This guide summarizes the basics of disaster preparedness and safety best practices before, during, and after tornadoes, wildfires, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Nature’s most violent phenomena, these disasters are frequent in the U.S. and cause severe destruction and human fatalities each year.
It’s important to plan for evacuations, prepare and protect your property, yourself, your families and pets, should you need to evacuate or seek shelter immediately. Share these step-by-step instructions with your family, friends, and community to raise awareness about personal safety rules in the face of a major disaster.
As a general rule of thumb, following a disaster, you must be able to survive and be self-reliant during at least 72 hours. Depending on the size of an affected area, disrupted infrastructure, and blocked roads, you may be on your own until rescuers can get to you.
America is no stranger to hurricanes. On average, the U.S. coastline is struck by 3 hurricanes over a typical 2-year period and at least one hurricane of those three is classified as major. Every year, all of the U.S. Atlantic regions and parts of the Pacific Coast brace for the hurricane season that lasts from early-June through late-November. With mile-long lines for fuel and bottled water, the pilgrimage to community shelters and the blustery wrath of endless rains and storm surge, preparing for storms is almost a tradition in many coastal areas.
Hurricanes come bundled with destructive winds, rip currents, high surf, storm surge flooding, inland flooding and tornadoes, causing widespread electrical outages and landslides. As such, it’s vital that families and communities are prepared to:
- Be self-reliant before, during, and after the disaster
- Know where to go for help
- Help their community
Meteorology is far from predicting a hurricane well ahead of time, but 2-3 days forecasts are fairly accurate. That’s why it’s important not to just keep track of the weather, but to carefully follow the directions of officials.
Before a hurricane
Awareness is the first step toward an actionable and effective hurricane preparedness plan, so start by assessing your risks. The top U.S. cities most vulnerable to hurricanes based on their location and other geographic factors are: Miami, Tampa, and Key West in Florida; Cape Hatters in North Carolina; and New Orleans in Louisiana.
To properly prepare for a hurricane:
- Know the difference between a hurricane watch (which is an indication a hurricane might be forming and is normally issued 48 hours before dangerous winds start) and a hurricane warning (which is a direct indication you need to get moving because a hurricane is heading your way)
- Tune in for alert updates when a hurricane watch or warning has been issued. Local television and radio stations are good sources. you can also keep track of approaching storms via www.weather.com, www.nhc.noaa.gov, and www.windy.com
- Prepare your hurricane safety kit
- Secure your property
- Draft your emergency plan
How to secure your property
Provided your emergency kit is ready, you can secure your home in the face of the approaching disaster. To protect your property against damaging winds, flooding and storm surge, consider the following recommendations.
- Stockpile emergency protective materials such as sandbags, plywood, and plastic sheeting
- Make sure your security systems are tied into your generator if you have one.
- Cover all your windows with wood or hurricane shutters. Marine plywood is highly recommended; particleboard is a no-no.
- Tape alone is not enough. It might prevent the glass from shattering, but it won’t prevent your windows from breaking.
- Reinforce your roof with secure straps or clips
- Close, secure and brace all doors
- Know how and where to disable power in your property if the water starts rising
- If you anticipate flooding, elevate whatever electric appliances you can, including the heating system, electric panel, and water heater
- Consider investing in a water alarm system, and sump pumps with a backup battery, as well as waterproofing your basement
- Check valves in sewer lines will prevent floodwater from backing up into your drains
How to secure your yard
- Trim all the trees and bushes around your home
- Stake garden plants and small trees that could break in strong wind
- Clear rain gutters; clear any possible debris like leaves and branches around your home
- Check your garage doors and reinforce, if needed
- Bring inside all outdoor furniture, flags, wind chimes and other décor, garbage cans, grills, etc
- Anchor your portable basketball backboard to the ground, or wheel it into your garage
- Secure pool covers
How to secure your car
- Your vehicles should have full gas tanks well in advance of the mass panic and huge lines at gas stations
- Stockpile your car emergency kit with non-perishable food, water, flares, jumper cables, maps, roadside emergency kit, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, sleeping bags, GPS, and flashlight with batteries
- Move your cars and trucks into your garage, if possible
- If you need to leave a vehicle behind, don’t leave it in low area prone to flooding
How to prepare for power outages
A storm could cause a lot more distress if you lose power. There are a few important precautions that will make your deprivation days a lot less stressful:
- Buy a full tank of gas well in advance of an approaching storm as gas stations will run out very quickly.
- Fill fuel tanks of your outdoor grills (they could become your primary cooking appliance).
- Have cash on hand, since ATMs won’t be working if the power is out.
- Charge your cell phones and limit their usage.
- Fill your bathtub and sinks with water for basic necessities like washing and flushing. Note: sterilize your bathtub first.
- Air conditioners won’t keep you comfortable during power outages, so consider covering your windows from the inside.
- If you expect a power outage, freeze as much water and food as you can. Fill coolers with ice to cool food and drinks after the power has been out for 4+ hours.
You may have to evacuate if state officials issue an evacuation order. If you’re prepared with an evacuation plan, you’ll avoid a disorganized, panic-driven hassle. Also, a thought-through communication plan will help your family members reconnect if they get separated.
Create a hurricane communication plan
- All cell phones must have family and emergency contacts saved in memory.
