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Disasters and Your Family: Be Prepared

Disasters and Your Family: Why to Be Prepared Disasters and Your Family: Why to Be Prepared

​​​​​By: Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP & Scott Needle, MD, FAAP

It's the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That was a disaster that none of us will ever forget; the images of people stranded on rooftops and huddled in the Superdome are in our memories forever.

It was an extraordinary disaster, so extraordinary that it's easy to think: "Nothing like that will ever happen to my family." But the truth is that disasters do happen. We are in the midst of hurricane season now. There are wildfires blazing in California. There have been tornados and floods in the Midwest. Last winter brought record snowfall to many areas of the country.

Anything can happen!

Nobody likes to think about a disaster happening—but thinking about it is exactly what we need to do. Preparation makes all the difference; it can literally save lives.

Disasters and COVID-19

Just like all of us could be at risk of catching COVID-19, we could all be at risk for some kind of disaster. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to reduce the danger from both of these.

Allow extra time to prepare. COVID-19 may make affect your ability to get supplies if a disaster strikes. You may want to get toilet paper, masks or cloth face coverings​, hand sanitizer, and wipes now, rather than waiting for later.

Keep preventing the spread. Even during a disaster, take steps to ​​protect yourself from COVID-19. If you have to travel or go to a shelter, try to keep at least 6 feet apart from people not in your family. Remember to wear face coverings over your mouth and nose when near other people. Most children over 2 years old also can wear masks safely. Avoid touching your face, and remember to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands. Remind children to do the same.

Children and families can prepare together. Disasters can be scary, but being ready is one way to be less afraid!

Make a Plan, Build a Kit, Be Informed Graph 

Here are some simple and important things you can do with your family:

Talk to your children about disasters that might happen—and what they should do.

  • Know where to get reliable news and information about weather and disasters. Arrange a few different ways to receive alerts, such as texts.

  • Teach children the basics about what to do in a fire, such as getting low to avoid smoke or feeling doorknobs for heat before opening them. Have a fire escape plan.

  • If you live in an area affected by hurricanes​, tornadoes, wildfires or earthquakes, talk with children about how to recognize the signs and where they should go.

  • Make sure children know how to call 911 and can give their name and address. Even very young children can learn this.

  • Decide on a person (preferably not a local person who might be affected by the same disaster) that everyone can contact if you are separated.

  • Have a meeting place outside the house where family members can go if you are separated and can't reach each other.

  • Practice! That is the best way to be sure the information sticks. Have fire drills and drills for other possible disasters where you live. If you have young children, try making it a game—they will be less scared and more willing to practice regularly.

  • Plan for where you would go if you had to evacuate. Some local shelters may have changed because of COVID-19. If you have pets, make sure the place you are going will accept them.

  • If you plan to purchase a generator for extended power outages after disasters, be sure to learn about steps to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Put together a family disaster kit

Having basic supplies is key if there is a disaster. In the heat of the moment, though, you may not have the time, or presence of mind, to gather them. So, do it ahead of time. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have great information on items to pack, but here are some ideas to get you started:

  • A first-aid kit

  • Water (2 gallons per day per person)

  • Flashlights, batteries, chargers

  • A battery-operated radio

  • Non-perishable foods, such as canned foods (include a can opener), granola bars and peanut butter

  • Cups and utensils (you can pick up some inexpensive camping kits)

  • Spare clothes, and a blanket or two

  • Toys or games

  • Supplies for pets

  • Medications—if you can, try to stay ahead of your refills and keep one in the disaster kit. At the very least, take a picture of the bottle so that you know exactly what you take.

    • Tip: It's not always possible to keep things like current medications stored away, so make a checklist of everything you might need to grab quickly. You can tape the list to the top of the container, which should be a manageable size (you may need a couple of them) and in a readily accessible place in your house.

  • Extra supplies to include during the COVID-19 pandemic

    • hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, bar or liquid soap

    • disinfectant wipes (if available)

    • Two masks for each person over age 2​

Involve your children in planning and packing—you can make it a game by doing a scavenger hunt. Remember to check expiration dates and have kids help with remembering and doing that, too. The more you make it something regular and ordinary, the better.

Hopefully, your emergency preparations will never be more than a game. But should a disaster ever hit, they will be the most important game your family ever played.

More information

About Dr. McCarthy:

Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications, and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She writes about health and parenting for the Harvard Health Blog, Huffington Post and many other online and print publications. ​​

About Dr. Needle

Scott Needle, MD, FAAP, is a ​primary care pediatrician who is the chief medical officer for Elica Health Centers in Sacramento, California. He served as the former chairperson for the federal National Advisory Committee for Children and Disasters, and is currently a member of the executive committee of the AAP Council on Children and Disasters. Dr Needle has produced numerous AAP handouts and educational presentations and is the lead author for the AAP policy, Ensuring the Health of Children in Disasters.

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics AAP Council on Children and Disasters (Copyright © 2020)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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