Q&A: Emergency Preparedness for Homeowners

HouseLogic talks to Red Cross disaster response expert Court Ogilvie about emergency preparedness for homeowners.

Emergency preparedness starts at home. Because disasters, from floods and fires to hurricanes and tornadoes, can strike without warning, it’s critical to have a disaster response plan in place almost from the moment you buy a house.

“I really can’t overstate the importance of thinking things through,” says Court Ogilvie, chief of staff to the senior VP of disaster services at the American Red Cross. “Simply put, the biggest tool we have in our disaster toolkit is our brains.”

Homeowners should devote an hour to a family meeting about emergency preparedness. Discuss evacuation and communication in the event of disaster, and take action to assemble an emergency kit. You can make your own kit or purchase a pre-made emergency kit. It’s a wise investment of time and money.

“Recent studies suggest that every dollar invested in preparedness nets a post-event return of $4 to $7,” says Ogilvie. “With homes being the biggest investment that many of us will ever make, disaster preparedness needs to be considered as another way to protect that investment.”

Here’s what else Ogilvie had to say about emergency preparedness for homeowners.

HouseLogic: When it comes to disaster preparedness, what’s the last thing homeowners think about that should, in reality, be the first thing they think about?
Court Ogilvie: Typically, preparedness puts a lot of emphasis on consumables—on building a kit and having supplies on hand—and those are certainly important things to do. But there is a sequence to ensuring that you are prepared, and you can’t assemble the right kit until you’ve thought about the people that might use it, why they might use it, and when they might use it.

Most of the threats we face in our homes are predictable—home fires, natural hazards common to our location, gas leaks—things that we would identify as possibilities if we just stopped to think about them before they occurred. So the first thing we should all be thinking about related to preparedness is, what is a possible or likely occurrence in my new home or neighborhood?

So make a plan for it, talk about the possibilities with your family members, and have those conversations well ahead of any emerging threat. This doesn’t have to be some big formal family meeting; it just needs to happen after you get to know your new home and begin to understand some of the things that might threaten it or your family.

HL: When should homeowners start preparing for a disaster?
CO: I’d say you should start to prepare at the closing, but I guess that might be a little early! But certainly you need to start as soon as you get in your home and get to know your surroundings.

Some of the things you might do are standard homeowner things, like ensuring that you have working smoke detectors and understanding how you would get out if there is a fire. But it’s also important to know what’s around you that might create an urgent situation, both inside and outside of your home.
HL: Can you talk a bit about specific disasters?

CO: Each disaster presents a different type of threat, and it’s important that you get to know the most likely threats in your area. There are some great checklists available free of charge that discuss different events.

For hurricanes, the very first thing that the Red Cross suggests is to listen to the radio to stay informed about the storm’s course and to keep abreast of evacuation plans for your community. For tornadoes, we suggest that you get to know your community’s warning systems very well, and that you have a safe room identified in your home.
HL: What if I don’t live in a disaster-prone area? Do I still need a plan?
CO: You know, we get this question more than you might think. I suppose it’s because disaster response is defined by these big events—big hurricanes, floods, wildfires—with dramatic images captured by the media. But those events are actually the exceptions.

The majority of disasters in this country affect just a single home. The Red Cross responds to more than 70,000 disasters a year, and most of them are single-family events that don’t even make the local news.

These numbers tell us that preparedness needs to be serious business, but the planning doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. Many families have fun with the planning activities, and it can certainly take a lot of the fear out of events.

HL: What should homeowners be thinking about in the immediate aftermath of a disaster?
CO: Recent research shows that people think that help will magically arrive at their doorstep within three hours of an event, and that is quite simply not the case. You need to take charge of your own safety, by having a plan, by having the right supplies on hand, and by staying informed.

Post-event, your continued safety is obviously the most critical concern. When you put your plan in place, you should be sure that it includes listening to the authorities, evacuating if that’s what’s necessary, and taking any other steps that authorities are recommending for your particular home or community.
Once you are sure that you are safe, you might think about reporting any dangerous situations that you can safely see—maybe there’s a downed power line—checking on an elderly neighbor, or perhaps notifying loved ones from outside the affected area that you are OK. And if you are out of the area and it isn’t yet safe to return, then stay away.