- Agree on an out-of-area emergency contact who can help your family reconnect.
- Print out a list of family and emergency contacts. Have all family members carry it in their wallets or pockets. Phone batteries tend to lose steam when you need them most, so you should have important numbers on paper.
- Use text messages and social media when landline and wireless systems are overwhelmed during a disaster.
- Agree on two possible meeting places.
- Practice how your family members can get in touch if you split up.
“If you wait for an evacuation order to be issued before beginning your preparation, it may be too late,” warns the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Ideally, you should know your evacuation routes at all times, so that when authorities order mandatory evacuation you’re not wasting time on research. Also, emergency services will be greatly delayed during an evacuation order, so anyone with health issues must evacuate well ahead of the storm.
Create a hurricane evacuation plan
- Find out possible evacuation routes via your state’s Department of Transportation or Office of Emergency Management
- Know where your local shelters are located
- Plan where you may stay other than shelters (hotels, relatives)
- For hotels, make reservations as soon as possible
- Fill your vehicle’s gas tank well in advance if you suspect an evacuation order might be issued
- Leave early as traffic builds quickly during an evacuation
- Keep handy a roadmap – GPS may not always work
- Don’t forget your safety kit
Create a hurricane safety kit
One common thing that spreads like a plague in the face of a hurricane is panic. When people succumb to panic en masse, they rush to local supermarkets and grocery stores, sweeping supplies and hoarding whatever they can. Shelves are empty within hours of emergency warning, and logistically retailers can’t keep up with the increased demand. If you prepare your hurricane kit ahead of time, you won’t be stressing over emergency shopping as a hurricane approaches. Instead, you’ll be securing your home. Your hurricane kit should be comprehensive in nature, but also lightweight enough that you can take it with you if you need to evacuate.
- Portable water for at least 72 hours
- Non-perishable food for three days
- First-aid kit (include prescription medication and account for special needs of seniors, babies, and members with diabetes)
- Wet wipes, alcohol wipes and gel, paper towels, and plastic bags
- Flashlights with extra batteries
- Charged cell phones with chargers
- Radio with an extra set of batteries
- Plastic bags or a waterproof container with all important documents and cash (IDs, Social Security, house insurance, driver’s license)
- A lighter and/or matches
- Manual can opener (or a Swiss Army Knife)
- A full list of contacts of all family members if you get separated, emergency contacts in and outside of your area
- Protective gear such as warm clothes, blankets, gloves, and footwear
- If you have pets, special pet supplies (leash, ID, container, food, water, blanket)
Don’t forget to plan for your pets
- Pets may not be allowed in shelters and some hotels, so research these things in advance. Contact local animal shelters for availability if you are unable to take your pets with you. Do not leave them behind.
- Service animals assisting people with disabilities are allowed in Red Cross shelters.
- Don’t forget to include your pet’s leash, ID, travel crate, food, water, and a warm blanket in your emergency kit, as well as their photo, all of their vet records and a toy or two that will remind them of home.
Keep a list of the following contacts
- FEMA Emergency Management Offices
- County law enforcement
- State, county and city government
- Local hospitals, utilities
- Local TV and radio stations
- Local American Red Cross
During a hurricane
During a hurricane, apply some common sense to your activities and follow authorities’ recommendations. If sheltering at home, stay inside but secure your dwelling. If evacuating, do so well in advance.
If you evacuate
- If advised to evacuate, do so immediately
- Don’t wait. If you need to leave, do so as soon as possible, since traffic gets snarled during evacuation
- Avoid flooded roads – six inches of water is enough to float a car
- Watch out for bridges that may be compromised by floodwaters
- If you are unable to evacuate for whatever reason, but need to do so, call the emergency hotline – responders will schedule for your evacuation
- If there are people with special needs in your family, call the hospital and/or police for advice on how to help
- If you decide to drive or walk to a shelter, lock your home, take your emergency kit, bedding, and clothing with you
- Note: a lull is often a sign of the storm’s eye – not its end. When riding out a hurricane, listen to announcements from authorities to confirm the danger is over.
If you stay
- Make sure your family and pets stay indoors
- Don’t wait for the floodwater, move your pets and valuables to higher locations in your home
- Stay away from windows and doors
- Keep your emergency kit nearby
- Stay tuned in to local radio
After a hurricane
A lot of people are killed while cleaning up after a hurricane. From 2000 to 2014, 1,853 deaths were caused by hurricanes and tropical depressions. More than half of these deaths were caused by indirect factors during cleanup.
Returning home safely
- Keep monitoring local radio and official community and authorities’ Facebook pages for alerts and announcements
- Only return once authorities have announced it is safe to do so
- Avoid using the phone, except for emergencies. This will keep the network less clogged for emergency responders and those in dire need.
