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Natural Hazards




      Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

      Extreme Heat (Heat Wave)
           Emergency water shortages



      Landslide and Debris Flow (Mudslide)


           Wildland fires

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Floods are one of the most common hazards in the U.S. However, all floods are not alike. Riverine floods develop slowly, sometimes over a period of days. Flash floods can develop quickly, sometimes in just a few minutes, without any visible signs of rain. Flash floods often have a dangerous wall of roaring water that carries a deadly cargo of rocks, mud and other debris and can sweep away most things in its path. Overland flooding occurs outside a defined river or stream, such as when a levee is breached, but still can be destructive. Flooding can also occur from a dam break producing effects similar to flash floods.

Flood effects can be very local, impacting a neighborhood or community, or very large, effecting entire river basins and multiple states.

Be aware of flood hazards no matter where you live, but especially if you live in a low-lying area, near water or downstream from a dam. Even very small streams, gullies, creeks, culverts, dry streambeds or low-lying ground that appear harmless in dry weather can flood. Every state is at risk from this hazard.

What to do before a flood

  1. Know the terms used to describe flooding:

    • Flood Watch—Flooding is possible. Stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio or commercial radio or television for information. Watches are issued 12 to 36 hours in advance of a possible flooding event.

    • Flash Flood Watch—Flash flooding is possible. Be prepared to move to higher ground. A flash flood could occur without any warning. Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or commercial radio or television for additional information.

    • Flood Warning—Flooding is occurring or will occur soon. If advised to evacuate, do so immediately.

    • Flash Flood Warning­— A flash flood is occurring. Seek higher ground on foot immediately.

  2. Ask local officials whether your property is in a flood-prone or high-risk area. (Remember that floods often occur outside high-risk areas.) Ask about official flood warning signals and what to do when you hear them. Also ask how you can protect your home from flooding.

  3. Identify dams in your area and determine whether they pose a hazard to you.

  4. Purchase a NOAA Weather Radio with battery backup and a tone-alert feature that automatically alerts you when a Watch or Warning is issued (tone alert not available in some areas). Purchase a battery-powered commercial radio and extra batteries.

  5. Be prepared to evacuate. Learn your community’s flood evacuation routes
    and where to find high ground. See
    the “Evacuation” chapter for important information.

  6. Talk to your household about flooding. Plan a place to meet your household in case you are separated from one another in a disaster and cannot return home. Choose an out-of-town contact for everyone to call to say they are okay. In some emergencies, calling out-of-state is possible even when local phone lines are down.

  7. Determine how you would care for household members who may live elsewhere but might need your help in a flood. Determine any special needs your neighbors might have.

  8. Prepare to survive on your own for at least three days. Assemble a disaster supply kit. Keep a stock of food and extra drinking water. See the “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” chapter for more information.

  9. Know how to shut off electricity, gas and water at main switches and valves. Know where gas pilot lights are located and how the heating system works.

  10. Consider purchasing flood insurance.

    • Flood losses are not covered under homeowners’ insurance policies.

    • FEMA manages the National Flood Insurance Program, which makes federally-backed flood insurance available in communities that agree to adopt and enforce floodplain management ordinances to reduce future flood damage.

    • Flood insurance is available in most communities through insurance agents.

    • There is a 30-day waiting period before flood insurance goes into effect, so don’t delay.

    • Flood insurance is available whether the building is in or out of the identified flood-prone area.

      • Consider options for protecting your property.

        • Make a record of your personal property. Take photographs or videotapes of your belongings. Store these documents in a safe place.

        • Keep insurance policies, deeds, property records and other important papers in a safe place away from your home.

        • Avoid building in a floodplain unless you elevate and reinforce your home.

        • Elevate furnace, water heater, and electric panel to higher floors or the attic if they are susceptible to flooding.

        • Install “check valves” in sewer traps to prevent flood water from backing up into the drains of your home.

        • Construct barriers such as levees, berms, and floodwalls to stop floodwater from entering the building.

        • Seal walls in basements with waterproofing compounds to avoid seepage.

        • Call your local building department or emergency management office for more information.

What to do during a flood

  1. Be aware of flash flood. If there is any possibility of a flash flood, move immediately to higher ground. Do not wait for instructions to move.

  2. Listen to radio or television stations for local information.

  3. Be aware of streams, drainage channels, canyons and other areas known to flood suddenly. Flash floods can occur in these areas with or without such typical warning signs as rain clouds or heavy rain.

  4. If local authorities issue a flood watch, prepare to evacuate:

    • Secure your home. If you have time, tie down or bring outdoor equipment and lawn furniture inside. Move essential items to the upper floors.

    • If instructed, turn off utilities at the main switches or valves. Disconnect electrical appliances. Do not touch electrical equipment if you are wet or standing in water.

    • Fill the bathtub with water in case water becomes contaminated or services cut off. Before filling the tub, sterilize it with a diluted bleach solution.

  5. Do not walk through moving water. Six inches of moving water can knock you off your feet. If you must walk in a flooded area, walk where the water is not moving. Use a stick to check the firmness of the ground in front of you.

  6. Do not drive into flooded areas. Six inches of water will reach the bottom of most passenger cars causing loss of control and possible stalling. A foot of water will float many vehicles. Two feet of water will wash away almost all vehicles. If floodwaters rise around your car, abandon the car and move to higher ground, if you can do so safely. You and your vehicle can be quickly swept away as floodwaters rise.

  7. See the “Evacuation” chapter for important information.

What to do after a flood

  1. Avoid floodwaters. The water may be contaminated by oil, gasoline or raw sewage. The water may also be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines.

  2. Avoid moving water. Moving water only six inches deep can sweep you off your feet.

  3. Be aware of areas where floodwaters have receded. Roads may have weakened and could collapse under the weight of a car.

  4. Stay away from downed power lines and report them to the power company.

  5. Stay away from designated disaster areas unless authorities ask for volunteers.

  6. Return home only when authorities indicate it is safe. Stay out of buildings if surrounded by floodwaters. Use extreme caution when entering buildings. There may be hidden damage, particularly in foundations.

  7. Consider your family’s health and safety needs:

    • Wash hands frequently with soap and clean water if you come in contact with floodwaters.

    • Throw away food that has come in contact with floodwaters.

    • Listen for news reports to learn whether the community’s water supply is safe to drink.

    • Listen to news reports for information about where to get assistance for housing, clothing and food.

    • Seek necessary medical care at the nearest medical facility.

  8. Service damaged septic tanks, cesspools, pits, and leaching systems as soon as possible. Damaged sewage systems are serious health hazards.

  9. Contact your insurance agent. If your policy covers your situation, an adjuster will be assigned to visit your home. To prepare:

    • Take photos of your belongings and your home or videotape them.

    • Separate damaged and undamaged belongings.

    • Locate your financial records.

    • Keep detailed records of cleanup costs.

  10. If your residence has been flooded obtain a copy of “Repairing Your Flooded Home” from the local American Red Cross chapter.

  11. See the “Recovering From Disaster” chapter for more information.


A hurricane is a type of tropical cyclone, the generic term for a low pressure system that generally forms in the tropics. The ingredients for a hurricane include a pre-existing weather disturbance, warm tropical oceans, moisture, and relatively light winds aloft. A typical cyclone is accompanied by thunderstorms, and in the Northern Hemisphere, a counterclockwise circulation of winds near the earth’s surface. Tropical cyclones are classified as follows:

Tropical Depression. An organized system of clouds and thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 38 mph (33 knots) or less. Sustained winds are defined as one-minute average wind measured at about 33 ft (10 meters) above the surface.

Tropical Storm. An organized system of strong thunderstorms with a defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 39-73 mph (34-63 knots).

Hurricane. An intense tropical weather system of strong thunderstorms with a well-defined surface circulation and maximum sustained winds of 74 mph (64 knots) or higher.

All Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastal areas are subject to hurricanes or tropical storms. Although rarely struck by hurricanes, parts of the Southwest United States and the Pacific Coast experience heavy rains and floods each year from hurricanes spawned off Mexico. The Atlantic hurricane season lasts from June to November with the peak season from mid-August to late October.

Hurricanes can cause catastrophic damage to coastlines and several hundred miles inland. Winds can exceed 155 miles-per-hour. Hurricanes and tropical storms can also spawn tornadoes and microbursts, create surge along the coast, and cause extensive damage due to inland flooding from trapped water.

Tornadoes most often occur in thunderstorms embedded in rain bands well away from the center of the hurricane; however, they also occur near the eye-wall. Typically, tornadoes produced by tropical cyclones are relatively weak and short-lived but still pose a threat.

A storm surge is a huge dome of water pushed on-shore by hurricane and tropical storm winds. Storm surges can reach 25 feet high and be 50-100 miles wide. Storm tide is a combination of the storm surge and the normal tide (i.e., a 15 foot storm surge combined with a 2 foot normal high tide over the mean sea level creates a 17 foot storm tide). These phenomena cause severe erosion and extensive damage to coastal areas.

Despite improved warnings and a decrease in the loss of life, property damage continues to rise because an increasing number of people are living or vacationing near coastlines. Those in hurricane-prone areas need to be prepared for hurricanes and tropical storms.

Hurricanes are classified into five categories based on their wind speed, central pressure and damage potential (see chart below). Category Three and higher are considered major hurricanes, though Category One and Two are still extremely dangerous and warrant your full attention.

Inland/freshwater flooding from hurricanes

Hurricanes can produce widespread torrential rains. Floods are the deadly and destructive result. Excessive rain can also trigger landslides or mud slides, especially in mountainous regions. Flash flooding can occur due to the intense rainfall. Flooding on rivers and streams may persist for several days or more after the storm.

The speed of the storm and the geography beneath the storm are the primary factors regarding the amount of rain produced. Slow moving storms and tropical storms moving into mountainous regions tend to produce more rain.

Between 1970 and 1999, more people lost their lives from freshwater flooding associated with landfalling tropical cyclones than from any other weather hazard related to tropical cyclones.

