Thousands of people are threatened each year by both natural and man-made disasters. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 68 percent of American adults, including those who live in disaster-prone areas, have no emergency plan in place.
What should you do if a disaster strikes while you are not with your children?
As parents, we are responsible for developing a plan, anticipating potential conditions that may affect it, and even conducting a few dry runs to reinforce the procedures that will be used to keep our children safe until we can reach them.
But where do you begin?
Know the threats
No one out there can predict disasters with certainty, and only by assessing where you are and what is present in your area can help you develop an appropriate response.
If you’re new to an area, your local Red Cross chapter can provide information on the types of disasters that have occurred in the past, as well as warning signs to look out for.
For example, if you moved from California to Texas, you might not have to worry as much about earthquakes, but you might now have to deal with tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods.
Understand seasonality patterns and what types of natural disasters are most likely to occur where you live. Stocking up on food, supplies, and medication ahead of time can help you avoid some of the complications that may arise if resources are limited or unavailable.
You should also consider the possibility of a man-made disaster occurring in your area. For example, are you near a railroad or freeway that is a known route for toxic chemical transportation and could result in a spill?
Are you 50 miles from a nuclear power plant?
Are you near any prisons or major cities where rioting could occur? Hurricane Katrina is a prime example of this type of situation, with hundreds of prisoners being abandoned and vanishing into the surrounding cities.
What is the proximity of your home to industrial plants that could cause chemical leaks through water or air?
These types of accidents can also be caused by natural disasters. As an example, when Hurricane Harvey caused widespread power outages, a chemical leak occurred in one of the industrial areas. As a result of the leak, neighborhoods within a 12-mile radius had to be evacuated.
Locating these facilities on a map, as well as the circumstances they’re likely to cause if they’re damaged or disabled, and the radius that they’re likely to affect can help you determine the supplies you’ll need, whether it’ll be safe to stay at home, and possible escape routes if it’s not safe to bug in.
What does your family needs?
Each family has unique requirements based on family size, ages, location, and a variety of other factors. There is safety in numbers, as the saying goes, and building a network of contacts in the area you trust can go a long way.
Do you have any infants or young children? Family members, who are elderly or disabled? Pets?
Here are a few examples to help you understand how to create a plan and a network of resources who can pitch in when needed:
Is there an emergency plan in place if your children are in daycare while you are at work? Discuss the details of the plan with the daycare providers so that you can coordinate your efforts accordingly. In the event that you are unable to pick up your children, consider designating a backup among your nearby friends or relatives.
Another unique situation is if you have a family member who is immobile or has special needs. It is essential to plan ahead of time for situations involving evacuations or sheltering in place.
Coordination with a family member or a nearby neighbor who can assist. Additionally, ensure that you have prescription medications and backup power for any medical equipment that may be required in the event of a disaster or power outage.
Pet ownership entails making specific plans for your pet in the event of a disaster, such as shelter, food, and medicine. If you are unable to return home, do you have someone you can trust to retrieve your pet for you, such as a pet sitter or a neighbor?
Many emergency shelters do not accept pets; you should also think about what would happen to your pet if an emergency occurred while you were away and no one could reach your animals.
In the event of a fire or disaster, you should have a pet emergency window decal to alert emergency responders that there is a pet in the house. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will provide you with one for free (ASPCA).
Considering each family member’s needs, as well as your network of contacts, will assist you in putting together a plan that best fits each member of your household.
Stay or go?
Choosing when to stay home from work or school when there is a predicted emergency or threat is part of staying safe in a disaster.
Under what circumstances would you refuse to go to work or send your children to school?
We must all strike a balance between work and school obligations and the need for safety.
“What if?” you might wonder.
Should you risk driving to work and dropping off the kids if a tornado or ice storm is forecast, or should you go to the shelter?
Preparing for disasters and their potential consequences allows you to make more effective plans.
Each region of the country faces its own set of threats. Some disasters, such as earthquakes, are unpredictable, but others, such as hurricanes and ice storms, are.
Tornadoes are difficult to predict, but warnings are issued for specific areas where tornadoes may form.
If weather experts, as well as city officials, are all issuing warnings that a natural disaster is imminent, consider keeping the family together rather than risking the additional complications of being separated when the natural disaster occurs.
Understand the distinction between “watches” and “warnings.” Tornadoes, hurricanes, snow, and tropical storms are frequently the subject of National Weather Service watches and warnings.
A “watch” is issued when severe weather is expected within the next 48 hours. It does not guarantee that it will happen, only that it is possible.
Keep an eye on the weather reports in case things turn bad. When a severe weather event is expected within the next 12 to 18 hours, a “warning” is issued.
Even if the school has not been canceled, you should consider staying home for the day if a warning has already been issued. You can plan to stay at home or evacuate depending on the type of hazard you anticipate.
School may not be canceled if a tropical storm is a forecast for the day. It’s your choice whether to stay at home with the kids or drop them off at school, but think about what might happen if the storm hits while they’re at school or daycare.
Is the school located in a flood-prone area?
Will the streets flood, and will you be able to get your child on time?
A snow day may not be declared, but if heavy snow is expected, you should consider how dangerous driving can become and how difficult it will be to pick up your child from school if you are snowed in at work or if roads between your home and the school become impassable.
