Seniors’ Guide for Natural Disasters and Emergencies

emergency kit

Emergencies happen all the time. We make a point of preparing for them. We do everything we can to avoid them. It’s part of the reason we drive carefully, use caution with knives in the kitchen, opt for safe aging in place home modifications, choose medical alert technology, and stock up on non-perishable foods in case the power goes out.

So it makes sense that we should also prepare for natural disasters. This requires a bit of preparation, but it’s worth the time spent when emergencies do occur.

Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. The Ecological Threat Register 2020 report found that 25 million people were displaced in 2019 by natural disasters – to put that in perspective, that’s three times the number of individuals displaced by armed conflicts across the globe. In the United States, 916,000 people were displaced. In fact, since 1990, the U.S. has experienced more natural disasters than any other country in the world[1].

Natural disasters can happen to anyone at any time, so it pays to be prepared.

What are Natural Disasters?

The Department of Homeland Security defines natural disasters as:

“Natural disasters include all types of severe weather, which have the potential to pose a significant threat to human health and safety, property, critical infrastructure, and homeland security. Natural disasters occur both seasonally and without warning, subjecting the nation to frequent periods of insecurity, disruption, and economic loss.”

These disasters can include everything from floods to tornadoes to earthquakes. Some give us plenty of warning, such as a hurricane bearing down on the coast. Others can give us some warning – for instance, a tornado happens quickly, but you are usually quite aware of the storm system that brings it to you. Some, like earthquakes, happen in an instant.

It’s important to remember that during a natural disaster, emergency services are often overwhelmed. They have many calls to handle and might not be able to get to everyone quickly, especially if the disaster has destroyed roads or brought down power lines. Part of being prepared for a natural disaster is knowing that you might have to fend for yourself for a while.

The Basics of Preparation

How you prepare for a natural disaster depends upon where you live and the disasters you are more likely to see in your area. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security list some of the most common things you should be ready for:

·         Tornadoes. Spawned by thunderstorms, these twisters might offer some warning signs, such as a particular rotation in the clouds picked up on radar. Other times, they can generate with little warning and leave swaths of damage in their wake.

·         Hurricanes. These massive storms begin over open water; the question is whether they stay over water or make landfall. Fortunately, the projected track of a hurricane can narrow quite a bit as it gets closer to land, and this gives you time to prepare your home and evacuate if necessary.

·         Severe Storms and Floods. Most of the time, a severe thunderstorm brings a lot of rain and wind. But some severe storms go much further, and inundate an area with astounding amounts of water in a short period of time, leading to flooding. Severe storms might also bring damaging winds, significant hail, downed trees, and dangerous lightning.

·         Wildfires. Just as with tornadoes, sometimes you know a wildfire is bearing down on your area and you have time to pack up and evacuate. But sometimes a wildfire sparks and spreads with little warning, leaving you fleeing for safety.

·         Earthquakes. Though experts are working hard on ways to predict earthquakes, the ability just isn’t there yet. Therefore, earthquakes are true surprises. They can strike anywhere on earth; just because an area has never had an earthquake doesn’t mean it won’t have one. The shaking and shifting can run the spectrum from barely noticeable to massively damaging.

·         Drought and high heat. These natural disasters tend to go hand-in-hand. The good news is that they are rather predictable; a drought occurs over a period of time, and high heat can be forecast pretty accurately by meteorologists. These are slow-motion natural disasters that can allow you plenty of time to make adjustments or leave a particular area.

·         Winter storms. These storm systems often build under particular conditions that allow meteorologists to predict them a few days before the snow and ice hits. However, these storms can bring down power lines and trees while leaving enough snow and ice to keep you inside the house for several days.

Shelter-in-Place vs. Evacuation

For some situations, you will be told by emergency personnel to shelter-in-place. This means you will be better protected by staying home than you will be by evacuating. This might be the case with an earthquake, when staying inside your home is much safer than going out onto the street. But in the case of a wildfire bearing down on your area, you might be told to evacuate – right now. You will need a plan for either option.

·         Shelter-in-place. The idea of sheltering in place is to have enough food, water, and other supplies to last you for several days. Sheltering in place is obviously easier than evacuating, as it requires that you stock up ahead of time on things that you will need in your own home – mostly things that you would be using in the first place.

·         Evacuation. This is more difficult but sometimes it is entirely necessary. To evacuate, you will need to have a plan as to how to get out of your town, including which roads are best to take, a ready form of cash (keeping in mind that in an emergency, ATMs and credit card systems might be down), and what supplies you might need in an emergency “go bag.” (By the way, the prospect of evacuation is a very good reason to choose an “on the go” medical alarm, as it can connect you to help even when you aren’t at home.)

No matter what plan you create, make sure to practice it to make sure you know what to do when the time comes. While it seems to be common sense to practice an evacuation, you can also practice a shelter-in-place plan by simply staying at home for a few days and not using the electricity (to mimic a power outage).

Building an Emergency Kit

Whether you are going to evacuate quickly or stay put, you need an emergency kit that will help you through the worst days after a natural disaster hits. A good emergency kit for evacuation should fit into a backpack or duffel bag for easy carrying. A kit for sheltering in place can be more elaborate, since you’ll have it in the home with you during the days after the crisis.

According to, here are the basics you’ll need for either type of kit[2]:

·         Water – one gallon per person, per day

·         Food – you will want a supply of non-perishable foods that will last for several days

·         A manual can opener so you can access that food

·         First aid kit – be sure to include backup prescriptions in there

·         Flashlight with extra batteries

·         NOAA weather radio that uses either batteries or a hand crank

·         Dust masks to help filter the air if necessary

·         Plastic sheeting and duct tape

·         A loud whistle to allow you to signal for help if necessary

·         Paper maps of your local area

·         Personal sanitation items, such as garbage bags and disposable wipes

·         A wrench, pliers, or special tool to turn off utilities such as gas and water

·         A cell phone with chargers, a backup battery, or a backup charging block

Those are the basics. But your particular situation will determine what else you need to put into your emergency kit. Extra prescription medications are always recommended, as it might be tough to get to the pharmacy. An extra pair of glasses or contact lenses are a good idea too. If you have a pet, you’ll need to have plenty of food on hand for them too. Matches, personal hygiene items, sleeping bags, and at least one change of clothing are all options for your emergency kit.

Make copies of important documents and keep them in a safe place so you can grab them if you need to evacuate quickly. These documents should include information about each individual in the home, such as birth certificates and identification, insurance policies, a list of contacts, bank account records, and anything else that might be relevant.

Review your kit once every six months or so to make sure everything in it is up-to-date, unexpired, and still relevant to your situation.

Special Planning for Senior Health

Your situation might bring unique challenges to sheltering in place or evacuation. For instance, if you have limited mobility, you should have a transportation plan in place that will allow you to get out of town if you need to do so. If you require regular medication or treatment, such as dialysis, it’s important to know where to go in nearby towns to continue getting the help you need if you must evacuate. Your local emergency management office can help with logistics[3].

Whether you are sheltering in your home or evacuating, remember your emergency button alarm. These senior life-saving alert systems work through the use of cell towers, which often remain active during emergencies and natural disasters. Alert1 also has pendant and bracelet alarms that work through the use of a landline at home, which isn’t dependent upon electricity. This means that when you need help, you can still get in touch with a live agent at our Command Center. This peace of mind can help keep you calm in the aftermath of a natural disaster and give you an extra layer of protection above and beyond your careful plans for evacuating or sheltering in place.