Skip to main content

How to Prepare for a Natural Disaster

November 4, 2021

During the summer of 2021, a record-setting heat wave hit the state of Washington. Public officials attribute at least two deaths and hundreds of related illnesses to the extreme temperatures, some as high as 119 degrees. Experts say climate change is driving the temperature rise. Only future analysis of the data will show the heat wave’s actual death count and how much it will likely continue to climb.

Climate scientists anticipate only increasing numbers of natural disasters in the coming years. As with the Washington heat wave, these natural disasters will likely threaten lives and livelihoods. How then can communities safeguard themselves? Knowing how to prepare for a natural disaster is key.

The Increase of Natural Disasters and Their Impact

The number of natural disasters has grown tenfold since the 1960s, according to the Ecological Threat Register 2020 report. From catastrophic wildfires blazing 18 million hectares of Australian land in 2020 to deadly flooding on Turkey’s Black Sea Coast in 2021, climate scientists warn more natural disasters are on their way.

Consider these additional findings from the same report:

  • In 2019, natural disasters displaced around 25 million people, almost three times the number of people displaced by armed conflicts.
  • Of the countries with the most people displaced by disasters in 2019, the U.S. ranked fifth in the world, with 916,000 people displaced.
  • Since 1990, the U.S. has experienced 704 natural disasters, more than any other country in the world.

A recent National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) study reported that 22 natural disasters struck the U.S in 2020 alone, shattering earlier records of 16 events in a year. The tropical cyclones, severe storms, drought, and wildfires came with a $95 billion price tag.

The NCEI study also reported that natural disasters killed 14,492 people in the U.S. from 1980 to 2020. About 27 percent of those deaths happened in just five years, between 2016 and 2020.

Whatever the specific causes of natural disasters, communities should prepare themselves to lessen the impact of these events, hopefully saving lives and preventing unnecessary suffering in the process.

Key Ways to Be Disaster Ready

Public health professionals trained in disaster management hold expertise on how to prepare for a natural disaster. They recognize that poor preparations beforehand can compound a disaster’s impact, potentially leading to a greater chance of:

  • Hunger and food insecurity
  • The spread of disease
  • Psychological scarring

To limit the damage of natural disasters, these experts can help communities take strategic steps to become more resilient and capable of withstanding hurricanes, landslides, wildfires and other potentially destructive events. Disaster preparedness involves taking a number of measures.

Developing Evacuation Plans

Some natural disasters may require evacuations, including wildfires, floods, and hurricanes. Evacuation plans include procedures devised to ensure that all those in danger have a way to get to a safe place. These procedures outline approaches for handling the evacuation of the general public and first responders.

Additionally, evacuation plans include strategies for assisting community members with mobility issues or other conditions that can impede their ability to evacuate on their own. People with disabilities, for example, may require special assistance.

Evacuation plans also address issues such as:

  • Conditions that make evacuations necessary
  • Chains of command that clearly designate roles and responsibilities during an evacuation
  • Instructions the public receives about how and when to evacuate
  • Evacuation routes

Successful evacuations require effective communication. Disaster management professionals may circulate information about evacuations across an entire community by:

  • Using different channels of communication with community members, such as social media, print media, television, and radio
  • Coordinating with utility companies to include evacuation maps alongside utility bills or posting major and alternate evacuation routes on government websites

Disaster management professionals also strive to build awareness in communities regarding individuals’ responsibilities to help facilitate their own safe evacuations. Through education campaigns, communities can learn how to prepare for natural disasters and potential evacuations. More specifically, education campaigns can teach communities about the following:

The Need to Plan for Evacuations in Advance

Instead of organizing a household evacuation right before or during a natural disaster, individuals and families should plan early. This involves mapping out well in advance various scenarios of where they will go and how they will get there during natural disasters.

Household evacuation plans account for transportation issues, such as the lack of a car. They also consider both main evacuation routes as well as backup routes if roads are blocked. Additionally, they detail arrangements for shelter at hotels or with family members in different towns or cities out of harm’s way.

What to Take During an Evacuation

During emergencies, people may struggle to think clearly. Checklists with suggested items to take, such as prescriptions, a first-aid kit, bottled water, a laptop, flashlights, and chargers, can help remind people to pack critical supplies. A list of important documents to take, such as passports, insurance policies, wills, and deeds, can also help prepare community members.

