Disaster Preparedness


Disaster preparedness is planning ahead for unexpected natural or manmade disasters. Disaster preparedness includes knowing what types of events can affect the region, being aware of danger signs and of the risks inherent in different types of events, having a family disaster plan and evacuation and sheltering plans, having a disaster supply kit, and having insurance, including specialized flood or earthquake insurance. Disaster preparedness is necessary at all levels—individual, family, community, state, and national.


The primary purpose of disaster preparedness is to save lives. Disaster preparedness can also help prevent injury and reduce property damage and loss and subsequent financial hardship. Finally, preparedness can aid in disaster recovery and help reduce the anxiety, fear, and social upheaval caused by disasters.


Every year hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are affected by natural disasters, including floods, droughts, hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, landslides and debris flows, and wildfires. Severe weather patterns and even space weather can cause natural disasters from windstorms, thunderstorms and lightening, blizzards, extreme cold, and extreme heat. There is growing concern about disasters caused by pandemics of influenza or other contagious diseases. Manmade disasters include terrorist attacks, possibly with biological or radioactive weapons; chemical spills and other hazardous material incidents; and nuclear power plant failures with radiation release, as happened with the 2011 Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami. Natural and manmade disasters may cause power blackouts that extend far beyond the region directly affected by the event, and blackouts themselves can cause disasters if people are unprepared. House fires or household chemical emergencies may affect only a single dwelling or the immediate neighborhood, but they also require disaster preparedness.

The number of disasters—both natural and man-made—is escalating worldwide, and population growth and global development are increasing the number of people affected. Climate change appears to be behind at least some of this increase, and its effects are expected to become more severe. The potential for accidental disasters is increasing with the rapid introduction of new hazardous materials and increased opportunities for human error in their handling. The growing availability and portability of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and radiological dispersion devices, as well as potential disasters from cyberattacks and ongoing political unrest around the world, have greatly increased the potential for terrorist-propagated disasters.

Recent large-scale natural disasters include:

Because different types of disasters require different types of preparedness, learning about specific hazards for one's region is key. Nevertheless, many preparedness steps are applicable to any unexpected emergency.

Family disaster plans

Family disaster plans are essential. Since families may not be together when disaster strikes, every family member should know what to do in an emergency and how to contact and reconnect with other family members. Children should carry emergency contact cards. All family members should be familiar with emergency plans at their workplace, school, daycare, and other places where they spend time.

Family disaster plans should be tailored to the individual needs of family members and the needs of others who they will be assisting or relying on for assistance. Disaster plans must accommodate special dietary and medical needs, disabilities, pets and service animals, and cultural and religious considerations. It is useful to create emergency networks among neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and friends. Everyone in the family should know how to safely shut off household utilities. Family disaster plans should be practiced and updated twice a year.

Knowing how to obtain emergency information is an essential part of disaster preparedness. Emergency radio and TV broadcasts are the most common source. Many local stations participate in the Emergency Alert System (EAS) that broadcasts to the entire United States in case of a serious threat or national emergency. Some communities have emergency sirens, make emergency phone calls, or send workers door-todoor. Wireless emergency alert (WEA) is a free service that sends text-like messages to mobile devices. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio (NWR) is a nationwide network of radio stations that broadcasts continuous weather information to special receivers. However, some disasters, such as nuclear power plant failures and hazardous material incidents, usually occur with little or no warning.

The first decision in any disaster is whether to stay or evacuate. Since this depends on the nature of the disaster and personal circumstances, planning should include both possibilities.


House fires require immediate escape. Fires spread very quickly and can become life threatening in just two minutes, with heat, smoke, and poisonous gases causing asphyxiation. There is no time to grab valuables or make a phone call. Every family member should know the fire escape plan, and it should be practiced twice a year. All family members should know how to open locked or barred doors and windows and should practice finding their way out of the house in the dark or with their eyes closed. Children should be taught never to hide from firefighters. The plan should also include:

Although some weather disasters, such as hurricanes, may allow a day or two to plan for evacuation, other evacuations require preplanning, since there will be no time to gather even basic necessities. Family evacuation plans should include meet-up locations within and outside the immediate area, as well as several destinations in different directions, and familiarity with established evacuation routes to those destinations. Plans should include alternate routes and alternate means of transportation. Evacuees often head for the nearest family, friends, motel, or mass shelter operated by disaster relief groups. Families without a reliable car should make prior arrangements. Cars should always have half a tank of gas and a full tank if a possible evacuation is imminent. Only one car per family should be evacuated because of traffic congestion. Evacuations should be early enough to avoid being trapped by severe weather or flooded areas. Evacuees must be alert for road hazards, such as washed-out roads and bridges and downed power lines.

Evacuees should take their emergency supply kit, a battery-powered radio, and pets, although only service animals may be allowed in public shelters. If there is time before evacuating, the following actions should be taken:

Sheltering in place

Sheltering at home, work, school, or another location may be necessary or preferable, depending on the disaster. The safest type of shelter also depends on the type of emergency. For example, a tornado requires sheltering in a basement or interior room on the lowest level away from windows, doors, corners, and outside walls. Whereas a tornado warning may require sheltering only briefly, a winter storm or pandemic might require sheltering for a long period. In any case, it is important to remain sheltered until local authorities declare an “all clear.” The radio should be kept on and 24-hour watch maintained. Floor space of ten sq. ft. (1.7 m2) per person is adequate for five hours of air.

Attacks on computer systems, such as those that run power grids or nuclear power plants, that could cause large-scale disasters.
Emergency Alert System (EAS)—
A U.S. national public warning system that requires television and radio broadcasters to make emergency communications available to public officials.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio (NWR)—
A nationwide network of radio stations that broadcasts continuous weather information to special receivers.
A disease outbreak covering a wide geographical area and affecting an unusually high proportion of the population.
Radiological dispersion device (RDD)—
So-called dirty bomb, a weapon designed to spread radioactive material and terror.
Waves caused by the displacement of a large volume of ocean or lake water, typically caused by earthquakes.
Wireless emergency alert (WEA)—
A nationwide system introduced in 2012 to send text-like emergency messages to WEA-capable mobile devices.

Disasters in which the air is contaminated or contains large amounts of debris require advanced preparations for sealing a room:

Disaster supply kits

Other supplies include:

In addition to the above, vehicle kits should include:


Maintaining disaster supply kits is as important as assembling them. Canned food should be stored in a cool, dry place. Boxed food should be stored in tight plastic or metal containers. Food and water should be changed every six months. Required supplies should be reexamined and updated yearly.

Community preparedness

Disaster preparedness is just as important for communities as it is for families, schools, daycares, and workplaces. Individuals should be aware of their community's disaster plans, including the following:


Disasters cause extreme emotional distress, even without the loss of life or property. Recovery takes time and requires survivors to stay closely connected with family and friends.


Public health role and response

Although disaster preparedness increased after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it remains inadequate at the community, state, and national levels. FEMA came under heavy criticism after poor preparedness and response to Hurricane Katrina resulted in unnecessary loss of life and property, massive displacement of residents, and untold suffering. According to a 2011 Trust for America's Health report, public health funding cuts are further undermining disaster preparedness. In particular, funding cuts are interfering with the ability of communities to develop infrastructure, expertise, and coordination for disaster response.

See also Hurricanes ; Katrina ; Tornado and cyclone .



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Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 500 C St. SW, Washington, DC, 20472, (206) 646-2500, (800) 621-FEMA (3362), http://www.fema.gov .

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA, 30333, (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636), cdcinfor@cdc.gov, http://www.cdc.gov .

Margaret Alic, PhD

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.