It’s a fact of life.
Natural hazards are always sure to come and go, as well as the disasters that accompany them. Wildfires, hurricanes, global pandemics, winter storms, floods - no matter what you may face, more often than not, you may have to evacuate your home in the pursuit of safety.
According to the American Red Cross, 2020 was a record for disaster sheltering. In total, more than 1.2 million Americans sought shelter in emergency lodging across multiple states all over the country. From the recent winter storm in Texas, which showed us how millions of people were forced to flee their homes due to a lack of power, heat, and clean water, to the recent flooding in Nashville and Kentucky, as climate change worsens, experts predict more deadly storms are coming, increasing the likelihood of more evacuations.
Okay, so you leave home, the disaster comes, the disaster goes, and now what? Returning to your home after all that mayhem is tough, both practically and emotionally. The damage is often unknown and many dangers may still face you. But take heart, we're here for you.
Here are 10 things you can do to return safely:
1. Stay alert, connected, and cautious.
Whether you’ve had to evacuate your home because of a wildfire, storm, or another emergency, it’s important to pay close attention to any directions given by your local authorities.
Make sure that the mandatory evacuation has come to an end and has been clearly announced. Going back before authorities declare it safe to do so can expose you and your family to unnecessary risk and dangers.
Additionally, because you do not know what the power situation might be like when you get there, if possible, try to return to your home during the daytime.
2. Find another place to shelter if your home isn’t safe.
If it is not safe to return, and you do not have another place to go, you can find shelter or rental housing. For an open emergency shelter near you, text SHELTER and the zip code of your location to 4FEMA (43362).
For example: SHELTER 01234. If you are in need for longer term housing, you can apply for FEMA’s Individuals and Household Program at DisasterAssistance.gov to receive Temporary Housing Assistance or Lodging Expenses Reimbursement.
3. Protect yourself with the right clothing and gear.
Remember this. Your body and your family’s well-being is so much more important than your home. Unfortunately, most visits to hospital emergency rooms following a disaster are because of injuries which occurred after.
Sprains and strains are common, as are cuts and punctures, broken bones, and motor vehicle accidents. So be patient, take it easy, and exercise caution. Wear protective clothing on your legs, arms, and hands. For those feet of yours, wear sturdy boots!
4. Look out for structural damage to your home.
Before actually entering your house, check the house foundation, stairs, roof, and chimney for structural damage. Also beware of loose nails, splinters, holes in walls or floors, wet or falling plaster, and undermined foundations. If you have any doubts about safety, have your home inspected by a professional first.
5. Trust your senses, especially if something smells funky.
If you smell gas or suspect a leak, turn off the main gas valve, open all your windows, and leave your house immediately. Notify your gas company, police, or fire department right away, and do not turn on the electricity, light matches, smoke, or do anything that could cause a spark.
6. Don't flip the switch!
If you see sparks, broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker, and call an electrician for advice. If you are returning after a flood, storm or hurricane, make sure that all electrical equipment and appliances are completely dry before turning them back on.
7. Check your sewage and water lines.
Depending on the cause of the emergency, sewer systems, wells, and septic systems may not be working properly, and tap water may be unsafe to drink. It’s best to avoid drinking your tap water until your local officials have given the all clear, and avoid flushing the toilet until you know that your sewer or septic system is in good working order.
If you suspect damaged sewage lines, avoid using the toilets and call a plumber. Do not use water from a private supply until health authorities have tested it.
8. Take pics or it didn’t happen, literally.
If you have to file a claim on your homeowners insurance policy, it will help you considerably if you provide enough documentation to back up your claim. Documenting the damage for your home insurance company includes having multiple estimates, providing receipts and other proof of ownership, showing the insurance company that the damaged items were in your home inventory, and documenting the total amount you claim for loss of use.
If you do not have insurance, document the damage in the same way and then apply for FEMA Assistance at DisasterAssistance.gov. If accepted, home repair, home replacement, and permanent housing construction are covered under FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program.
9. When in doubt, throw it out!
Did you know that your home insurance policy could help pay to replace the foods you have to throw away? Take pictures and note the prices of anything you are throwing out just in case the insurance company needs extra details.
Depending on how long you have been gone and the extent of the damage your home endured, leftover food and drinks inside your fridge or freezer may be spoiled and need to be tossed when you return home.
This is especially important if your house has lost power or was exposed to heat, ash, smoke, flood waters, or any chemicals that were used to put out fires or mitigate the damage. In addition to food in your freezer and fridge, also take caution before consuming any non-perishable food such as canned foods. Discard them if you see any dents or bulges, and if not, wipe them clean before eating.
10. Reach out for help, because you are never alone.
Let’s be clear. Disasters have more than just a physical and financial impact. A recent study reported that
“climate change-induced disasters have a high potential for immediate and severe psychological trauma from personal injury, injury or death of a loved one, damage to or loss of personal property (e.g., home) and pets, and disruption in or loss of livelihood."
Simply put, traumatic events are not easy for anyone to comprehend or accept, and it’s important to know that help is available.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides communities and responders with behavioral health resources that help them prepare, respond, and recover from disasters. You might show physical and emotional signs of stress, sadness, grief, and anger. These reactions to disaster might occur not only to those directly affected, but also those who were indirectly affected through repeated exposure to media coverage of the incident.
For people experiencing emotional distress related to a disaster, SAMHSA offers toll-free crisis counseling and support through the Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990 and personalized tips for coping with grief and for talking to and helping children.
Returning home after a disaster is a gradual process. Take your time, pace yourself, rebuild one step and one brick at a time. Most importantly, be kind yourself. You’ll get through this.