By way of introduction: I grew up just outside New Orleans in the least prepared family in the entire world for natural disasters! My parents grew up in the city, and that really shaped their perception of big storms. They lived through all the major events and nothing happened to them. So, they got what’s called positivity bias.
My parents, my three siblings and I would ride out storms with whatever was left in the grocery store about 12 hours before the really bad weather hit. Typically, it meant a loaf of bread and a bag of Hershey’s kisses — that food four kids would fight over.
“I remember seeing our community come together, neighbors sharing food and water when the power was out...”
When I was little, I remember being anxious hearing about a big storm approaching because I didn’t know what would happen. But I remember seeing our community come together, neighbors sharing food and water when the power was out, getting together to move trees and debris away from people’s homes.
Growing up in such a high-risk area, I saw the importance of preparedness from a young age, and now I feel it’s so critical to get families moving in that direction. I’m excited to offer a multifamily lens on just how communities can start preparing for disasters.
It’s not uncommon to feel that certain natural disasters are never going to happen where you live. While tornadoes or wildfires may in fact be more likely to occur in some areas than others, people living across the U.S. can experience: extreme heat, a mass attack, or a power outage.
It’s why FEMA works year-round to provide detailed info guides on a range of disasters. My colleagues and I make sure the material offers communities every step they can take to stay safe — and even help others — in a crisis. Here are some examples of the guidelines we provide:
Should these warning signs present themselves, it’s critical that you keep observing what’s happening around you and avoid distractions like texting, listening to headphones, or talking on a cell phone.
Of course, there are a range of other natural disasters that pose significant risks to people across the U.S. You can find a range of information about them on ready.gov. In the meantime, here are some key strategies to prepare your multifamily communities for natural disasters — no matter where your properties are located.
Whether your region is at risk for hurricanes or landslides, ready.gov is a powerful resource for natural disaster preparedness. But there are four general steps every multifamily community should take to be prepared ahead of a disaster:
Establish reunion points: Agreeing on reunion points is a critical step ahead of a natural disaster. Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget once the weather takes a turn for the worst. Luckily, the premise is simple: work together with your community and agree on a safe space least likely to be affected by the storm.
Keep these communications guidelines in mind:
Learn critical skills in FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team: FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program educates volunteers across the country about disaster preparedness, empowering them to learn essential skills that will benefit everyone in their community. Multifamily operators could consider asking staff to participate in CERT training, ensuring that residents would have valuable guidance in a crisis.
There are 2,700 CERT program nationwide, and more than 600,000 people have been trained since the initiative reached a national scope. The program is designed to offer local and state program managers enough flexibility to suit specific conditions in communities.
More than 600,000 people across the U.S. have been trained in FEMA's Community Emergence Response Team, a volunteer program.
Volunteers in the program:
Financial preparedness: At FEMA, we understand that saving money is a significant hurdle for people as they consider building up a rainy day fund, stockpiling supplies, or buying insurance. However, our agency is working to share useful financial information that meets people where they are — whether an emergency fund is a possibility for them or not. Here are some cost-free ways multifamily residents can protect themselves financially ahead of a natural disaster:
Safeguard critical documents: From social security cards and birth certificates to renter’s insurance paperwork and the title to your home, there are several financial documents residents should store in a fireproof and waterproof box or safe.
Document medical information: Among the valuable checklists on FEMA’s Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK) is Medical Information form that can prove life-saving following a natural disaster. The sections are a critical reminder for multifamily residents to list the medication they take on a regular basis, as well as to include a copy of their medical card and any disabilities documentation, for example.
Remember financial obligations: Given the chaos that comes from a natural disaster, it’s easy to lose track of your regular financial obligations. However, FEMA offers an important reminder: even in the event of an emergency or natural disaster, multifamily residents are still responsible for paying their monthly rent and credit card bills.
