When a natural disaster strikes, survival is often the first priority for many people, and rightly so. High winds, floodwaters, and wildfires are all incredibly dangerous for those stuck in their wrath. However, the dangers that these natural disasters present don’t always end when the storm moves on, the waters calm, or the last smouldering ember is snuffed out.
It’s important to understand what you should do in the event of a natural disaster, but it’s equally important to understand what you should do when you return home after a natural disaster. These events can sometimes leave lasting threats in or around your home, and knowing what you might encounter and how to respond to it is a necessity for anyone who is recovering from a natural disaster.
Challenges in Returning Home After a Disaster
Natural disasters wreak havoc wherever they pass through, both on the land and buildings that they destroy and the people they affect. Anyone coming home after a natural disaster should be prepared to face a variety of challenges related to the disaster’s destruction.
Perhaps one of the most pressing challenges in our minds following a disaster is the effects of nature’s wrath on our pocketbooks. Indeed, the ruin brought about by a natural disaster can be incredibly expensive. From the outside looking in, this is just a number, but for families and businesses affected by the wildfire, that number represents the cost of getting back on their feet.
Thankfully, insurance coverage and government assistance programs can help to mitigate the financial effects of disaster on the average business or citizen. Some of the financial challenges that you may encounter following a natural disaster can be mitigated by careful preparation. Make sure that your homeowner’s insurance covers damage from natural disasters that are likely to occur in your area or, if it does not, you may be able to purchase specialized insurance for disasters. It’s also important to understand what government assistance is or could be available to disaster victims.
Mental and Emotional Challenges
There are some objects that money can’t replace and some problems that financial assistance can’t help to solve. You may find that many precious items have been destroyed or lost in a disaster, and it can be hard to move on from the destruction.
The psychological trauma of living through a disaster cannot be ignored either. Being in the middle of a disaster or trying to escape from one can be harrowing and, at times, life-threatening. It’s important to be aware that disaster recovery can be a very emotional process, and that it’s okay to struggle with those emotions as you try to rebuild your life.
- What Are the Psychological Harms of Disaster? - Psychology Today
- Mental health in emergencies - World Health Organization
Perhaps the most immediate concern following a natural disaster is the immediate safety of anyone entering the disaster area. Natural disasters can leave a wide variety of threats to your safety in their wake, and the kinds of dangers you might encounter can vary from disaster to disaster.
- Health and Safety Concerns for All Disasters - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Emergency Exit Routes - OSHA
- Staying Safe in the Immediate Aftermath of a Disaster - American Red Cross
Dangers to be Aware Of After a Disaster
Just because the disaster has passed does not mean that the affected area is safe. It’s important to be aware of the dangers that can persist after a natural disaster.
No matter what kind of natural disaster you are facing, official safety warnings should always be heeded. Even if you may think that the disaster is over and that the area is safe for you to return to, you don’t necessarily have all of the information or expertise to make that decision. Pay close attention to the news as well as official government sources for information about when it is safe to return to a disaster area.
In any natural disaster, infrastructure may be damaged. That could include things like broken gas pipes and fallen power lines, which could make travel through the countryside or in the city more dangerous. It could also include infrastructure in your home, such as exposed wires, leaking gas, or compromises in the structural integrity of your home, such as broken floorboards, cracked support beams, or shattered walls. Whenever you re-enter your home after a natural disaster, tread carefully and spend as little time there as possible, until you are certain that the area is safe.
Earthquakes, in particular, may damage infrastructure on a large scale. They can disrupt the safety of your home, but they may also cause chemical or gas leaks in the area, presenting chemical and biological hazards that may not be visible to the naked eye. Following an earthquake, food and water in the affected area may not be safe to drink until after all possible sources of contamination have been checked and cleared.
At home, an earthquake can disrupt delicate infrastructure, such as knocking loose your water heater or breaking pipes. If possible, it’s best to shut off gas and water in your home immediately following an earthquake. Leave them off until you have confirmed that nothing has been damaged.
- How Earthquakes Work - HowStuffWorks
- Earthquake Safety at Home - FEMA
- What to do After an Earthquake - Seismic Safety Commission of California
A variety of disasters may be classified as “extreme weather,” including tornadoes, hurricanes, intense storms, and more. Some of these render safety concerns in their own right, while others may bring about other disasters, such as flooding and wildfire.
Extreme winds, which are common in intense thunderstorms, hurricanes, and tornados, can destabilize infrastructure, causing power lines to fall or damaging houses. They can also weaken trees, causing many to fall during or after an extreme weather event. Whenever treading through an area recently affected by a powerful storm, be careful of anything that may collapse on or near you. This could include trees, but it may also include parts of your home.
Extreme winds can also kick up pollutants into the air, making it harmful to breathe for some time until things have settled. Be sure to note that extreme weather may give rise to other disasters, such as flooding from rain or wildfires from lightning strikes. Pay close attention to government warnings before returning to the area and be prepared for the situation to change quickly.
- Preparing for Extreme Weather - National Association of County and City Health Officials
- Infographic: Be Ready! Tornadoes - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Flooding can also cause infrastructure damage, releasing hazardous materials into the environment. Always remember that floodwater can contain human, animal, or chemical waste, so even if the waters have begun to recede and the primary danger is past, don’t assume that standing water left over from a flood is safe to stand in or drink. These waters can also conceal things like sharp objects, downed power lines, or frightened animals, so flooded areas are best avoided until they are dry and completely safe.
