct that typically keeps us out of harm’s way. But when fear runs unchecked (this state is commonly known as panic), a person may make irrational, dangerous, or even deadly choices. Staying calm and preventing panic should be a priority for each person during a crisis.
What's something most people forget to consider in those moments?
MacWelch: A lot of people forget to focus on their most basic needs, also known as survival priorities. Human beings don’t need that much to survive. Shelter, water, air, food, security, sleep, medical care, and some semblance of hygiene will keep a person alive for a very long time. But quite often, these basic needs are confused with wants. People want to save possessions and they want to have their normal comforts and entertainment. The “needs” are the only things you need during a crisis, the “wants” need to wait their turn.
Masters: Don’t look after just yourself, see if others need help too.
Faidley: The thing people probably forget most often is that a natural disaster can be a very long-term event. You have to remember, during a hurricane, there's not much you can do about it then. You need to hunker down and be safe, but you have to remember it can be a long time for recovery. You don't know how long it will be before you’ll have power and whatever else you need, so you have to plan in advance. Either evacuate or have enough survival supplies for a week or longer.
What dangerous scenarios could arise during these situations that people might not consider?
MacWelch: I mentioned hygiene as one of the basic needs for a person, and it really is a need—not just a nicety. Poor sanitation can allow for the quick transmission of dangerous bacteria in “camp” or group-shelter settings. Something as simple as the lack of a handwashing station at the bathroom can allow hazardous pathogens to spread through a group in 24-48 hours.
Masters: Electrocution from power lines.
Faidley: Believe it or not, in most urban areas, the period after a hurricane is usually the most dangerous. You have fallen trees and some trees that have only partially fallen. You have power lines. You have sharp objects. You have gas leaks. You have broken glass and windows. You may have a boil-water order in your area. During Hurricane Harvey, it was the flooding.
And one of the most dangerous things after a disaster are uncontrolled intersections. People go down the road, and they'll drive right into a major intersection without even stopping. People are upset and not paying attention, and that is really dangerous. It can also be dangerous for children to play in the water, since there could be open manhole covers sucking the water down.
How can you avoid large objects nearby that may be unstable?
Faidley: If you're in the middle of a hurricane, you want to be in the most stable part of a building. You want to stay away from the windows and be in the most interior portion. You want to put as much room between you and any flying or falling debris.
Pets and Animals
What should people do with their pets during a disaster?
Faidley: I have a big problem when people tie their pets inside or outside their house. I’ve talked to people who love their pets and tied them up, and they say they thought it was the best way to keep the animal from being washed away or getting hurt. But if you can’t get your pets to shelter or leave them in a room where they’ll be safe, let them roam free. It’s the very last resort, but animals are amazing at surviving storms. They have a wonderful ability to swim and climb trees. The odds of a free animal sheltering themselves is much better than one that is chained. Even if there is no flooding, a chained pet can’t get out of the way of falling debris or could die from exposure.
How can you avoid dangerous animals in the aftermath of the event?
Faidley: Mainly you shouldn't be in that water. There are some search-and-rescue incidents that require it, but it’s pretty uncommon. It's something you can usually prevent. Stay out of the water as much as possible. Most of the time, animals are freaked out and don’t want to bother you.
Food and Water
What should you do if you run out of water?
MacWelch: This situation is quite common. Once the power fails, the water fails soon after. And once all the bottled water is consumed, you’re on your own to procure more. For those who have never sourced their own water before, the task seems scary and mistakes are almost inevitable. But thankfully, there are many ways to gather water and multiple ways to disinfect it. One of the easiest plans is to find the clearest water you can and boil it for 10 minutes to kill any pathogens. Sourcing and disinfecting water is one of the top survival skills that everyone should know how to do, and once you’ve done it—you’ll never forget.
Masters: Keep yourself from sweating by sheltering from the sun and reducing activity. Find groundwater sources near or underneath green vegetation, canyons, dry riverbeds or rocks. Cover as much skin as possible with loose, lightweight clothing. This will trap the sweat against your skin, slowing evaporation and therefore water loss. For this reason, it's probably best to go with a cotton undershirt rather than a wicking fabric. Cover it all with a light windbreaker. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and gloves.
Faidley: It will be pretty unusual to not have some type of water. Right after the storm, there's a lot of rainwater around, but you have to use common sense. You can't drink something that's contaminated, though you can buy water purification tablets, use chlorine, or boil water if you have power or gas. Plan ahead. It doesn’t take a lot of water to keep you going if you're not working.
Is it ever safe to drink floodwater?
