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Disaster

There are lots of resources intended to help you prepare for a disaster. We’v included a few at the end of this page. Rather than focusing on content that’s available from many other sources, we hope the following seven points will give you insight to make better decisions about preparation and response.

1. Planning: Small Steps to Stay Ready
Empty Shelves at the Grocery StoreIt seems like every disaster forecast brings the obligatory news report of stores running short on supplies. Collecting supplies right before a disaster is only successful for predictable weather events like hurricanes and snow storms. Tornadoes, flash floods, earthquakes and other disasters that provide little or no warning demand that you have at least some level of preparation at all times.

If you’re the head of the household, you can use a disaster in another area to help your family understand the importance of preparation. It’s difficult to escape media coverage of a disaster so make the most of it: conduct your own drill while your family is thinking about the issues: get up before the rest of the family (maybe on a weekend) to turn off your power and water.

You can always turn them back on though living without power and water for just a few hours will snap you out of your daily assumptions and routines of always turning on a light when you enter a room and having water whenever you desire. This will also help you realize how long it takes to collect simple items like keys and a flashlight. You probably have enough food for a day or two but how will you fill your need for water?

This exercise may seem over-the-top or militant though it’s not a chore for a prepared family. With a little practice, some purchases to fill-out the things you lacked in the last exercise and a few changes in your routines, you won’t need to turn off the power and water; you can just have a family meeting and run through your checklist verbally to practice your priorities. Practice makes perfect.

2. Response: Planning Beyond Your Home
Evacuation RouteAssuming that you’ll be at home or be able to stay in your home before, during or after a disaster is a critical mistake. Even an interruption in services like power and water can force you out of your home. It’s important to plan for such an event because your family members need a communication plan and meeting place in advance – you may not be able to get in touch with them. This is especially important for families who are separated during the day when members are at work, school or just out running errands.

A communication plan can be as simple as identifying a relative or friend unlikely to be effected by a disaster in your area: this person becomes your point of contact. (Long distance calling and text messaging are often available even when local phone lines are down.) You need two meeting places if you’re forced to leave your home: the first is the closest local shelter (usually a community center or law enforcement facility) and the second is outside the area you think would be effected if you suffered a disaster.

Don’t forget, we put more stress on our infrastructure and supply chains as our population density (the number of people in one area) increases. This means natural disasters aren’t the only reason you may have to leave – the bottled water supply in your local stores is not enough to sustain an urban area when a water main breaks or the water source is contaminated. Challenges like water main breaks and power interruptions often happen with no warning.

3. The Main Event: Stay or Go?
Bad Weather ApproachingHow do you know if you should stay or go? Listen to your local government. Our homes and commercial buildings are constructed according to our building codes. Those codes contain minimum requirements like wind loads to be sure that the structure and exterior elements can withstand the local conditions. That’s one of the factors that helps local officials decide whether an evacuation is necessary: if a predictable event like a hurricane is producing winds in excess of the design required by the building codes, the buildings may suffer a catastrophic failure (a complete loss). Older homes constructed before known building codes may be solid though they demand more caution.

It’s important that you respond to an evacuation order early because local officials (should) have also estimated the amount of time it will take for the local population to evacuate. If you think rush hour is bad, wait until the entire population of your area gets on the roads. If you’ve already addressed the first two points, you’re ready to go so you won’t have as much difficulty staying safe.

4. Assessment: Safe or Not
Disaster Waste in Front of HomesThere’s a formal process for assessing the safety of buildings damaged in disasters. Many times, these assessments are conducted by building code officials though volunteer teams of architects and structural engineers can also be trained to conduct these assessments. The result is a color coded sign for your property that explains what use, if any, is allowed. A written assessment is also turned into the disaster response headquarters to create a map and calculate the percent of damage to the structures. That percent of damage is applied to the tax assessor’s records to estimate a dollar figure for the total damage. The US federal government has thresholds for damage before aid money is distributed.

The assessment teams are typically dispatched after the search & rescue phase is finished. The assessment teams are often the first people to visit properties after the disaster. It’s a physically and emotionally difficult time if you’re the owner of a damaged property though you must abide by the written assessment. Even if your property is red flagged for no access and you disagree, please remember the assessment is written by professionals trained to evaluate the safety of the property. Failure to abide by the assessments can lead to more injury and loss of life – please make every effort to wait for an assessment before you enter a damaged building.