See the “Floods” chapter for more specific information on flood related emergencies.

What to do before a hurricane

  1. Know the difference between “Watches” and “Warnings.”

    • Hurricane/Tropical Storm Watch—Hurricane/tropical storm conditions are possible in the specified area, usually within 36 hours.

    • Hurricane/Tropical Storm Warning—Hurricane/tropical storm conditions are expected in the specified area, usually within 24 hours.

    • Short Term Watches and Warnings—These warnings provide detailed information on specific hurricane threats, such as flash floods and tornadoes.

    Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale
    Scale Number
    Sustained Winds
    Damage Storm
    1 74-95 Minimal: Untied mobile homes, vegetation and signs. 4-5 feet
    2 96-110 Moderate: All mobile homes, roofs, small crafts, flooding. 6-8 feet
    3 111-130 Extensive: Small buildings, low-lying roads cut off 9-12 feet
    4 131-155 Extreme: Roofs destroyed, trees down, roads cut off, mobile homes destroyed. Beach homes flooded. 13-18 feet
    5 >155 Catastrophic: Most buildings destroyed. Vegetation destroyed. Major roads cut off. Homes flooded. >18 feet

  2. Listen for local radio or television weather forecasts. Purchase a NOAA Weather Radio with battery backup and a tone-alert feature that automatically alerts you when a Watch or Warning is issued (tone alert is not available in some areas). Purchase a battery-powered commercial radio and extra batteries as well because information on other events will be broadcast by the media.

  3. Ask your local emergency management office about community evacuation plans relating to your neighborhood. Learn evacuation routes. Determine where you would go and how you would get there if you needed to evacuate. Sometimes alternate routes are desirable.

  4. Talk to your household about hurricane issues. Create a household disaster plan. Plan to meet at a place away from your residence in case you are separated. Choose an out-of-town contact for everyone to call to say they are safe.

  5. Determine the needs of your household members who may live elsewhere but need your help in a hurricane. Consider the special needs of neighbors, such as people that are disabled or those with limited sight or vision problems.

  6. Prepare to survive on your own for at least three days. Assemble a disaster supply kit. Keep a stock of food and extra drinking water. See the “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” and “Evacuation” chapters for more information.

  7. Make plans to secure your property. Permanent storm shutters offer the best protection for windows. A second option is to board up windows with 5/8" marine plywood, cut to fit and ready to install. Tape does not prevent windows from breaking.

  8. Learn how to shut off utilities and where gas pilots and water mains are located.

  9. Have your home inspected for compliance with local building codes. Many of the roofs destroyed by hurricanes were not constructed or retrofitted according to building codes. Installing straps or additional clips to securely fasten your roof to the frame structure will substantially reduce roof damage.

  10. Be sure trees and shrubs around your home are well trimmed. Dead limbs or trees could cause personal injury or property damage. Clear loose and clogged rain gutters and downspouts.

  11. If you have a boat, determine where to secure it in an emergency.

  12. Consider flood insurance. Purchase insurance well in advance—there is a 30-day waiting period before flood insurance takes effect.

  13. Make a record of your personal property. Take photographs or videotapes of your belongings. Store these documents in a safe place.

What to do during a hurricane threat

  1. Listen to radio or television newscasts. If a hurricane “Watch” is issued, you typically have 24 to 36 hours before the hurricane hits land.

  2. Talk with household members. Make sure everyone knows where to meet and who to call, in case you are separated. Consider the needs of relatives and neighbors with special needs.

  3. Secure your home. Close storm shutters. Secure outdoor objects or bring them indoors. Moor your boat if time permits.

  4. Gather several days’ supply of water and food for each household member. Water systems may become contaminated or damaged. Sterilize (with diluted bleach solution of one part bleach to ten parts water) and fill the bathtub to ensure a supply of safe water in case you are unable or told not to evacuate. Refer to the “Shelter and Emergency Planning” and “Disaster Supplies” chapters for important information.

  5. If you are evacuating, take your disaster supply kit with you to the shelter. Remember that alcoholic beverages and weapons are prohibited within shelters. Also, pets are not allowed in a public shelter due to health reasons. See the “Animals in Disaster” chapter and contact your local humane society for additional information.

  6. Prepare to evacuate. Fuel your car—service stations may be closed after the storm. If you do not have a car, make arrangements for transportation with a friend or relative. Review evacuation routes. If instructed, turn off utilities at the main valves.

  7. Evacuate to an inland location, if:

    • Local authorities announce an evacuation and you live in an evacuation zone.

    • You live in a mobile home or temporary structure—they are particularly hazardous during hurricanes no matter how well fastened to the ground.

    • You live in a high-rise. Hurricane winds are stronger at higher elevations.

    • You live on the coast, on a floodplain near a river or inland waterway.

    • You feel you are in danger.

  8. When authorities order an evacuation:

    • Leave immediately.

    • Follow evacuation routes announced by local officials.

    • Stay away from coastal areas, riverbanks and streams.

    • Tell others where you are going.

  9. If you are not required or are unable to evacuate, stay indoors during the hurricane and away from windows and glass doors. Keep curtains and blinds closed. Do not be fooled if there is a lull, it could be the eye of the storm—winds will pick up again.

  10. Turn off utilities if told to do so by authorities.

  11. If not instructed to turn off, turn the refrigerator to its coldest setting and keep closed.

  12. Turn off propane tanks.

    10. In strong winds, follow these rules:

  13. Take refuge in a small interior room, closet or hallway.

  14. Close all interior doors. Secure and brace external doors.

  15. In a two-story residence, go to an interior first-floor room, such as a bathroom or closet.

  16. In a multiple-story building, go to the first or second floors and stay in interior rooms away from windows.

  17. Lie on the floor under a table or another sturdy object.

  18. Avoid using the phone except for serious emergencies. Local authorities need first priority on telephone lines.

  19. See the “Evacuation” chapter for important information.

What to do after a hurricane

  1. Stay where you are if you are in a safe location until local authorities say it is safe to leave. If you evacuated the community, do not return to the area until authorities say it is safe to return.

  2. Keep tuned to local radio or television stations for information about caring for your household, where to find medical help, how to apply for financial assistance, etc.

  3. Drive only when necessary. Streets will be filled with debris. Roads may have weakened and could collapse. Do not drive on flooded or barricaded roads or bridges. Closed roads are for your protection. As little as six inches of water may cause you to lose control of your vehicle—two feet of water will carry most cars away.

  4. Do not drink or prepare food with tap water until notified by officials that it is safe to do so.

  5. Consider your family’s health and safety needs. Be aware of symptoms of stress and fatigue. Keep your household together and seek crisis counseling if you have need. See the “Mental Health and Crisis Counseling” section of the “Recovering from Disaster” chapter for more information.

  6. Talk with your children about what has happened and how they can help during the recovery. Being involved will help them deal with the situation. Consider the needs of your neighbors. People often become isolated during hurricanes.

  7. Stay away from disaster areas unless local authorities request volunteers. If you are needed, bring your own drinking water, food and sleeping gear.

  8. Stay away from riverbanks and streams until potential flooding has passed. Do not allow children, especially under the age of 13, to play in flooded areas. There is a high risk of injury or drowning in areas that may appear safe.

  9. Stay away from moving water. Moving water only six inches deep can sweep you off your feet. Standing water may be electrically charged from underground or downed power lines.

  10. Stay away from downed power lines and report them to the power company. Report broken gas, sewer or water mains to local officials.

  11. Don't use candles or other open flames indoors. Use a flashlight to inspect damage.

  12. Set up a manageable schedule to repair property.

  13. Contact your insurance agent. An adjuster will be assigned to visit your home. To prepare:

    • Take photos of your belongings and your home or videotape them.

    • Separate damaged and undamaged belongings.

    • Locate your financial records.

    • Keep detailed records of cleanup costs.

  14. Consider building a “Safe Room or Shelter” to protect your household. See the “Thunderstorms” chapter for additional information in the “Tornadoes” section.

  15. See the “Recovering From Disaster” chapter for more important information.


Thunderstorms are very common and affect great numbers of people each year. Despite their small size in comparison to hurricanes and winter storms, all thunderstorms are dangerous. Every thunderstorm produces lightning. Other associated dangers of thunderstorms include tornadoes, strong winds, hail, and flash flooding. Flash flooding is responsible for more fatalities— more than 140 annually— than any other thunderstorm-associated hazard.

Some thunderstorms do not produce rain that reaches the ground. These are generically referred to as dry thunderstorms and are most prevalent in the western United States. Known to spawn wildfires, these storms occur when there is a large layer of dry air between the base of the cloud and the ground. The falling raindrops evaporate, but lightning can still reach the ground.

What to do before thunderstorms approach

  1. Know the terms used by weather forecasters:

    • Severe Thunderstorm Watch— Tells you when and where severe thunderstorms are likely to occur. Watch the sky and stay tuned to radio or television to know when warnings are issued.

    • Severe Thunderstorm Warning— Issued when severe weather has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar. Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property to those in the path of the storm.

  2. Know thunderstorm facts:

    • Thunderstorms may occur singly, in clusters, or in lines.

    • Some of the most severe weather occurs when a single thunderstorm affects one location for an extended time.

    • Thunderstorms typically produce heavy rain for a brief period, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.

    • Warm, humid conditions are very favorable for thunderstorm development.

    • A typical thunderstorm is 15 miles in diameter and lasts an average of 30 minutes.

    • Of the estimated 100,000 thunderstorms each year in the United States, about 10 percent are classified as severe.

    • A thunderstorm is classified as severe if it produces hail at least three-quarters of an inch in diameter, has winds of 58 miles per hour or higher, or produces a tornado.

  3. Know the calculation to determine how close you are to a thunderstorm:

    • Count the number of seconds between a flash of lightning and the next clap of thunder. Divide this number by 5 to determine the distance to the lightning in miles.

