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What to do in an emergency

  • Story Highlights
  • You can prepare for some natural disasters
  • Have a designated safe safe shelter in case of a tornado
  • Hurricane watch -- gas-up car, pack important documents, head inland
  • Earthquake areas-- firmly secure anything that could fall and hit you
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Real Simple

(Real Simple) -- In addition to the general guidelines you should follow, each natural disaster calls for its own specific preparations. Here are a few steps to consider, depending upon the event.


The most important aspect of preparing for a tornado is having a designated safe shelter.

Basements, storm cellars, and inner rooms without windows (such as bathrooms, closets, and hallways on the first floor) are the safest places to be. Go there quickly: "The average time from tornado warning to touchdown is 13 minutes," says psychiatrist Joseph Napoli, M.D., chairperson of the New Jersey Psychiatric Association's Disaster Preparedness Committee.

Napoli notes that mobile homes are particularly vulnerable to tornadoes. "As soon as a warning goes into effect, if you're in a mobile home or outside, take shelter in a more secure building or, at the very least, lie flat in a ditch away from the home and cover your head."


To protect windows, permanent shutters are the most effective, but half-inch marine plywood is a solid second choice, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Precut the panels to fit the windows, then drill holes every 18 inches for screws. Clearly mark which panel matches which window.

Map out at least one or, ideally, two evacuation routes for heading inland, in the event that you need to leave your home. (Your local Red Cross chapter or emergency-management office should be able to help.)

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Make sure you have flood insurance, as regular homeowner policies typically don't cover this. And be aware that insurance usually takes 30 days to go into effect after buying a policy.

When a hurricane watch (the step prior to a warning) is issued, fill your car's gas tank, bring lawn furniture inside, and store important documents and any valuables you can't take work. with you in a waterproof container on the highest level of your house. In a pinch, a cooler sealed with duct tape will work. Real Simple: Grab and go emergency kit


Minimize damage to you and your house by securing anything that could fall on top of you. Have your home's foundation inspected to ensure that it is solid. Fasten shelves and bookcases to wall studs; brace chandeliers and other lighting fixtures against the structural supports in the ceiling.

Hang heavy mirrors and paintings over fireplaces or empty spaces, not over couches or other places people sit, and set heavy vases and other breakables on lower shelves.

When an earthquake does hit, stay where you are, either indoors or outdoors, to avoid falling debris. Indoors, take shelter under a desk or some other piece of heavy furniture. Outside, find the most open space possible, away from buildings, street lights, and telephone poles.

Responding to household emergencies

A few steps to take in the case of a...

Gas leak

If you smell a rotten-egg odor, "don't turn any switches on or off or light anything," says Bob Kordulak, a retired contractor in Belmar, New Jersey, and a code secretary for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors National Association.

Kordulak also doesn't recommend turning off the main source yourself. "Just get out and call the utility company immediately. A professional can get there quickly and assess the situation," he says. Real Simple: Prepare for an emergency

Power outage

If your house has circuit breakers (the alternative to a fuse, distinguished by an on-off switch), the switch is probably set between the on and off positions. To restore power, turn it all the way off and then back on, rather than switching directly to the on position.

If you happen to own a generator, it should be plugged directly into the equipment, not the house, as it can negatively affect the flow of electricity.

While the electricity is off, turn off major appliances to prevent damage when power is restored. The exception: the refrigerator and freezer, whose doors should stay closed as much as possible. If the outage lasts more than two hours, pack a cooler with ice to store dairy products, meat, and leftovers.

Once the power comes back on, if frozen foods still have ice crystals on them, they can be refrozen; if anything in the refrigerator or freezer is above 40 degrees, though, toss it. And contrary to popular belief, it's perfectly fine to flush toilets during a power outage, says Kordulak. "That shouldn't make a difference one way or another, as it has nothing to do with the power," he says.

Frozen pipes

If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. If upon further inspection, you notice that the pipe has frozen but hasn't ruptured (you should be able to see a small line down the middle where it has expanded and cracked, says Kordulak), thaw it slowly to avoid structural damage when the water reliquefies. Turn on the faucet and position a hair dryer, a heating pad, or hot towels closest to the point where water is still flowing.

Small house fire

If you need to extinguish a small household fire, try to stand in a spot where the fire -- no matter how small -- is not between you and an escape route, in case the fire rapidly expands, blocking your exit.

When using a fire extinguisher, sweep the nozzle from side to side at the base of the flames until the fire appears to be out.

Always underestimate your ability to extinguish it, though: "The biggest mistake people make is trying to put the fire out themselves and, in doing so, delaying a call to 911," says Chris Reynolds, a fire chief and professor of public-sector and critical-infrastructure studies at the American Military University, in Charles Town, West Virginia. "Those few lost minutes can be significant." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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