5. Information: Public Meetings
Public MeetingLegally, local government is the decision maker when it comes to disaster response. State and federal resources flow through and are coordinated by local governments. This is a huge demand, especially for small local government offices. It’s even more difficult if your local government is small and isn’t prepared for this role – you’d be surprised how many governments don’t have a disaster plan.

Local governments typically disburse information through local meetings at government buildings. The image above is a local government meeting in a fire station after a flood. Although these meetings usually attract local news, you’ll only get a brief summary if you rely on local news for your information.

These meetings are a chance for local officials to describe their plan of action, work schedule, number of assessments remaining and answer questions from the crowd. It’s common for the local officials to post information and offer handouts for contacts and processes. This is also the time when any additional governance is announced. Try to attend as many local meetings as possible. You may be able to represent your neighbors or your street to make the communication process more efficient.

6. Rebuilding: Storm Chasers
Storm Chaser Cards and FlyersSome people think of storm chasers as the folks who drive after storms to collect video and data. The storm chasers we’re talking about are the contractors who travel into an effected area immediately after a disaster. While some are honest people who do good work, others charge very high prices and focus on volume rather than quality. They’re gone shortly after the work is done, the market is saturated or people are no longer willing to pay such high prices.

The cards and handouts on the table in the image above are from people who flowed into an area immediately after a disaster. They arrived before the assessments were finished and they began selling work to desperate homeowners. The local officials were exhausted from the search and rescue phase of the response. They tried to address the issue by adding some additional governance: they required all contractors to register with the community development office so they’d have some sort of recourse against fraud and unpermitted work. Despite that attempt, there weren’t enough local officials to enforce the requirements.

If at all possible, wait for the assessment on your property before you hire a contractor. Disasters often involve water intrusion and structural damage that demand careful analysis and repair. These issues can be outside the skill set of storm chasers who are often focused on volume repairs like new roofs, windows and siding. Don’t spend money on a new roof and exterior elements when your house isn’t structurally sound.

We want your analysis and solutions to come from people who aren’t selling you goods and services – try to get an assessment and speak with your insurance claim adjuster before you spend any significant amount of money on repairs. (It’s alright to spend some money on tarps, fans and other tools to prevent further damage.) You can also contact a local architect if you want your own advocate to help you work with your local government, insurance claim adjuster and contractor.

7. Footing the Bill: Getting to Know Your Insurance Company
Floodplain MapDon’t forget to adjust your insurance for each policy period. That’s more work than most people are willing to consider though having the right insurance with the right coverage levels makes all the difference. This is especially true if you live close to water or a floodplain – you need a complimentary policy for those hazards omitted from your home owners policy.

If you haven’t been adjusting your insurance during each policy period, you could be severely under insured. Even though the value of homes has been volatile, they’re still expensive to build and replacing all of your possessions may cost much more than your current level of insurance. In a worst case scenario, you can call your insurance company and raise your coverage levels before a forecasted disaster (like a storm). You can’t add flood insurance that quickly and we can’t forecast all disasters so it’s always better to set aside a half hour at the end of each policy period to decide how much more coverage you need. Making small adjustments is much easier to factor into your household budget too.

In Conclusion
Our lives are filled with distractions and noise. Our resources and utilities are so reliable, it’s easy to assume they’ll be available tomorrow, just as they are today. This makes it difficult to focus on preparing and practicing for a disaster – it seems like a relatively low priority. Yet our lack of preparation has taught us some painful lessons in the wake of major storms, earthquakes and man-made disasters.

You can get ready if you start small, get organized and practice. Getting organized will help you figure out what planning remains. Practicing tests your plan so you can fill in the gaps as you go along. Both of these will help you develop systems and routines to make your preparation easier – writing down processes, lists, contacts and other information keeps you from forgetting anything when time is short and you’re under stress.

As promised, here are a few national resources to help you get organized:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Ready America at ready.gov

Access to Disaster Help & Resources at disasterassistance.gov

National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)

American Red Cross

It’s important to identify state and local resources because they should be your first point of contact. Don’t be shy about requesting contacts and information. Helping your local officials get prepared is a great way to serve your community.

If you have questions, please try our free Ask An Architect tool or Contact us.

We’re active in disaster response because it teaches us how, when, where and why buildings fail. (Houses are buildings.) This helps us design better buildings. We’re also active in disaster response because it allows us to make a significant contribution to our community.