  4. Remove dead or rotting trees and branches that could fall and cause injury or damage during a severe thunderstorm.

  5. When a thunderstorm approaches, secure outdoor objects that could blow away or cause damage. Shutter windows, if possible, and secure outside doors. If shutters are not available, close window blinds, shades, or curtains.


The ingredient that defines a thunderstorm is lightning. Since lightning creates thunder, a storm producing lightning is called a thunderstorm.

Lightning occurs during all thunderstorms. Lightning results from the buildup and discharge of electrical energy between positively and negatively charged areas.

The unpredictability of lightning increases the risk to individuals and property. In the United States, an average of 300 people are injured and 80 people are killed each year by lightning. Although most lightning victims survive, people struck by lightning often report a variety of long-term, debilitating symptoms, including memory loss, attention deficits, sleep disorders, numbness, dizziness, stiffness in joints, irritability, fatigue, weakness, muscle spasms, depression, and an inability to sit for a long period of time.

When thunderstorms threaten your area, get inside a home, building or hard top automobile (not a convertible) and stay away from metallic objects and fixtures.

  1. If you are inside a home:

    • Avoid showering or bathing. Plumbing and bathroom fixtures can conduct electricity.

    • Avoid using a corded telephone, except for emergencies. Cordless and cellular telephones are safe to use.

    • Unplug appliances and other electrical items such as computers and turn off air conditioners. Power surges from lightning can cause serious damage.

    • Use your battery operated NOAA Weather Radio for updates from local officials.

  2. If outside, with no time to reach a safe location, follow these recommenations:

    • In a forest, seek shelter in a low area under a thick growth of small trees.

    • In open areas, go to a low place such as a ravine or valley. Be alert for flash floods.

    • Do not stand under a natural lightning rod, such as a tall, isolated tree in an open area.

    • Do not stand on a hilltop, in an open field, on the beach or in a boat on the water.

    • Avoid isolated sheds or other small structures in open areas.

    • Get away from open water. If you are boating or swimming, get to land and find shelter immediately.

    • Get away from anything metal— tractors, farm equipment, motorcycles, golf carts, golf clubs and bicycles.

    • Stay away from wire fences, clotheslines, metal pipes, rails and other metallic paths that could carry lightning to you from some distance away.

    • If you feel your hair stand on end (which indicates that lightning is about to strike), squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands over your ears and your head between your knees. Make yourself the smallest target possible and minimize your contact with the ground. DO NOT lie flat on the ground.

  3. Remember the following facts and safety tips about lightning.


    • Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall.

    • Lightning-strike victims carry no electrical charge and should be attended to immediately. If breathing has stopped, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. If the heart has stopped, a trained person should administer CPR. If the victim has a pulse and is breathing, look for other possible injuries. Check for burns where the lightning entered and left the body. Be alert also for nervous system damage, broken bones, and loss of hearing or eyesight. Contact your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter for information on CPR and first aid classes.

    • “Heat lightning” is actually lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for thunder to be heard. However, the storm may be moving in your direction!

    • Most lightning deaths and injuries occur when people are caught outdoors in the summer months during the afternoon and evening.

    • Many fires in the western United States and Alaska are started by lightning.

    • Lightning can occur from cloud-to-cloud, within a cloud, cloud-to-ground, or cloud-to-air.

    • Your chances of being struck by lightning are estimated to be 1 in 600,000 but could be even less by following safety tips.

    Safety Tips:

    • Postpone outdoor activities if thunderstorms are likely.

    • Remember the 30/30 lightning safety rule – Go indoors if, after seeing lighting, you cannot count to 30 before hearing thunder. Stay indoors for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder.

    • Rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide NO protection from lightning. However, the steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal. Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.


Tornadoes are nature’s most violent storms. Spawned from powerful thunderstorms, tornadoes can uproot trees, destroy buildings and turn harmless objects into deadly missiles. They can devastate a neighborhood in seconds.

A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. Every state is at some risk from this hazard.

Tornado facts

  1. A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground.

  2. Tornadoes are capable of destroying homes and vehicles and can cause fatalities.

  3. Tornadoes may strike quickly, with little or no warning.

  4. Tornadoes may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms in the funnel. The average tornado moves SW to NE but tornadoes have been known to move in any direction.

  5. The average forward speed is 30 mph but may vary from stationary to 70 mph with rotating winds that can reach 300 miles per hour.

  6. Tornadoes can accompany tropical storms and hurricanes as they move onto land.

  7. Waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water.

  8. Tornadoes are most frequently reported east of the Rocky Mountains during spring and summer months but can occur in any state at any time of year.

  9. In the southern states, peak tornado season is March through May, while peak months in the northern states are during the late spring and early summer.

  10. Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., but can occur at any time of the day or night.

What to do before tornadoes threaten

  1. Know the terms used to describe tornado threats:

    • Tornado Watch­— Tornadoes are possible. Remain alert for approaching storms. Listen to your battery-operated NOAA Weather Radio or local radio/television outlets for updated reports.

    • Tornado Warning — A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Take shelter immediately.

  2. Ask your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter about the tornado threat in your area. Ask about community warning signals.

  3. Purchase a NOAA Weather Radio with a battery backup and tone-alert feature that automatically alerts you when a Watch or Warning is issued (tone alert not available in some areas). Purchase a battery-powered commercial radio and extra batteries as well.

  4. Know the county or parish in which you live. Counties and parishes are used in Watches and Warnings to identify the location of tornadoes.

  5. Determine places to seek shelter, such as a basement or storm cellar. If an underground shelter is not available, identify an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor.

  6. Practice going to your shelter with your household.

  7. Know the locations of designated shelters in places where you and your household spend time, such as public buildings, nursing homes and shopping centers. Ask local officials whether a registered engineer or architect has inspected your children’s schools for shelter space.

  8. Ask your local emergency manager or American Red Cross chapter if there are any public safe rooms or shelters nearby. See the “Safe Room and Shelter” section at the end of this chapter for more information.

  9. Assemble a disaster supply kit. Keep a stock of food and extra drinking water. See the “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” and “Evacuation” chapters for more information.

  10. Make a record of your personal property. Take photographs or videotapes of your belongings. Store these documents in a safe place.

What to do during a tornado watch

  1. Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or to commercial radio or television newscasts for the latest information.

  2. Be alert for approaching storms. If you see any revolving funnel shaped clouds, report them immediately by telephone to your local police department or sheriff’s office.

  3. Watch for tornado danger signs:

    • Dark, often greenish sky

    • Large hail

    • A large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating)

    • Loud roar, similar to a freight train


    • Some tornadoes are clearly visible, while rain or nearby low-hanging clouds obscure others.

    • Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that little, if any, advance warning is possible.

    • Before a tornado hits, the wind may die down and the air may become very still.

    • A cloud of debris can mark the location of a tornado even if a funnel is not visible.

    • Tornadoes generally occur near the trailing edge of a thunderstorm. It is not uncommon to see clear, sunlit skies behind a tornado.

  4. Avoid places with wide-span roofs such as auditoriums, cafeterias, large hallways, supermarkets or shopping malls.

  5. Be prepared to take shelter immediately. Gather household members and pets. Assemble supplies to take to the shelter such as flashlight, battery-powered radio, water, and first aid kit.

What to do during a tornado warning

When a tornado has been sighted, go to your shelter immediately.

  1. In a residence or small building, move to a pre-designated shelter, such as a basement, storm cellar or “Safe Room or Shelter.”

  2. If there is no basement, go to an interior room on the lower level (closets, interior hallways). Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Get under a sturdy table and use arms to protect head and neck. Stay there until the danger has passed.

  3. Do not open windows. Use the time to seek shelter.

  4. Stay away from windows, doors and outside walls. Go to the center of the room. Stay away from corners because they attract debris.

  5. In a school, nursing home, hospital, factory or shopping center, go to predetermined shelter areas. Interior hallways on the lowest floor are usually safest. Stay away from windows and open spaces.

  6. In a high-rise building, go to a small, interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible.

  7. Get out of vehicles, trailers and mobile homes immediately and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy nearby building or a storm shelter. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes.

  8. If caught outside with no shelter, lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands. Be aware of potential for flooding.

  9. Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location.

  10. Never try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas in a car or truck; instead, leave the vehicle immediately for safe shelter. Tornadoes are erratic and move swiftly.

  11. Watch out for flying debris. Flying debris from tornadoes causes most fatalities and injuries.

What to do after a tornado

  1. Look out for broken glass and downed power lines.

  2. Check for injuries. Do not attempt to move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger of death or further injury. If you must move an unconscious person, first stabilize the neck and back, then call for help immediately.

    • If the victim is not breathing, carefully position the victim for artificial respiration, clear the airway and commence mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

    • Maintain body temperature with blankets. Be sure the victim does not become overheated.

    • Never try to feed liquids to an unconscious person.

  3. Use caution when entering a damaged building. Be sure that walls, ceiling and roof are in place and that the structure rests firmly on the foundation. Wear sturdy work boots and gloves.

  4. See the “Recovering From Disaster” chapter for more important information.

Wind “Safe Room and Shelter”

Extreme windstorms in many parts of the country pose a serious threat to buildings and their occupants.

Your residence may be built “to code,” but that does not mean that it can withstand winds from extreme events like tornadoes or major hurricanes.

The purpose of a wind shelter or “Safe Room” is to provide a space where you and your household can seek refuge that provides a high level of protection. You can build a shelter in one of the several places in your home:

Shelters built below ground level provide the greatest protection, but a shelter built in a first-floor interior room can also provide the necessary protection. Below-ground shelters must be designed to avoid accumulating water during the heavy rains that often accompany severe windstorms.

