Preparing for Disasters

Protect yourself and everyone in your home from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, and more.

Page last updated: 04/13/2023

The Importance of Preparation

Whether it’s a disaster you can see coming, like a hurricane, or one you can’t predict, like an earthquake, you can do things ahead of time to protect yourself, other people in your household, and your home. You can do many of these things without spending a lot of time or money. And because good preparation can reduce disaster-related damage, you can recover from the disaster faster and at lower cost.

Build Disaster Kits

It’s important to be prepared for emergencies, whether you’re sheltering in place or evacuating. Building shelter-in-place and evacuation kits can help ensure that you have essential items you need to take care of everyone living in your home.

How To Build a Shelter-in-Place Kit

A shelter-in-place kit is one of the best tools for keeping everyone in your home safe. This kit provides the food, water, and supplies you need for at least three days. It also provides necessary items that can be hard to find in stores right before a disaster because everyone is buying them.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides a full list of recommended items for your kit. But in general, you want to include:

  • Ready-to-eat foods you can store a long time without refrigeration. Make sure you also store a manual can opener, paper plates, and disposable forks, knives, and spoons. Check twice a year to make sure you’re not keeping any food past its expiration date.
  • Beverages to stay hydrated, including 1 gallon of drinking water for each person for each day (at least 3 gallons per person). Canned juices and nonperishable, pasteurized milk are also good options.
  • Things you need to stay clean and healthy, like hand sanitizer, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, toilet paper, and menstruation products such as tampons and pads.
  • Items for young children — such as infant formula and diapers — and food and extra water for pets.
  • Other emergency supplies, like a first-aid kit, a flashlight, and a battery-operated AM/FM radio to listen for weather, evacuation, and emergency shelter updates. Store extra batteries and check their expiration dates twice a year. Replace as necessary.
  • Fully charged backup batteries or portable chargers for cellphones. A solar-powered backup charger is the best option because it can be charged by sunlight.

Be sure this kit is easy to find and ready to use in an emergency. Here’s how:

  • Keep all the items in one place and tell everyone in the household where this place is.
  • Store as much as you can in waterproof containers.
  • Don’t bury your kit underneath other items.
  • Make it clear to all household members that these supplies are only for emergencies.

How To Build an Evacuation Kit

Think of this kit as your “grab and go” bag. It will contain the most important items for taking care of yourself, other people in your household, and your pets (if you have them). Store it someplace that’s easy to get to. Tell everyone in your household where you stored it.

Evacuation kits should be easy to carry and should contain the following items:

  • Copies of ID, such as driver’s licenses or birth certificates.
  • Copies of insurance policies.
  • Written records of medications. Include the medication name, how often to take it, how much to take each time, and your pharmacy’s phone number.
  • Small, nonperishable food items, such as granola bars, and food for infants as needed.
  • A small amount of water for each person.
  • A small amount of money in small bills. ATMs and banks may not be available.
  • Flashlights, a portable radio, and extra batteries.
  • Personal care items such as toothpaste, hand sanitizer, soap, and menstruation products.
  • Bad weather gear, such as ponchos.
  • A short-term supply of pet food if you have pets.

If you’re leaving by car and have room, you can bring the larger shelter-in-place kit you created. You can also take items such as blankets, sleeping bags, and extra clothing.

Make a Plan

For some disasters, you may have to leave your home to stay somewhere else for a while, such as a relative’s house or a shelter. You might get only a few days’ warning, or less, that you need to move. Here’s how to be ready.

Know How To Get Out

Plan a safe route ahead of time. But be prepared to make last-minute changes.

  • Contact your local emergency management office or agency to ask about evacuation routes. These routes might not include your street, so plan how you will get to the routes from your home. Keep written copies of these routes and plans.
  • If you don’t have a car or other vehicle, plan for some other way to leave. Sharing a ride with friends or neighbors who have a vehicle is one option.
  • Always listen to the radio or TV for updates on evacuation routes.
  • Don’t hesitate to change your route as necessary. Never drive through flooded roads. Road damage or downed trees also could make some roads unsafe or impossible to drive on.

Know Where You’re Going

When you evacuate, you’ll need to know where you’re headed. You may have more than one option.

