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Without question, when a major disaster hits an area, entire communities are affected in ways that are unimaginable. And while it is nice to think that the rescue squad will be trotting by to help at any moment, we all know that is not true.
It is not for a lack of trying. Local responders such as fire departments, police departments, EMTs, military personnel and even members of the local Red Cross are likely to be stuck in the throes of the disaster just like you are. Their own communication systems may be down, their facilities may be destroyed and their families and their homes may be in danger, hurt or damaged.
During the short period immediately following a disaster, it is up to individuals to do the best they can do to fend for themselves. But what happens if you are alone or injured? This is where some advance planning comes in to play and where having the forethought to get to know your neighbors ahead of time will reap benefits when it comes to digging out from the disaster at hand.
I have always maintained that getting to know your neighbors is an important – if not critical – step in your disaster planning. Today I outline seven critical steps that you, as individuals, and as neighbors helping neighbors, can take following a disaster.
SEVEN STEPS TO TAKE FOLLOWING A DISASTER
1. Are you safe?
Your first concern is to insure that family members, loved ones and pets are safe. Check to see if there are any injuries that need immediate attention and tend to them first. Walk around your home to determine if there is structural damage that makes staying inside unsafe.
2. Locate dry warm clothing and sturdy shoes.
Conditions can change very rapidly following a disaster. Locate dry, warm clothing and put them on along with a decent pair of socks and sturdy shoes. If you have some gloves, put those on as well.
Many people keep these items under their bed so that they can be located in a hurry in the even they had to get out quickly. Yes, it may be the middle of summer but go ahead and layer on the clothing anyway. You can always shed it later. Put them on, along with gloves if you have them.
Remember, you are dressing for safety, no fashion or style.
3. Turn off the utilities.
Turn off the electricity coming in to your home. Why do you need to do this? A disaster can disrupt your electrical service or cause wires and electrical fixtures to separate, creating a shock and fire hazard. It is better to be safe than sorry.
If you smell natural or propane gas, or hear a hissing noise, evacuate immediately. Locate the gas meter outside your home and turn off the gas. This is something that everyone in your family should know how to do.
Note: Most meters are at the front or side of the house. Some are put inside a building. In apartments or commercial buildings, they might be in the back.
If you do not smell gas or do not here hissing, it may be okay to leave the gas on but when in doubt – or if the damage appears severe, shut it off anyway.
4. Conserve Your Water
Water quickly becomes a precious resource following many disasters. For that reason you will want to turn off the water at the main valve in order to insure that the water that is already in your home remains safe and clean. You shut off the water for two reasons:
- Cracked lines external to your home may pollute the water supply. Shutting down the water prevents cross contamination.
- The effects of gravity may drain the water in your hot water and toilet tanks unless you trap it in your house by shutting off the main house valve. You may need to conserve this water for your own use for a few days, before the community water is again deemed safe.
5. Communicate with Others
Place a communication card in your house window to show your family’s condition – have OK written on one side and HELP written on the backside. This will alert neighbors and first responders of your condition and will allow them to help those most in need first.
You will then want to execute your family communication plan. If you have not put together a plan, then make that a priority now. (Read 10 Steps for Preparing Family Emergency Plan.)
If communication lines are open (cell phone, texting, emergency radios), make contact with the out-of-state or out-of-area contact person that has been pre-selected to relay information when family members are separated following a disaster and local lines are not working.
6. Fire Protection
If you home is safe and the electricity is off, gather your fire extinguishers and place them outside of your home in a visible location so that others in the neighborhood can use them if a fire erupts. You are not only being a good neighbor by doing this – you are also preventing a fire next door for jumping over to your home and setting it on fire as well.
7. Help Your Neighbors
If you have taken my advice and introduced yourself to your neighbors, join them in an effort to determine whether anyone in the community needs immediate assistance right way. Check on the neighbors that might be the most vulnerable, including families with young children, the disabled and the elderly.
For those that are hurt, provide basic first aid. Turn off any remaining gas valves if you suspect a leak (by smell or by sound.) And most important, help evacuate anyone who appears to be in danger and is too shocked or dare I say, too ignorant, to do so on their own.
AFTER A DISASTER THERE IS A LOT TO DO
San Francisco Earthquake – 1906
When disaster strikes – and I hope it doesn’t – there will be a lot to do. Fear and panic aside, it is good to consider a plan of action before it happens.
That said, this list of seven things to do following a disaster is not the be all and the end all. After all, there are way more post-disaster activities to attend to than I could ever describe in one brief article. Not only that, I am just an ordinary person trying to learn as much as I can about disasters now so that I can act in an assertive and panic free manner if and when it happens to me. And in that respect, I am just like you.
Without any special training, I want to be able to do those things that I know I am capable of doing and further I want to do them well.
THE FINAL WORD
I have long maintained the importance to to hook up with neighbors and with like minded people in your community long before a disaster strikes. These are the folks that will be first on the scene when a disaster strikes and in my opinion, by joining forces, your rescue and recovery efforts will be much more efficient and effective than if you tried to do everything on your own.
For that reason alone, I encourage you to get to know your neighbors so that you recognize them and know that they will be the good guys when a disaster strikes.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
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