Michael Hingson remembers September 11 like it was yesterday. He was working on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center when the plane hit.
“We didn’t know what actually occurred, but when the building was hit and when a colleague saw fire outside … I wasn’t panicking,” Hingson says.
Instead, he told himself, Slow down and observe what’s going on around you and make intelligent decisions. “We were able to get out because I knew what to do and I focused,” he says.
That’s remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which is that Hingson is blind. So how did he escape and survive the terrorist attack? By enlisting the help of his guide dog and relying on his extensive emergency and safety training.
When he first started working at the World Trade Center, he participated in many fire drills. But more importantly, he spent ample time learning the building’s layout—in a way most people don’t. He couldn’t rely on signs and information to tell him where the emergency exits were, so he had to get that information elsewhere. He also had to memorize their locations.
He jokes, “I learned to travel around the World Trade Center, but with my eyes closed.”
Being blind forced him to always be prepared. “Every day I went into the World Trade Center, I actually thought to myself, What am I going to do if there’s an emergency today?”
You don’t have to be Hingson—who now leads emergency training at EMS, firefighter, and first responder conferences—to think that way. In fact, everyone should prepare for disasters and other emergency situations, as doing so could save you money and even your life.
National Preparedness Month and Disaster Preparedness
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security first declared September National Preparedness Month (NPM) back in 2004. Since then, the goal has been to educate Americans on how to prepare for emergencies and natural disasters in their communities.
According to ready.gov, only about 17 percent of Americans claim they know what to do in an emergency situation. NPM seeks to change that. Its goal is to educate individuals on steps they can take to prepare for crises.
The natural disasters and emergencies ready.gov says you most need to be prepared for are:
- Active shooters
- Biological threats
- Chemical threats
- Landslides and debris flow
- Nuclear blasts
- Power outages
Depending on the situation, there are different preparedness and recovery methods to follow. But here are some universal tips—for whichever disaster or emergency comes your way.
Identify Possible Emergencies in your Area
Each region of the US is prone to different emergencies and disasters. For example, the West Coast is more prone to wildfires and earthquakes, the Midwest is more susceptible to tornados, and the East Coast is more inclined to see hurricanes and other tropical storms.
So if you live in California, consider prepping for potential earthquakes. And if you live in Florida, get ready for hurricanes and other such storms.
Make an Emergency Plan
Creating an emergency survival plan is one of the most effective ways to shield yourself from the dangers of a catastrophe.
How should you design your plan? First, consider what type of emergencies could occur in the radius in which you live, work, and commute each day. How likely is a tornado to hit your town? What about a hurricane? Each requires a different plan.
With a tornado, you’ll only be warned a few minutes in advance. So you’ll want to prepare an underground shelter (if possible) with supplies like non-perishable food, water, flashlights, batteries, extra clothing, first aid kits, and a NOAA weather radio.
Joe Alton, MD, co-author of "The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Medical Help is Not on the Way," says to have enough supplies to last 72 hours. But he says if you can get a weeks’ worth of supplies, that’s even better.
With other natural disasters like hurricanes, forecasters can predict them a few days out. This will give you time to secure your home, board up your windows, and escape to areas not likely to be affected.
Prepare your Family
However you decide to prepare, make sure you factor in your family.
If you have young children, teach them what to do in each type of emergency. If they’re at school, set up a plan for them to be able to communicate with you. And if they’re at home, show them possible escape routes, as well as safe places in your house for them to go.
Alton says to “discuss plans for common disasters in your area with your school or municipality.” He says, “Usually, they’ll designate shelters and provide valuable aid.”
Also, if you’re caring for your elder relatives, you’ll want to make sure they have an escape plan in mind as well. Make sure they have easy access to a safe space to wait out the emergency. Also make sure they have emergency contact information. This can include your personal and work numbers, as well as numbers for the nearest hospital.
Alton suggests that every family should also have a medical kit and take first responder and CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) classes, which teach families how to deal with emergencies.
He says after hurricane Katrina, people were on their own for long periods of time and medical personnel couldn’t reach the injured because of widespread flooding. “With training and some supplies, you’ll keep it together even if everything else falls apart.”
Prepare your Home
Your home is a huge investment. Because of that, you’ll want to protect it—no matter what type of emergency or national disaster may impact it and the rest of your property.
Your first step is to make sure you have adequate homeowners insurance coverage. Not all natural disasters are covered perils under a standard homeowners policy, so do some research. Check to see if you need special riders or other add-ons for perils your policy won’t cover.
For example, say you live in an earthquake-prone region. Earthquakes are often excluded from a standard homeowners insurance policy—in which case you’ll need a separate earthquake insurance policy.
Learn Home Safety Measures
It’s also important to learn how to protect your home from damage before a disaster hits. For example, Alton suggests turning off the water, gas, and electricity in your home if you’re told to evacuate.
And if you’re going to be stuck inside your home, he says, “avoid the use of gas generators and propane grills inside due to the accumulation of deadly fumes.”
Also, if you live in a hotbed for wildfires, “manage vegetation on your property to prevent fires from spreading to the home or trees falling on the roof,” Alton advises.
Speaking of wildfires, Andy Stauffer, president and owner of Stauffer and Sons Construction, reminds people to check their roof vents. “Homeowner[s] should check to make sure that the mesh in their soffit vents is made out of metal,not nylon or plastic [which can combust]. Fortunately, it’s a relatively simple and inexpensive task to replace them if needed.”
If you’re on a floodplain, Alton suggests to “have materials to make sandbags, which might limit water seepage into the house.”
John Bodrozic, co-founder of the digital home management company HomeZada, says you should catalog the contents of your home. He also suggests making note of your home’s fixed assets, such as materials, equipment, appliances, and finishes. “If something were to happen, most insurance companies want to see a home inventory list of the content before payout.”
By doing this, you might discover you’re underinsured and that “the total value of your contents is greater than what is covered by the insurance policy,” Bodrozic adds.
For example, say you bought your policy before purchasing a set of collectibles or starting a home improvement project. Either could make the value of your home greater than your coverage.
In this case, consider increasing your insurance. You wouldn’t want a disaster to strike and not be able to pay for the damage.
Dealing with the Aftermath
What should you do after a disaster or emergency situation takes a toll on your home or other property? Here’s some expert advice.
Gary Findley, president of Restoration 1, an emergency mitigation and remediation company, says you should “move quickly to secure a restoration contractor to assist you” whether you’re hit by a fire, flood, or another disaster. “In larger events, restorers get booked up very quickly.”
He says to look for a company that can work with both your insurance company as well as FEMA or the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). FEMA may provide grants for the damage not covered by insurance, while the NFIP issues flood insurance.
Finally, no matter what type of damage or destruction you have to deal with after a disaster or emergency, don’t wait to file a claim. This will help you repair your home as quickly as possible. Drag your feet and those repairs may not get done for some time. That’s especially likely if a widespread incident or event caused the damage, as a lot of people in your same region probably will file claims around the same time.
Plus, the longer you wait, the harder it’s going to be to prove the disaster or emergency in question caused the damage at the heart of your claim.