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When it comes to preparing for natural disasters, expats can be excused for feeling lost. They might not have grown up in a country or city prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tropical storms, wildfires or tornadoes. So they don’t have the experience of watching parents of friends prepare themselves for the inevitable. They don’t know what to do, if it’s better to evacuate early, what they might need with them, or who to contact.

For any expats out there staring down the barrel of severe weather warnings, there have been plenty of others in the same boat that you find yourself in now (no pun intended).

PREPARING FOR NATURAL DISASTERS

Generator Safety Tips

Since I’m in San Francisco (and luckily) insulated from wild fires and yet to experience an earthquake that I actually noticed, I turned to the brainstrust. That is, the Australians in America Facebook group. Australians from all over the USA were happy to share their experiences, tips and expertise with me. So a big thank you to everyone who contributed.

This Expat’s Guide to Preparing for Natural Disasters is based on their input, as well as officially sanctioned preparedness planning suggestions from government agencies. It should go some small way to helping you feel as prepared as possible.

Take It Seriously

Weather warnings

Always heed weather or evacuation warnings as quickly as possible


No matter what the looming warnings are, take them seriously, Michelle warns. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and at times, listening to relatives back home isn’t the best idea. “It took me years to explain to my parents why the kids don’t play in the rain when we are under a tornado watch or warning,” Michelle said.

Government agencies and weather warning services have to be careful when sending out advisories, since the public has a short attention span and can get sick of waiting for a disaster to arrive and return to their homes. That’s according to Center for Advanced Public Safety director and senior research scientist Dr Laura Myers (read more on the psychology of safety warnings here). Dr Myers also warns that repeated warnings that don’t produce any weather abnormalities can also make people complacent.

Knowing that you’re predesposed to downplay the seriousness of a warning can help to avoid that behaviour, and make you more likely to weather the storm a little better.

Make a Plan Early

Don’t wait for the authorities to start organising you, especially if you have a family with young children. Sitting down and working out evacuation routes from your home in case of a fire should be common practice in every home. But when it comes to preparing for natural disasters, you’ll have to think outside the box a little. The best place to find resources and ideas is at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) disaster preparedness website. It includes details on putting together a family emergency plan, building a supply kit and the different types of emergencies you might encounter.

The video below describes six important things to know and prepare BEFORE a disaster. Part of it is creating a family plan.

View in FEMA Multimedia Library

Talk to your family about where they should go, do and how to reconnect with other family members if a disaster occurs. This could means practicing different escape routes from a house in case of fire, knowing the safest place to take shelter in the event of an earthquake, or a designated meeting zone in case flood or hurricanes separate you. Use these PDF templates to help create your plan.

Claudia was one of many to experience the might of Hurricane Irma in September 2017, as it tore through the Florida Keys. It was tied with three others to be the Atlantic Ocean’s strongest storm and prompted authorities to issue mandatory evacuations. Claudia said that while it was a scary experience, the main thing she took from it was “don’t panic and don’t leave everything till the last minute. We were not in an evacuation zone but if you are, go sooner rather than later. People were leaving it till the last minute and got stuck with no gas because everywhere was sold out”.

Breatte made sure her four-year-old child slept in a life vest while they were flooded into their home during Hurricane Harvey. They weren’t able to wade out of their home until two days later.

Evacuate As Soon As Possible

Evacuation Route sign

Some cities and towns have signposted evacuation routes for natural disasters. Follow them as much as possible.


Don’t hem and haw about whether you should evacuate. The odds are many others are doing the same thing and if you decide to leave at the last minute, you’ll be stuck in traffic, possibly without enough petrol to get you to a safe place. Travelling in a car when a years’ worth of rain cascades down is definitely one of the least safe places to be. Christine was also caught up in Hurricane Irma and was part of the evacuation process.

Roads become crazy quickly, make the move quickly after making [the decision to evacuate]. Since Irma we are always now ready,” Christine said. “We have one carry case that all important docs stay in. We are lucky to have a panic room, so even though we can’t use it for these situations, we can for the rest of the year keep all these important docs in a carry case…. Most importantly, material items can’t love you back, so keep yourself and family above all. Be prepared once back home for power to be out for days or even weeks. So I guess my best advice is act as if [a disaster] is coming to your area tomorrow and get prepared now. Remember it’s like insurance – you’ll never need it when you have it.”

If you are leaving, Maree recmomends putting a penny on top of an ice cube in your freezer. If the penny has sunk to the bottom of that ice cube when you return, you’ll know that your house lost power and the food in your freezer is most likely spoiled.

Stock up on Food and Water

Supermarket shelves with non-perishable food

Stock up on the staples and non-perishable food as early as possible


As Christine pointed out, don’t just think about the actual natural disaster, but also plan for the days and weeks that follow it. You might be without electricity, petrol for your car and clean running water for days or weeks afterwards. Don’t be caught without the essentials to keep you and your family safe. Zena, her husband and four children went through Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. The storm devestated a swathe of land between Houston, Texas and Lousiana, leaving many homes and businesses underwater for weeks, and killing 39 people.