MacWelch: Well, let me answer your question with a question. Is it ever safe to die of dehydration? Floodwaters are notorious for being a bouillabaisse of muddy water, raw sewage, dead animals, and toxic chemicals. That being said, it may also be the only water you have. Ironically, stranded flood survivors have found themselves praying for more rain—which is a clean and useable source of water. If the rain doesn’t return, see if you can get to the water in your home's water heater. There's usually 40-80 gallons of clean water in there. If you're the MacGuyver type and you know how to improvise any of the different apparatus for distillation, then distill the raw floodwater. Or failing that—boil the water for 10 minutes and drink only enough to maintain a low level of hydration. This limits your exposure to chemical pollution in the floodwaters.
How can people find safe food to eat after a natural disaster?
MacWelch: Regardless of the type of calamity, look for canned food in the wake of a disaster. The label may have fallen away, in which case the can contents will be a surprise, but mystery food is better than no food. Canned goods are surprisingly tough, waterproof, impervious to insects and most animals, and edible whether served hot or cold.
What should you do to prepare for any medical concerns during a natural disaster?
Faidley: You should have everything you'd include in a basic first aid kit. It’s good to have saline solution to wash out wounds and bandages to cover them. Of course, if you have prescriptions, you want to make sure you have extra ones, because you might not be able to get to the pharmacy for a few days or more.
How can you prevent infection to a cut or injury without medical supplies?
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Faidley: It can be hard to find medical attention. During a storm surge or flooding, you can have raw sewage, bacteria, or chemicals in the water, so you want to make sure you flush out any kind of cut. You can use clean water or alcohol, but it’s important to keep those wounds clean. Even the water falling from the sky is ok. You also want to make sure you aren’t stepping into water where you can’t see the bottom, because you could step on a nail or sharp object. Puncture wounds can be really serious, since you can get a bad infection or tetanus.
MacWelch: Ever wonder how the pioneers, colonists, or Native Americans treated their wounds before the advent of the triple antibiotic ointment and Band-Aids? There are dozens of common weeds that can be used as an effective poultice on wounds. These crushed curative roots and mashed medicinal leaves can discourage infection and even speed healing, as beneficial plant compounds soak into the skin. Foraging for edible plants and utilizing medicinal plants are two more skills you should learn and practice before you actually need them.
How do you stay warm when you're wet or exposed to the elements?
MacWelch: One handy survival hack for staying warm is to stuff your clothing with insulating material. This can be crumpled paper, bubble wrap, or even leaves. These lofty materials surround your body with an insulating barrier and prevent the elements from stripping away your body heat so quickly. Sharing body heat is another effective way to stay warm in cold or wet conditions, though it may not be enough. When I get cold, I reach for a hot water bottle or a stone that has been warmed near a fire. Hold it under your clothing or between layers of clothing. As the heat soaks into your body, you’ll feel the chill melting away. This is also a safe and gentle technique to revive hypothermia victims.
What should you do if you don't have a power source for an extended period of time?
MacWelch: Life without power is unimaginable to most modern people, as few people still live who grew up without the warm glow of electricity. My father grew up in a rural area that didn’t join “the grid” until he was eight or nine years old. This may sound romantic to a few, but it would be a living hell to the average tech-addicted first-worlder. So what should you do without power? Learn to cook from scratch, gather firewood for fuel, disinfect your own water—and after a hard day's work—read paper books or play games for entertainment.
Faidley: It depends on where you are and how much infrastructure is around you. If you can get out of your place and go somewhere with power, you’ll be much better off. If you can get away from an area that doesn't have power and go to one that does, you can charge your phone, charge your computer, cool off a little bit, and get some ice. If you’re in an area that’s totally devastated and there's no way you can survive there, you have to leave.
Leaving Home and Getting Rescued
What’s a good place to go if you know you need to leave your home?
Faidley: Airports are good, even if they aren’t running flights, because a lot of times they'll let you in. There will be supplies coming in, and people will see you there and give you supplies. You just have to find a place with some kind of civilization where you can get water and shelter. People gravitate toward shelters, airports, hospitals, or places where you'd expect people to be—anywhere you can go, get a bottle of water, and maybe find some shelter.
What's the best way to alert someone of your need for rescue?
Faidley: After Hurricane Katrina, taking a white sheet and putting it up on your roof has become the new universal signal for help. You can also tear it and make a cross, which air rescues will notice.
Is it best to wait in place for rescue or search for rescue yourself?
Faidley: That depends on a lot of things, especially where you are. It also depends on if you need to move or not, and that's always difficult to tell people. If you think you're not going to be able to survive where you are, if you think there's no hope for water or help, you’re better off trying to gravitate toward where there are other people. Because people are going to help you, in most cases. You just have to know the situation and your physical condition to determine when it's going to be safe to move. There's no easy answer in those situations, because they're all different.
Once things settle down, is there anything people need to continue to consider?
Faidley: There's a lot of scammers after the storms—roofing scams, robbery scams. I advise people to look for a list of contractors that the state has approved to find a legitimate company.