Question of the Week

June 25 2008


Whether it's severe tropical storms, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, or earthquakes, natural disasters seem to be blanketing the news. In recent weeks, across the United States, people have been forced to evacuate their homes due to flooding and wildfires -- while tornadoes have damaged the homes of still more families.

While some people need to leave their homes after a natural disaster because their homes have been damaged to the point where they have become unsafe, others are given notice to leave before the disaster strikes. In either case, there is a only a limited amount of time to get what is needed and get to safety.

"The amount of time you have to leave will depend on the hazard. If the event is a weather condition, such as a hurricane that can be monitored, you might have a day or two to get ready. However, many disasters allow no time for people to gather even the most basic necessities, which is why planning ahead is essential. Evacuations are more common than many people realize. Hundreds of times each year, transportation and industrial accidents release harmful substances, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes. Fires and floods cause evacuations even more frequently. Almost every year, people along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts evacuate in the face of approaching hurricanes."

With an impending hurricane, people can be given a couple of days before they need to be safely away. When wildfires strike or there is the possibility of flooding, there are those who are given minutes to flee their homes, and others who are warned in advance that danger may be coming their way.

Knowing what to expect ahead of time can make it easier to navigate through the last minute rush.

"If a wildfire is in your area and authorities ask you to evacuate due to a impending danger, the American Red Cross recommends several steps to make the evacuation process as safe and comfortable as possible:

  • If advised to evacuate, do so immediately! You may have only minutes to act. Protect yourself and your family members.
  • Wear protective clothing: Sturdy shoes, cotton or woolen long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to protect your skin from hot embers, and gloves. Take a dry handkerchief to protect your face. Smoke can make it difficult to breathe, damaging breathing passages or triggering respiratory distress.
  • Take your Disaster Supplies Kit. Having items such as prescription medications, copies of identification and important paperwork, non-perishable food, bottled water and a supply of cash already assembled will make you more comfortable and confident while you are away from home.
  • Take your pets with you. Don't leave pets behind.
  • Lock your home. Others may evacuate after you or return before you. Secure your house as you normally would.
  • Tell someone outside of the wildfire area where you are going. Relatives and friends will be concerned about your safety. Letting someone know your travel plans will help relieve their anxiety.
  • Follow the route and directions provided by officials in charge of the evacuation. It's important that you do not detour from the route provided by officials -- it is the safest route!"
    Montana Red Cross

Officials who are watching the roads -- and in communication with each other -- can determine the safest routes with the awareness of which routes are not obstructed by water, fallen trees, or other hazards. As a result, the evacuation routes may not be the routes that the evacuees would have chosen.

While it may be tempting to take alternate routes, back roads, or roads that appear less crowded, drivers may find these roads dangerous -- or worse, they could find themselves trapped on a road that blocked by hazards or has been completely destroyed and/ or given way.

As tempting as it may be, crossing roads that are covered in water can be a fatal mistake.

"Almost half of all flash flood fatalities occur in vehicles. Contrary to popular belief, many people don't realize two feet of water on a bridge or highway can float most vehicles. If the water is moving rapidly, the car, truck, or SUV can be swept off the bridge and into the creek. Water can erode the road bed, creating unsafe driving conditions. Underpasses can fill rapidly with water, while the adjacent roadway remains clear. Driving into a flooded underpass can quickly put you in five to six feet of water. Many flash floods occur at night when flooded roads are difficult to see. When you approach a flooded road, TURN AROUND, DON'T DROWN!"

When asked to evacuate, the stress of the situation -- and the limited amount of time that an evacuee is given -- can make it difficult to remember all that needs to be done and brought at that moment. Planning ahead and being prepared can also reduce the stress that is sure to abound when a family is asked to leave their home with just minutes of warning.

Before a threat is imminent, it is important to:

  • "Identify ahead of time where you could go if you are told to evacuate. Choose several places--a friend's home in another town, a motel, or a shelter.
  • Keep handy the telephone numbers of these places as well as a road map of your locality. You may need to take alternative or unfamiliar routes if major roads are closed or clogged.
  • Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or local radio or TV stations for evacuation instructions. If advised to evacuate, do so immediately.",1082,0_253_,00.html#Plan

Whether preparing for flooding, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or any other possible disaster, there are some things that all people can do "just in case."

"There are six basics you should stock for your home: water, food, first aid supplies, clothing and bedding, tools and emergency supplies, and special items. Keep the items that you would most likely need during an evacuation in an easy-to carry container.... Possible containers include a large, covered trash container, a camping backpack, or a duffle bag.",1082,0_3_,00.html

A detailed list of what people should have in their homes in the event of an emergency can be found at the above site.

There is also an abbreviated list of what people should have ready in case they need to evacuate.

"Assemble a Disaster Supplies Kit Containing . . .

  • First aid kit and essential medications.
  • Canned food and can opener.
  • At least three gallons of water per person
  • Protective clothing, rainwear, and bedding or sleeping bags.
  • Battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries.
  • Special items for infants, elderly, or disabled family members.
  • Written instructions for how to turn off electricity, gas and water if authorities advise you to do so. (Remember, you'll need a professional to turn them back on.)",1082,0_240_,00.html#Assemble

Questions of the Week:
What natural disasters can affect those in your part of the country? What should your family have prepared in case you need to evacuate? In what ways can preparing ahead of time make it easier for your family if an evacuation is ordered? What do you think your family, friends, and peers know about preparing for a possible natural disaster? What should they know? What do you think would be the best way to reach those you know with the information they need?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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