Zena found it was the things that seemed “little” before the hurricane, that really helped maintain a sense of calm in its aftermath. “Being stocked up on water and groceries helps maintain normalcy in the house,” she said.

Fill your bathtub and sinks with water before so that you’ll have fresh water in case the supply is cut off, and freeze bottled water beforehand in case the power is cut and you need ice to keep perishable food fresh.

Have a Emergency Preparedness Kit

Emergency First Aid kit

Your emergency kit should include First Aid items, but there are also lots of other things to take with you


Building a supply kit to tide you over for 72 hours isn’t too difficult or expensive, and it can prove to be lifesaving to have in an emergency. Colette moved to South Mississippi a few years after Hurricane Katrina. The news of that disaster was enough to make Colette make sure she’s prepared for a similar event. “So far we’ve been pretty lucky. We tend to take every storm pretty seriously. We have a Hurricane preparedness kit with food, water, candles, flashlights, trash bags., important documents ready to go etc.,” Colette said. “Also having pets and kids, gotta be even more prepared especially with one of our pets requiring a constant heat source.”

What you should put in a survival kit:

  • A gallon (3.8 litres) of water for each person per day (three days)
  • A three day supply of non-perishable food and a can opener
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio
  • Flashlight (torch)
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Whistle to call for help
  • Dust mask to filter the air or plastic sheeting and duct tape
  • Garbage bags and moist towelettes
  • Basic tools like hammer, wrench and pliers
  • Local maps
  • Phone chargers or back up batteries

Take this survival kit into consideration if you have pets, young children, or are caring for an elderly relative. You should also have an emergency kit in your car, including items like jumper cables, sand or kitty litter for traction, a jerry can (gas can), and an ice scraper.

Stashing Important Goods

There are some things that you won’t have room for or can’t carry. If they’re that important, store them in garbage bags and stash them in your (closed) dishwasher. This will help them remain undamaged by water from floods. You should take insurance policies, birth certificates, passports, rental agreements or mortgage documents with you when you evacuate. But if you have a lot of other important documents, consider buying a fire and waterproof box, or leaving them in a safe deposit box. Keep your electronic documents on a password-protected USB drive or external hard drive, or on the cloud.

Consider whether you want to leave these items in a basement, or move them to a place that’s less likely to be flooded, depending on where you live. Those in earthquake-prone areas should be securing appropriate furniture to walls.

Driving Tips

Cars driving through snowy weather

Make sure your car or evacuation vehicle is ready to drive through bad weather safely


When you’re busy packing your car and trying to secure everything left in your house, it can be easy to forget about checking over the vehicle you’ll use to evacuate. Ready.gov has a few tips for making sure your evacuation trip is as safe as it can be:

  • Make sure your petrol tank is as full as possible
  • Keep your tyres in good condition and replace them when necessary
  • Check your winter tyres regularly
  • Never drive through flooded water – just six inches of flood water can make you lose control of your car.
  • Some flood-damaged roads and bridges may have been weakened by the disaster even after water has receded
  • Watch for fallen power lines
  • Avoid overpasses, bridges, powerlines, signs and other hazards

As a rule of thumb, stay alert to your surroundings wheverever you are, as high winds, fire, or floods will change the safety of them.

Have Cash on Hand

American Dollars in hand

It’s always a good idea to have some cash with you


Sarah experienced a typhoon in Guam, that was slated to be a category 4, but ended up hitting as between a category 1-2. Her biggest tip is to make sure you have cash on you, because a power outage will mean no ATM service and no EFTPOS available at shops where you’ll need to stock up on essentials like food and water.

Pay Attention to Warning Sirens

Some cities and towns that are more likely to be hit by storms or tornadoes should pay attention to warning sirens. Anne has lived through some winter storms and tornadoes, but before that, she thought that the storm siren was just a “bell system for the school near our house”. She quickly learned that they are usually tested monthly, so it’s a good idea to find out the usual date and time for tests so you don’t confuse a trial run with an emergency.

Get Information

Emergency Alert for Tornado

The wireless emergency alert system will let you know life-saving information as quickly as possible. They can be issued by the National Weather Service, state and local public safety officials, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children or the US President. Find out which local and state authorities are able to issue emergency alerts in your state here. You don’t need to sign up for these alerts, they are sent to mobile phones automatically, however you should check with your phone service provider that your handset is capable of receiving these alerts.

How to Stay Safe During an Earthquake

Living in California myself, I’m interested in how to stay safe during an earthquake, and I’m pretty sure that Googling that phrase when the ground starts to shake is not a good idea. Earthquakes can happen anywhere, but there are higher risk states which include Calilfornia, Hawaii, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington. If you’re in any of those states it might be wise to read up on what you should do before, during and after an earthquake.

Earthquake damaged buildings and rubble

What to do Before an Earthquake

As mentioned above, it pays to be prepared before an earthquake hits. If you have children or a young family, it’s a good idea to go through the “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” drill (which we’ll go into a little later), as they are more likely to panic in the event of an earthquake.

