Montecito, California. Moore, Oklahoma. Puebla, Mexico. Umbria, Italy.
Fire, floods, earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes are wreaking havoc upon the world, and it’s all being broadcast live on the news. Over the past few years, it seems like there have been more natural disasters than ever — and that’s because there have been. Over the past 20 years, the number of disasters that end up costing the United States a billion dollars or more in insured loss has risen dramatically, says Brad Kieserman, vice president of disaster operations and logistics at the Red Cross.
“We had an average of 5 or 6 billon-dollar disasters during the late 80s and early 90s,” Kieserman says. “Now, the annual average is up to around 13 or 14 a year. Last year, there were 17.”
Natural disasters are increasing not just in frequency but also in magnitude, the data shows. Just last year, there were 17 billion dollar disasters and the Red Cross alone responded to 270 other disasters that cost anywhere from $10,000 to millions of dollars. Part of this is due to climate change — droughts, rising ocean temperatures, and increasing global surface temperatures are all contributing factors to the prevalence and magnitude of natural disasters.
Between rising ocean temperatures and below-average rainfall, we can expect to see above-average hurricane and wildfire seasons, Kieserman says.
“That means it’s more likely than not that more hurricanes will form but that has zero correlation with the number of hurricanes that make landfall in the U.S.,” Keiserman says. “You could have a year where five hurricanes form and it projects to be a below-average year, but one Category 4 makes landfall and then you have a Harvey or a Maria on your hands. But you could have 17 projected but nothing makes landfall, or you only have a Category 1, and that’s still an ‘above average’ year.”
But interestingly, we had a below-average tornado season this year while a small tornado touched down late last year in Reston, Virginia, which was a major disruption on typical weather patterns, and caused some damage to homes and businesses.
“When we have these abnormalities, it’s hard to be prepared,” Kieserman says. Social media and weather tracking apps have changed our ability to respond and react to these abnormalities, however.
Additionally, says Elizabeth Penniman, vice president of communications at the Red Cross, social media has reformed our ability to reach out to people during a disaster and keep people apprised of the situation.
It is a vehicle to help us get help to people who need it,” Penniman says. “People go to our social media platforms and ask for help and we’re able to connect our teams and get triage very quickly and that, I think, is the beauty of social media and how it’s helped us fine-tune our responses to disaster.”
Penniman and Kieserman also recommend downloading a variety of apps before a disaster hits — Red Cross, FEMA, and a variety of weather apps are all good options — so you have that information at your fingertips when you need it. The alert and warning systems in those apps have been crucial when it comes to alerting people and encouraging them to evacuate, Kieserman says.
Ultimately, there are five steps the Red Cross recommends people take when preparing for a natural disaster.
1. Be Informed
It’s important to stay in the know — not just about any incoming weather patterns but also about the area in which you live.
“Do you live near a flood plane, do you live in a tornado prone area? You could learn that easily just by going online, the information is out there,” Kieserman says. “You need to be informed before something happens and then during the actual event.”
2. Make a Plan…
… And then make a few more. Kieserman recommends having a family plan for a variety of situations: If you’re all at home, if a few of you are at work, if the kids are in school or if they’re not. It’s crucial to be prepared to do more than just shelter in place. Kieserman recommends coming up with ideas for rallying points, backup plans for power outages, and more.
“If you’re going to take the time to change the batteries in your smoke alarm, then take the 30 minutes to make a more extensive plan,” Kieserman says.
3. Have the Right Supplies On Hand
Make sure to keep enough potable water for two weeks worth of drinking, in addition to soup and canned foods, portable chargers, candles, batteries, and flashlights.
“People need to have enough food and water and portable sustainable power to last them through 72 hours without a lot of outside assistance,” Kieserman says. “People have very high expectations of government during disaster relief, but the larger the disaster is, the less likely those expectations will be met because they’re simply not reasonable. The needs caused by the disaster outstrip the ability to respond.”
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4. Be Financially Prepared
A whopping 40 percent of all Americans can’t sustain a $400 emergency without going into debt, according to the Federal Reserve Board. Apart from having a rainy day fund (no pun intended), Kieserman recommends investing in insurance — if you live in a flood plain or an area with wildfires or tornadoes, there are plans available for those events.
5. Maintain Strong Social Connections
Social connectedness can make a real difference in a disaster, and not in the way you might think. Having a strong Twitter network is fine and good, but real person-to-person contact is arguably the most important of all the steps. Ask yourself, “Do I know my neighbors? Would we be able to help each other if something happened?”
“You would think that social media increases social connectedness but that’s not necessarily true,” Kieserman says. “That’s not the connectedness that matters when you’re in a community that’s been impacted by a disaster.”