To protect its occupants, an in-house shelter must be built to withstand high winds and flying debris, even if the rest of the residence is severely damaged or destroyed. Therefore:

If you are concerned about wind hazards where you live, especially if you live in high-risk areas, you should consider building a shelter. Publications are available from FEMA to assist in determining if you need a shelter and how to construct a shelter. Contact the FEMA distribution center for a copy of Taking Shelter from the Storm (L-233 for the brochure and FEMA-320 for the booklet with complete construction plans).

Winter Storms and Extreme Cold

Heavy snowfall and extreme cold can immobilize an entire region. Even areas that normally experience mild winters can be hit with a major snowstorm or extreme cold. The impacts include flooding, storm surge, closed highways, blocked roads, downed power lines and hypothermia.

You can protect yourself and your household from the many hazards of winter by planning ahead.

What to do before a winter storm threatens

  1. Know the terms used by weather

    • Freezing rain—Rain that freezes when it hits the ground, creating a coating of ice on roads, walkways, trees and power lines.

    • Sleet—Rain that turns to ice pellets before reaching the ground. Sleet also causes roads to freeze and become slippery.

    • Winter Storm Watch—A winter storm is possible in your area.

    • Winter Storm Warning—A winter storm is occurring, or will soon occur in your area.

    • Blizzard Warning—Sustained winds or frequent gusts to 35 miles-per-hour or greater and considerable falling or blowing snow (reducing visibility to less than a quarter mile) are expected to prevail for a period of three hours or longer.

    • Frost/Freeze Warning—Below freezing temperatures are expected.

  2. Prepare to survive on your own for at least three days. Assemble a disaster supply kit. Be sure to include winter specific items such as rock salt to melt ice on walkways, sand to improve traction, snow shovels and other snow removal equipment. Keep a stock of food and extra drinking water. See the “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” and “Evacuation” chapters for more information.

  3. Prepare for possible isolation in your home:

    • Have sufficient heating fuel; regular fuel sources may be cut off.

    • Have emergency heating equipment and fuel (a gas fireplace or a wood burning stove or fireplace) so you can keep at least one room of your residence livable. (Be sure the room is well ventilated.) If a thermostat controls your furnace and your electricity is cut off by a storm, you will need emergency heat.

    • Kerosene heaters are another emergency heating option.

    • Store a good supply of dry, seasoned wood for your fireplace or wood-burning stove.

    • Keep fire extinguishers on hand, and make sure your household knows how to use them.

    • Never burn charcoal indoors.

  4. Winterize your home to extend the life of your fuel supply.

    • Insulate walls and attics.

    • Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows.

    • Install storm windows or cover windows with plastic.

  5. Maintain several days’ supply of medicines, water, and food that needs no cooking or refrigeration.

What to do during a winter storm

  1. Listen to the radio or television for weather reports and emergency information.

  2. Eat regularly and drink ample fluids, but avoid caffeine and alcohol.

  3. Dress for the season:

    • Wear several layers of loose fitting, lightweight, warm clothing rather than one layer of heavy clothing. The outer garments should be tightly woven and water repellent.

    • Mittens are warmer than gloves.

    • Wear a hat; most body heat is lost through the top of the head.

    • Cover your mouth with a scarf to protect your lungs.

  4. Be careful when shoveling snow. Over-exertion can bring on a heart attack­—a major cause of death in the winter. If you must shovel snow, stretch before going outside and don’t overexert yourself.

  5. Watch for signs of frostbite: loss of feeling and white or pale appearance in extremities such as fingers, toes, ear lobes or the tip of the nose. If symptoms are detected, get medical help immediately

  6. Watch for signs of hypothermia: uncontrollable shivering, memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, slurred speech, drowsiness and apparent exhaustion. If symptoms of hypothermia are detected, get the victim to a warm location, remove any wet clothing, warm the center of the body first, and give warm, non-alcoholic beverages if the victim is conscious. Get medical help as soon as possible.

  7. When at home:

    • Conserve fuel if necessary by keeping your residence cooler than normal. Temporarily “close off” heat to some rooms.

    • When using kerosene heaters, maintain ventilation to avoid build-up of toxic fumes. Refuel kerosene heaters outside and keep them at least three feet from flammable objects.

Winter driving

About 70 percent of winter deaths related to snow and ice occur in automobiles. Consider public transportation if you must travel. If you travel by car, travel in the day, don’t travel alone, and keep others informed of your schedule. Stay on main roads; avoid back-road shortcuts.

  1. Winterize your car. This includes a battery check, antifreeze, wipers and windshield washer fluid, ignition system, thermostat, lights, flashing hazard lights, exhaust system, heater, brakes, defroster, oil level, and tires. Consider snow tires, snow tires with studs, or chains. Keep your car’s gas tank full.

  2. Carry a “winter car kit” in the trunk of your car. The kit should include:

    • Shovel

    • Windshield scraper

    • Battery-powered radio

    • Flashlight

    • Extra batteries

    • Water

    • Snack food

    • Mittens

    • Hat

    • Blanket

    • Tow chain or rope

    • Tire chains

    • Bag of road salt and sand

    • Fluorescent distress flag

    • Booster cables

    • Road maps

    • Emergency flares

    • Cellular telephone or two-way radio, if available.

  3. If a blizzard traps you in your car:

    • Pull off the highway. Turn on hazard lights and hang a distress flag from the radio aerial or window.

    • Remain in your vehicle where rescuers are most likely to find you. Do not set out on foot unless you can see a building close by where you know you can take shelter. Be careful: distances are distorted by blowing snow. A building may seem close but be too far to walk to in deep snow.

    • Run the engine and heater about ten minutes each hour to keep warm. When the engine is running, open a window slightly for ventilation. This will protect you from possible carbon monoxide poisoning. Periodically clear snow from the exhaust pipe.

    • Exercise to maintain body heat, but avoid overexertion. In extreme cold, use road maps, seat covers and floor mats for insulation. Huddle with passengers and use your coat for a blanket.

    • Take turns sleeping. One person should be awake at all times to look for rescue crews.

    • Drink fluids to avoid dehydration.

    • Be careful not to waste battery power. Balance electrical energy needs—the use of lights, heat and radio—with supply.

    • At night, turn on the inside light so work crews or rescuers can see you.

    • If stranded in a remote area, spread a large cloth over the snow to attract attention of rescue personnel who may be surveying the area by airplane.

    • Once the blizzard passes, you may need to leave the car and proceed on foot.

Extreme Heat (Heat Wave)

Heat kills by pushing the human body beyond its limits. Under normal conditions, the body’s internal thermostat produces perspiration that evaporates and cools the body. However, in extreme heat and high humidity, evaporation is slowed and the body must work extra hard to maintain a normal temperature.

Most heat disorders occur because the victim has been overexposed to heat or has over-exercised for his or her age and physical condition. The elderly, young children, and those who are sick or overweight are more likely to succumb to extreme heat.

Conditions that can induce heat-related illnesses include stagnant atmospheric conditions and poor air quality. Consequently, people living in urban areas may be at greater risk from the effects of a prolonged heat wave than those living in rural areas. Also, asphalt and concrete store heat longer and gradually release heat at night, which can produce higher nighttime temperatures known as the “urban heat island effect.”

What to do before an extreme heat emergency

  1. Know the terms associated with extreme heat:

    • Heat wave­—Prolonged period of excessive heat, often combined with excessive humidity.

    • Heat index—A number in degrees Fahrenheit (F) that tells how hot it feels when relative humidity is added to the air temperature. Exposure to full sunshine can increase the heat index by 15 degrees.

    • Heat cramps—Muscular pains and spasms due to heavy exertion. Although heat cramps are the least severe, they are often the first signal that the body is having trouble with the heat.

    • Heat exhaustion—Typically occurs when people exercise heavily or work in a hot, humid place where body fluids are lost through heavy sweating. Blood flow to the skin increases, causing blood flow to decrease to the vital organs. This results in a form of mild shock. If not treated, the victim’s condition will worsen. Body temperature will keep rising and the victim may suffer heat stroke.

    • Heat stroke—Heat stroke is life-threatening. The victim’s temperature control system, which produces sweating to cool the body, stops working. The body temperature can rise so high that brain damage and death may result if the body is not cooled quickly.

    • Sun stroke—Another term for heat stroke.

  2. Consider the following preparedness measures when faced with the possibility of extreme heat.

    • Install window air conditioners snugly, insulate if necessary.

    • Close any floor heat registers nearby and use a circulating or box fan to spread cool air.

    • Check air-conditioning ducts for proper insulation.

    • Install temporary reflectors, such as aluminum foil covered cardboard, to reflect heat back outside and be sure to weather-strip doors and sills to keep cool air in.

    • Cover windows that receive morning or afternoon sun with drapes, shades, awnings or louvers. Outdoor awnings or louvers can reduce the heat that enters a home by up to 80 percent. Consider keeping storm windows up all year.

  3. See the “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies chapter for more information.

What to do during extreme heat or a heat wave emergency

  1. Stay indoors as much as possible.

    • If air conditioning is not available, stay on the lowest floor out of the sunshine.

    • Remember that electric fans do not cool, they just blow hot air around.

  2. Eat well-balanced, light and regular meals. Avoid using salt tablets unless directed to do so by a physician.

  3. Drink plenty of water regularly even if you do not feel thirsty.

    • Persons who have epilepsy or heart, kidney, or liver disease, are on fluid-restrictive diets, or have a problem with fluid retention should consult a doctor before increasing liquid intake.

  4. Limit intake of alcoholic beverages.

    • Although beer and alcoholic beverages appear to satisfy thirst, they actually cause further body dehydration.

  5. Never leave children or pets alone in closed vehicles.

  6. Dress in loose-fitting clothes that cover as much skin as possible.

    • Lightweight, light-colored clothing reflects heat and sunlight and helps maintain normal body temperature.

  7. Protect face and head by wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

  8. Avoid too much sunshine.

    • Sunburn slows the skin’s ability to cool itself. Use a sunscreen lotion with a high SPF (sun protection factor) rating (i.e., 15 or greater).