- When you return, open windows and doors to ventilate and dry your home
- Be careful – snake and spider bites are common after floods
- Check your water lines – if you suspect any damage, don’t use toilets
- Enter your home with caution and check for gas leaks
- If you suspect a gas leak, get outside
- If possible, turn off the gas line at the cut off valve, and call the utility company
- Avoid using candles and other open flame sources for light or heating, especially if you have small children and pets
- Don’t burn charcoal in enclosed spaces, as carbon monoxide buildup is deadly
- Check your property for damaged electrical wiring
- Be on the lookout to sparks and frayed wires
- If you suspect any damage, cut off the power at the circuit breaker box or the fuse. Do NOT touch the box if you need to stand in water
- Don’t use wet electrical equipment
- Avoid downed power lines and loose wiring
- Don’t step in puddles near downed power lines
- Throw away all spoiled food and drinks
- Throw away any food supplies that have been soaked in floodwater, including canned foods
- Don’t eat vegetables from a flooded garden
- Don’t drink tap water until authorities have inspected it and confirmed it is safe
- Disinfect everything that was wet, as floodwater contains chemicals and bacteria from the sewage
For insurance purposes
- Take photos of every damaged item for insurance purposes afterward
- Place damaged items outside if you think you can’t salvage them, but don’t discard them until an insurance adjuster takes a look
How you can help
Volunteers help respond to more than 64,000 disasters every year, according to Red Cross. Since hurricanes bring massive destruction, and a lot of people need assistance in shelters, there are many ways you can contribute to your community’s disaster relief efforts during and after a hurricane. You can help provide the affected families with food, shelter, and care. Or you could take a proactive approach and become a part of your community preparedness committee and help educate individuals and groups on hurricane safety.
Additional hurricane resources
- CDC Hurricanes and Other Tropical Storms
- Food Safety Guide For When To Discard Your Perishable Food
- Homeowner’s and Renter’s Guide to Mold Cleanup after Disasters
- How to Volunteer and Help After a Natural Disaster
- National Weather Service Weather Safety
- NOAA Radio Station
- NWS Storm-Ready Sites & Communities
- Red Cross Emergency Plan for Your Pet
Earthquakes are a major risk in the U.S. The seismically active San Andreas, San Jacinto, and New Madrid faults and the Cascadia Subduction Zone span most of the national territory. Even though seismologists can predict where earthquakes may happen, they can’t predict when they are going to happen, or how strong they are going to be.
Almost all earthquakes happen when accumulated stress in rocks along active faults gets released. In simple terms, an earthquake is what happens when large rocks break. And when they break, they make noise and send seismic waves that make the ground shake and cause the destruction we see on the news.
What to expect during an earthquake
- They occur without warning
- Small and moderate earthquakes usually last less than one minute
- Strong earthquakes last up to several minutes
- The ground will move
- Expect to feel dizzy and unable to walk
- You may feel the ground shaking and rolling, much like being at sea
- In high-rise buildings, you may experience sway, since the building may move from side to side
- Furniture and unsecured light fixtures and ceiling panels may fall or topple violently
- Windows may break
- Fire alarms may go off
- You may lose power
- Hours, days or months after the initial earthquake, there may be even more destructive aftershocks
Effects of an earthquake
- Human and animal casualties
- People and animals trapped under the debris
- Immediate impacts on buildings, bridges, roads
- Fires and explosions as gas pipes are often damaged
- Tsunamis and flooding in coastal areas
- Disrupted transportation, communications, water, gas, and electricity supply
- Long-term impacts as all structures may have damage that is not apparent in the aftermath of an earthquake
- Economic impacts, as infrastructures and logistical chains are disrupted
- Environment pollution and water contamination
With all of this in mind, take the following precautions to ensure that you’re ready if and/or when an earthquake hits.
Before an earthquake
Begin your earthquake safety preparations by knowing your risks. Check the U.S. Geological Survey National Seismic Hazard Map, which is an annual forecast highlighting the high-risk zones prone to earthquakes.
Secure your home
There is unfortunately no one-size-fits-all solution to preparing your home for an earthquake. Depending on when, where and how it was designed and built, your home may have structural weaknesses that make it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes.
Buildings without proper anchoring to their foundations, weak crawl space walls, unreinforced masonry walls, and unbraced pier-and-post foundations will require professional assessment and help.
When renting, ask your landlord what has been done to strengthen the structure against earthquakes. If you are building or buying property, have a professional review the structure and its design and see if it’s built according to the local building codes.
How to prepare the inside of your home for an earthquake
- Note potential hazards – tall, heavy items such as bookshelves, mirrors and pictures, home electronics, and anything that is hanging from walls and ceilings
- Secure these items – consider flexible fasteners, or closed hooks
- Install flexible connectors on gas appliances
- Relocate potentially hazardous items such as heavy book shelves away from beds, sofas, and chairs
- Anchor overhead lamps to joists
- Latch wardrobe doors
- Strap the water heater to wall studs
- Anchor heavy and tall furniture to wall studs
- Learn how to shut down the gas supply in your home
- Have your house evaluated by a professional structural design engineer and ask about strengthening tips for your porch, deck, sliding glass doors, and garage doors
How to prepare your family for an earthquake
As is the case during any emergency, your worst enemy is panic. If an earthquake strikes, your family will not have time to calm down and think – they will need to act quickly. Proper safety planning and preparation will ensure that injuries are minimized.
