Every year, millions of families will face devastating hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters. California will continue to burn, for example, its wildfires fed by a warming climate and strong winds, the flames nearly wiping out entire communities.
But even though we know natural disasters are inevitable, it’s easy to think that kind of thing will never happen to us. A 2015 Federal Emergency Management Agency survey found that only 39 percent of Americans had developed an emergency plan and discussed it with their household.
Natural disasters, meanwhile, are getting bigger and more frequent. This year, as of Oct. 8, there were 10 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported. This is the fifth consecutive year in which there were 10 or more billion-dollar disasters in the United States — a record, according to Adam Smith, a climatologist at NOAA.
[Learn how to keep kids safe during a heat wave.]
“It is likely that 2019 will have had nearly twice the number of billion-dollar disasters than the country had in an average year over the last 40 years,” Mr. Smith said.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time, in part because of climate change, he added, which has made certain areas more vulnerable to drought, lengthened wildfire seasons in the Western states and increased the potential for extremely heavy rainfall in the Eastern states.
Here are some tips on how families can stay safe and formulate a plan before disaster strikes.
Since September 2010, counties housing 97 percent of the people in the United States were affected by federally declared weather-related disasters, according to a 2016 report from the Environment America Research and Policy Center. The report also found that in 32 states, every county had at least one weather-related disaster.
If you aren’t aware of the specific risks to your hometown, like the potential for flood or fire, do a little research to find out what events have happened in the past and which are likely to occur again. Two good places to start are the NOAA map that illustrates billion-dollar weather and climate events throughout the country and the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood map, where you can enter your address to find out if you live in an area at risk of flooding.
“The Southern, central and southeastern states experience a higher frequency of costly, extreme weather events than other regions of the United States,” Mr. Smith said.
Finally, sign up for local text alerts, which will deliver warnings straight to your phone.
Jennifer Fiechtner,a senior partner at Innovations in Early Childhood Education who has studied the effect of natural disasters on children’s well-being and social development, found herself without an evacuation plan when a magnitude-7 earthquake rocked her home in Anchorage. The house was O.K., but the experience changed the way she thought about her family’s preparedness.
“It did make us think a lot about the specific natural disasters that are higher-risk where we live,” said Ms. Fiechtner, a mother of three whose family now lives in Fairfax County, Va. “So when we moved to our new house, we did talk with our children about if we need to get out of the house, here are the exits in the house, here’s where we’ll meet as a family, here’s the neighbor’s house we’ll go to if we need to go to a neighbor’s house, here are numbers for our friends in the area that we can contact if we need a wider network.”
Around age 4, it’s developmentally appropriate for children to start asking questions about scary things that might happen. So once children are around 3 or 4, she said, it’s important to start talking to them about where to go if they are forced to leave your home, which can help ease their anxieties.
“Maybe walk them from your house across to your neighbor’s house or walk them to the spot where you want them to be,” she said. “Having that plan with your child about where is the place that I’m going to look for you. ‘You go to this spot and you stay there and I will come find you there,’ so the child is not trying to find you, you are going to them.”
It’s also important to carry a physical list of phone numbers for family and friends lest your phone’s battery drain and you lose access to your contacts.
CalFire, the Department of Homeland Security, the American Red Cross and the Office of the Administration for Children and Families all have resources available for families on how to prepare for different types of disasters.
When packing an emergency kit, sometimes it’s easy to overlook items that can keep children entertained, like a favorite story or a coloring book.
“We can’t pack the whole house, but what can we put in a bag that would ease the transition to a new place?” said Rebecca Parlakian, thesenior director for parenting programs at Zero to Three, a nonprofit research and training organization for early childhood development in Washington.
Children grow quickly and their preferences can change daily, especially when they are very young, so some families might find it difficult — not to mention expensive — to continually set aside extra clothing or diapers in the right size, much less a duplicate of your child’s latest favorite comfort item.
In those cases, you can pack basics for your child like extra blankets, socks and underwear, and make a short list of things on an index card that you can reference if you need to leave quickly, Ms. Parlakian said.
It can also be helpful to have a small emergency kit in your car that includes water and high-calorie snacks for your children along with typical items like blankets and jumper cables.
Providing familiar items, sticking to routines as much as possible and offering diversions can go a long way toward giving children a sense of normalcy during an emergency.
Young children have a limited ability to regulate their emotions, which is why it’s especially important for parents to reassure them, Ms. Parlakian said.
During an evacuation, she recommended whittling down the information that your children are ready to receive developmentally.
For example, she said, you could say, “There’s something happening in our community that makes it not safe for us to be here, so we’re going to sleep in another place for tonight.”
For children 3 and older, mentally prepare them for what that space might be like to help them transition to the new environment, and try to stay as calm as possible.
“Children really respond to the emotional tenor of their parents,” Ms. Fiechtner said. “It’s not about stuffing all your emotions down, but if you can kind of dig deep and find space of calm, then you can mirror that for your children.”
For disasters that can drag on, like floods and fires, attending to your own self-care is especially important.
“All of the things that a parent does to help themselves be O.K. really benefit children,” Ms. Fiechtner said. “You are taking are of everyone by taking care of yourself.”