  9. Avoid strenuous work during the warmest part of the day. Use a buddy system when working in extreme heat and take frequent breaks.

  10. Spend at least two hours per day in an air-conditioned place. If your home is not air conditioned, consider spending the warmest part of the day in public buildings such as libraries, schools, movie theaters, shopping malls and other community facilities.

  11. Check on family, friends, and neighbors who do not have air conditioning and who spend much of their time alone.

First-aid for heat-induced illnesses

  1. Sunburn

    • Symptoms: Skin redness and pain, possible swelling, blisters, fever, headaches.

    • First Aid: Take a shower, using soap, to remove oils that may block pores, preventing the body from cooling naturally. If blisters occur, apply dry, sterile dressings and get medical attention.

  2. Heat cramps

    • Symptoms: Painful spasms, usually in leg and abdominal muscles. Heavy sweating.

    • First Aid: Get the victim out to a cooler location. Lightly stretch and gently massage affected muscles to relieve spasm. Give sips of up to a half glass of cool water every 15 minutes. Do not give liquids with caffeine or alcohol. If nauseous, discontinue liquids.

  3. Heat exhaustion

    • Symptoms: Heavy sweating and skin may be cool, pale or flushed. Weak pulse. Normal body temperature is possible but temperature will likely rise. Fainting or dizziness, nausea or vomiting, exhaustion and headaches are possible.

    • First Aid: Get victim to lie down in a cool place. Loosen or remove clothing. Apply cool, wet cloths. Fan or move victim to air-conditioned place. Give sips of water if victim is conscious. Be sure water is consumed slowly. Give half glass of cool water every 15 minutes. If nausea occurs, discontinue. If vomiting occurs, seek immediate medical attention.

  4. Heat stroke (sun stroke)

    • Symptoms: High body temperature
      (105+). Hot, red, dry skin. Rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing. Possible unconsciousness. Victim will likely not sweat unless victim was sweating from recent strenuous activity.

    • First Aid: Heat stroke is a severe medical emergency. Call 911 or emergency medical services or get the victim to a hospital immediately. Delay can be fatal. Move victim to a cooler environment. Remove clothing. Try a cool bath, sponging or wet sheet to reduce body temperature. Watch for breathing problems. Use extreme caution. Use fans and air conditioners.

Emergency Water Shortage

An emergency water shortage can be caused by prolonged drought, poor water supply management or contamination of a surface water supply source or aquifer.

A drought is a period of abnormally dry
weather that persists long enough to produce serious effects (crop damage, water supply shortages, etc.). The severity of the drought depends upon the degree of moisture deficiency, the duration, and the size of the affected area.

Drought can affect vast territorial regions and large population numbers. In effect, drought is a silent but very damaging phenomenon that is rarely lethal but enormously destructive. Drought can ruin local and regional economies that are agricultural and tourism based. Drought also creates environmental conditions that increase risk of other hazards such as fire, flash flood, and possible landslides/debris flow.

Poor water quality management can result in the demand for water exceeding the available supply. This can be exacerbated by fluctuations in regional precipitation, excessive water demand, or rapid residential development.

Emergency water shortages can also be caused by contamination of a water supply. A major spill of a petroleum product or hazardous chemical on a major river can force communities to shut down water treatment plants. Although typically more localized, the contamination of ground water or an aquifer can also disrupt the use of well water.

Water conservation

Conserving water is very important during emergency water shortages. Water saved by one user may be enough to protect the critical needs of others. Irrigation practices can be changed to use less water or crops that use less water can be planted. Cities and towns can ration water, factories can change manufacturing methods, and individuals can practice water-saving measures to reduce consumption. If everyone reduces water use during a drought, more water will be available to share.

  1. Practice indoor water conservation:


    • Never pour water down the drain when there may be another use for it. Use it to water your indoor plants or garden.

    • Repair dripping faucets by replacing washers. One drop per second wastes 2,700 gallons of water per year!


    • Check all plumbing for leaks. Have leaks repaired by a plumber.

    • Install a toilet displacement device to cut down on the amount of water needed to flush. Place a one-gallon plastic jug of water into the tank to displace toilet flow (do not use a brick, it may dissolve and loose pieces may cause damage to the internal parts). Be sure installation does not interfere with the operating parts.

    • Consider purchasing a low-volume toilet that uses less than half the water of older models. NOTE: In many areas, low-volume units are required by law.

    • Replace your showerhead with an ultra-low-flow version.

    • Do not take baths—take short showers—only turn on water to get wet and lather and then again to rinse off.

    • Place a bucket in the shower to catch excess water for watering plants.

    • Don’t let the water run while brushing your teeth, washing your face or shaving.

    • Don't flush the toilet unnecessarily. Dispose of tissues, insects, and other similar waste in the trash rather than the toilet.


    • Operate automatic dishwashers only when they are fully loaded. Use the “light wash” feature if available to use less water.

    • Hand wash dishes by filling two containers—one with soapy water and the other with rinse water containing a small amount of chlorine bleach.

    • Most dishwashers can clean soiled dishes very well, so dishes do not have to be rinsed before washing. Just remove large particles of food, and put the soiled dishes in the dishwasher.

    • Store drinking water in the refrigerator. Don’t let the tap run while you are waiting for water to cool.

    • Do not waste water waiting for it to get hot. Capture it for other uses such as plant watering or heat it on the stove or in a microwave.

    • Do not use running water to thaw meat or other frozen foods. Defrost food overnight in the refrigerator, or use the defrost setting on your microwave.

    • Clean vegetables in a pan filled with water rather than running water from the tap.

    • Kitchen sink disposals require a lot of water to operate properly. Start a compost pile as an alternate method of disposing of food waste, or simply dispose of food in the garbage.


    • Operate automatic clothes washers only when they are fully loaded or set the water level for the size of your load.

      Long-term indoor water conservation

    • Retrofit all household faucets by installing aerators with flow restrictors.

    • Consider installing an instant hot water heater on your sink.

    • Insulate your water pipes to reduce heat loss and prevent them from breaking if you have a sudden and unexpected spell of freezing weather.

    • If you are considering installing a new heat pump or air-conditioning system, the new air-to-air models are just as efficient as the water-to-air type and do not waste water.

    • Install a water-softening system only when the minerals in the water would damage your pipes. Turn the softener off while on vacation.

    • When purchasing a new appliance, choose one that is more energy and water efficient.

  2. Practice outdoor water conservation:


    • If you have a well at home, check your pump periodically. If the automatic pump turns on and off while water is not being used, you have a leak.

    Car washing

    • Use a shut-off nozzle on your hose that can be adjusted down to a fine spray, so that water flows only as needed.

    • Consider using a commercial car wash that recycles water. If you wash your own car, park on the grass so that you will be watering it at the same time.

    Lawn Care

    • Don’t over water your lawn. A heavy rain eliminates the need for watering for up to two weeks. Most of the year, lawns only need one inch of water per week.

    • Water in several short sessions rather than one long one in order for your lawn to better absorb moisture.

    • Position sprinklers so water lands on the lawn and shrubs and not on paved areas.

    • Avoid sprinklers that spray a fine mist. Mist can evaporate before it reaches the lawn. Check sprinkler systems and timing devices regularly to be sure they operate properly.

    • Raise the lawn mower blade to at least three inches, or to its highest level. A higher cut encourages grass roots to grow deeper, shades the root system, and holds soil moisture.

    • Plant drought-resistant lawn seed.

    • Avoid over-fertilizing your lawn. Applying fertilizer increases the need for water. Apply fertilizers that contain slow-release, water-insoluble forms of nitrogen.

    • Use a broom or blower instead of a hose to clean leaves and other debris from your driveway or sidewalk.

    • Do not leave sprinklers or hoses unattended. A garden hose can pour out 600 gallons or more in only a few hours.


    • Consider installing a new water-saving pool filter. A single back flushing with a traditional filter uses 180 to 250 gallons of water.

    • Cover pools and spas to reduce evaporation of water.

      Long term outdoor conservation

    • Plant native and/or drought-tolerant grasses, ground covers, shrubs and trees. Once established, they do not need water as frequently and usually will survive a dry period without watering. Small plants require less water to become established. Group plants together based on similar water needs.

    • Install irrigation devices that are the most water efficient for each use. Micro and drip irrigation and soaker hoses are examples of efficient devices.

    • Use mulch to retain moisture in the soil. Mulch also helps control weeds that compete with landscape plants for water.

    • Avoid purchasing recreational water toys that require a constant stream of water.

    • Avoid installing ornamental water features (such as fountains) unless they use recycled water.

Participate in public water conservation programs of your local government, utility or water management district. Follow water conservation and water shortage rules in effect. Remember, you are included in the restrictions even if your water comes from a private well. Be sure to support community efforts that help develop and promote a water conservation ethic.

Contact your local water authority, utility district, or local emergency management agency for information specific to your area.


An earthquake is a sudden shaking of the earth caused by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the earth’s surface. Earthquakes can cause buildings and bridges to collapse, telephone and power lines to fall, and result in fires, explosions and landslides. Earthquakes can also cause huge ocean waves, called tsunamis, which travel long distances over water until they crash into coastal areas.

The following information includes general guidelines for earthquake preparedness and safety. Because injury prevention techniques may vary from state to state, it is recommended that you contact your local emergency management office, health department, or American Red Cross chapter.

What to do before an earthquake

  1. Know the terms associated with earthquakes.

    • Earthquake­—a sudden slipping or movement of a portion of the earth’s crust, accompanied and followed by a series of vibrations.

    • Aftershock—an earthquake of similar or lesser intensity that follows the main earthquake.

    • Fault—the earth’s crust slips along a fault—an area of weakness where two sections of crust have separated. The crust may only move a few inches to a few feet in a severe earthquake.

    • Epicenter—the area of the earth’s surface directly above the origin of an earthquake.

    • Seismic Waves—are vibrations that travel outward from the center of the earthquake at speeds of several miles per second. These vibrations can shake some buildings so rapidly that they collapse.

