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Hurricane Preparedness Tips From Public Health Experts

Even before a hurricane is on its way, everyone can be ready with essential knowledge and supplies.

Aliza Rosen

When a hurricane forms, meteorologists can reasonably predict when and where it may hit, giving residents time to prepare. But even before hurricane season begins, knowing what to expect and how to prepare can help people keep themselves and loved ones safe. “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,” says Jonathan Links, PhD, a professor in Environmental Health and Engineering.

Follow alerts and evacuate when you’re told to.

The biggest 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.

Before an evacuation order is issued:

  • Learn your evacuation route.
  • Plan where you can stay.
  • Sign up for emergency alerts.
  • Know where to get updates.

Households with children, pets, individuals with disabilities, or anyone who needs extra assistance should practice their evacuation route before there’s an emergency. Map out accommodation options that meet your needs, and connect with friends and family who don’t live in your immediate area.

In addition to making sure your mobile device is set up to receive emergency alerts, find out what local and state-level notification systems are available and sign up for them for all members of your household. Download the FEMA app for alerts and information to guide you before, during, and after a hurricane.

Store safe water and monitor your water source.

During a hurricane, your drinking water source can become contaminated or otherwise unsafe to use. When a storm is on the way, storing safe water will ensure you have backup resources.

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 Natalie Exum, PhD '16, MS, assistant professor in Environmental Health and Engineering.

Before the storm arrives:

  • Buy commercially bottled water, and keep it in a cool, dark place.
  • Store tap water in large, sealed food-grade containers.
  • Make sure you have a three- to seven-day supply of water for each person in your household (one gallon per person, per day, for drinking and cooking).
  • Store extra water for children, nursing mothers, and people who are sick.
  • During warm weather, store additional water for everyone in your household.

Learn more: FEMA guidance on storing and using water safely during a disaster.

Stock up on food staples.

Have a supply of nonperishable foods that can last three to seven days for your household. This includes things like:

  • Ready-to-eat canned goods (and a manual can opener).
  • Dry cereal.
  • Dried fruit.
  • Granola or protein bars.
  • Infant foods and formula.
  • Any other foods that require minimal preparation.
  • Canned or dry food for pets.

Remember your medications and essential medical supplies.

In the event of an emergency, pharmacies may be closed or inaccessible, and it’s essential that you maintain access to important prescription and nonprescription medications. In case you need to leave your house quickly or become stranded, Caleb Alexander, MD, MS, a professor of Epidemiology, advises keeping a seven- to 10-day supply of essential medicines in a watertight container. This should include:

  • Prescription medications.
  • OTC medications (pain relievers, antacids, anti-diarrheals).
  • Allergy medication and/or Epipen.
  • An updated medication list, including each medicine’s name, dose, and why you take it.
  • A copy of your insurance card and prescription drug benefit card.

“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.

Avoid floodwaters.

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. Even a few inches of moving water can knock a person down.

When flooding occurs:

  • Move to higher ground or a higher floor.
  • Avoid driving into areas covered with water.
  • Avoid using bridges over fast-moving water.
  • Never attempt to swim or walk through floodwaters.

In addition to the risks posed by their depth, floodwaters are dangerous due to what may be in them. This includes:

  • High levels of fecal contamination, chemicals, or hazardous waste.
  • Snakes, rodents, or other stray or wild animals.
  • Downed power lines, which can electrically charge the water.
  • Debris and other physical objects.

Avoid skin contact if possible, says Exum. If you must walk through a flooded area, wear rubber boots or waders to avoid contact with floodwaters.

Know the risk for your area: FEMA Flood Map Service Center

Safeguard your mental health.

To minimize mental health problems, take all possible precautions in terms of safety and security. 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, MPH, a senior 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 Skavenski.

Tips for parents:

  • Provide reassurance and instill hope.
  • Create as much consistency and stability as possible.
  • Allow children to talk through their feelings if they want to, but don’t force them.

“Parents should seek help from a mental health professional if their children have symptoms such as nightmares, irritability, hypervigilance, disturbances in eating and sleeping, or other problems that persist more than four weeks after the event,” says Skavenski.

Learn more: Recognize and manage the symptoms of PTSD

Wash hands—especially in shelters.

Practicing good hygiene becomes even more important in crowded environments like shelters. Good hand-washing and hygiene behaviors can help prevent large outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness, says Exum.

Download FEMA’s Emergency Supply Kit checklist (PDF)

Aliza Rosen is a digital content strategist in the Office of External Affairs at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.