If you’re buying furniture in any of the states that are at higher risk of earthquakes, you’ll notice that they come with anchors. These anchors allow you to secure heavy furniture such as bookcases, chests of drawers, televisions and even refrigerators to the walls of your home for extra safety during an earthquake. Do not skip this step when putting together and installing your furniture. I know that it’s a long process and can get annoying when you just want to be all moved in and set up. But it’s better to have everything anchored properly than have a loaded chest of drawers fall on someone.

Look into your storage situation with a critical eye. Make sure your heavy or breakable objects are stored on the lowest shelves you have, so that they have a shorter distance to fall and are less likely to break in the event that they are thrown from their spot.

Earthquake damage to a kitchen. Rubble and fallen wall

As mentioned above, you always want to have a family emergency plan ready, in case an earthquake occurs while you’re at work, or your children are at daycare. Where will you meet in the event that your home is damanged and you’re not allowed back there.

Don’t forget to have a supply kit ready, similar to the one mentioned above. You can also purchase specialised “earthquake emergency kits” if you don’t want to go to the trouble of putting one together yourself. It should include enough food and water for at least three days, a flashlight, fire extinguisher, and a whistle. Think about medicine, batteries, charging for phones and radios as well, when putting your kit together.

Think about getting earthquake insurance. I hesitantly add this to the list because I have looked into earthquake insurance quite a few times and it just doesn’t seem to be worth the amount of money you’ll spend on the policy, to be completely honest. Deductables are high and so are premiums. But it’s good to know that your standard homeowner’s or renter’s insurance will not cover damage caused by an earthquake, so if you have valuables that you can’t afford to replace yourself, or you own your own home, an earthquake insurance policy might be right for you.

Before or after buying your home, get it inspected for earthquake readiness and make any suggested adjustments to help ensure it will survive an earthquake.

What to do During an Earthquake

The ground could start shaking at any time – while you’re asleep, while you’re driving, at work or daycare, or when you’re at home relaxing. Earthquakes can cause buildings to collapse, depending on the severity and the soundness of the structure, so it’s good to be clear on the safest places to be when an earthquare occurs. They can also cause fires and damage to roads, tsunamis, landslides and even avalanches. So that even if you’re half asleep, you’ll know where to go if an earthquake hits.

In your car

cracks in asphalt of a road

The best thing to do if you feel an earthquake starting while you’re driving is to slow down until it is safe to pull over and stop. Don’t forget to set your handbrake. If you can, avoid parking near large trees, overpasses, powerlines, bridges, or buildings. It sounds so much easier said than done. I guess you just hope that you are driving on a deserted country road when an earthquake hits. Take the first exit if you are on a freeway, and stop in a safe place.

Stay in your car with your seatbelt on until the earthquake is over. Keep your radio on for emergency broadcasting during and after an earthquake. Don’t forget that earthquakes often bring aftershocks, so try to get to a safe place as soon as possible after the earthquake is over.

Keep your eyes peeled for the road cracking open near you, distracted drivers, stopped cars, broken gas lines or downed power lines, and collapsing structures around you.

In your bed

If the earthquake has disturbed your slumber, experts say that it’s safest to just stay there. Lie face down and cover your head and neck with a pillow. The only time you should move from your bed is if there is a heavy light fixture above you that might fall on you.

In your Home or Workplace – Drop, Cover, and Roll

Get to a sturdy table or desk, and dro to your knees, cover your head and neck with your arms and crawl under the table until the earthquake is over. If you’re not close to a sturdy table, find your closest interior wall and crouch there. If the earthquake is a significant one, you may need to hold onto a heavy piece of furniture to anchor yourself. Stay away from windows and do not stand in a doorway.

DO NOT try to get outside – most injuries occur when people try to get outside while an earthquake is occuring.

If you’re Outside

Having said that, if you’re already outside when the tremors begin, you should definitely stay there. Try to stay away from buildings, trees and power lines and be aware of your surroundings.

What to do After an Earthquake

The temptation is to yell to see if everyone is alright, or for assistance if you are trapped amongst debris. But the Federal Government’s earthquake readiness bureau advises against this, as you will inhale dangerous amounts of dust and other fibres that were disturbed during the earthquake. Instead it is best to tap on a wall or pipe that is close to you, blow a whistle, or send a text message to attract the attention of family members or rescuers. Cover your mouth, nose and eyes from the dust.

Do not use elavators when stairways are available. The possibility of being trapped in an elavator during an aftershock is a dangerous one, and you could be trapped in the elavator if the power goes out.

If the building you are in suffered damage from the tremors, move outside as quickly as possible in case it collapses or water/gas lines are damaged. Check the water, gas and electricity lines for damage, and sniff for gas. If you smell gas, open all the windows and doors, leave the building and call emergency services.

Turn on the radio and listen for emergency updates for shelters that you can go to if your home is damaged. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes and look out for broken glass and debris if you are moving to a shelter. Stay away from beaches, as there is a risk that tsunamis can follow earthquakes.

If you have a chimney, and fireplace stay away from it as it may fall in on you. Always expect aftershocks.

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