- In your home, identify the safest places during an earthquake
- Practice Drop → Cover → Hold On drills, especially with young children
- Keep a family emergency kit somewhere accessible
- Establish a communication plan ahead of time so that everyone knows how to stay in touch, especially when parents are at work and kids are at school
- Learn CPR and first aid, as well as how to use a fire extinguisher
- Know how to shut down your home utilities such as water, gas, and electricity
- Plan out where you will stay if your home is damaged and you need to shelter elsewhere
- Make preparations for pets in advance, since they may not be allowed in hotels or emergency shelters
- Consider having earthquake insurance if you live in a high-risk zone
- Ask your children’s schools or daycare centers about their earthquake emergency plans
- Check your office emergency plan; know your escape routes
- Know how to find NOAA radio stations in your area
- Keep a flashlight and comfortable shoes by the bed at all times (these are useful in any emergency, not just earthquakes
Create an earthquake communication plan
Infrastructure disruption after an earthquake can leave entire communities without roads, bridges, electricity, Internet, and wireless networks. Families can get separated. Knowing how to reconnect and where to find each other is a vital part of your family safety plan.
- Print out a list of all family and emergency phone numbers and have all family members carry it at all times
- Know where your children could be evacuated from their schools and daycare centers
- Make sure caretakers and teachers have your phone number
- Identify possible shelter locations in your area
- For adults, designate two meeting places
- Appoint a relative or friend outside your region who could help you reconnect, or provide shelter if you need to evacuate
Create an earthquake emergency kit
72 hours – that’s how long you need to be self-reliant after an earthquake occurs. So, when you’re assembling your emergency kit, make sure you have enough food, water, medication, and other supplies to sustain your family – and pets – for at least three days.
Also, consider keeping additional, smaller kits in your garage, cars, and office.
- First aid kit
- Prescription medication for all family members, including those with special needs
- Cash in smaller bills
- Important documents (IDs, Social Security, home insurance)
- Extra gas tank for your grill (you might need it for cooking while gas supply is disrupted)
- Battery-powered radio
- Flashlight with extra batteries
- Charged cell phone with family and emergency contacts stored in it
- Printed sheet with family and emergency phone numbers
- Three-days stock of non-perishable food and potable water for each family member and each pet
- Manual can opener
- Pet items like food, water, leash, ID, warm blanket, travel crate, as well as their photo, vet records, and a few toys to remind them of home
- Extra keys to your house and car
During an earthquake
Even though what you do while an earthquake is happening is critical, this section is short because you’ll have very little time to actually think about what you’re going to do.
- Whatever you decide, act quickly
- Do not hesitate
- Don’t panic
Depending on where you are when an earthquake hits, your actions may differ. But the logic behind them must follow the same rules – get away from anything that can fall on you, and seek something solid to use as a short-term cover.
If you’re in a building
If you’re outside
If you’re in a car
Earthquakes are surrounded by myths and misconceptions, many of which are extremely dangerous if you follow them as “best safety practices.”
After an earthquake
After an earthquake, the danger is far from over. Debris may fall from buildings. Structures may collapse. Landslides and tsunamis may follow. So once the shaking stops, be cautious.
- Check yourself, your family members, and your pets for injuries
- Provide first aid, if needed
- If you’re in your home, go outside. If you’re in an office building, go out to the parking lot. Get to an open space, away from damaged structures.
- Look up and around for falling debris – or the potential of it
- Check on your neighbors; they may need help
- If you choose to stay inside your home, shut down the gas supply
- Check water and electric lines for damage. If you suspect any leaks, shut off the valves.
- Do not use matches or turn on the lights until you are certain there is no gas leak
- If tap water is still available, fill your bathtubs and sinks
- Be careful around chimneys and stairs, as they may collapse
- Stay away from brick walls, as they often become weakened
- Only use phones for emergency calls
- If you need assistance, but cannot get outside, place a HELP sign in your window
- Do not try to move.
- Do not kick dust
- Whistle if you can. Tap on a pipe or wall to help rescuers find you
- Try to reach your cell phone to call for help
- Turn on the radio, monitor local news for tsunami alerts
- If you live in a coastal area, move inland and to higher ground immediately
- Be alert for aftershocks, as they may be even more destructive
- In case of an aftershock, Drop → Cover → Hold On
- Assist rescue workers, if you can
- Don’t try to remove heavy debris by yourself
- If helping rescuers, wear work gloves, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and sturdy shoes
- If you can’t assist in clearing out debris, but want to help, take part by bringing emergency supplies to the rescuers and volunteers
- Be vigilant of people who may seek to take advantage of the situation and, disguised as volunteers, go looting in unattended houses and shops, or worse, physically harm disaster victims
It is possible that after a major earthquake you may need to leave your home and spend several days in a shelter. Consider downloading one of the American Red Cross or FEMA mobile apps so that you’re constantly getting live updates.
- Take your emergency kit with you
- Post a note in a clear view indicating where you can be found
Additional earthquake resources
Every year, devastating wildfires burn across the U.S. In fact, according to Weather.com, around 1.2 million of acres of U.S. woodland burn each year, while the National Fire Protection Association estimates that nearly 45 million homes border with forests and heavily wooded areas. More than 72,000 communities are located in areas prone to wildfires.
Did you know?
- Wildfires can happen at any time throughout the year
- Weather factors like drought conditions, high winds and lightning cause only 10% of wildfires
- The other 90% are caused by humans, either accidentally—from cigarettes, campfires, or outdoor burning—or intentionally. Careless and uninformed actions like equipment fires from lawn-mowers, fireworks and improperly discarding of ashes can also result in massive forest fires.
