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Why communication should play a bigger role in your family’s disaster plan

Lupe Tijerina, left, and Andy Guerra, center, and Felix Tijerina, right, work to salvage items from their family home that was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Rockport, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

NOTE: The following is republished with permission of ryandeal.com, which specializes in strategic and crisis communication.

The article was originally published Sept. 6.

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Three named hurricanes now swirling around the U.S. and Harvey’s waters still receding should reinforce the notion that the time to prepare for a disaster is before it strikes. There’s a lot to learn from the periods of calm between disasters we, in my time at FEMA, called “blue sky.”

KNOW WHAT THREATENS YOUR FAMILY

In my work to help prepare corporations and governments for all sorts of trouble, I borrow from the work of emergency responders and conduct formal threat assessments. Yours can be simple: make a list of the potential problems in your area and this list will easily guide your plan. For example, if storms and flooding are real threats, the idea that you and your family could be isolated for an extended period of time would require you have food and water on hand.

Think beyond storms. Is burglary an issue in your neighborhood? What about an earthquake? Unlike hurricanes, these events come with no warning. Here are some others to consider: tornadoes, ice/snow, civil unrest, house fire, forest fire, pandemic disease, terrorism or extended blackout.

PREPARATION SHOULD CENTER ON COMMUNICATION

FEMA and other agencies recommend having enough resources on hand to sustain you and your family for three days. Put another way, expect to be alone for three days after a disaster. Many survivors post-disaster report needing one thing they had not prepared for – knowledge that their loved ones were okay, healthy. My tips for ensuring you can communicate:

  • Have on hand important phone numbers and addresses, including area hospitals and for other important locations. Program this information into your mobile phones and keep with you a dry, printed copy.
  • Subscribe to alert services; the FEMA app is extremely reliable. And listen to NOAA Weather Radio, which also broadcasts civil emergency information. In the hours you cannot communicate outwardly, having this incoming real-time information will help to keep you calm. Knowledge is powerful.
  • If your family becomes separated during a disaster, include in your plan a physical meeting place, such as an intersection (following a localized disaster such as a house fire or tornado) or the out-of-town home of a relative (for a larger area disaster). These locations are vital in the event of a catastrophic situation which causes a loss of traditional communications methods. Make sure to notify your relative(s) that you’ve selected their home as an emergency meeting place.
  • Ensure everyone has a printed copy of your family’s plan in a plastic zip bag, along with phone numbers, email addresses and traditional addresses for friends and relatives. Don’t rely on your phone’s battery to have access to this information. In a major event, disrupted services are restored to emergency responders and governments first. Phones may work, just not yours. And if you arrive at a satellite communications center you’ll want the paper copy.


If you’re confident you can communicate with your family whether by voice or social media, and you’ve established your physical meeting places, you’re ahead. FEMA reports only 6 in 10 Americans know how they’ll communicate and have practiced it. Begin the discussion by identifying potential threats and what’s required for your family to respond to them.

Bottom line, when you do leave, know where you’re going. If something causes your family to be separated, know who you will call and where you will meet up in an emergency.

PREPARING TO EVACUATE

Consider special medical needs or dialysis. If anyone in your family has a condition requiring uninterrupted electricity or special equipment, you may want to evacuate before local officials sound the call. If you must leave, you’ll want to fuel the car early and know beforehand what you will take with you. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • Fire extinguisher
  • Pets and pet supplies (medications, food, water, leashes; remember your fish)
  • Food and water for at least 3 days
  • Flashlights with extra batteries
  • Weather radio
  • Cell phones and chargers; portable battery packs
  • A fire-proof safe (include passports; insurance policies; credit and debit cards; mortgage and loan documents; digital data drives; medical records)
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medications (enough for 30 days)
  • First-Aid kit
  • Wind and/or waterproof clothing, sun hats
  • Strong outdoor shoes
  • Blankets or sleeping bags
  • Toilet paper
  • Can opener
  • Small grill with fuel
  • Valuables
  • Cash money (power outages impact ATM machines and gasoline dispensing)
  • Computers, iPads, etc.
  • Clothing/toiletries
  • Any keys you might need down the road and a list of everyone holding a key to your home


Depending on the nature of the disaster, it may be necessary to mitigate damage to your home by turning off utilities before you evacuate. Always follow the directions of local officials and only perform the steps to turn off electricity, water and natural gas if you are knowledgeable or trained. Turning off natural gas is irreversible – If gas is turned off at the meter, leave it off. Don’t turn it back on. You’ll need to contact a natural gas provider to restore service.

As a journalist and an emergency responder I’ve seen first-hand the destruction and impact to lives brought by a disaster. Preparation is paramount. Preparation begins with communication. People survive disasters through communication.

SEE MORE FROM RYANDEAL.COM.

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