How to keep your loved ones safe during a disaster or emergency

single-meta-cal September 29, 2021

North Alabama is no stranger to emergencies.

Jeff birdwell headshot

Jeff Birdwell is the director of the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency.

From the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Huntsville and Madison County residents have come to expect the unexpected.

September is National Preparedness Month, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) observes each year to raise awareness of the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies that could strike at any time.

As we wrap up the month, Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency Director Jeff Birdwell reflected on what he believes is most important before, during and after an emergency. For tips on how to prepare yourself or your loved ones for the unexpected, keep reading.

The rule of 72 hours

In the event of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other unforeseen event, Birdwell recommends having enough supplies to survive for at least 72 hours. That’s because it could take up to three days for first responders to reach you during an emergency.

“Anything that you determine to be your basic survival needs – you need to make sure you have enough of that on hand to get you through 72 hours,” Birdwell said.

A good 72-hour emergency kit includes nonperishable food, water, medications, clothing, pet supplies, toiletries, important documents, cash, batteries and more to keep you and your family safe until help arrives. Don’t forget about specialty items, such as baby supplies, critical medical gear, etc.

Birdwell also recommends always keeping your vehicle’s gas tank at least half-full in case service stations are closed or in low supply.

“When you look at the way things have happened with hurricanes in recent years, they hit Louisiana and Texas, where all the oil comes through and pipelines get shut down,” he said. “While the hurricane may not affect us directly, we may not have gas for several days.”

Insurance options

It’s not uncommon for communities to request assistance from the federal government after a natural disaster. Birdwell said the chances of getting a Major Disaster Declaration, however, are low.

“You have to meet the financial thresholds,” he said. “Before it can even be eligible, you must have so much uninsured damage in your county, which is difficult to reach unless you have a major catastrophe.”

Because most home insurance policies don’t cover events like floods, earthquakes and landslides, citizens should explore additional coverage to make storm recovery easier. For example, Birdwell said flood insurance is cheap for those not in a flood zone.

“People need to consider how they’re going to cover their losses,” he said. “People need to be prepared for financially for what might happen.”

Have a communication plan

What happens if you can’t access your phone or have no cell service after an emergency? How will you let relatives or authorities know you’re OK? These are questions everyone should ask as they prepare for the next disaster.

To start, create a paper copy with the contact information of your family and other important people/businesses, such as medical facilities, doctors, schools and service providers. Then, make sure your loved ones all carry a copy in their wallet, backpack or purse. It’s also a good idea to post the document in a central location of your home, such as the refrigerator or a bulletin board.

Next, practice your plan with your loved ones. Meet regularly to ensure everyone understands what to do if a disaster strikes and communication is limited.

Pro tip – FEMA recommends text messages over phone calls when electricity is down or communication networks are unreliable. Why? Text messages require less bandwidth than a phone call and are more likely to reach the recipient as capacity becomes available.

Save money on supplies

No matter how much disposable income you have, you can still collect supplies for an emergency without breaking the bank.

By shopping at discount stores or for sales items at major retailers, residents can assemble a go-kit with supplies that will last for several days after a disaster.

“Make it step-by-step,” Birdwell said. “Hopefully, before you know it, you’ve got the stuff you need. Don’t focus on doing it all at once.”

For those who like to plan ahead and save money, the state’s next Severe Weather Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday will take place Feb. 25-27, 2022. This three-day event gives shoppers the opportunity to purchase certain severe weather preparedness items free of state sales tax.

Click here to learn more.

More information

To learn how you can make an emergency plan for your family, visit the EMA website.

Sign up for emergency alerts from the City of Huntsville here.