- Wildfires can happen anywhere in the country – in remote wilderness areas, in national parks, or even in your backyard
- Federal suppression costs typically range from $1 billion to nearly $2 billion annually
According to Verisk’s Wildfire Risk Analysis 2017, losses from wildfires amounted to $5.1 billion over the course of the past ten years.
- Wildfires can cause death or serious injury to both people and animals
- Structures may be significantly damaged, and often are destroyed
- Transportation, gas, power, and communication services may be disrupted for extended periods of time
- Flying embers can set fire to buildings more than a mile away from the wildfire itself
- Smoke causes health issues even for those who live far away from where the actual fire is located
- Extensive acreage can be devastated, watersheds and critical natural areas can be damaged
- Flash flooding and mudslides can result from fire damage to the surrounding landscape
Unfortunately, wildfires can affect the land for many years. Trees, shrubs, and grasses roots stabilize the soil while leaves and stems slow the water. During wildfires, trees burn to the roots, and the litter layer is destroyed. When a fire destroys plant material, it can cause severe soil erosion, which increases the risk of future floods.
Compounding the situation is that megafires – those that consume 100,000+ acres of land – are becoming increasingly more common. There are roughly ten megafires a year in the U.S. Prior to 1995, there was an average of 1.
Do you know what to do to when a wildfire happens, and you need to evacuate in a matter of minutes?
Do you know how to protect your family, pets, and property?
Preparation is critical, so follow these recommendations to ensure your loved ones and your property are protected during wildfires.
Before a wildfire
To be prepared for a wildfire, you need to start now by following FEMA landscaping recommendations to give your property a better chance of making it through a wildfire without severe damage.
Additionally, you need to understand wildfire warnings and know your reliable sources for weather updates, as well as have a detailed plan that covers personal protection. You also need to plan ahead for all household members, especially young children, seniors, and pets, and account for their needs when buying items for your emergency kit.
Awareness saves lives in any emergency but during wildfires, every second counts. Weather alerts are the first source of reliable information you need to make a timely decision to stay, evacuate, or call 911.
- Regularly scan your local TV and radio stations for severe weather alerts
- Stay alert to notifications issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- Know the differences between:
- A Fire Weather Watch – potentially dangerous fire weather conditions are possible over the next 12 to 72 hours
- A Fire Weather/Red Flag Warning – the danger of a wildfire exists, and weather patterns that increase the probability of wildfires are either occurring or expected to occur within 24 hours
- An Evacuation Notice – the danger is imminent and local authorities may issue an evacuation notice
- Evacuation orders range from voluntary to mandatory and vary by state
- When authorities issue a mandatory evacuation notice, LEAVE THE AREA IMMEDIATELY
Create a wildfire communication plan
In a wildfire emergency, your priority will be the safety of your family and friends. If you are not together when officials issue an evacuation order, practice how you will communicate with each other.
- Decide where your household members will meet if separated
- Keep important numbers written down in your wallet, not just on your phone. Include all family members contact details, emergency contacts and medical facilities, schools, and service providers
- Add a reminder to your emergency contact list that texts often get through faster than phone calls
- Have your children memorize the phone numbers, addresses, and the emergency plans
- Have all family members carry a copy of this list
- Post a copy of this list in a central location in your home where everyone can find it
- During an emergency, it can be easier to reach people outside of your area, so assign an out-of-area friend or relative for all family members to call. Consider using social media to keep in touch.
Create a wildfire evacuation plan
Everyone on an evacuation alert must be prepared to leave on short notice. Your evacuation may be organized, or it could turn into a panic-driven mess. It all depends on how prepared you are.
- Plan two ways out of your area and assign a meeting place if you need to evacuate in different cars
- Know how you will evacuate people with disabilities, as well as pets, and livestock
- If you plan to evacuate by car, keep your car fueled and in good working condition. Don’t leave your planned evacuation vehicle unattended for months on end. Start it regularly. The last thing you need during an emergency is a vehicle with a battery that’s dead.
- Keep your emergency kit and a change of clothes in your car
- If you plan to share transportation, such as help neighbors or relatives who don’t drive, or on the contrary, if you need someone to help you, make arrangements with your friends or neighbors now
- If you plan to use public transportation, contact your local emergency officials to ask how an evacuation will work, how you will receive timely information, as well as the location of staging areas
- Arrange for a place where you could stay if you have to leave for an extended period. Consider a relative or a friend outside of your area.
- Consider installing The American Red Cross Shelter Finder App to receive live updates on available shelters at all times
Create a wildfire emergency kit
Store emergency supplies in an easily accessible location so that you can grab your go-bag quickly if you need to evacuate. Consider having several emergency kits – one in your house, one in your car, and one in your office.
- Dust masks to filter contaminated air
- A battery-powered radio, plus extra batteries
- Charged cell phones, with important contacts programmed, and a backup battery
- A first aid kit
- A whistle
- Manual can opener
- Moist wipes
- Plastic bags for personal sanitation
- Documents (ID, financial records, insurance policies, etc.)
