How to Stay Safe During a Natural Disaster
June through November is hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, where storms with unassuming names like Wilma and Andrew can be catastrophic. Fortunately, meteorologists can forecast storms days before they make landfall, so you should have time to make an emergency plan or evacuate.
When the storm hits: "You want to get away from windows that might blow in," says James Judge, the executive director of Lake Emergency Medical Services, in Mount Dora, Florida, and a member of the American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council. If you have a basement, shelter there. If not, choose an interior room on the lowest floor with no windows, like a bathroom or a closet, and take essential supplies—water, food, radio, batteries, flashlight—with you. Lie on the floor under a sturdy object, like a table, or cover yourself with blankets and pillows. If you're in a car or outdoors when the storm hits, seek refuge in the nearest building. If you think the storm is over, check reports on the radio. You might be in the hurricane's calm eye and winds will soon return.
No matter what: Don’t try to evacuate once the storm has reached you. "If the wind is blowing and the rain is coming down, you've waited too long," says Judge.
Tornados, violent rotating columns of air that can uproot trees and peel off roofs, have been reported in every state, but they are more common in the midwestern plains states.
How to stay safe: If you hear tornado sirens or a tornado warning has been issued for your area, it means a tornado has been detected and there's immediate danger. Take shelter immediately in a basement or a small interior room away from windows—a closet, a bathroom, a hallway. Get under a sturdy table or a mattress if you can. "If you're in bed, pull pillows or a bedspread—anything—over the top of you," says Judge.
If you're in a car, get to a sturdy building if possible. If this is not possible, you have two options. One is stay in the car, buckle the seat belt, cover your head with your hands or a blanket, and duck below the windows. The second option, if there is a ditch nearby, is to get out of the car and lie down in the ditch and cover your head. You'll have to base your decision on your particular circumstances.
No matter what: Don’t get on an elevator. You could be trapped if the power goes out. If you're on a high floor, take the stairs.
Severe thunderstorms bring gusting winds, hail, and lightning, which kills more people each year than tornados or hurricanes do.
How to stay safe: If you’re outdoors and hear thunder, lightning is sure to follow. Seek refuge indoors or in a hard-topped metal car immediately: Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from the area where it’s raining. If you are stuck outdoors with no shelter in sight, minimize yourself and your point of contact with the ground to improve your odds slightly, says Stephanie Abrams, a meteorologist for the Weather Channel. “Squat down to be at the lowest point, and balance on the balls of your feet to have as little connecting you to the ground as possible,” she says. Indoors, electrical currents can travel through pipes and wires. Avoid showering during a storm or coming into contact with plugged-in devices, like computers and phones, says Abrams.
No matter what: Don’t think that rubber-soled shoes or rubber tires will protect you from lightning strikes. They won't.
Wildfires, which happen most often in the west, burn several million acres of U.S. woodland every year.
How to stay safe: "In a wildfire, truly every second counts," says Judge. "They spread quickly, igniting trees and homes." If a wildfire is burning in your area, monitor the fire reports on local media and be prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice. Close windows and doors to minimize smoke exposure, and stay away from outside walls. If you're in a car and a fire is approaching, roll up the windows, close the vents, and drive slowly. If there’s no escape route and you have to stop, stay in the car, get on the floor, and cover up with a blanket or a coat.
No matter what: Don’t try to stand your ground with a garden hose. "You don't stand a chance," says Judge. "Save yourself and your family. You can always replace your possessions."
Flash floods occur suddenly and due to quickly rising waters caused by heavy rains over a short time period. Aside from making everything soggy, they can be powerful enough to uproot trees and sweep away bridges.
How to stay safe: Monitor local media during heavy rains. In the event of a flash-flood watch, "you want to be prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice," says Judge. A flash-flood warning means flooding is happening or will soon occur in your area and you should seek higher ground immediately.
No matter what: Don’t drive or walk through rising water. "Most cars can be swept away by less than two feet of moving water," says Judge. In fact, a high percentage of flood deaths happen in vehicles. Instead, turn around and drive to higher ground, or leave the car and run to higher ground if the road is blocked.
Winter storms can range from inconvenient to hazardous, causing slippery roads, dangerously low temperatures, power outages, and endless snow shoveling.
How to stay safe: As with a hurricane, meteorologists can usually forecast severe winter storms ahead of time. Monitor local media for the latest information so you can gather supplies and arrange to be in a safe place when the storm hits. "If you're on the roadway and conditions become severe, find the nearest sturdy building that will offer protection, such as a shelter, a hospital, or a fire department," says Judge. If you become trapped in your car, pull over, turn on your hazard lights, and remain in the car. Keep warm, but conserve power, and consider running the engine with the heater on for about10 minutes every hour.
No matter what: Don’t use a camping stove or a barbecue grill inside to keep warm. "They need ventilation. When they don't have it, it can cause carbon monoxide poisoning," says Judge.
Californians aren't the only ones who need to know earthquake-safety basics: Forty-five U.S. states and territories are at a moderate or very high risk of earthquakes, which strike without warning.
How to stay safe: "If you're inside when the shaking starts, drop, cover, and hold on," says Judge. Stay away from windows, protect your head and neck with pillows or blankets, and take cover under a sturdy table or mattress, if possible. If you're outside, find a clear spot—ideally away from buildings, power lines, and trees—drop to the ground, try to cover yourself, and stay put until the shaking stops, says Judge. If you're in a car, find a clear spot, stop, and stay in the car until the quake is over.
No matter what: Don’t run outside. Stay put, and once the quake is over, if you must leave the building, take the stairs instead of an elevator. There could be power outages or aftershocks.
When an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or some other sudden, severe event disturbs the ocean floor, it can generate a series of huge ocean waves called tsunamis. Tsunamis, which can destroy miles of shoreline and buildings, can happen anywhere along the coasts.
How to stay safe: If you're near the ocean and feel an earthquake, drop, cover, and hold on until the shaking stops, then move quickly to higher ground. If you hear a tsunami warning, "move away from the coast and move as far inland as you can," says Judge.
No matter what: Don’t try to find a place to watch a tsunami. If you can see it, you are too close.