Storing Emergency Supplies

Natural disasters can cause power outages, affect water systems, and block access to hospitals and other facilities, potentially cutting off access to basic necessities, such as food and medication. As such, local authorities buy and store emergency supplies in preparation for emergencies.

Determining what emergency supplies to buy and stockpile requires careful assessment of a community’s potential needs and risks. Disaster management professionals evaluate the likelihood of various natural disasters occurring in a specific community, the damage they may cause, and the needed supplies for disaster response and recovery. For example, immediately after a hurricane, disaster response efforts will likely require a ready supply of first-aid kits, two-way radios, and power generators. Communities may also need prefabricated shelters, tarps, personal care and hygiene supplies, bottled water, and cots. Other critical supplies that disaster management professionals assess the need for can include the following:

  • Emergency and rescue equipment (life vests, rescue trucks, emergency lighting)
  • Personal safety and protection gear (respiratory masks, safety helmets, fire-retardant footwear)
  • Food and cooking supplies (preserved foods, disposable kitchenware)
  • Cleanup and rebuilding products (water treatments, disinfecting solutions, waste containers)

Practice Emergency Plans

Emergency plans outline the response measures that disaster management teams will take when disasters strike. They designate the roles and responsibilities of various positions, identify how agencies and departments will coordinate their efforts, and detail communication strategies.

However, it is not enough to develop emergency plans. Disaster management professionals must practice them, so they know how to prepare for a natural disaster in a specific community. This offers critical benefits, including the following:

  • Familiarizing emergency management teams with the procedures of the plan
  • Identifying training needs
  • Assessing the effectiveness of the plan in practice
  • Clarifying roles

To locate and troubleshoot problems and gaps in emergency plans, disaster management professionals put them to the test in the following ways:

Emergency Drills

Emergency drills test a specific operation in a disaster management department or agency. They involve practicing a specific activity and are often used to measure:

  • Correct use of equipment
  • Specific skills
  • Adherence to specific policies

Organizers of a drill evaluate the actions of participants and compare them with established standards. They then address any deficiencies, giving participants the opportunity to make adjustments and corrections.

Tabletop Exercises

In tabletop exercises, disaster management teams gather in sessions to discuss their roles and responsibilities in different simulated disaster situations. The leader of a tabletop exercise presents natural disaster scenarios and guides participants in a discussion about procedures and policies. This helps participants rehearse their roles and clarify points of confusion in low-pressure environments.

Full-Scale Exercises

Full-scale exercises aim to simulate a real disaster situation as much as possible. They take place in the field. These exercises mobilize and deploy the various agencies, organizations, and equipment involved in disaster response. Using a scripted natural disaster scenario, participants can assume their roles and perform their duties under time constraints to create a pressurized situation that mirrors that of real emergencies.

Prepare for Disasters and Save Lives

Trained professionals who know how to prepare for a natural disaster save lives. In the face of climate change and the surge of natural disasters, communities need the expertise of disaster management personnel more than ever. Tulane University offers an advanced degree designed to train professionals in the development of strategic disaster readiness plans that address public health needs. Discover how Tulane University’s Online Master of Public Health in Disaster Management prepares graduates to craft preparedness plans that strengthen communities.

Climate Change and Its Threat to Food Security

Environmental Toxins: Health Impacts and the Role of Public Health Professionals

MPH vs. MHA: Which Degree Is Right for You?


CNN, “Italy May Have Hit Europe’s Hottest Day on Record as Anticyclone ‘Lucifer’ Sweeps In”

Federal Emergency Management Agency, Community Recovery Management Toolkit

Insurance Information Institute, “Five Steps to Preparing an Effective Evacuation Plan”

Military OneSource, “Before-and-After Steps and Resources for Disasters”

National Centers for Environmental Information, Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview

NBC News, “One Year Since Australia’s Devastating Wildfires, Anger Grows at Climate Change ‘Inaction’”

NOAA, “2020 U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters in Historical Context”

Our World in Data, “Natural Disasters”

PBS NewsHour, “Think 2020’s Disasters Are Wild? Experts Predict Worse in the Future”

Ready, Emergency Response Plan

Ready, Exercises

San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, Drill

San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, Full-Scale

The Seattle Times, “2 Dead from Heat Exposure During Monday’s Record Temperatures in King County”

Visions of Humanity, “Ecological Threat Register 2020”