Hurricane Preparedness Tips from Public Health Experts at the Bloomberg School
Hurricane Dorian’s evolving threat to the East Coast of the U.S. this week highlights the importance of taking simple public health precautions that can help keep you safe.
“If you’re in Dorian’s path, you should be preparing in terms of food, water, medications, supplies, cash, filled gas tanks in cars, and emergency and communication plans,” says Jonathan Links, PhD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness.
Here are some key tips:
Evacuate when you’re told to.
The number one mistake people make in hurricanes or other natural disasters is ignoring evacuation orders, says Links. “Evacuation orders are not issued without good cause, and people need to resist the tempting thought that they will be fine staying in their homes and riding out the storm,” he says.
Store safe water.
Store tap water in large, sealed containers before the storm arrives, advises Natalie Exum, PhD, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Water Institute. Make sure you have a 3- to 7-day supply of water for everyone in your household. The average person uses a gallon of water per day for drinking and cooking.
Watch your water source.
If your drinking water comes from a piped public supply, your water utility is obligated to send a public notice when your drinking water is contaminated. Look for that notice. “If your water comes from a private well, it may be contaminated by floodwaters so the well water should be tested before considering it safe to drink,” says Exum.
Think food basics.
Have a supply of nonperishable foods that can last 3–7 days for your household. This includes canned goods, dry cereal, granola bars, and other foods that require minimal preparation. Very important: Make sure you have a manual can opener.
Plan your meds.
Carry an updated medication list in your wallet or purse, including each medicine’s name, dose, and why you take it, advises G. Caleb Alexander, MD, a professor of Epidemiology and Medicine. Store a 7- to 10-day supply of essential medicines in a watertight container in case you need to leave your house quickly or become stranded. And keep a copy of your insurance card and prescription drug benefit card handy. “Many insurers will allow for early refills or will otherwise waive requirements and replace medicines that may be lost or damaged due to hurricanes, floods, or other natural disasters,” says Alexander.
Floodwaters may contain high levels of fecal contamination, chemicals, and hazardous waste, so avoid skin contact if possible, Exum says. Wear boots or waders to avoid contact with floodwaters if you must walk through inundated areas.
Don’t risk drowning.
Hurricanes and flooding dramatically increase the risk of drowning, especially for children who can drown in just two inches of water, warns Qingfeng Li, PhD, MHS, associate director of the Johns Hopkins International Injury Research Unit. Li counsels parents to keep their children within arm’s reach whenever they are near water, install barriers restricting access to water, and lock doors to the yard and garage. Drivers should avoid taking vehicles into areas covered with water because it is hard to gauge the water’s depth and the road beneath may be damaged.
Safeguard your mental health.
To minimize mental health problems, take all precautions in terms of safety and security that you can in advance. In the first few weeks after a disaster, it’s normal to experience acute stress symptoms such as sleep and appetite disturbances, anxiety, irritability and nightmares says Stephanie Skavenski van Wyk, MSW, MPH, a research associate in Mental Health. Most people recover by drawing on their regular coping mechanisms—talking with spouses, family members, spiritual or community leaders, and doing things that have helped them in the past, she says. “If these issues persist beyond a few weeks, that’s when you should seek help,” says van Wyk. Adults and parents should seek immediate help if they or their children have thoughts of wanting to hurt or kill themselves or others.
Remember the children.
Parents can help children by reassuring them, instilling hope and creating as much consistency and stability as possible. It can help to let children and youth talk through their feelings if they want to, but don’t force them, says van Wyk. “Parents should seek help from a mental health professional if their children have symptoms such as nightmares, irritability, hyper vigilance, disturbances in eating and sleeping or other problems that persist more than 4 weeks after the event,” she says.
Wash hands—especially in shelters.
Practice good hygiene in crowded environments like shelters. Good handwashing and hygiene behaviors can help prevent large outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness, says Exum.
Making preparations like these can save you time, money, and possibly your health. “Public health is all about prevention and preparedness, based on an enormous legacy of evidence that these upfront measures are far more effective than having to respond and recover without such preparation,” Links says.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Preparedness recommends the following basic principles of personal preparedness in the event of extreme weather, natural disasters, and other emergencies: All of us should be able to survive comfortably on our own for at least three days following an incident. The time to prepare is before an incident occurs. Participate in open discussion with family members about response planning.
What Disasters Can Teach You—Global Health NOW, September, 2018
Start Preparing for the Next Hurricane Harvey—Bloomberg Opinion, August, 2017
Katrina's Aftermath: Public Health Concerns—September, 2005