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Are You Prepared for a Disaster?

A Johns Hopkins disaster-response expert explains how to take smart steps now so you and your loved ones can stay safe and bounce back quickly, no matter what Mother Nature throws your way.

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During Superstorm Sandy, Kirsch might not have had power, but his phone and computer never went dead. That’s because he owned adapters that allowed him to charge both in his car. In case that failed, he had a backup plan to charge them at work, as many hospitals—including Johns Hopkins—have a source of backup power and are usually the first places power is restored after an outage. Make sure your car has gas in it before an event; afterward, the stations might be closed. 

When Superstorm Sandy knocked out power in Baltimore, Thomas Kirsch, M.D., was unfazed. The emergency physician at The Johns Hopkins Hospital and director of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Refugee and Disaster Response had studied many natural disasters, including the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina. So as Sandy made its way up the East Coast, he already had everything on hand that he could ever need to ride out the coming power outage.

He and his family ended up spending four days without power, camping in the living room and cooking food on a propane camping stove. In the evenings, they illuminated the room with battery-powered headlights.

“Being prepared is huge, because it minimizes the impact of a disaster for you and loved ones you can help with planning,” Kirsch says. It can also contribute to resiliency and mental health after the disaster passes. Take Hurricane Katrina survivors, for example. Research showed that people who did not feel relatively safe for a long time—meaning they had more difficulty finding refuge and taking care of their basic needs—tended to have a higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder versus those who were more prepared and able to respond quickly.

What to Prepare

There are three basic steps to being prepared: Have a plan, have a kit and be informed. Kirsch suggests you consider what types of disasters are common in your area. In the central United States, it’s often tornadoes. In California, it may be wildfires and earthquakes. On the East Coast, sometimes hurricanes threaten. Consider the same for any loved ones who would benefit from help with planning—those who live alone are often at the greatest risk at these times.

Then consider what happens during those disasters. Will you lose power? How about Internet and phone? What do you rely on for your day-to-day needs that probably won’t be available after a disaster? What happens if you have to evacuate? Consider the impact a disaster might have on your life or a loved one’s, beginning with asking yourself questions in these crucial areas.

Health

If you have to evacuate, always take your medicines with you. And how will you refill prescriptions if needed? “When people evacuate or flee from a disaster, half of them leave their medications at home,” says Kirsch. “During a disaster, you can’t just call your physician and ask for a new prescription—and going without some medicines, even for a short length of time, can be devastating.”  

Finances

How will you manage financially if your place of employment is shut down for days or even weeks? If your home or car is destroyed? What kind of insurance do you carry, and does it cover the type of devastation most likely to happen in your area?  

Friends, neighbors and family

How will you stay connected if phone service or power is out? Who will think to check up on you to make sure you are OK? Do those people have keys to your home in case you are injured and can’t let them in?  

State of mind

How will you deal with the boredom of being sidelined from your regular activities for many days without power? Who will be there to help you and provide support?  

Making a Disaster Plan

Overall, consider how you will minimize the impact of a disaster. Then come up with and practice a plan for your household and for loved ones who need support in the event of a disaster, Kirsch suggests. Some questions to answer:

  • How will you find one another?
  • Where will you meet?
  • What’s your evacuation plan? What route will you take? What mode of transport? Where will you go?
  • What will you do if you lose power? Will you travel somewhere—perhaps to a relative’s house outside of the disaster zone? Go to a shelter? Or shelter in your living room?
  • What important records will you be unable to access without power that you might back up and store in a fireproof safe or somewhere far away?

Also, create a disaster kit complete with:

  • Water
  • Nonperishable food
  • A flashlight or headlight
  • An emergency radio and batteries
  • First-aid supplies
  • A seven-day supply of medicines
  • Personal hygiene items
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Extra cash
  • Area maps

Depending on your health, you might also include spare hearing aids, glasses, contact lenses and other health supplies.  

If you do all of that, you’ll be ready. “The more you prepare in advance, the more resilient you’ll be when a disaster hits, and the faster you’ll recover,” says Kirsch.  

Definitions

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A disorder in which your “fight or flight,” or stress, response stays switched on, even when you have nothing to flee or battle. The disorder usually develops after an emotional or physical trauma, such as a mugging, physical abuse or a natural disaster. Symptoms include nightmares, insomnia, angry outbursts, emotional numbness, and physical and emotional tension.

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