Gather as much information as you can
While we would all prefer to be at home with our families when a disaster strikes, this may not be possible. Assume a disaster occurs at 10:30 a.m., you and your spouse have already left for work, and your children are in school.
Discuss with your spouse, who is closer to the school and more capable of rescuing your child in an emergency. Do you have a relative or friend who can get to school faster if you’re both too far away and may be hampered by traffic or other factors?
Consider these factors before an emergency occurs so you can designate your contacts for school records and come to an agreement with them on what they will be responsible for if your child needs to be picked up.
Investigate and consult with faculty about emergency plans in place, both at your workplace and at your children’s school or daycare.
Here are some things to think about:
What is the school notification system for your child?
In the event of a disaster, many schools have a text or phone system in place to announce emergency procedures. Find out if your children’s school has a notification system and how it works.
Inquire about the circumstances under which those notifications would be issued, such as natural disasters, late starts, early dismissals, and so on.
What causes a lockdown or an evacuation?
A variety of circumstances can cause the school to be placed on lockdown or evacuated. Find out what they are, whether or not you will be notified, and what your children can and should do to communicate directly with you about the situation.
What is your child’s routine?
Keep a written copy of your child’s daily school schedule and room numbers on hand. Keep the schedule in multiple locations and on your smartphone so you can easily access it when needed.
Are there any older siblings who can assist the younger siblings?
If you have more than one child at the same school, sit them down and plan a way for them to find each other, such as a designated meeting place or texting, and where they should wait to be picked up together.
What school gates will be open for pickup?
Lockdown procedures may differ from the typical pickup system. Determine which entrances/exits will be open in an emergency so that you can reach your children as soon as possible.
In terms of safety, find out what the requirements are if you have to send a friend of the family or relative to pick up your child: ID, sign-out sheets, and so on.
Schools may ask for emergency contacts at the start of the school year in case they are unable to reach you. Consider who you can trust as your emergency contact as you create your emergency plan.
Is your workplace safe?
Is there a disaster plan in place at your workplace? What does it entail?
Although most human resources departments are required to provide this information to their employees, people frequently forget the details until the moment of truth.
Determine what would trigger a lockdown or evacuation of your office building. Make sure you know all of your building’s emergency exits and alternate routes home in case your usual route is blocked. If possible, consider walking routes. If you are unable to return home, discuss alternative meeting points with your family.
Make an emergency contact list
Make a detailed emergency contact list and keep it in several places. Include names, phone numbers, email addresses, and street addresses for contacts at school and work, daycare centers, doctors, local hospitals, the nearest shelter, and so on.
Include contact information for utilities, emergency services, your bank, and insurance companies. Enter these numbers into everyone’s phones, but also make physical copies in case you can’t access your phone or computer.
Place the contact list in a prominent location in your home, such as the refrigerator or bulletin board.
Make a contact card for each member of your family to keep in their car, wallet, and your child’s backpack or locker.
Include a contact from outside the area who can serve as a hub for everyone. If communications in your area are down, you may be able to reach someone far away. In the event of an emergency, you can call an out-of-area contact to update them on your location.
They can relay messages to the rest of the family if you don’t have enough battery power or if cell service is spotty during an emergency.
They may also be able to assist you in coordinating tasks such as placing outgoing calls or making arrangements for you if you need to evacuate your home and find a hotel in another city.
Establish meeting points
Make a list of a few locations where your family can gather for safety if you are unable to return home.
Storm shelters: Learn about the storm shelters in your area. If you have pets, check to see if the shelter can accommodate them; otherwise, you’ll need to make other arrangements.
Meeting place in the neighborhood: Choose a nearby location where everyone can gather in the event of a fire, gas leak, or another emergency that requires evacuation. It could be as close as a neighbor’s house or as far away as a coffee shop, library, or church.
If your area is threatened by a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, or other threat that necessitates evacuation, you’ll need a meeting place outside of town, such as a hotel or a friend’s home. Discuss alternative modes of transportation, such as ride-sharing services, public transportation, and so on.
Have a talk with your children
There is a fine line between providing children with just enough information to answer their questions and instilling unnecessary fear and worry in them.
Restrict the amount of media coverage of the disaster.
When a storm or hurricane is approaching, news coverage of the approaching disaster may include footage from previous disasters. Young children do not require constant exposure to potentially alarming news.
Concentrate on the event’s scientific or natural aspects.
Another way to deal with fear is to have a discussion with school-age children about how much they have learned in science class about storms, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.
If they haven’t already, it might be a good time to borrow a few books from the library and learn about the science behind these natural occurrences together.
Maintain a positive tone throughout the discussion.
Make it clear that the purpose of this discussion is to make plans to keep them safe in the event of a disaster. Stress that disasters happen infrequently but that when they do, the family will be prepared.
Direct the discussion toward actionable steps in which children can participate, such as deciding which toys to pack in their emergency bag, what snacks to bring, and other tasks in which they can participate.
The discussion of your family’s emergency plan is just the beginning. You’ll need to do a test run to ensure everything goes smoothly. Simulate an emergency in the middle of the day and put your emergency plan into action.
Go over the school pickup plan and practice gathering in your designated meeting spots in your neighborhood or outside of town.
Maintain an up-to-date contact list. Your emergency plan should also be reviewed and updated at least once a year, depending on your family’s circumstances.
Emergencies may occur at any time. In the event of a disaster, having a plan in place will help you and your family feel secure and safe.