  • Staying with friends or family is usually best. Find out now if they’re able and willing to let you stay with them during an emergency. Keep a written list at home that includes their names, addresses, and phone numbers.
  • Contact your local emergency management office to ask about shelters in your area. Make a list of these shelters and keep a copy of this list in your home.
  • Shelter locations can change during an emergency, so tune in to local news. Another way to find open shelters is to text the word SHELTER, followed by your ZIP code (for example, “SHELTER 73026”) to 43362. You’ll receive a response from FEMA.
  • If you have pets, find out which shelters accept them. Not all shelters do. That’s why it’s a good idea to plan now for other safe places you could leave your pets.

Make Plans for Your Pets

If you have pets, there are special steps you can take to plan for their care. This is important because some emergency shelters for disaster survivors can’t accept pets. The federal government’s disaster planning site provides pet-specific tips for:

  • Making a plan for evacuating pets and for finding someone to take care of them.
  • Tracking them if they get lost.
  • Building an emergency kit that covers their needs.
  • Preparing for what to do with horses and other large pets.

Take Your Final Steps

Some disasters come without warning. But sometimes weather forecasters and officials warn the public days in advance that a flood, hurricane, or other disaster is possible. When you know a disaster might happen, you should:

  • Fill your vehicle’s gas tank. The disaster could close gas stations or create long lines for fill-ups.
  • Fully charge your cellphone and cellphone battery backups. Don’t overuse your phone if the power goes out. If your phone has a low-power mode, use it to save battery life. You may need the phone to make emergency calls.
  • Turn your fridge and freezer temperature to the coolest possible setting. This will help preserve the food inside longer during a power outage. Freeze refrigerated items that you may not need right away, such as fresh meat, to keep them at a safe temperature longer during an outage.
  • If you control your home’s gas and water supply, make sure you know where and how to turn off the supply. If you must evacuate, turn them off before you go. (Note that for your gas supply, a qualified professional must turn it back on. Never attempt to turn the gas back on yourself.)
  • Confirm your evacuation route and evacuation plan. As needed, check with the local government to determine if it is assisting with evacuations.

Stay Informed

Information can change often before, during, and after a disaster. Use these sources to stay up to date on weather conditions, other emergencies, and disaster-related services:

  • Local radio and TV stations.
  • Your local emergency management office.
  • Weather apps you can download to your cellphone.
  • FEMA’s app, which you can use to receive real-time weather alerts, send notifications to loved ones, locate emergency shelters and FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers, and more.
  • The American Red Cross Emergency App, which lets you customize 40 different weather alerts and has an interactive map to help you find open Red Cross shelters.

Prepare for Specific Types of Disasters

Some ways to prepare, like building a disaster kit, are useful for any type of disaster. But you also can do more to prepare for the types of disasters that are most likely to happen where you live. For example, prepare for earthquakes and wildfires if you live in California. In Oklahoma, get ready for tornadoes, especially during peak tornado season in the southern Plains from May into early June.

High winds and rising water are powerful forces. Learn what you can do to prepare in ways that protect the people in your household and limit potential damage to your home.

Understand Weather Watches and Warnings

Watches and warnings are alerts about weather conditions that help you know when you need to take action to protect yourself, other people in your household, and your property. This section explains what a “watch” and “warning” mean for different types of potential disasters. You should also review Be Aware, Be Prepared, Take Action (PDF), a FEMA guide that explains the key actions you should take in response to each type of watch and warning listed below.

For Floods, Storm Surges, and Tsunamis

  • Flood watch: Flooding may occur within the next six to 48 hours.
  • Flood warning: Flooding is occurring or is about to occur.
  • Flash flood watch: Sudden flooding from intense rainfall may occur within the next several hours or days.
  • Flash flood warning: A dangerous, life-threatening flood is occurring or about to occur. Move to higher ground immediately if you’re in a flood-prone area.
  • Storm surge watch: There is the possibility of life-threatening flooding from a storm surge within 48 hours. A storm surge consists of rising water moving inland from the shoreline.
  • Storm surge warning: There is the danger of life-threatening flooding from a storm surge within 36 hours.
  • Tsunami warning: A series of dangerous and powerful waves and strong currents that may cause flooding is expected or occurring. Evacuate immediately if told to do so or if you see natural signs of a tsunami, and move to high ground.