Even after the water has passed, flooding can cause the floorboards of a house to become waterlogged and weakened, so tread carefully when you’re entering your home for the first time and spend as little time inside as possible until you are confident that the structure is sound. Persistent moisture following a flood can also promote the growth of harmful moulds indoors.
In addition, flooding can misplace wildlife — especially aquatic wildlife — so be on the lookout for animals that may have washed up into your home while you were away. Some, like alligators and snakes, may be panicked and threatening following the disaster.
Ultimately, flooding can be deceptively destructive. Flooding is one of the most destructive catastrophic events, according to data from home insurance claims, so don’t take anything for granted when returning to your home after a flood.
- Flood Safety - American Red Cross
- Flood Damage: What To Do Next - Home Advisor
- Floods: Health Information Guide - U.S. National Library of Medicine
Wildfires can damage wooded areas, buildings, and homes. Even if your home looks untouched by the fire, the extreme heat may still have caused infrastructure damage. Nearby trees could also be weakened considerably and may fall at any moment. As with floods, wildfires can also drive animals to seek shelter in your home. Be prepared for unexpected encounters. Persistent smoke in the area can be a hazard for breathing, especially for people with lung conditions.
- Wildfire Information and Resources - International Code Council
- Wildfire Recovery Resources - The American Institute of Architects
- Ready For Wildfire - CAL FIRE
Developing a Disaster Recovery Plan
Just like you should have a disaster survival plan, it’s also important to have a plan for recovering after the disaster. Before disaster strikes, identify some rough steps to take as you recover from a natural disaster and make yourself aware of the resources that could become available to help you in your recovery.
Guarantee Your Safety
Before taking any steps towards recovery, make sure that you are safe. That means being clear of the natural disaster as it happens, but it also means making sure that you have a safe place to stay in the days or weeks following the disaster until you can safely return home. That could be with friends or family outside the disaster area or in a shelter set up especially for disaster refugees. Once your physical safety is guaranteed, then you can begin to devote yourself to managing your recovery from the disaster.
Investigate and Document the Damage
Once it’s safe to return to the area, it’s time to identify the damage done to your home and property by the natural disaster. Throughout this process, be aware that threats and safety concerns may still linger from the disaster, so tread carefully and be prepared to leave if the situation becomes unsafe.
As you identify damages to your home, it’s also important to document them. Insurance providers or disaster assistance programs may require this proof before they will assist you. Ideally, this proof will come in the form of before and after photos of the affected areas of your home. Professional testimony can also be useful. Especially for forms of damage that may be more than skin deep, such as waterlogged floorboards or cracked pipes.
- Make A Plan - Ready.gov
- Documenting Damage for Homeowners Insurance Claims - Angie’s List
Fix What You Can
Some fixes may be simple. For example, in a flood, you may be able to by using some heat and lots of fans. However, it’s important to draw the line between things that you can fix quickly and safely on your own and things that require expert intervention.
Be honest with yourself about your limitations here. These may include your physical and technical limitations — for example, it may be a bad idea to repair your own pipes. However, don’t forget that disaster recovery is an emotionally challenging process as well. Giving yourself time to relax and step away from the rebuilding process by enlisting professional help can be good for your mental health as you recover.
- Home Repairs You Can Do Yourself - Family Handyman
- Home and Repair Websites - Housely
- Simple Home Repairs - DIY Network
Contact a Professional
When it comes to fixing problems following a disaster or even determining whether a problem exists at all, some things are best left to the experts. For example, a professional plumber can diagnose the plumbing infrastructure in your home, identifying any broken pipes and repairing them. Their professional opinion may also help with your insurance.
Take Care of Yourself
Earlier we talked about the emotional toll of recovering from a disaster. Even if you have a rock-solid recovery plan, you will probably still feel some of that emotional impact. Don’t forget to take care of yourself throughout the process. There’s no shame in seeing a mental health professional to help you through the recovery process and to help you come to terms with your loss.
Apply for Assistance
Once your documentation is complete, it’s time to apply for assistance. This could involve contacting your insurance provider if you have one, but there are also disaster relief programs available, which we’ll cover below.
Disaster Recovery Resources for the United States and Canada
Canada Specific Resources
The government of Canada has a number of resources available to people who have been affected by disasters.
- Federal Disaster Assistance Programs: The Canadian government maintains a list of all federal programs available for disaster assistance. This includes programs that help businesses who have experienced losses due to a natural disaster as well as individuals who have been affected by disasters.
In addition, many Canadian provincial governments have their own programs and departments for disaster assistance:
- Disaster Assistance in Alberta
- Disaster Assistance in British Columbia
- Disaster Assistance in Manitoba
- Disaster Assistance in Nova Scotia
- Disaster Assistance in Ontario
- Disaster Assistance in Saskatchewan
Canadians who experience natural disasters while in another country may also contact the Canadian government, either directly or through the nearest embassy or consulate, for emergency assistance.
Finally, although it is not a part of the Canadian government, the Red Cross organization plays an important role in helping Canadians survive and recover from natural disasters.
United States Specific Resources
Those living in the United States have access to a variety of disaster relief programs and informational resources provided by the government.
- United States Disaster Relief Programs: This list of disaster relief programs provided by the Department of Homeland Security includes a range of financial assistance options for businesses and individuals. These options include specific forms of aid to special populations such as students, veterans, those with disabilities, and more.
Business owners seeking disaster relief may be eligible for assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
For U.S. citizens abroad, the U.S. Department of State lists resources and options for financial assistance on their website.
For more information and resources related to disaster preparedness and relief in the United States, check out the following websites.
In addition to these resources, you should also contact your insurance provider to learn what they will cover in the event of a natural disaster.