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Natural disasters: 5 preparation tips for protecting your health during floods, fires, blizzards and more
You can’t prevent natural disasters. But you can take action to stay safe during them. Here’s how to prepare.
Here’s a health- and safety-related question for you to think about: What’s the worst time to prepare for a natural disaster? If you answered, “During a natural disaster,” you’re exactly right.
But here’s the thing: Natural disasters just happen. They’re completely out of your control.
The good news? You can control how prepared you will be for them. Then, if a hurricane, tornado or wildfire strikes, you’ll have a safety plan in a place.
“Disaster planning is crucial for everyone,” says Matthew McGlothlin, MD. He’s the senior medical director with WellMed Medical Management, part of Optum, in San Antonio. “As our weather events become increasingly challenging, it’s never been more important for people to know what steps they need to take to protect themselves.”
With a smart plan, you can be ready for anything. Take these five steps today to help keep yourself safe tomorrow.
Tip #1: Pack a go-bag
Let’s say you’re listening to the radio and hear a tornado warning.
The first thing to know: If the tornado touches down nearby, it may cut you off from the things you rely on to stay safe and healthy. That could include electricity and running water.
Ready.gov, a website run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), suggests putting together a go-bag filled with essentials you’ll need to stay safe and healthy.1 Stock your kit with items such as:
- A battery-powered radio, to stay up to date as the emergency unfolds
- A flashlight, for seeing better in the dark or signaling someone
- Extra batteries for your radio and/or flashlight
- KN95 masks, to protect your lungs from smoke or dust in the air
- A first-aid kit to treat any cuts, scrapes, minor burns or other non-life-threatening injuries
- A whistle, to alert others or emergency workers if you need help
- A blanket or poncho, to stay warm and dry
- Cell phones, chargers and battery back up
DHS also suggests having one gallon of water per person per day for several days, stored somewhere you can get to it easily. You’ll also want to pack several days’ worth of nonperishable food. That could be canned beans and vegetables, nuts or dry cereal. (Don’t forget formula if you have a baby and a manual can opener.)1
Do you take prescription medications? Keep a small supply stored in your kit. (You’ll also want to make sure they don’t expire.) If you wear contact lenses, include a backup pair. Keep your doctor’s contact information handy too. They may be able to help you locate supplies in the event of an emergency.
Tip #2: Know the types of natural disasters that can affect you
Natural disasters can hit anywhere, anytime. But some have a greater frequency in certain areas. And you’ll want to know which ones they are, so you can best prepare for them.
Here are the regions where certain types of natural disasters are most likely to hit, according to the American Red Cross:2
- All regions: Flood, heat wave, power outage (blackout), thunderstorm
- West (Pacific): Earthquake, wildfire, hurricane (Hawaii), volcanic eruption, tsunami (a tall sea wave caused by an earthquake), landslide (when earth or rock falls away from a mountain or cliff)
- West (Mountain): Earthquake, wildfire, winter storm
- Midwest: Tornado, earthquake (Illinois, Missouri), wildfire (North Dakota, South Dakota)
- South and Southeast: Tornado, landslide (Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia), earthquake (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri), hurricane
- Mid-Atlantic and New England: Hurricane, winter storm
Even if certain natural disasters don’t typically happen in your region, you could still be affected when they happen elsewhere. Thanks to strong winds, smoke from wildfires even across the border in Canada or other states sometimes blankets neighboring states. That’s why it’s key to be ready for anything.
Tip #3: Have an emergency meet-up plan in place
When disaster strikes, you should get in touch with your loved ones. You’ll want to let them know you’re OK and check to make sure they’re safe, too. That’s why an emergency meetup plan can come in handy.3
“Being prepared helps fight the natural fears that accompany disasters,” says Dr. McGlothlin. If you have young children, show them that you’re calm, prepared and in control, he explains. It’ll help them cope with these tough situations.
The American Red Cross suggests talking with your family about the best:3
- Escape routes from your home
- Meeting place if you get separated
- Room in your home to shelter in place
Once you nail down a plan, you can do a few dry runs with your family to make sure everyone is on the same page. Think of them like the fire drills you did in school to prepare you for an actual emergency.
Tip #4: Prepare for unhealthy air
More than 1 in 3 Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association.4 That could be caused by nearby factories, pollen from trees, grass or weeds, or exhaust from vehicles.
Bad air quality can make it even harder on people with certain health issues such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).5 Those are breathing conditions that can cause coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. Breathing in bad air can make those symptoms worse.
Some examples of natural disasters that can worsen air quality outdoors (and even inside your house) include:6
- Dust storms can fill the air with tiny dust particles
- Wildfires can fill the air with smoke or hazardous chemicals (and the wind can blow it to places far away from where the wildfire started)
While you can’t control the way the wind blows, you can protect yourself from poor air quality.
Planning to spend time outside? Check the pollen count or the air quality index ahead of time. When those numbers are high, plan to stay indoors. If you do have to go outside on those days, wear a mask to keep yourself from breathing in air pollutants.
You can use a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system to improve indoor air quality too. (HVAC is how you control the temperature in your home.) Adjust your settings to recirculate the air inside your home instead of blowing in air from outside. This helps keep the bad stuff out.6
You can buy first aid and other emergency preparedness supplies at the Optum Store — all from the comfort of home. Start exploring.
Tip #5: Brush up on first aid
A natural disaster might knock out your power and the internet. Those might be places you turn to get first-aid help. So, it’s a good idea to know what to do ahead of time.
“Being trained in first aid and CPR are great skills to have at any time, especially during disasters,” says Dr. McGlothlin. (CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It is a way to save someone’s life when their heart stops beating.7)
Ready.gov suggests learning the following skills:8
- Know first aid and CPR. See if the local chapter of American Red Cross or another community organization can teach you these safety skills.
- Know how to use a fire extinguisher. Do you know where the fire extinguishers are in your home? And how to use them? Call your local fire station for fire safety tips like these or watch a how-to video online.
- Know how to shut off your water. If your water pipes burst, it could cause serious damage to your house. The resulting water damage could also lead to mold growth, which can even make the air unsafe to breathe.
- Know how to shut off your electricity. If natural gas is leaking, electrical sparks can ignite the gas and start a fire. Know where your electrical circuit box is. Remember to turn off all individual circuits first before shutting off the main circuit.
The five tips above are a great place to start. And if a natural disaster does happen, you’ll be better prepared. And better yet, you’ll be safer and healthier in the process.
For more information and support regarding a natural disaster, visit Optum’s Critical Support Center.
- Ready.gov. Basic Disaster Supplies Kit. Last updated August 4, 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- American Red Cross. Common Disasters Across the U.S. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- American Red Cross. Family Disaster Plan. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- American Lung Association. State of the Air 2023 Report. Last updated 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023
- American Lung Association. The Terrible 10: Air Pollution’s Top 10 Health Risks. Last updated August 30, 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- Environmental Protection Agency. Emergencies and Indoor Air Quality. Last updated September 25, 2023. Accessed September 28, 2023.
- American Heart Association. What is CPR? Accessed September 28, 2023.
- Ready.gov. Safety Skills. Last updated February 19, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2023.
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