Q&A: How to Survive Any Extreme Weather Disaster

A new book offers survival guidelines for storms, floods, fires, and more.

Few families are adequately prepared for natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, and wildfires, warns a prominent author. And such extreme weather events have become more intense and more frequent in recent years, as the climate changes.

Preparation is critical to surviving natural disasters, says Thomas M. Kostigen, the author of a new book from National Geographic called the Extreme Weather Survival Guide.

Kostigen also cowrote the bestselling The Green Book and contributes to National Geographic's website. We asked him about his new book.

In Extreme Weather Survival Guide, you write that when it comes to weather, "abnormal is the new normal." Can you explain what you mean?

We're seeing storms like we've never seen before in terms of intensity and frequency. Storms that occurred maybe every hundred years are now occurring every three years. That's the new normal we're living in.

If you look at 2013, for example, temperatures on both the hot side and the cold side have deviated the most since 1900. So we have extreme weather happening everywhere, not just in remote areas but at our front doors.

Do you think most people are prepared for extreme weather events?

No. I think most people are aware of the weather. We talk about it even when there is nothing else to talk about, but then people don't take the next step to get prepared. They usually don't think about that until the storm arrives, and then they freak out and wonder what to do.

As an example, tens of thousands of U.S. communities are at risk of wildfire, and yet less than 10 percent have any type of preparedness program in place. People just think it's not going to happen to them, so that's the mentality to break through.

At the same time, I think more people are starting to wake up, because they see more epic floods or the dual hurricanes that hit Hawaii or more tornadoes in tornado alley, so we're starting to see a little shift.

What are the most important steps people should take to increase their preparedness?

In any situation, there are three things that you need to do. One, get informed on what's happening around you. Two, have a plan and an emergency kit ready. Three, ride out any event that is bearing down on you and [stay smart during recovery].

That last part is important because most injuries from storms occur during the recovery, and a lot of people don't think about that. People often step on debris, like nails or downed power lines, for example.

In the book you mention that some new technologies can help during emergencies. What are your favorites?

I'm excited about some of the new water purification technologies, because water contamination is a huge issue after events, especially floods. We saw that in Detroit. All 50 states experienced some type of flood in the last five years. It's critical to have a safe supply of water in watertight containers.

Smartphones also transmit all sorts of information that is critical. There are great apps from the Red Cross that show where storm shelters are. And you can set your phone up to get news alerts.

There's also improvements in apparel, and that's super important. If it's hot, you want something to wick your sweat and keep you cool, and if it's cold, you need layered clothing that can keep you warm. There's also a lot of good dried food that lasts for a long time.


How should people plan to protect their pets?

Make sure you have an escape plan that includes your pet. I have a giant dog who's my best friend. So I have food and water set aside for him for times of emergency. It's also important to have ID tags and/or microchips, so you can track your pet down if need be.

During an event, keep your pets close by, because they might freak out. Never leave them in a closed car.

How should people decide if they should shelter in place or evacuate?

That depends on the event. The typical mantra is to stay in place unless you have enough time to get away. For some events, if you are prepared and have an escape route, you should know well in advance to get out of there.

If you live by a slope and there could be a mudslide, you should leave. If it's a tornado, you don't want to be outside. You want to be in a shelter. If it's a flood, you want to be upstairs. If it's a wind event, you want to be lower to the ground or underground.

Was there any survival advice that surprised you?

One of the really interesting ones is to not take shelter under an overpass during a tornado. That's very dangerous and is not recommended [because winds can accelerate under them and they don't provide much protection against debris]. In a lighting storm, don't crouch down. That used to be the advice that was given, to keep as small a footprint as you could. Now the advice is to get out of there as quickly as possible and to seek shelter in a building.

What are the things people most commonly do wrong?

Growing up in the Northeast, my parents used to tape the windows with Xs before storms. They thought it would provide a bit of stability, but actually that just creates bigger shards of glass.

People also don't take enough care with their outside debris. Most injuries during storms come from being hit by things. So trimming hedges and trees is really important. During a tornado a lot of people have this impression that the house will implode because of air pressure [if the windows aren't opened], but there's no evidence of that. It's better to leave windows and doors closed. (See tornado safety tips.)

If you can, turn your flashlight on outside [rather than inside]. It causes a tiny spark that could ignite gas if there is a leak.

What role has climate change played in extreme weather?

We can't as of yet pinpoint climate change to any specific event, but it clearly has an effect on the weather. Climate is defined as the weather over time. When we have changing temperatures and more moisture in the air, that contributes to a lot of these extreme events. (See "Human-Caused Climate Change Worsened Heat Waves in 2013, Study Says.")

Can nature tip us off to extreme weather?

I think it's important to be mindful of nature's signals. That could mean spotting worms on the ground that may be a precursor to a flood or seeing more spiderwebs in the home that suggests it's going to get colder. Horses tend to turn their heads away from a storm, and it's possible to tell the temperature from the number of times a cricket chirps.

We all live in nature, even in New York City, so it's important to be in tune with it and to get prepared. Natural disasters are part of the environment.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

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