State of the Planet

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Getting Better Prepared for the Next Big Storm

Long Beach Island in the wake of Sandy

Super Storm Sandy was an unusually powerful and destructive storm because of a rare constellation of factors, but scientists predict that we can expect more extreme weather events due to the effects of climate change. Has the super storm made us take warnings about extreme weather more seriously?

“Preparation makes an enormous difference,” said Ben Orlove, co-director of the Earth Institute’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. The center conducted a survey about preparedness with 540 residents of coastal Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey the weekend before Sandy hit. It revealed that the vast majority of residents had made only small preparations for the storm, such as buying food, moving furniture in and filling up the car. Only one-fifth of residents of evacuation areas had actual evacuation plans. Less than half the people living within a block of the ocean carried flood insurance.

Empty shelves in Montgomery, NY on the eve of Sandy

Yet, how well we cope and recover from big weather events largely depends on how much planning and preparation we have done beforehand. With the devastation of Sandy still fresh in our minds, now is the time to assess our preparedness and take action so we are ready for the next time.

Here is how to prepare for the next big storm. (Sources: Federal Emergency Management Agency’s,, Centers for Disease Control, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Long-term planning

–  Keep your trees and bushes well trimmed.

–  Maintain your car in good working order.

–  Purchase an extra gas can.

–  Download a Hurricane App from the Red Cross (it can monitor local conditions and let others know you are safe), and a First Aid App onto your smart phone.

–  Make sure you have a cell phone that can receive wireless Emergency Alert messages.

–  If you have a landline phone, keep a non-cordless receiver available because it will work even if you lose power.

–  Learn how to text on your cell phone as texting and the Internet often work when phone service is disrupted.

–  Sign up to get monthly preparedness tips on your cell phone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by texting PREPARE to 43362.

–  Designate your In Case of Emergency (ICE) contacts and program them into your cell phone.

–  Post emergency numbers near each phone.

–  Identify an out-of-state contact person that all family members should call to check in with during an emergency. Sometimes long-distance calls work when local calls do not.

–  Get to know your surroundings and find out whether you’re in a flood-prone area.

–  Obtain flood insurance if you are.

–  Install hurricane shutters.

–  Get a fire extinguisher and teach everyone in your home how to use it.

–  Learn how to turn off your gas, water and electricity in case of flooding or downed power lines. If necessary, contact your local utilities to find out how to do it, and instruct household members on how to do it as well.

–  Make sure children know how to call 911.

–  Consider installing a home standby generator that can run on natural gas, propane or diesel fuel. (These should not be run inside the home or in an area where potentially deadly carbon monoxide fumes from the machine are likely to enter the home.)

–  Create an emergency plan that takes into consideration where you will go if you need to evacuate, and the special needs of all your household members (seniors, children, disabled, pets).

–  Plan with neighbors or community groups to assist and check on one another in an emergency.

Blackout in NYC. Photo: David Shankbone

Making a Plan

–  Create the emergency plan designating an outside meeting place for the family; make sure it includes important telephone numbers and work and school contact information. FEMA has a form you can use.

–  Think about the different needs—dietary, medical and physical—of each household member.

–  Make sure you understand your children’s school emergency plans and how the children will be kept safe if you are separated. Find out how schools will communicate with families during a crisis.

–  If someone is disabled, determine what local paratransit services are available during emergencies

–  For people who require medical apparatus like oxygen tanks, plan for power outages by buying a portable generator (preferably one with multi-fuel capabilities that can run on gas, natural gas or propane). Make sure you have long electrical cords because portable generators should not be used within the house.

–  Seniors may need additional supplies of medications, batteries for small devices like hearing aids, or an extra wheel chair

–  Don’t leave pets behind if you must evacuate. Locate pet-friendly shelters or arrange with friends to sit for your pets if you have to evacuate, or rescue them if you are away from home. Find out about community resources for protecting pets in an emergency

–  Each person should have a Go Bag filled with items that he/she will need if forced to evacuate.

A shelter in Piscataway Township, NJ. Photo: U.S. Army

The Go Bag should contain copies of important documents (insurance cards, photo IDs, passports, credit cards), emergency contact information, extra keys and cash, 3-day supply of water and non-perishable food for all family members and pets, flashlight, battery-powered AM/FM radio, extra batteries, matches, First Aid kit, maps, comfortable clothing and blankets, and any special items particular family members require. For more details, visit

If you are told by officials to evacuate, do it.  Disobeying orders puts your life in danger as well as that of emergency workers who might eventually have to come rescue you. Let others know where you are going.

Sandy approaching the Northeast.

Days Before the Storm

When you know a storm is on the way, make sure your house and environs are as secure as possible.

–  Find out about your community’s emergency plans, warning signals, evacuation routes and location of the nearest shelters. Review the evacuation/emergency plan with your family.

–  Bring inside or secure outdoor furniture or objects that could blow away.

–  Identify potential hazards inside your home and figure out how to make them safe.

–  Get a generator and extra gasoline. Don’t use portable generators (or camp stoves and charcoal grills) inside your home or near a window or vent; they emit poisonous carbon monoxide.

–  Close hurricane shutters or board up your windows with 5/8” plywood; place large strips of masking tape on windows to keep breaking glass from flying around.

–  Reinforce your garage door.

–  Clear debris from the gutters.

–  Turn your refrigerator to its coldest setting and get an ice chest ready to keep food cool in case the power goes out. In case of a power outage, if you don’t keep opening the refrigerator door, food should be safe for 4 hours.

–  Freeze containers of water for ice to keep food in the refrigerator cool in case of a power outage.

–  Fill up your car with gasoline.

–  Place vehicles in the garage.

–  If you do not have a car, arrange to carpool with neighbors in case you need to evacuate.

–  Moor your boat.

–  Fill the bathtub with water for cleaning and flushing toilets in case tap water is not available.

–  Turn off propane tanks.

In the car

It’s a good idea to keep these emergency supplies in your car:

–  Jumper cables

–  Flashlight and extra batteries

–  First aid kit

–  Energy bars and extra water

–  Shovel, ice scraper, kitty litter for traction

–  Warm change of clothes

–  Blankets and sleeping bags

–  Flares, reflective triangles

–  Cell phone and charger

–  Maps

Shelter in Place

You may be told to shelter in place at home. In addition to the contents of your Go Bag, you should also keep on hand:

–  3-5 days supply of nonperishable food and water

–  Fire extinguisher. Make sure everyone knows how to use it.

–  Face masks

–  Plastic sheeting and duct tape for sealing windows and doors

–  Extra blankets and sleeping bags

The Virginia National Guard rescuing residents of Mears, VA.

Orlove, from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, said, “Our survey showed that people are insufficiently aware of their general vulnerability and are often under prepared. We need to build two types of awareness.

“First is awareness of our increasing vulnerability to storms. Sea levels are rising faster in the New York area than in many other places. We are expecting another 2 feet of sea rise by 2050, which is not that far away—this means that middling storms will have big impacts.

“The second is our increasing climate vulnerability to all kinds of extreme weather events, including heat waves.”

For more detailed information on preparedness, FEMA’s Are You Ready? An In-Depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness is available in English and Spanish.





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