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Published: May 23, 2024 7 min read

Last year, American homes and businesses suffered more than $90 billion in damages from natural disasters. Twenty-eight of these weather events — including Hurricane Idalia in Florida and a catastrophic wildfire in Hawaii — racked up losses exceeding $1 billion, the highest annual tally of billion-dollar disasters ever recorded. And that record may not last long.

As humans continue to grapple with the consequences of climate change, and population growth drives more development into flood plains, coastal regions and other vulnerable areas, experts predict the magnitude of natural disasters will continue to escalate. The economic costs, staggering as they may be, pale in comparison to the potential loss of human life: Between 2017 and 2023, more than 5,000 people died as a result of severe weather, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to consider your risks and prepare accordingly.

“With the increase in extreme weather events, the intensity and frequency of storms, we don’t want people to take their foot off the gas,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, director of public affairs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says. “We want them to constantly be prepared.”

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How to safeguard your home and family

If you’re starting your emergency plan from scratch, or need help deciphering which hazards pose a threat to your area, FEMA’s National Risk Index map can give you a detailed rundown.

Going forward, stay tuned to updates from the National Weather Service, and make sure you’ve opted in to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts via text. You can also download the FEMA App, which sends real-time weather emergency alerts directly to your phone.

Your city or town may have warning systems in place, like tornado or tsunami sirens. Learn how to identify them, and what to do if they’re activated. (This info can usually be found on the “emergency services” section of your local government's website.)

If an emergency does happen, your local public safety or emergency management office will issue instructions on whether to shelter in place or evacuate. It should also have written protocols for a variety of scenarios, including evacuation routes, shelter locations and contact numbers for emergency services. If you have young children, find out what their school’s emergency protocol is as well. Often, these plans include an evacuation route and a designated “meeting point” for families. Study them, and make sure your family members do the same.

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Make an emergency plan

Emergencies can strike without warning. But having the proper supplies and a pre-established action plan can greatly minimize their impact.

“Disasters don’t discriminate, and each one is unique,” Rothenberg says. “Being prepared … will help you protect yourself, your family [and] your home.”

Here are some tips to get you started.

1. Practice your escape route

For disasters like fires and earthquakes, map out an evacuation plan from each room in your home and go over it with your family. Include a pre-planned meeting point away from the house, and determine who will be responsible for evacuating small children, family members with special needs and pets.

If a member of your household has a disability, ask your public officials for information on available assistance programs. Many cities have special alert systems for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and provide emergency transportation for people with mobility issues, among other resources.

You should also come up with a communication plan for keeping in contact with your loved ones during and after a disaster. Set up a text chain or a group chat, and have a backup plan in case you lose access to your phones (landlines are available in many shelters and emergency service centers). Make contact cards listing out phone numbers for emergency services, family members and a friend who can serve as a designated check-in, and give one to every member of your household.

2. Get organized

Gather all your valuable documents — ID cards, birth certificates, property deeds, insurance papers — and put them in a fire-proof home safe or, better yet, a safe deposit box at a local bank. Make copies and include them in your emergency supply kit.

Disaster recovery takes time and money, especially if your home suffers significant damage. Having adequate home insurance coverage is crucial: periodically review your policy to make sure it reflects current market values.

Securing comprehensive health insurance policies for every member of your family is another must. If you’re the primary breadwinner in your household, consider investing in a life insurance policy, too. If your home is in a flood zone, you’ll need flood insurance, too.

3. Build a disaster supply kit

Emergency agencies sometimes get overwhelmed immediately after a disaster, so don’t expect to rely exclusively on those services. Prepare an emergency kit with at least three days worth of supplies, and keep it in a backpack, duffel bag or another form of storage that’s easy to carry.

Ready.gov has a comprehensive list of items you should consider including in your kit, including:

  • Bottled water: The recommended amount is one gallon per person per day
  • Food: Include non-perishable canned goods and dry mixes that don’t require cooking or refrigeration, and a manual can opener
  • Copies of important documents and emergency contact lists
  • Cash: You’ll want a small emergency fund for a variety of circumstances (one common scenario: ATMs and credit card readers stop working)
  • Flashlights, phone chargers, a battery-powered weather radio or TV, plus extra batteries
  • A first-aid kit with instructions
  • Personal needs products like toilet paper, moist towelettes, tampons, prescription medications and hand sanitizer
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