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By Elaine Schieder

Special to CSMS Magazine

If you think that you’ll never be hit by a natural disaster, you’re not alone. That’s what people in New Orleans thought before Hurricane Katrina. The reality is there’s hardly a home in the country that is truly safe from some type of disaster, ranging from major catastrophes, such a major flood, to relatively minor emergencies, such as electrical blackouts and freak snow storms.

But the good news is commonsense precautions go a long way in avoiding loss of property and life. Though the list of precautions might seem long, they can be taken over a period of weeks or months. And once you have the measures in place, there’s little left to do expect cope with the next disaster with greater peace of mind.

Emergency provisions

Think of weathering a disaster as little like camping out in your own home, where electricity and water have cut off. Store in a closet or other convenient location…

  • Food that can be eaten with little or no preparation, such as peanut butter, whole-grain crackers, baby food, powered milk and cold cereal.
  • Several gallons of water, which you can buy in bottles at the supermarket.
  • Food and water for a pet if you have one.
  • A first-aid kit that contains not just the standard items such as bandages and iodine—but also scissors, needles and thread and several days’ supply of whatever medication you’re currently taking. Kits can be bought from the Red Cross, camping-supply shops and most drugstores.
  • Flashlights with batteries stored separately so they’ll stay fresh.
  • Cash. If electricity goes out, banks and Automatic Teller machines will not be working.
  • An extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses
  • A ladder and basic tools, including a crowbar, screwdriver, saw and hammer. Keep a full or nearly full tank of gas in your car. The last experience you want is seeing an empty gas gauge while you’re racing to escape rising flood waters. (Don’t store gasoline outside your car’s tank.)

Document defense

Since disasters of ten destroy homes and their contents, store copies of important documents and vital information with a trusted friend. Example…

  • A copy of your insurance policy and the phone number of your agent.
  • Your attorney’s name and number.
  • A list of health problems, medication and your doctor’s number.
  • The location of your safe-deposit box and an extra key.
  • Banking information, such as Certificates of Deposit and checking account numbers. As a rule, choose an out-of –town friend to hold items since a neighbor’s house may just be as vulnerable as yours.

Disaster training

First-aid training does more than let you help the injured. It also builds up a sense of confidence that can be vital in getting you through a disaster. The Red-Cross, YMCAs, YWCAs, community centers and many hospitals offer courses in first aid. Courses in preventing and surviving fires are offered by most fire departments. But even if you don’t take a course, make your own plan to evacuate in case of fire, Key elements of the plan….

  • Install smoke alarms and/or sprinklers.  (Insurance companies often lower their rates on homes with sprinklers.)
  • Store towels, water and a rope ladder under your bed. In case of fire, you can often buy lots of escape time by soaking towels in water and stuffing them under doors to block incoming smoke.
  • Keep fire extinguishers inappropriate places around the house.
  • Sleep with doors closed.
  • Plan an evacuation procedure, and practice it periodically, just as you’d go through a fire drill. Beware of items that can become hazardous in a disaster…
  • Difficult-to-see-power lines that have fallen or are dangling.
  • Water pipes, electricity lines and gas mains in your home. Ask utility companies to show you how to shut them off. That’s what to do if water is leaking, you smell gas if you suspect an electrical problem after a disaster.

Neighborhood Teams

Organize a neighborhood disaster committee whose members can come to each other’s aid in the event of an emergency. Working as a team, neighbors can often save a home if, for example, the owners are away and a gas main has ruptured. Many residents have skills or equipment that can be invaluable in a disaster. Examples: Doctors, carpenters, plumbers or neighbors with generators or cellular phones.

Also, a system that lets homeowners signal their post disaster status to the rest of the neighborhood is the key to preventing a ripple effect. Pin large white, yellow or red ribbons to your door or other conspicuous location. White means all is okay. Yellow indicates residents are fine but need some assistance. Red signals an emergency and immediate need for help.

The right insurance

Few events are more disheartening than surviving a disaster only to discover that insurance won’t cover your property loss. To avoid the problem…

  • Buy a homeowner’s policy that covers the replacement of your home and contents. Many policies cover only the current value. That means if a Regency chair is destroyed in a fire, insurance pays only the current value of a chair, not the replacement.
  • Choose an insurance policy that pays your living expenses for an adequate period of time for putting your house back in living condition.
  • To document the value of your home and its contents, keep all receipts for items you buy. Then photograph or videotape your possessions, or consider hiring a professional appraiser to put a price on items for which you don’t have receipts.

Note: Elaine Schieder is a coach in suburban Chicago. She wrote this piece for CSMS Magazine.  

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