    • Magnitude—indicates how much energy was released. This energy can be measured on a recording device and graphically displayed through lines on a Richter Scale. A magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter Scale would indicate a very strong earthquake. Each whole number on the scale represents an increase of about 30 times the energy released. Therefore, an earthquake measuring 6.0 is about 30 times more powerful than one measuring 5.0.

  2. Look for items in your home that could become a hazard in an earthquake:

    • Repair defective electrical wiring, leaky gas lines, and inflexible utility connections.

    • Bolt down water heaters and gas appliances (have an automatic gas shut-off device installed that is triggered by an earthquake).

    • Place large or heavy objects on lower shelves. Fasten shelves to walls. Brace high and top-heavy objects.

    • Store bottled foods, glass, china and other breakables on low shelves or in cabinets that can fasten shut.

    • Anchor overhead lighting fixtures.

    • Check and repair deep plaster cracks in ceilings and foundations. Get expert advice, especially if there are signs of structural defects.

    • Be sure the residence is
      firmly anchored to its foundation.

    • Install flexible pipe fittings to avoid gas or water leaks. Flexible fittings are more resistant to breakage.

  3. Know where and how to shut off electricity, gas and water at main switches and valves. Check with your local utilities for instructions.

  4. Hold earthquake drills with your household:

    • Locate safe spots in each room under a sturdy table or against an inside wall. Reinforce this information by physically placing yourself and your household in these locations.

    • Identify danger zones in each room—near windows where glass can shatter, bookcases or furniture that can fall over, or under ceiling fixtures that could fall down.

  5. Develop a plan for reuniting your household after an earthquake. Establish an out-of-town telephone contact for household members to call to let others know that they are okay.

  6. Review your insurance policies. Some damage may be covered even without specific earthquake insurance. Protect important home and business papers.

  7. Prepare to survive on your own for at least three days. Assemble a disaster supply kit. Keep a stock of food and extra drinking water. See the “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” and “Evacuation” chapters for more information.

What to do during an earthquake

Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Most injuries during earthquakes occur when people are hit by falling objects when entering or exiting buildings.

  1. Drop, Cover and Hold On! Minimize your movements during an earthquake to a few steps to a nearby safe place. Stay indoors until the shaking has stopped and you are sure exiting is safe.

  2. If you are indoors, take cover under a sturdy desk, table or bench, or against an inside wall, and hold on. Stay away from glass, windows, outside doors or walls and anything that could fall, such as lighting fixtures or furniture. If you are in bed, stay there, hold on and protect your head with a pillow, unless you are under a heavy light fixture that could fall.

  3. If there isn’t a table or desk near you, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building. Doorways should only be used for shelter if they are in close proximity to you and if you know that it is a strongly supported load-bearing doorway.

  4. If you are outdoors, stay there. Move away from buildings, streetlights and utility wires.

  5. If you live in an apartment building or other multi-household structure with many levels, consider the following:

    • Get under a desk and stay away from windows and outside walls.

    • Stay in the building (many injuries occur as people flee a building and are struck by falling debris from above).

    • Be aware that the electricity may go out and sprinkler systems may come on.

    • DO NOT use the elevators.

  6. If you are in a crowded indoor public location:

    • Stay where you are. Do not rush for the doorways.

    • Move away from tall shelves, cabinets and bookcases containing objects that may fall.

    • Take cover and grab something to shield your head and face from falling debris and glass.

    • Be aware that the electricity may go out or the sprinkler systems or fire alarms may turn on.

    • DO NOT use elevators.

  7. In a moving vehicle, stop as quickly as safety permits, and stay in the vehicle. Avoid stopping near or under buildings, trees, overpasses or utility wires. Then, proceed cautiously, watching for road and bridge damage.

  8. If you become trapped in debris:

    • Do not light a match.

    • Do not move about or kick up dust.

    • Cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing.

    • Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can locate you. Use a whistle if one is available. Shout only as a last resort—shouting can cause you to inhale dangerous amounts of dust.

  9. Stay indoors until the shaking has stopped and you are sure exiting is safe.

What to do after an earthquake

  1. Be prepared for aftershocks. These secondary shock waves are usually less violent than the main quake but can be strong enough to do additional damage to weakened structures.

  2. Check for injuries. Do not attempt to move seriously injured persons unless they are in immediate danger of death or further injury. If you must move an unconscious person, first stabilize the neck and back, then call for help immediately.

    • If the victim is not breathing, carefully position the victim for artificial respiration, clear the airway and start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

    • Maintain body temperature with blankets. Be sure the victim does not become overheated.

    • Never try to feed liquids to an unconscious person.

  3. If the electricity goes out, use flashlights or battery powered lanterns. Do not use candles, matches or open flames indoors after the earthquake because of possible gas leaks.

  4. Wear sturdy shoes in areas covered with fallen debris and broken glass.

  5. Check your home for structural damage. If you have any doubts about safety, have your home inspected by a professional before entering.

  6. Check chimneys for visual damage; however, have a professional inspect the chimney for internal damage before lighting a fire.

  7. Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, gasoline and other flammable liquids. Evacuate the building if gasoline fumes are detected and the building is not well ventilated.

  8. Visually inspect utility lines and appliances for damage.

    • If you smell gas or hear a hissing or blowing sound, open a window and leave. Shut off the main gas valve. Report the leak to the gas company from the nearest working phone or cell phone available. Stay out of the building. If you shut off the gas supply at the main valve, you will need a professional to turn it back on.

    • Switch off electrical power at the main fuse box or circuit breaker if electrical damage is suspected or known.

    • Shut off the water supply at the main valve if water pipes are damaged.

    • Do not flush toilets until you know that sewage lines are intact.

  9. Open cabinets cautiously. Beware of objects that can fall off shelves.

  10. Use the phone only to report life-threatening emergencies.

  11. Listen to news reports for the latest emergency information.

  12. Stay off the streets. If you must go out, watch for fallen objects, downed electrical wires, weakened walls, bridges, roads and sidewalks.

  13. Stay away from damaged area unless your assistance has been specifically requested by police, fire or relief organizations.

  14. If you live in coastal areas, be aware of possible tsunamis, sometimes mistakenly called tidal waves. When local authorities issue a tsunami warning, assume that a series of dangerous waves is on the way. Stay away from the beach. See the “Tsunamis” chapter for more information.


A volcano is a vent through which molten rock escapes to the earth’s surface. When pressure from gases within the molten rock becomes too great, an eruption occurs.

Some eruptions are relatively quiet, producing lava flows that creep across the land at 2 to 10 miles per hour. Explosive eruptions can shoot columns of gases and rock fragments tens of miles into the atmosphere, spreading ash hundreds of miles downwind. Lateral blasts can flatten trees for miles. Hot, sometimes poisonous, gases may flow down the sides of the of the volcano.

Lava flows are streams of molten rock that either pour from a vent quietly through lava tubes or by lava fountains. Because of their intense heat, lava flows are also great fire hazards. Lava flows destroy everything in their path, but most move slowly enough that people can move out of the way.

Fresh volcanic ash, made of pulverized rock, can be harsh, acidic, gritty, glassy and odorous. While not immediately dangerous to most adults, the combination of acidic gas and ash could cause lung damage to small infants, very old people or those suffering from severe respiratory illnesses. Volcanic ash can also damage machinery, including engines and electrical equipment. Ash accumulations mixed with water become heavy and can collapse roofs.

Volcanic eruptions can be accompanied by other natural hazards: earthquakes, mudflows and flash floods, rock falls and landslides, acid rain, fire, and (under special conditions) tsunamis. Active volcanoes in the U.S. are found mainly in Hawaii, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

What to do before an eruption

  1. Make evacuation plans. If you live in a known volcanic hazard area, plan a route out and have a backup route in mind.

  2. Develop a household disaster plan. In case household members are separated from one another during a volcanic eruption (a real possibility during the day when adults are at work and children are at school), have a plan for getting back together. Ask an out-of-town relative or friend to serve as the “household contact,” because after a disaster, it’s often easier to call long distance. Make sure everyone knows the name, address, and phone number of the contact person.

  3. Assemble a disaster supply kit (see “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” chapter).

  4. Get a pair of goggles and a throw-away breathing mask for each member of the household in case of ashfall.

  5. Do not visit an active volcano site unless officials designate a safe viewing area.

What to do during an eruption

  1. If close to the volcano evacuate immediately away from the volcano to avoid flying debris, hot gases, lateral blast, and lava flow.

  2. Avoid areas downwind from the volcano to avoid volcanic ash.

  3. Be aware of mudflows. The danger from a mudflow increases as you approach a stream channel and decreases as you move away from a stream channel toward higher ground. In some parts of the world (Central and South America, Indonesia, the Philippines), this danger also increases with prolonged heavy rains. Mudflows can move faster than you can walk or run. Look upstream before crossing a bridge, and do not cross if the mudflow is approaching. Avoid river valleys and low-lying areas.

  4. Stay indoors until the ash has settled unless there is danger of the roof collapsing.

  5. During an ash fall, close doors, windows, and all ventilation in the house (chimney vents, furnaces, air conditioners, fans and other vents).

  6. Avoid driving in heavy dust unless absolutely required. If you do drive in dense dust, keep speed down to 35 mph or slower.

  7. Remove heavy ash from flat or low-pitched roofs and rain gutters.

  8. Volcanic ash is actually fine, glassy fragments and particles that can cause severe injury to breathing passages, eyes, and open wounds, and irritation to skin. Follow these precautions to keep yourself safe from ashfall:

    • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

    • Use goggles and wear eyeglasses instead of contact lenses.

    • Use a dust mask or hold a damp cloth over your face to help breathing.

    • Keep car or truck engines off. Driving can stir up volcanic ash that can clog engines and stall vehicles. Moving parts can be damaged from abrasion, including bearings, brakes, and transmissions.