Working at FEMA, I’ve been fortunate to hear dozens and dozens of stories of people stepping up (even risking their own lives) to help others in a crisis. It would be impossible to mention them all here, but I will share a few stories that moved me deeply — and will hopefully inspire multifamily communities to work together in a natural disaster. The first involves a Connecticut man who was on his way to a job interview but saw a driver stuck in a smoking car. He stopped to pull the man out of the car and actually used his own dress shirt to help keep the man’s head wounds from bleeding further. He missed his job interview just to help the stranger. Honestly, it’s stories like that that inspire me to come to work everyday.
“He stopped to pull the man out of the car and actually used his own dress shirt to help keep the man’s head wounds from bleeding further.”
I’m also moved by the powerful things young people can do in a crisis. One of FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council members was living in Washington state when she heard about the dangerous hurricane (eventually named Hurricane Irma) nearing Puerto Rico. Instead of staying tuned to the news, this teenager took action. She checked in with her parents and asked if they would free up their vacation home in a nearby part of Washington so that a fellow YPC member based in Puerto Rico could stay up there with her family during the worst of the storm. The parents were on board with the plan, and this compassionate YPC member was able to save a friend from significant danger.
Finally, as preparedness is so near and dear to my heart, I’m unable to shake a story out of Northern California. When devastating wildfires were raging through the region in the summer of 2018, an elderly man got a knock on his door. He was told he had just 20 minutes before the flames would reach his home. Luckily, as the man had already prepared his critical document kit, he used the next few minutes to find and place it by the front door. That meant he had 18 minutes left to gather family photos spanning generations. To me, his experience represents the kind of meaningful moments that can stem from a crisis — once the prep work is out of the way.
Circling back to FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council, I think it’s really important to remember: young people can absolutely make a difference in the realm of preparedness!
The teenagers who make up FEMA’s nationwide YPC program are chosen for their leadership skills, academic drive, and genuine dedication to disaster preparedness. My colleagues and I are consistently inspired by their commitment to help other people, to their work engaging their local communities with information that undoubtedly saves lives.
As so many young people across the U.S. genuinely have the drive to help others in a crisis, multifamily operators should include them in the conversation when preparing a housing community ahead of a storm. Given the opportunity, many teens would be glad to participate in workshops or volunteer efforts to educate their friends and neighbors.
“Given the opportunity, many teens would be glad to participate in workshops or volunteer efforts to educate their friends and neighbors.”
Of course, I’m also drawn to the enthusiasm these Youth Preparedness Council members bring to the workplace when they meet with FEMA staff a few times every year. Although my job is understandably very serious, there’s definitely still room for humor on the right occasions. YPC members play a role in keeping morale high at the office, as they sometimes discuss complex disaster topics and then ask FEMA leadership questions like: “How do you keep your teeth so white?”
While my FEMA colleagues and I are moved by the work of teens across the country, we also believe that children should have an awareness of major storms and their consequences for communities. In educating your multifamily residents on disaster preparedness, it’s important to remember that little kids can also make sense of natural disasters — especially to gauge the safety risks for themselves and loved ones.
“Little kids can also make sense of natural disasters — especially to gauge the safety risks for themselves and loved ones.”
As a mom, this idea really hits home for me. I certainly understand that it can be touchy for many parents, as they don’t want their children to feel scared. Fortunately, FEMA offers a variety of age-specific materials to educate children about major storms.
Ranging from memorable trivia activities to lively fact sheets to entertaining card games, FEMA’s educational material offers accessible ways for young students to feel informed and empowered when it comes to natural disaster issues. FEMA makes sure to partner with education experts before publishing these guides, so they’re always appropriate for the intended audience. Above all, FEMA is asking children to be safe — not to be bold.
From establishing reunion points to ensuring financial preparedness, readying yourself and your community for a natural disaster involves a fair number of moving parts. Fortunately, multifamily operators have a wealth of information at their fingertips with FEMA’s comprehensive website — ready.gov. While it’s certainly not their obligation to serve as educators, multifamily operators have a powerful opportunity to make use of FEMA’s detailed guides. It’s a way to signal to their residents: we care about your health and safety before, during, and after a natural disaster.
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