Record-breaking 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season reminds us that preparedness is the first step in disaster recovery

This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a busy hurricane season with 13-19 named storms, 6-10 hurricanes, and 3-6 major hurricanes. In the first three months of the season, we have already seen this prediction start to play out; it is unusual to have so many named storms by this point. And we are headed for the peak of hurricane season approaching in September to November, as the summer months close out.

Thus far, we have had 13 named storms and 2 have evolved into hurricanes. On average, only 5 named storms normally occur by the end of August. This year has actually set a new record having 9 recorded storms before July 30, which is the most that has ever been recorded since we began using satellites in 1966. And as of the end of August, Houston is keeping its eye on two tropical depressions in the Gulf.

Having knowledge of weather patterns is one good way to stay safe from hurricanes, however Benjamin Franklin said “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” When your home is in the disaster path and rain is at your doorstep, it’s best to be ready in advance.

Here are a few reminders about disaster preparedness, and several pointers that we have learned along the way from our experiences with survivors and other advocates in this fight.

  1. Disaster Preparedness is Disaster Recovery
    1. Take pictures of valuables
      Knowing what items are in your home helps document your property loss when FEMA or insurance company inspectors come around. Inspectors will account for your “real property,” which is your home and land, as well as your “personal property,” which refers to any material belongings such as electronics, clothing, home appliances, and cars. Take pictures of your valuables so there is no disputing what was lost in the storm.
    2. Build the go-pack
      An evacuation can happen at a moment’s notice. Having a suitcase or bag ready to go during an emergency is one of the best ways to prepare. Some items you may include in your go-pack are a flashlight, batteries, food, water, medications, a local map and a phone charger. With COVID-19, it is important to also pack some masks and hand sanitizer. Here are the details of what the American Red Cross suggests should be in your emergency preparedness kit. They recommend you should pack supplies for 3 days. Gathering special supplies for specific needs is important too. Everyone in the house should know where it is stored and who is responsible for getting it in case of evacuation.
    3. Secure important documents
      Filing for government assistance requires documentation of all types. Secure copies of important personal documents like birth certificates, house title, bank statements and tax information. Be sure to keep originals or copies of documents together and in a secure, dry location and take them with you if you need to evacuate. It is a good idea to put them in a ziplock bag to keep them dry.
    4. Know your evacuation plan
      When things get bad, the best plan is evacuation. However, it is important to know which way you are going. Knowing the risk level of your neighborhood, evacuation routes, and where shelters are located in the city will cut down decision making time or setbacks from detours. Practice drills with your family. Your recovery process is likely to be smoother the more prepared you are.
    5. Protect your property
      There are many ways to protect your home before a disaster. First, reviewing or purchasing home and flood insurance can benefit you in the long run. Most homeowner and renter insurance policies do not cover flood damage, and a flood insurance policy generally does not take effect until 30 days after purchase and is not sold while there is a storm in progress. If you hear the possibility of a storm coming, take a walk in the neighborhood and identify hazards that may affect flooding in the area. Declutter drains and gutters to help stormwater flow into sewer systems. Consider shuttering your windows or placing water barriers as needed.
  2. Communication is key
    1. Watch the news
      The news outlets will be tracking the storms, especially if your city is in a dangerous zone. Be aware of which neighborhoods are being asked to evacuate and who is being asked to stay put. Many times, evacuation strategies are area-specific to avoid congestion for the evacuees. Signing up for your community’s emergency warning system is a good way to receive important emergency notifications.
    2. Talk to your neighbors
      Information sharing is important, especially in your neighborhood. Knowing what your neighbors are doing and what information they’ve heard from other friends and news outlets can help your family make informed evacuation decisions.
    3. Call if you aren’t sure
      Your city’s service line should have answers regarding evacuation and shelter response. Calling 211 or 311 can inform you of shelter locations and evacuation orders.
  3. Be involved in your community plan
    1. Have a neighborhood disaster recovery plan
      It is a good idea to get to know your neighbors and a better one to make a neighborhood evaluation plan. Neighborhoods are composed of all types of households, and each home comes with different needs. By communicating with your neighbors, the neighborhood can identify vulnerable households who may need extra help during an emergency. The elderly and people with disabilities have particular needs, and mothers with young children have others. If we begin our disaster preparedness and response at a neighborhood level, there is a better chance of recovery.
    2. Know what public, nonprofit, and private entities are first responders and disaster recovery specialists