    What to do after the eruption

    • Avoid ashfall areas if possible. If you are in an ashfall area cover your mouth and nose with a mask, keep skin covered, and wear goggles to protect the eyes.

    • Clear roofs of ashfall because it is very heavy and can cause buildings to collapse. Exercise great caution when working on a roof.

    • Avoid driving through ashfall which is easily stirred up and can clog engines, causing vehicles to stall.

    • If you have a respiratory ailment, avoid contact with any amount of ash. Stay indoors until local health officials advise it is safe to go outside.

Landslides and Debris Flow (Mudslide)

Landslides occur in all U.S. states and territories and occur when masses of rock, earth, or debris move down a slope. Landslides may be small or large, and can move at slow or very high speeds. They are activated by storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, fires and by human modification of the land.

Debris and mud flows are rivers of rock, earth, and other debris saturated with water. They develop when water rapidly accumulates in the ground, during heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud or “slurry.” They can flow rapidly down slopes or through channels, and can strike with little or no warning at avalanche speeds. They can also travel several miles from their source, growing in size as they pick up trees, large boulders, cars, and other materials along the way.

Landslide, mudflow, and debris-flow problems are occasionally caused by land mismanagement. Improper land-use practices on ground of questionable stability, particularly in mountain, canyon, and coastal regions, can create and accelerate serious landslide problems. Land-use zoning, professional inspections, and proper design can minimize many landslide, mudflow, and debris flow problems.

What to do before a landslide or debris flow

What to do during a heightened threat (intense storm) of landslide or debris flow

  1. Listen to radio or television for warning of intense rainfall.

    • Be prepared to evacuate if instructed by local authorities or if you feel threatened.

    • Should you remain at home, move to a second story if possible to distance yourself from the direct path of debris flow and landslide debris.

  2. Be alert when intense, short bursts of rain follow prolonged heavy rains or damp weather, which increase risks of debris flows.

  3. Listen for any unusual sounds that might indicate moving debris, such as trees cracking or boulders knocking together. A trickle of flowing or falling mud or debris may precede larger landslides. Moving debris can flow quickly and sometimes without warning.

  4. If you are near a stream or channel, be alert for sudden increases or decreases in water flow and for a change from clear to muddy water. Such changes may indicate landslide activity upstream. Be prepared to move quickly.

  5. Be especially alert when driving.
    Embankments along roadsides are particularly susceptible to landslides. Watch for collapsed pavement, mud, fallen rocks, and other indications of possible debris flows.

  6. Evacuate when ordered by local authorities. See the “Evacuation chapter for more information.

What to do during a landslide or debris flow

  1. Quickly move away from the path of a landslide or debris flow.

  2. Areas generally considered safe include:

    • Areas that have not moved in the past

    • Relatively flat-lying areas away from drastic changes in slope

    • Areas at the top of or along ridges set back from the tops of slopes.

  3. If escape is not possible, curl into a tight ball and protect your head.

What to do after a landslide or debris flow

  1. Stay away from the slide area. There may be danger of additional slides.

  2. Check for injured and trapped persons near the slide, without entering the direct slide area. Direct rescuers to their locations.

  3. Help a neighbor who may require special assistance—large families, children, elderly people, and people with disabilities.

  4. Listen to local radio or television stations for the latest emergency information.

  5. Landslides and flows can provoke associated dangers such as broken electrical, water, gas, and sewage lines, and disrupt roadways and railways.

    • Look for and report broken utility lines to appropriate authorities. Reporting potential hazards will get the utilities turned off as quickly as possible, preventing further hazard and injury.

    • Check the building foundation, chimney, and surrounding land for damage. Damage to foundations, chimneys, or surrounding land may help you assess the safety of the area.

  6. Watch for flooding, which may occur after a landslide or debris flow. Floods sometimes follow landslides and debris flows because they may both be started by the same event.

  7. Replant damaged ground as soon as possible since erosion caused by loss of ground cover can lead to flash flooding and additional landslides in the near future.

  8. Seek the advice of a geotechnical expert for evaluating landslide hazards or designing corrective techniques to reduce landslide risk. A professional will be able to advise you of the best ways to prevent or reduce landslide risk, without creating further hazard.

  9. See the “Recovering From Disaster” chapter for more information.


Tsunami (pronounced soo-ná-mee), sometimes mistakenly called a tidal wave, is a series of enormous waves created by an underwater disturbance such as an earthquake. A tsunami can move hundreds of miles per hour in the open ocean and smash into land with waves as high as 100 feet or more, although most waves are less than 18 feet high.

From the area where the tsunami originates, waves travel outward in all directions much like the ripples caused by throwing a rock into a pond. In deep water the tsunami wave is not noticeable. Once the wave approaches the shore it builds in height. All tsunamis are potentially dangerous, even though they may not damage every coastline they strike. A tsunami can strike anywhere along most of the U.S. coastline. The most destructive tsunamis have occurred along the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.

Earthquake-induced movement of the ocean floor most often generates tsunamis. Landslides, volcanic eruptions, and even meteorites can also generate tsunamis. If a major earthquake or landslide occurs close to shore, the first wave in a series could reach the beach in a few minutes, even before a warning is issued. Areas are at greater risk if less than 25 feet above sea level and within a mile of the shoreline. Drowning is the most common cause of death associated with a tsunami. Tsunami waves and the receding water are very destructive to structures in the run-up zone. Other hazards include flooding, contamination of drinking water and fires from gas lines or ruptured tanks.

What to do before a tsunami

  1. Know the terms used by the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center (WC/ATWC—responsible for tsunami warnings for California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska) and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC—responsible for tsunami warnings to international authorities, Hawaii, and the U.S. territories within the Pacific basin).

    • Advisory—An earthquake has occurred in the Pacific basin, which might generate a tsunami. WC/ATWC and PTWC will issue hourly bulletins advising of the situation.

    • Watch—A tsunami was or may have been generated, but is at least two hours travel time to the area in Watch status.

    • Warning—A tsunami was or may have been generated, which could cause damage; therefore, people in the warned area are strongly advised to evacuate.

  2. Listen to radio or television for more information and follow the instructions of your local authorities.

  3. Immediate warning of tsunamis sometimes comes in the form of a noticeable recession in water away from the shoreline. This is nature’s tsunami warning and it should be heeded by moving inland to higher ground immediately

  4. If you feel an earthquake in a coastal area, turn on your radio to learn if there is a tsunami warning.

  5. Know that a small tsunami at one beach can be a giant wave a few miles away. The topography of the coastline and the ocean floor will influence the size of the wave.

  6. A tsunami may generate more than one wave. Do not let the modest size of one wave allow you to forget how dangerous a tsunami is. The next wave may be bigger.

  7. Prepare for possible evacuation. Learn evacuation routes. Determine where you would go and how you would get there if you needed to evacuate. See the “Evacuation” and “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” chapters for information.

What to do during a tsunami

  1. If you are advised to evacuate, do so immediately.

  2. Stay away from the area until local authorities say it is safe. Do not be fooled into thinking that the danger is over after a single wave—a tsunami is not a single wave but a series of waves that can vary in size.

  3. Do not go to the shoreline to watch for a tsunami. When you can see the wave, it is too late to escape.

What to do after a tsunami

  1. Avoid flooded and damaged areas until officials say it is safe to return.

  2. Stay away from debris in the water, it may pose a safety hazard to boats and people.

  3. See the “Recovering From Disaster” chapter for more information.


Each year more than 4000 Americans die and more than 25,000 are injured in fires, many of which could be prevented. Direct property loss due to fires is estimated at $8.6 billion annually.

To protect yourself, it’s important to understand the basic characteristics of fire. Fire spreads quickly; there is no time to gather valuables or make a phone call. In just two minutes a fire can become life threatening. In five minutes a residence can be engulfed in flames.

Heat and smoke from fire can be more dangerous than the flames. Inhaling the super-hot air can sear your lungs. Fire produces poisonous gases that make you disoriented and drowsy. Instead of being awakened by a fire, you may fall into a deeper sleep. Asphyxiation is the leading cause of fire deaths, exceeding burns, by a three-to-one ratio.

What to do before fire strikes

  1. Install smoke alarms. Working smoke alarms decrease your chances of dying in a fire by half.

    • Place smoke alarms on every level of your residence: outside bedrooms on the ceiling or high on the wall, at the top of open stairways or at the bottom of enclosed stairs and near (but not in) the kitchen.

    • Test and clean smoke alarms once a month and replace batteries at least once a year. Replace smoke alarms once every 10 years.

  2. With your household, plan two escape routes from every room in the residence. Practice with your household escaping from each room.

    • Make sure windows are not nailed or painted shut. Make sure security gratings on windows have a fire safety-opening feature so that they can be easily opened from the inside.

    • Consider escape ladders if your home has more than one level and ensure that burglar bars and other antitheft mechanisms that block outside window entry are easily opened from inside.

    • Teach household members to stay low to the floor (where the air is safer in a fire) when escaping from a fire.

    • Pick a place outside your home for the household to meet after escaping from a fire.

  3. Clean out storage areas. Don’t let trash such as old newspapers and magazines accumulate.

  4. Check the electrical wiring in your home.

    • Inspect extension cords for frayed or exposed wires or loose plugs.

    • Outlets should have cover plates and no exposed wiring.

    • Make sure wiring does not run under rugs, over nails, or across high traffic areas.

    • Do not overload extension cords or outlets. If you need to plug in two or three appliances, get a UL-approved unit with built-in circuit breakers to prevent sparks and short circuits.

    • Make sure home insulation does not touch electrical wiring.

    • Have an electrician check the electrical wiring in your home.

  5. Never use gasoline, benzine, naptha or similar liquids indoors.

    • Store flammable liquids in approved containers in well-ventilated storage areas.

    • Never smoke near flammable liquids.

    • After use, safely discard all rags or materials soaked in flammable material.