For Tornadoes

  • Tornado watch: A tornado may occur within the next two to four hours.
  • Tornado warning: A tornado is occurring or about to occur in the area or nearby within the next few minutes to half-hour. Go to your safe shelter or a small, interior, windowless room and take cover (see “How To Prepare for High Winds” section).

For Hurricanes or Extreme Wind

  • Hurricane watch: Hurricane conditions are possible within the next several days, and hurricane force winds are possible within 48 hours.
  • Hurricane warning: Hurricane conditions are expected within the next several days, and hurricane force winds are expected within 36 hours.
  • Extreme wind warning: Winds greater than 115 mph are occurring or will occur within one hour, and sustained hurricane winds may occur. Go to your safe shelter or a small, interior, windowless room and take cover (see “How To Prepare for High Winds” section).

How To Prepare for High Winds

In-home shelters are places you and other people in your household can go to protect yourselves from high winds. These winds can damage the structure of your home, causing parts of it to collapse. High winds can also blow outside objects into your home.

Take these steps to lessen the possibility of structural damage and injury from high winds:

  • Identify an in-home shelter. Examples of suitable shelters are listed below. Whichever one you choose, try to find a spot with no windows. High winds can break windows and spray the glass inside.
    • A basement or cellar. This is usually the best option. Go there and take cover under a sturdy piece of furniture or in a stairwell.
    • An interior room on the lowest level, such as a bathroom or closet. If you don’t have a basement, take cover on this level under a sturdy piece of furniture or in a bathtub.
    • An interior hallway. Use the hallway on the lowest level of your home. “Interior” means no sides of the hallway share a surface that is exposed to the outside.
  • Protect your home. Winds and windblown objects can damage the structure of your home and injure people inside. You can reduce this risk by:
    • Covering windows. Use storm shutters if you can find some. If not, use plywood that is at least 5/8-inch thick. That thickness is recommended to help the plywood withstand the impact of windblown objects.
    • Trimming greenery surrounding your home. Greenery includes bushes, trees, and shrubs.
    • Moving heavy outdoor objects inside. This includes patio furniture, garden statues, potted plants, grills, and antennas. If you don’t have room for them inside, use bungee cords or something else to tie them down as securely as you can.
    • Reinforcing garage doors. Garage doors are typically the largest and weakest openings in a home, and more than 90% of damage to homes during hurricanes begins when garage doors fail, according to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH). FEMA explains how to reinforce them — but FEMA also advises that it’s best to hire a trained door systems technician to do the work.

How To Prepare for Floodwaters

Water can enter your home and rise quickly. According to FEMA, just 1 inch of water can cause $25,000 worth of damage to your home. Also, contact with polluted floodwaters can make you sick, and currents can sweep you away. Take action to protect yourself, other people in your household, and your property.

  • Identify an in-home shelter. Some of the best places in your house to escape rising floodwaters are listed below. But take care not to trap yourself upstairs. Always have a plan. If possible, buy an escape ladder and figure out how you would use it to leave your home safely.
    • An upper floor. If your home has multiple levels, try to get to the highest floor possible.
    • A room with few windows. They can easily break during a flood and allow water to enter your home.
    • A room with sturdy walls. Examples include a bathroom or closet. Sturdier walls can protect you from collapsing walls or debris from outside.
    • A room with access to an attic. This access will give you another escape route if the floodwaters rise too high.
  • Prepare your home. There are things you can do to help keep water out of your home or lessen water damage to your furniture and other belongings if water does get in.Here are some steps you can take well before and right before a storm:
    • Clear leaves and other debris from rain gutters and downspouts.
    • Use flood barriers, such as sandbags. Place them around the outside edges of your home.
    • Seal any cracks in walls in your home, particularly in lower areas. For foundation wall cracks, you can use mortar and masonry caulk or hydraulic cement, which expands and fills gaps completely.
    • Plug your electronics (TVs, video game consoles, stereos) into surge protectors to prevent electrical surge damage.
    • Check thoroughly to be sure that all electrical panels and boxes have covers that stay closed.
    • Install drain plugs for all basement floor drains. You can usually do this yourself. Use a floating drain plug, which allows water to drain during normal times. When water backs up into the drain, such as in a flood, the float rises and plugs the drain.


