From hurricanes and floods to wildfires and tornadoes, learn what you need to do to protect yourself and your family from harm
In 1992, as Hurricane Andrew barreled toward Florida, Robert Baltodano was the only member in his household awake when a television meteorologist—clearly shaken—urged people to take refuge.
Robert took the warning seriously, rousing his family and herding them into a closet, as advised. The Nicaraguan family had been in the U.S. for 12 years, but had no idea how to prepare for the powerful storm—and their neighbors did not seem particularly concerned.
“When the hurricane came, it shaved the roof off,” says Robert, who today is communications specialist for the South Florida Red Cross. “We could hear the furniture like it was in a blender. It was mayhem.
When we came out of the closet, the windows were gone. It was as if a bomb had gone off. Everything was broken.”
On that day, Robert became a “spontaneous volunteer,” offering his assistance to the Red Cross on the spot.
It was the beginning of a lifetime of helping others learn how to prepare for disaster.
Disaster preparedness starts long before disaster strikes. The first step is knowing the risks in your location. Is it prone to flooding or wildfires or, as is the case in Florida, vulnerable to hurricanes and violent thunderstorms?
Once you know the likely risks, devising a survival plan is fairly simple, generally calling for items most people already have on hand.
It is all about thinking ahead.
“People tend to react to disasters as opposed to preparing for disaster,” Robert says. “People always think it is going to happen to someone else, and when it happens to them they are unprepared. Generally speaking, communities and individuals who take time to prepare are far more resilient and, therefore, better positioned for a healthier and faster recovery—especially those with high vulnerability.”
The Red Cross encourages taking a proactive approach that includes three simple steps: putting together an emergency preparedness kit (see related story, page 15), making a plan and being informed.
In making a plan, discuss with your family how you will prepare for and respond to emergencies that are most likely to occur where you live, learn, work and play. Identify responsibilities for each member of the household, and plan to work together as a team.
Choose two places to meet—one outside your home in case of a sudden emergency and another outside the neighborhood in case you cannot return home or are asked to evacuate.
Being informed means identifying how you will get your information when disaster strikes, knowing the difference between weather alerts such as “watches” and “warnings,” and what action your household will take for each.
Know what actions you will take to protect yourself, and make sure at least one person in the household is trained in first aid, CPR and knows how to use an automated external defibrillator.
Furthermore, remember that disaster can strike at any time.
“When Hurricane Matthew hit, we hadn’t had a storm in almost 11 years,” says Robert. “It had the community in a state of complacency.”
During that disaster, the Red Cross sheltered 4,000 people in 144 shelters. But plenty of other people stayed behind.
“We need to make sure those who stay behind understand that there are things to be done,” Robert notes.
Some of those actions include remaining informed, monitoring physical needs and emotional health, inventorying emergency supplies and trying to maintain contact with family, friends and those nearby.
In the Florida Keys especially—where natural disasters include not only hurricanes, but tropical cyclones, high winds, tidal surges and heavy rain—the Red Cross makes a concerted effort to encourage and teach preparedness.
While the Keys are automatically evacuated during disasters, most locals do not leave.
“Those who live there just weather it out,” Robert says. “It’s a very relaxed community—high-spirited. They rely on each other a lot. It’s in their DNA to stay and help each other out. We encourage them to leave, but if you are going to stay, we empower them with knowledge. You need to learn CPR. You need to have a kit.”
Robert encourages people to take pictures of their homes and possessions, and keep them on a thumb drive to help expedite insurance claims and provide proof of their losses. Register with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as soon as possible so when the disaster declaration becomes official, you are already signed up.
“Preparedness is all basic steps,” Robert says. “It really doesn’t require all that much thinking. It’s common sense. People think it is expensive. In reality, most of what they need they already have. It’s really about gathering what you have and getting a kit together.”
Respect Weather Events
While Florida is well known for its hurricanes, residents also face numerous other dangers, including tornadoes, flooding and lightning.
“Florida is ground zero for lightning strikes,” says Alberto C. Moscoso, communications director for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “Tampa is the lightning-strike capital of the world.
“The main thing to know is that lightning is not necessarily as far away as you think it is. It can travel as far as 10 miles from the storm it originates from. If you are close enough to hear thunder, you are close enough to be hit by lightning. The worst place to be is in the open.”
If you are outside, Alberto advises getting in a closed-top car, staying away from sides of the car, the dashboard, the steering wheel and windows.
But the best option is to get indoors and stay away from windows, plumbing and electrical devices.
Avoid any outdoor water activities, such as boating, fishing and swimming, which are particularly dangerous during a lightning storm.
Most people are not killed by lightning, but can suffer serious injuries, Alberto says.
If you are with a lightning victim and touch them, you are not going to receive a shock, so begin emergency care immediately, Alberto says.
Floods are a year-round risk in Florida, the most dangerous being flash floods that can come with little or no warning.
If you live in a flood-prone area, have an escape plan. Keep sandbags, plywood, lumber and shovels on hand to protect your home and belongings.
Never drive through flooded areas or play in a flooded area, where water is likely to be contaminated with chemicals and littered with hazardous debris.
“The best preparation is to know if you live in a flood-prone area,” Alberto says.
Natural disasters often cause power outages, which come with potential dangers as well.
“Downed power lines are obviously a concern in any major storm,” says John Stuart, chief operations officer with Florida Keys Electric Association. “They could still be energized. Consider them live.
“In a hurricane situation, you could be out of power for several hours or several days. In our area, we do encourage evacuations. We tell people you may not have electricity for a period of time, and here in hot, humid Florida, that’s not a pleasant thing, so why not get out.”
For those who do stay, John says it is important—potentially life-saving—not to run a personal generator without disconnecting from the grid.
“It can back feed into the system,” John says. “Linemen have been killed or badly injured.”
FKEC sells and installs a relatively inexpensive protective device. Once the generator is plugged in, the device automatically disconnects it from the grid.
“If you have a generator, be conscientious and learn the ins and outs of using it correctly,” John says.
Take the Warnings Seriously
On that day in 1992, when Robert’s family emerged from the closet, they found neighboring houses on both sides were gone.
“That shook us up,” he says. “I’d never seen my dad cry. That was the one time he cried. That’s why I take it so seriously.
“When you come out of that closet and realize you’ve lost a lot, but realize that you have food and water, it may not resolve the problem, but from a psychological standpoint, it makes you feel OK.”