  6. Check heating sources. Many home fires are started by faulty furnaces or stoves, cracked or rusted furnace parts and chimneys with creosote build-up. Have chimneys, wood stoves and all home heating systems inspected and cleaned annually by a certified specialist.

  7. Insulate chimneys and place spark arresters on top. The chimney should be at least three feet higher than the roof. Remove branches hanging above and around the chimney.

  8. Be careful when using alternative heating sources, such as wood, coal and kerosene heaters and electrical space heaters.

    • Check with your local fire department on the legality of using kerosene heaters in your community. Be sure to fill kerosene heaters outside after they have cooled.

    • Place heaters at least three feet away from flammable materials. Make sure the floor and nearby walls are properly insulated.

    • Use only the type of fuel designated for your unit and follow manufacturer’s instructions.

    • Store ashes in a metal container outside and away from the residence.

    • Keep open flames away from walls, furniture, drapery and flammable items. Keep a screen in front of the fireplace.

    • Have chimneys and wood stoves inspected annually and cleaned if necessary.

    • Use portable heaters only in well-ventilated rooms.

  9. Keep matches and lighters up high, away from children, and if possible, in a locked cabinet.

  10. Do not smoke in bed, or when drowsy or medicated. Provide smokers with deep, sturdy ashtrays. Douse cigarette and cigar butts with water before disposal.

  11. Safety experts recommend that you sleep with your door closed.

  12. Know the locations of the gas valve and electric fuse or circuit breaker box and how to turn them off in an emergency. If you shut off your main gas line for any reason, allow only a gas company representative to turn it on again.

  13. Install A-B-C type fire extinguishers in the home and teach household members how to use them (Type A—wood or papers fires only; Type B—flammable liquid or grease fires; Type C—electrical fires; Type A-B-C—rated for all fires and recommended for the home).

  14. Consider installing an automatic fire sprinkler system in your home.

  15. Ask your local fire department to inspect your residence for fire safety and prevention.

  16. Teach children how to report a fire and when to use 911.

  17. To support insurance claims in case you do have a fire, conduct an inventory of your property and possessions and keep the list in a separate location. Photographs are also helpful.

  18. See the “Emergency Planning and Disaster Supplies” chapter for additional information.

What to do during a fire

  1. Use water or a fire extinguisher to put out small fires. Do not try to put out a fire that is getting out of control. If you’re not sure if you can control it, get everyone out of the residence and call the fire department from a neighbor’s residence.

  2. Never use water on an electrical fire. Use only a fire extinguisher approved for electrical fires.

  3. Smother oil and grease fires in the kitchen with baking soda or salt, or put a lid over the flame if it is burning in a pan. Do not attempt to take the pan outside.

  4. If your clothes catch on fire, stop, drop and roll until the fire is extinguished. Running only makes the fire burn faster.

  5. If you are escaping through a closed door, use the back of your hand to feel the top of the door, the doorknob, and the crack between the door and door frame before you open it. Never use the palm of your hand or fingers to test for heat—burning those areas could impair your ability to escape a fire (i.e., ladders and crawling).

    • If the door is cool, open slowly and ensure fire and/or smoke is not blocking your escape route. If your escape route is blocked, shut the door immediately and use an alternate escape route, such as a window. If clear, leave immediately through the door. Be prepared to crawl. Smoke and heat rise. The air is clearer and cooler near the floor.

    • If the door is warm or hot, do not open. Escape through a window. If you cannot escape, hang a white or light-colored sheet outside the window, alerting fire fighters to your presence.

  6. If you must exit through smoke, crawl low under the smoke to your exit—heavy smoke and poisonous gases collect first along the ceiling.

  7. Close doors behind you as you escape to delay the spread of the fire.

  8. Once you are safely out, stay out. Call 911.

What to do after a fire

  1. Give first aid where needed. After calling 911 or your local emergency number, cool and cover burns to reduce chance of further injury or infection.

  2. Do not enter a fire-damaged building unless authorities say it is okay.

  3. If you must enter a fire-damaged building, be alert for heat and smoke. If you detect either, evacuate immediately.

  4. Have an electrician check your household wiring before the current is turned on.

  5. Do not attempt to reconnect any utilities yourself. Leave this to the fire department and other authorities.

  6. Beware of structural damage. Roofs and floors may be weakened and need repair.

  7. Contact your local disaster relief service, such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army, if you need housing, food, or a place to stay.

  8. Call your insurance agent.

    • Make a list of damage and losses. Pictures are helpful.

    • Keep records of clean-up and repair costs. Receipts are important for both insurance and income tax claims.

    • Do not throw away any damaged goods until an official inventory has been taken. Your insurance company takes all damages into consideration.

  9. If you are a tenant, contact the landlord. It’s the property owner’s responsibility to prevent further loss or damage to the site.

  10. Secure personal belongings or move them to another location.

  11. Discard food, beverages and medicines that have been exposed to heat, smoke or soot. Refrigerators and freezers left closed hold their temperature for a short time. Do not attempt to refreeze food that has thawed.

  12. If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for several hours. If the door is opened before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.

  13. If a building inspector says the building is unsafe and you must leave your home:

    • Ask local police to watch the property during your absence.

    • Pack identification, medicines, glasses, jewelry, credit cards, checkbooks, insurance policies and financial records if you can reach them safely.

    • Notify friends, relatives, police and fire departments, your insurance agent, the mortgage company, utility companies, delivery services, employers, schools and the post office of your whereabouts.

  14. See the “Shelter” and “Recovering From Disaster” chapters for more information.

Wildland fires

If you live on a remote hillside, or in a valley, prairie or forest where flammable vegetation is abundant, your residence could be vulnerable to wildland fire. These fires are usually triggered by lightning or accidents.

  1. Fire facts about rural living:

    • Once a fire starts outdoors in a rural area, it is often hard to control. Wildland firefighters are trained to protect natural resources, not homes and buildings.

    • Many homes are located far from fire stations. The result is longer emergency response times. Within a matter of minutes, an entire home may be destroyed by fire.

    • Limited water supply in rural areas can make fire suppression difficult.

    • Homes may be secluded and surrounded by woods, dense brush and combustible vegetation that fuel fires.

  2. Ask fire authorities for information about wildland fires in your area. Request that they inspect your residence and property for hazards.

  3. Be prepared and have a fire safety and evacuation plan:

    • Practice fire escape and evacuation plans.

    • Mark the entrance to your property with address signs that are clearly visible from the road.

    • Know which local emergency services are available and have those numbers posted near telephones.

    • Provide emergency vehicle access through roads and driveways at least 12 feet wide with adequate turnaround space.

  4. Tips for making your property fire resistant:

    • Keep lawns trimmed, leaves raked, and the roof and rain-gutters free from debris such as dead limbs and leaves.

    • Stack firewood at least 30 feet away from your home.

    • Store flammable materials, liquids and solvents in metal containers outside the home at least 30 feet away from structures and wooden fences.

    • Create defensible space by thinning trees and brush within 30 feet around your home. Beyond 30 feet, remove dead wood, debris and low tree branches.

    • Landscape your property with fire resistant plants and vegetation to prevent fire from spreading quickly. For example, hardwood trees are more fire-resistant than pine, evergreen, eucalyptus, or fir trees.

    • Make sure water sources, such as hydrants, ponds, swimming pools and wells, are accessible to the fire department.

  5. Protect your home:

    • Use fire resistant, protective roofing and materials like stone, brick and metal to protect your home. Avoid using wood materials. They offer the least fire protection.

    • Cover all exterior vents, attics and eaves with metal mesh screens no larger than 6 millimeters or 1/4 inch to prevent debris from collecting and to help keep sparks out.

    • Install multi-pane windows, tempered safety glass or fireproof shutters to protect large windows from radiant heat.

    • Use fire-resistant draperies for added window protection.

    • Have chimneys, wood stoves and
      all home heating systems inspected and cleaned annually by a certified specialist.

    • Insulate chimneys and place spark arresters on top. Chimney should be at least three feet above the roof.

    • Remove branches hanging above and around the chimney.

  6. Follow local burning laws:

    • Do not burn trash or other debris without proper knowledge of local burning laws, techniques and the safest times of day and year to burn.

    • Before burning debris in a wooded area, make sure you notify local authorities and obtain a burning permit.

    • Use an approved incinerator with a safety lid or covering with holes no larger than 3/4 inches.

    • Create at least a 10-foot clearing around the incinerator before burning debris.

    • Have a fire extinguisher or garden hose on hand when burning debris.

  7. If wildfire threatens your home and time permits, consider the following:


      • Shut off gas at the meter. Turn off pilot lights.

      • Open fireplace damper. Close fireplace screens.

      • Close windows, vents, doors, blinds or noncombustible window coverings, and heavy drapes. Remove flammable drapes and curtains.

      • Move flammable furniture into the center of the home away from windows and sliding-glass doors.

      • Close all interior doors and windows to prevent drafts.

      • Place valuables that will not be damaged by water in a pool or pond.

      • Gather pets into one room. Make plans to care for your pets if you must evacuate.

      • Back your car into the garage or park it in an open space facing the direction of escape. Shut doors and roll up windows. Leave the key in the ignition and the car doors unlocked. Close garage windows and doors, but leave them unlocked. Disconnect automatic garage door openers.


      • Seal attic and ground vents with pre-cut plywood or commercial seals.

      • Turn off propane tanks.

      • Place combustible patio furniture inside.

      • Connect garden hose to outside taps. Place lawn sprinklers on the roof and near above-ground fuel tanks. Wet the roof.

      • Wet or remove shrubs within 15 feet of the home.

      • Gather fire tools such as a rake, axe, handsaw or chainsaw, bucket, and shovel.

  8. If advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Choose a route away from the fire hazard. Watch for changes in the speed and direction of fire and smoke.

  9. See the “Evacuation” chapter for detailed information about evacuation preparedness. Also see the “Recovering from Disaster” and “Shelters” chapters for additional information.

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