- Warm clothes, sturdy shoes
- Sleeping bags
- Waterproof matches
- Plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal windows and doors
- Prescription medications and syringes
- Painkillers, contact lens solution or glasses
- Baby supplies such as diapers, wipes, formula, bottles
- Plastic utensils, paper cups, plates, paper towels
- Books, toys, puzzles, cards and other activities for children
- Leash, ID, travel crate, food, water, and a warm blanket
- Their photo
- All of their vet records
- A toy or two that will remind them of home
Prepare your property
If possible, choose fire-resistant materials for renovation, repairs, and construction, and practice good maintenance.
- To prevent embers from igniting your home, clear dry leaves and debris from gutters, porches, and decks and within 10 feet of your house
- Dry grass is fuel for wildfires, so keep your lawn hydrated. Cut it down when it turns brown.
- Dispose of debris and lawn cuttings quickly
- To prevent debris from accumulating around your house, screen areas below patios and decks with wire mesh
- Remove firewood stacks, propane tanks and other flammable materials within 30 feet of your home, garage, and sheds
- Since wildfire easily spreads to treetops, make sure the lowest branches are always pruned to 6 to 10 feet from the ground
- To prevent ember penetration through your roof, inspect shingles or roof tiles and repair the loose or missing ones
- Consider covering exterior attic vents and under-eave vents with metal wire mesh to prevent ember entry
- Know how to shut off gas and electricity quickly
- Learn how to use an ABC-type fire extinguisher
- Consider having an insurance covering damages caused by wildfires
As you are preparing your property, here are a few landscaping tips to keep in mind:
- Keep an area 30’ away from your home free of wood piles, brush, dried leaves, newspapers, and anything that burns easily
- From 30’ to 100’ away from your home, reduce the flammable vegetation as much as possible
- Create “fuel breaks” on your property, such as driveways, gravel walkways, and ponds
- Work with neighbors to create spaces up to 200 feet around your homes free of dry vegetation. Prune trees so that they don’t touch and create continuous canopies.
During a wildfire
Leave as early as possible. Do NOT hesitate once evacuation orders have been issued. You need to leave promptly and clear roads for firefighters to get equipment in place to fight the fire. Leaving early is also vital to getting your loved ones to safety.
Note: if you see a fire nearby or approaching, call 911 and report. Do not assume someone has already done it.
Tips to help firefighters protect your house
- Close all car windows and air vents
- Expect reduced visibility, so drive slowly with headlights on
- If possible, do not drive through heavy smoke
- Watch for pedestrians and fleeing animals
If trapped at home
- Call 911 ASAP
- Turn on the lights to help firefighters find your home in heavy smoke
- Breathe through a moist cloth
- Cover your head and body with wet towels made of natural fabric
- Seal doors, windows, and vents with plastic sheets and duct tape
- Fill whatever you can with water
- Move furniture away from windows and doors
- Remove curtains
- Stay away from outside windows and walls
If trapped in a car or outdoors
- Immediately call 911 to provide your location
- Stay low to decrease the effects of heat and smoke
- Steer clear of fuel sources, if possible
- Stay in a near a water source, in a rocky area or roadway
- Breathe through moist cloth to avoid inhaling smoke
- If possible, cover yourself with a wet towel, coat, or even dirt
After a wildfire
Once the local fire or law enforcement authorities say that it’s safe, you may return to your home. Because fire damages the stability of a structure, have a professional examine your home or office and certify that it’s safe before entering.
Be vigilant when returning to your area, as hidden dangers such as ash pits, hidden embers and hot surfaces can cause grave injury.
- Keep a “fire watch” for several hours after a fire. Check and double-check for sparks or hidden embers throughout the house, including the roof and the attic
- Be careful when entering burned areas as hazards may persist, such as hot spots that can flare up
- Do not walk on smoldering surfaces as the ground may contain heat pockets that can cause severe injury or spark another fire
- Check the attic, but if you spot smoke or fire, get out and call 911
- Wear leather gloves to protect your hands and heavy, thick-soled shoes to protect your feet
Cleaning your home
Expect the environment to be filled with smoke, dust, and inspect your property for possibility of live embers, which can cause another fire.
- Wear a NIOSH certified-respirator (dust mask)
- Wet debris down to reduce inhaling dust particles
- Be on the lookout for power lines that may be unstable due to the fire. Do not approach downed power lines and report them to 911.
- Watch for ash pits (holes created by burned tree roots that are filled with hot ash), charred trees, smoldering debris, and live embers, and mark them for safety. Warn family and neighbors to stay away from them
- Check the roof and gutters. If possible, hose them down to completely smother any remaining smoldering sparks or embers
- Photograph damage to your property for insurance purposes
Keep in touch
Expect power outages to linger for several days following a disaster. The portable battery-powered radio from your emergency kit will provide you with news updates when nothing else works.
- Use other information sources, such as FEMA or American Red Cross apps, to get current information
- Use texts and social media to communicate with family and friends
- Telephones and cellular phone systems may be overwhelmed following a disaster, so use phones only for emergency calls
A wildfire may drastically alter the environment, and when it’s over, contaminants can be found in soil and water. If possible, wait for the local authorities to confirm the soil is not contaminated and the water is safe.