      During a disaster, there are many agencies that take on new roles during a disaster, like local Public Works departments. There are also nonprofits and other first responders who mobilize during disasters, like the American Red Cross. Familiarizing yourself with the entities that are in your community and how they assist families and neighborhoods will help you coordinate the help your community needs.
    3. Inform the necessary agencies
      We are the experts of our lives and our neighborhood. Informing the correct government officials and departments of our needs and neighborhood deficiencies before, as well as after a disaster may open up opportunities for resilience and improvement planning or a commitment of assistance. Just like knowing who does the work, it’s important to know how to communicate with them. Having a list of agencies with a point of contact, phone numbers and/or emails can assist you in your response and recovery.
    4. Understand how you can get help after a disaster
      The disaster recovery apparatus is crucial to most people’s recovery after major events like hurricanes. There is normally an immediate, short-term, and long-term recovery response in the United States. Understanding which entities respond after a disaster, like FEMA, and being prepared for this assistance can jumpstart your access to these entities. 
  4. Begin your recovery immediately
    1. Take pictures of your home before you start cleaning up
      We heard from many hurricane survivors that inspectors documented no loss because the residents had already cleaned up their home. It can take inspectors weeks to months to come out to evaluate the property damage. Take pictures of your property as soon as you return so you can document the conditions in which you found your belongings after the storm, including but not limited to personal property loss, water levels in the home, and damages to the house.
    2. Document everything
      Buy a notebook and write down everything you do for your recovery. Write down dates, names and phone numbers of people you speak to, who they are with, and what they are promising to do. Documenting when things take place, or do not take place, will help you with any claims filed to insurance or government agencies.
    3. Check on your neighbors
      Organizing a post-storm check-in should be worked in as part of your neighborhood disaster recovery plan. Just as the neighborhood identified vulnerable households for evacuation, taking stock of which neighbors have returned, where the other neighbors are, what damages look like throughout the neighborhood, and what repairs are needed to homes and community areas can better inform your neighborhood of the structural deficiencies, like inadequate city drainage, and other community needs.
    4. Muck & Gut as quick as possible
      One of the biggest issues in storm-devastated houses is mold. Leaving sopping insulation and sheetrock will not only continue to ruin the material that was not in the flood waters, but it will grow mold. The faster you cut out the wet material, the less damage you might have in your house. The less damage you have, the easier it will be to replace it. Just remember to document damage before you start any work.
  5. Take Action
    1. Call FEMA and apply for assistance
      If the President declares a disaster, FEMA will begin their work and offer assistance. Apply. Make sure to show them the documentation of damages. It is possible for FEMA to give you a Verified Loss amount of $0 even though you were flooded. If you do not think you received the adequate assistance for your property loss, appeal.
    2. Utilize the other funding sources for disaster recovery
      There is more to disaster funding after FEMA. The government utilizes different methods to distribute funds to the public after the President declares a disaster. Some of these funds go through non-profit organizations to directly assist survivors. Other funds establish programs run by government agencies to replenish housing stock and make infrastructure repairs. The most prominent funding source is the Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery funds that are appropriated for that specific disaster.
    3. Participate in public commentary for government action
      Community engagement in government is essential to proper government execution. As experts of our neighborhoods and lives, the government should be looking to us for input and recommendations. Take part in town halls. Attend focus groups. Submit commentary and suggestions about the government’s published documents. Speak at city council meetings or commissioners’ court. The comment period for the 2019 Imelda disaster funding ends Thursday, August 27
    4. Urge politicians to get resources to affected families immediately
      Contact your mayor, city councilmember, county commissioner, state representative, or senator. Tell them that resources are necessary to assist people in the recovery process. Let them know that our disaster recovery apparatus is not currently serving the most vulnerable populations. Ask that new disaster recovery solutions be explored and implemented. Demand a just recovery system!

Six hurricanes have hit the Texas coast in the last two decades: Allison, Rita, Erin, Dolly, Ike, and Harvey. Hurricane Harvey, DR-4332, was the most catastrophic storm the city of Houston has seen, and the second costliest hurricane in USA history behind Hurricane Katrina.

By preparing for a disaster, you are propelling your recovery process by leaps and bounds. With these tips, hopefully you and your loved ones can be that much safer and quicker to get back on your feet should a disaster occur.

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