Take these steps when it seems likely floodwaters will enter your home soon, or if you must evacuate:


    • Unplug all items that are plugged into wall outlets, including lamps, appliances, chargers, and surge protectors. Appliances include items such as refrigerators, dishwashers, and stoves.
    • Turn off air conditioning units and heaters. Do this by turning off the circuit breakers for them, if possible. This will reduce the chance of electrical shorts that can damage the systems.
    • Cover appliances with plastic sheeting. Cover as much of the appliance as possible, including the top and bottom. This can protect the appliances from water and sediment and make cleanup easier.
    • Turn off the gas shut-off valve for each gas appliance, if possible. You can usually find a shut-off near the appliance that can be closed with a quarter turn. Utility companies or local officials may advise you to shut off the main gas service valve for the entire home. Gas appliances will not function correctly in a flooded home, and this could lead to gas accumulation and a fire hazard.
    • Shut off the water leading to and from hot water tanks. Running your water heater during a storm puts pressure on a water system already stressed by flooding. However, some hot water heaters may be damaged if the water supply is turned off for a long time. So you should also turn off the gas or electricity supply to your water heater (you should see a gas valve near the lower half of the heater).

Additional Resources

Earthquakes happen without warning, so you need to be prepared to respond at a moment’s notice. There are steps you can take ahead of time to keep your home, other people in your household, and yourself safer during an earthquake.

Prepare Yourself and Your Household

  • Practice “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” with everyone in your household. Many other methods people hear about are considered dangerous and are not recommended. For example, do not stand in a doorway or run outside.
  • Know your risk. Use FEMA’s earthquake hazard maps to learn how likely an earthquake is in your part of the country.

Prepare Your Home

An unprepared home is a more dangerous one. Studies of injuries and deaths caused by earthquakes over the last several decades show that you are much more likely to be injured by falling or flying objects than to die in a collapsed building, the Earthquake Country Alliance noted.

For example, a UCLA study found that falling furniture or objects, such as toppling bookcases, caused 55% of the injuries that occurred during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. That’s one reason taking actions like these can save lives:

  • Follow these instructions (PDF) for securing tall furniture, TVs, refrigerators, water heaters, wall hangings, cabinet doors, and other items. Earthquake shaking can move almost anything.
  • Secure and brace overhead light fixtures. This will prevent them from falling or becoming loose. Follow instructions for pendant-mounted or ceiling-mounted lights, or hire a contractor to do it for you.
  • Store large and heavy objects, as well as breakable items, in low, closed cabinets. Fasten shelves securely to walls.
  • Hang heavy items, such as framed art or pictures and mirrors, away from areas where people sit (beds and couches). If this isn’t possible, secure these items to the wall.
  • Repair any deep cracks in walls, ceilings, and foundations.
  • Store pesticides and flammable products in closed cabinets and on bottom shelves.
  • Repair defective electrical wiring and faulty water or gas connections.
  • Read the Earthquake Country Alliance guidance on more ways to prepare.

Additional Resources

Prepare Yourself and Your Household

Prepare Your Home

  • Design your home with nonflammable materials. You can also landscape your home with fire-resistant plants.
  • Use 1/8-inch mesh screens beneath porches and decks to keep materials that could catch fire from gathering underneath them. Cover openings from the outside to the floors, roof, and attic with mesh screens to prevent sparks and embers from entering your home.
  • Install a dual-sensor smoke detector on each floor of your home. Dual-sensor detectors use two different technologies to better detect smoke from both slow, smoldering fires and fast, flaming fires.
  • Have an escape ladder on hand.
  • Reduce materials near your home that could easily catch fire. If possible, remove enough materials around your home to create a 30- to 100-foot safety zone, or two times the size of the tallest nearby tree.
  • Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, pine needles, and debris. Embers from a fire could ignite these materials.
  • Water your lawn. Make sure the grass is not dry when the fire risk is high. Consider replacing grass with a fire-resistant alternative, if legal in your area.
  • Buy a garden hose that is long enough to reach any part of your home, if possible.
  • Visit the National Fire Protection Association’s Preparing Homes for Wildfire webpage for more tips and guidance.

Additional Resources