- Immediately call 911 if you or someone you’re with has been burned. Cool and cover burns to reduce the chance of further injury or infection
- Discard food exposed to heat, smoke, or soot. When in doubt, throw it out
- Do not drink, brush teeth, prepare food, or wash/bathe in water you think may be contaminated
- Follow the recommendations from your local health department (for example, authorities may recommend tetanus vaccines because the contaminated soil may contain bacteria)
It is possible that during and after a wildfire, you may need to spend several days in a shelter. Download one of the American Red Cross or FEMA mobile apps so that you’re getting live updates on available shelters.
- Take your emergency kit
- Post a note in a clear view indicating where you can be found
- If you have pets, call to inquire whether the shelter can accommodate pets. Red Cross shelters accept service animals
- Contact out-of-area animal shelters for availability if your public shelter can not accommodate your pets with you. Do not leave them behind.
Additional wildfire resources
- American Red Cross
- CDC – Wildfire Preparedness
- Fire Adapted Community
- Go—Act Early! By National Weather Service
- How to Prepare for A Wildfire by FEMA
- Home Builders’ Guide to Construction in Wildfire Zones
- Protect Your Home Infographic by NFPA
- United States Fire Administration
- United States Forest Service
- Wildfire: What you need to do before, during and after fires to protect you, your family and home
- WildFire Weather Safety by NOAA
- Wildfire Preparedness in the Northeast Mobile AppWildfire safety tips from National Fire Protection Association
Although tornadoes touch down in many parts of the world, the greatest number of them hit the United States because the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico create conditions that favor tornadoes.
Each year, 1,200 tornadoes cause 70 human fatalities and 1,500 injuries nationwide on average. The tornado season peaks March through May in the southern states and June through August in the northern states. It’s important to note, however, that tornadoes can happen at any time of the year, not just during the peak season. But typically, they strike between 3:00 pm and 9:00 pm.
Categories of tornadoes
- Weak Tornadoes (EF0 or EF1): winds less than 110 mph, and last 1 – 10+ minutes
- Strong Tornadoes (EF2 or EF3): winds 111-165 mph, may last 20 minutes or longer
- Violent Tornadoes (EF4 or EF5): winds greater than 166 mph, can exceed 1 hour, cause 70% of all tornado deaths, but are rare
- Tornadoes may look almost transparent until they pick up dust and debris or cloud forms within the funnel
- On average, a tornado moves from southwest to northeast, but they can move in any direction and can suddenly change their course
- Tornadoes can follow tropical storms and hurricanes as they move onto land
A tornado’s destructive course can be more than one mile wide and 50 miles long and can devastate entire neighborhoods within seconds. You may have little warning, so be prepared to act quickly. After all, thorough planning is key to reducing injuries.
It’s extremely important to know what to do before, during, and after a tornado if you want to stay safe.
Before a tornado
To ensure that you can act quickly and get the best available protection during a tornado, you need to plan ahead. Know where you would go to have the highest possible level of protection from a tornado for every location where you spend a lot of time, such as home, office, school, or house of worship.
- Find out whether you live, work, or frequently travel through regions prone to tornadoes
- Stay informed and monitor weather reports
- Know the difference between a tornado WATCH (a tornado is possible) and a tornado WARNING (a tornado is already happening or will hit soon)
- Tornado warning means you need to GO TO YOUR SAFE PLACE IMMEDIATELY
Identify your tornado safe location
Plan with others and conduct tornado drills regularly. You will have greater success in getting to a shelter or other protective location quickly if you have identified this area in advance and practice getting there. Be sure to consider people with disabilities and others with access or functional needs, as well as pets.
Create a tornado evacuation plan
- Practice moving quickly to the safe location in the places where you live, work, or study
- If you live in an area prone to frequent tornadoes, consider building or installing a FEMA safe room
- If you live or work in mobile homes or buildings with long-span roofs, your community should consider building a community safe room or shelter
- Identify possible safe locations. In a sturdy building, it should be a small, interior room without windows on the lowest level of the building. It could be as a closet or bathroom – preferably underground
- If there are young children, seniors, people with access or functional needs in your family, as well as service animals, or pets, plan now how they can get to a protective location quickly
- In most cases, when someone is hurt, a person on the scene will need to be able to provide the first assistance, before professional help arrives, so make sure you practice your first aid skills
Create a tornado communication plan
In case your family members are not together when authorities issue a tornado watch or tornado warning, plan for how you will communicate with each other.
- Keep important numbers written down in your wallet
- Have children memorize the phone numbers and addresses, and know the emergency plans
- Have a plan for how family members will contact one another during an emergency
- Assign an out-of-area contact (such as a relative or family friend) who can coordinate family members’ locations and information should you become separated
- Make sure everyone is aware that sending texts is often faster than making a phone call
- Decide on the location where your household members will meet after the tornado
Create a tornado emergency kit
Identify the things you would need most when you emerge from your protective location to find severe damage, no power, and no water. If possible, keep some of these items in your pre-identified protective place at home, work, school, or your place of worship. Have your children create their personal packs.
- Battery-powered flashlight to inspect your home or office after the tornado has passed. Note: Do not use a battery-powered flashlight inside because, if gas is present, the battery could produce a spark and cause a fire. Have spare batteries
- Battery-powered radio to listen for emergency updates
- First aid kit
- Warm clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants made of natural fabric. Also include work gloves and sturdy, thick-soled shoes to protect you from possible injury by broken glass or exposed nails
- Whistle or air horn to help rescuers find you, should you get trapped by debris
- Protective dust mask
- Food and water supplies for a day or two; account for specific dietary considerations
- Your medications and medical supplies
- If you have children, a special item (toy, book, game) to provide comfort
- Include pet food, water, medicines, health records, a blanket, and a toy in your emergency kit
During a tornado
When the weather is warm, humid, and windy, or skies are threatening, monitor for severe weather watches and warnings. Staying on top of weather alerts and acting quickly is vital to your safety.
