Is Your Family Ready for a Disaster?

by Claire McCarthy on May 23, 2013

Amid the horrific news of the devastating destruction brought by the tornado in Oklahoma this week, there is one remarkable bit of good news: as of this writing, only 24 people died. While any loss of life is horrible, and that there were children among the dead is even more horrible, one look at the pictures makes it clear that many more could have died.

Why didn’t more die? Because they knew what to do.

Oklahoma is in Tornado Alley, so people there know the drill. Many had shelters they could climb into. Others did what you are supposed to do (at least the ones who could—not everyone was so lucky): they got to the lowest floor, away from windows and covered themselves as best they could. And they survived.

Along with making a donation to agencies supporting those affected by the tornado, a really good thing for all families to do is to make some disaster plans of their own. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a webpage to help families figure out what plans they need to make and how to make them. But here are a few things all families should do:

Make a fire escape plan. No matter where you live, you could have a fire. You should have smoke detectors on every floor (check the batteries regularly), as well as fire extinguishers (and teach family members how to use them). But even with those safeguards, everyone in your family should know how to get out of the house. Teach children to get low, to feel doors before opening them, which routes to use (there should be two out of every room), and…

Have a meeting place. You actually need two: one near your house, in case of something like a fire, and one farther away, should you not be home during the disaster. The one near your house should be obvious and easy to remember (like near the mailbox or at the driveway). The one farther away should be outside of your neighborhood, a place that everyone can remember and get to without too much trouble (a relative’s house, perhaps, or a public place. If it’s a place where someone can call (to say they are on the way or can’t get there), that’s helpful. Which is part of why you should…

Have a communication plan. People need to know how to reach each other. My friend, Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, has some detailed advice about this on her blog this week. At a minimum, teach children at least one parent’s cellphone number (repetition is key, and putting it to music can help), and make sure they know to call. (Make sure they know 911 too.) Choose a friend or family member who isn’t local to be a contact person too—and make sure everybody has the number (in their wallet or backpack, for example). And be sure that you have backup people to get your children from day care or school. Spend some time together planning out how to contact each other (remember: texting is often better than calling) and who to ask for help. This is also a good time to talk with children about what to do generally if they get separated from you.

Have emergency supplies handy. Everybody should have a first-aid kit ready, but it’s a good idea to have some emergency supplies as well, such as water, flashlights, batteries, a multipurpose tool, medications, a radio, some ready-to-eat food, blankets and copies of important documents. The CDC has suggestions as to what to organize, as does Dr. Swanson.

Know how to shut off your water, electricity and gas. It’s usually not hard, and it can be really important to do.

Think about any special circumstances. Know about the risks in your area. If you have a disabled family member, you might need additional plans. Make a plan for your pets too.

Practice your plans. They aren’t any good if they are forgotten. So do fire drills, review phone numbers and communication plans and meeting places and refresh your emergency kit as necessary (look at expiration dates as you pack). Maybe put yourself on a schedule: mark a Review Day on your calendar. Pair it with something fun, like going out for ice cream. That way it will feel less scary—and might be more likely to happen.

Hopefully, you will never need to use a single one of your plans. But if you ever do, as many of the residents of Moore, Okla., will tell you, you will be so glad you have them.

After events like the Oklahoma tornado, emergency medical teams play a crucial role in helping people in need. Read what it’s like to be such a responder, in this blog written by a Boston Children’s clinician who also serves on the Massachusetts–1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team.

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