Having an evacuation and communication plan, and making sure everyone knows where to go in case of an emergency, can be the key to protecting your home and family.
Let's face it — contemplating catastrophe can be stressful. Some people even feel like they're courting a disaster by planning for one. That's a natural response, but it's not in your best interest as a homeowner.
"Denial is a pretty strong emotional mechanism for trying to put yourself at ease," says Rick Bissell, Ph.D., a professor of emergency health services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. But, he cautions, "if you deny that a crisis will ever occur, you won't invest the time or energy in preparing to respond and protect yourself, and you'll likely be out of luck." Part of that preparation should include an evacuation and communication plan.
Think about escape routes in advance
It's hard to think clearly when the floodwaters are rising. That's why you need to plan how to safely exit your house now, not when you're panicking during an actual emergency. The particulars of your plan will vary depending on what kind of house you have and whether you live in Tornado Alley or quake-prone Los Angeles, but here are some general guidelines:
Have two ways to escape every room. Buy escape ladders for upstairs windows, then practice using them.
Check with local and state officials for regional evacuation routes. Learn the safest way out of town, and keep maps handy.
Designate a meeting place if family members are scattered. If the rendezvous point is your house, also pick a second location, such as an office or relative's house, in case home is off-limits.
Figure out how you'll transport Fido; a house that's unsafe for you is also hazardous for your pet. Some communities designate a Pet Protector, a person responsible for retrieving and/or caring for animals if owners can't. The Humane Society is a good source of information on disaster planning for your pet.
Obtain a copy of your office or school's emergency plan. If one doesn't exist, you could volunteer to create it, helping safeguard your family and your community.
Designate a "communication commander"
An emergency can knock out telephone and cell service, so it's important to have a "communication commander" who can receive and relay messages between family members. Choose someone out of your area whose phone service is less likely to be disrupted, and give that person cell phone, office numbers, and email addresses for everyone in the family. Each family member should carry the communication commander's contact info, too. Program it into your cell phone address book and label it "ICE"—in case of emergency. If you're disabled, an emergency responder will search your phone for ICE contacts.
Use technology to stay in touch
Even when some communications methods don't work, others might. For instance, text messages can often be sent when other cell service is down; the government and private companies are currently working on a nationwide text-based Emergency Notification System. Here are some other technology workarounds that could help in an emergency or power outage:
Hook your Internet router to an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) to keep online service running long enough to send out emergency notifications. You can buy one for under $100 that will keep the computer running for about 15 minutes after the power goes out.
Keep a corded phone at home. In a power outage, cordless handsets are useless. You can also buy a hand-crank or solar cell-phone charger, such as the Sidewinder crank from Gaiam or the Brunton Solaris portable solar panel.
If you get separated from your family but have Internet access, you can let others know where you are with the Red Cross's Safe and Well program. On the homepage of redcross.org, click the "List Yourself Here" button. "One of the staples at shelters now is providing computers so people can get online and let people know they're okay," says David Riedman, a public affairs officer with FEMA.
Keep a battery-operated or hand-crank radio in your emergency preparedness kit to get news and instructions.
Having a disaster plan does more than just keep your own family safe. It also serves your community. "When an individual is prepared to handle an emergency themselves, that alleviates a lot of the pressure on emergency response teams," says FEMA's Riedman, freeing up emergency workers to deliver help to those who need it most.