During a tornado watch
A tornado WATCH is issued when a tornado is possible, so you should stay alert and monitor further updates for severe weather notifications.
- Remain inside, away from windows and doors
- Listen to the radio or TV
- Make sure your emergency kit is complete
- Be vigilant during a thunderstorm watch as severe thunderstorms can cause tornadoes. Being prepared will give you more time should the conditions turn severe
During a tornado warning
Officials issue a tornado WARNING when a tornado is already happening or is expected to occur soon.
- Take shelter immediately! Go to your basement, safe room, or an interior room
- Watch out for flying debris
- Stay away from doors, outside walls, windows, and corners
- Pick an interior wall and crouch on the floor near it or under a heavy table
- Bend over, place your arms on the back of your head and neck to protect the vulnerable parts of your body
- Cover yourself with any materials that may protect you from debris, such as cushions, a sleeping bag, or a blanket
At work or school
- Stay calm, act quickly
- Follow your tornado drill and go to your tornado shelter location
- Stay away from windows and large open rooms such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, or auditoriums
- Sheds and storage facilities are not safe
- Seek shelter in a building or a basement
- Do not leave a sturdy building to try to escape a tornado
- If getting quickly to a shelter is impossible, immediately get into a vehicle and try to drive to the closest sturdy building. Buckle your seat belt.
In your car
- The best course of action is to drive to the closest shelter
- Stay away from highway overpasses and bridges
- Do not attempt to drive through violent winds and flying debris. Pull over, keeping your seat belt on and engine running. Lower your head below the window level, and cover it with your hands or a blanket
- Alternatively, get to a flat location lower than the level of the roadway such as a ditch, and lie down, covering your head with your hands
- Get your pets to safety at the first sign of an approaching tornado
- Put your cat in a carrier, your dog on a leash
- Move your pets to the shelter well ahead of the storm
Tornado myths and facts
Tornadoes are surrounded by myths and misconceptions. Some of them are very dangerous and can urge you to make the wrong decision in a critical situation.
Myth 1: Rivers, lakes, and mountains protect areas from tornadoes.
Fact: No location is safe from tornadoes.
Myth 2: You should open windows before a tornado to equalize pressure and minimize damage.
Fact: All buildings leak air. Don’t waste precious time opening windows. Leave them closed and get to safety.
Myth 3: Highway overpasses are safe places during tornadoes.
Fact: The area under a highway overpass is extremely dangerous during a tornado.
Myth 4: Bathrooms, hallways, and closets of a mobile home are safe areas during a tornado.
Fact: Mobile homes are not safe during tornadoes! Immediately seek shelter in a sturdy building.
After a tornado
Tornadoes can cause death and serious injury and can make buildings and roads extremely unsafe. Once the tornado has passed, and the warning is canceled, use extreme caution. Continue to listen to the news and weather updates.
After a tornado has passed, exercise extreme caution when leaving your shelter or safe room. Hazardous debris will be scattered around, while gas pipes and electrical lines may be downed and damaged.
- Use extreme care when leaving a building
- Avoid debris and sharp objects
- Stay away from broken glass, power lines, and chemical spills
- If you smell gas or chemical fumes, immediately evacuate the area and call 911
- Do not use matches or lighters inside
If you’re trapped
A severe tornado can destroy buildings and sturdy structures. If you get trapped under the debris, do not panic, scream, or start moving debris by yourself. Instead, make it easier for the rescuers to find you.
- Stay where you are and cover your mouth with a cloth or mask to avoid breathing dust
- Try not to move the debris around you or stir up dust
- Send a text, if possible, or bang on a pipe or wall or use a whistle instead of shouting so that you do not breathe in dust
During post-tornado cleanup, some recovery and repair operations can cause injury. Be cautious around damaged buildings and exercise caution when removing debris.
- Do not enter damaged buildings until professionals deem them as safe
- Use caution when removing debris, doing repairs, and using chainsaw
- Wear boots or sturdy shoes with heavy soles to protect your feet; injuries from exposed nails and debris are common after tornadoes
- Take photos of damage to your property for insurance purposes
During the initial hours after a disaster, the first person to find someone injured is the person who should be administering first aid. Know the following basics to help those in need of immediate assistance.
- When providing first aid, do not move anyone who is seriously injured unless they are in danger of further injury or death
- If you must move an injured person, hold their head and neck in the position in which you found them
- If an injured person is wearing a helmet, do not remove it; this could cause further injury
Additional tornado resources
- NOAA Weather Radio
- Protect Your Property from High Winds
- Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House (publication PDF)
- Tornado Protection – Selecting Refuge Areas in Buildings (PDF)
- Thunderstorms, Tornadoes, Lightning… by NOAA (PDF)
- The Tornado Formula
- The U.S. Gets More Tornadoes Than Anywhere Else In The World. But Why