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Disaster Readiness for Military Families

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Hurricane Ike, 2008

No matter where you live, you live with the possibility of some type of natural disaster – a blizzard, an earthquake, a flood, a hurricane, a tornado, or a wildfire – or man-made disaster – a blackout, a nuclear or chemical plant incident, a pandemic, or a terrorist attack. These events and their aftermath can be very dangerous, especially if your family is unprepared.

It is very important that no matter where you live, you understand the kinds of disasters which could occur there and have a plan in place (for shelter, evacuation, and communication), the tools and supplies to take care of yourselves, and the skills and knowledge to take care of yourselves and help others. Military families, in particular, are resilient, resourceful, and capable. The military community values service and teamwork, and all of us should be prepared to exemplify those values by taking care of ourselves and helping others if a disaster strikes our communities.

Prepare, Plan, and Pack

The first step toward readiness is information. Be familiar with the natural and man-made hazards in your area; is there a nuclear plant nearby, is the area prone to flooding or tornadoes, are earthquakes likely, or do you live on the coast where hurricanes might strike? Ensure that everyone in your family knows what to do during an emergency – which warnings to watch and listen for, how to take shelter or evacuate, and how to tell when conditions are safe again.

Next, plan for the aftermath of a possible disaster. You can find great resources for creating a family emergency plan at Ready.gov and Military OneSource.

  • Decide how your family will communicate and where you will meet if a disaster strikes when you are not all at home together – during the work/school day, for example – and practice regularly.
  • Discuss situations in which you might have to evacuate. Decide in advance how and when you will decide whether to stay or evacuate (go/no go criteria, in military terms). Set up a procedure for your family’s orderly evacuation.
  • If you need to shelter in place – such as during a nuclear or chemical emergency or after a tornado – have a plan for doing so safely and comfortably. Decide which areas of your house are safest and best for sheltering in an emergency.
  • Don’t forget to plan for your pets! If you have pets, you should take FEMA’s “Animals in Disasters” class online to help you plan to take care of the four-legged members of your family in an emergency.

Whether you evacuate or shelter in place, you will need some tools and supplies to take care of yourselves after a disaster. Emergency services in your area may be completely overwhelmed, power or gas for cooking may not be working, stores may be closed, and clean water may not be available. Make sure that your family has a disaster kit with enough supplies for everyone to last about three days without help. You can find good tips for building your kit here at MilitaryFamily.com and on Military One Source, and you can find a detailed checklist at Ready.gov.

SAR Volunteers after Hurricane Ike, 2008

Learn and Lead

Make sure that everyone in your family (who is old enough) is certified in First Aid and CPR. These skills may come in handy at any time, not just during a natural disaster, and a little training can save a life. You can find First Aid and CPR classes through the American Red Cross, and the American Heart Association offers First Aid and CPR classes as well.

You can learn the basics of emergency planning and disaster response through FEMA’s online classes. At a minimum, you should take “Are You Ready?  A Citizen’s Guide to Disaster Peparedness” and “Protecting Your Home or Small Business from Disaster“. Consider browsing the list of other courses available; many of them are aimed at emergency response and emergency management workers, but they contain a wealth of good information for everyone, they are free, and some count for college credit.

Military families understand service and leadership; please consider stepping forward to help your community in the event of a disaster. You can volunteer with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, your Community Emergency Response Team, or another local organization.

For Military Families

As military families, we face some unique challenges. We move frequently, one member of the family is sometimes overseas, and we are often far away from our friends and extended families. These challenges are especially important when planning for a disaster.

When you move to a new area, you may not be familiar with its hazards. A military spouse from California may have no idea what to do when a tornado siren sounds, and a soldier from Nebraska may not know how to prepare for a hurricane. As part of your PCS process, learn what natural disasters and other hazards are possible in your new community, and learn how to prepare for and respond to those events. You can find good information at Ready.gov and through local government services in your new community, and you can also check with the Family Readiness Group or your chain of command at your new post. Update your emergency plan and your disaster kit to fit the types of disaster you might encounter in your new home.

Part of your family’s pre-deployment planning should include disaster readiness. You will need to make sure that your plan is up-to-date and will still work smoothly with one member of the family away; were there tasks the service member was expected to perform in an emergency? Decide who will fill that role while he or she is deployed.

You should also discuss how to get in touch with your deployed service member – and your extended family – in the event of a disaster. Cell phones and landlines might not function properly in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The American Red Cross offers emergency communication services to help military families communicate with their deployed service members in the event of an emergency; call 877-272-7337 (or visit the nearest Red Cross aid station if you are unable to reach a working telephone).

If you cannot reach members of your extended family during or after a disaster, you can use the Red Cross “Safe and Well List”. If a disaster has affected an area where you have friends or family and you cannot reach them, you can check the Safe and Well List for their names; if you have been the victim of a disaster and cannot contact your friends or family, you can place your name on the list so that they can check your status. As part of your disaster plan, be sure that your friends, extended family, and service member are aware of this resource.