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Disaster preparation now can save your life later

Tropical Storm Isaac downed trees in Miami, damaging property throughout southern Florida. (Source: WSVN/CNN) Tropical Storm Isaac downed trees in Miami, damaging property throughout southern Florida. (Source: WSVN/CNN)
Houses in New Orleans were destroyed by flood waters after the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina. Some homes floated off their foundations and bumped into others homes or came to rest on streets. (Source: Marvin Nauman/FEMA) Houses in New Orleans were destroyed by flood waters after the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina. Some homes floated off their foundations and bumped into others homes or came to rest on streets. (Source: Marvin Nauman/FEMA)

(RNN) - New Orleans, which is still recovering from one of the most disastrous and expensive hurricanes in U.S. history, is keeping a wary eye on Isaac. Other residents along the Gulf Coast are preparing and evacuating for the impending storm - but how exactly do you prepare for a storm with the potential to cause major damage?

How to prepare before the disaster

The time to prepare your home is long before a disaster or severe weather event happens. It's vitally important to make a plan and have the supplies necessary to either take shelter after a storm, or evacuate on short notice.

Darryl Madden, FEMA's Ready campaign director, said the most important thing to do is to plan ahead.

That includes knowing what to do in several disaster scenarios, from tornadoes to hurricanes to wildfires, and making a plan with your family.

He said it's a good idea to sit down and imagine what would happen - and what you would need - if the power went off for an extended period of time.

He also said communication is vitally important, whether you need to call emergency services or get in touch with relatives, friends and neighbors to let them know where you are, and how you're doing.

"Have a communications plan," Madden said. That includes things like an NOAA weather radio and phone access.

He said it's best to get a crank-powered radio so it doesn't rely on any energy other than what you can generate yourself in case the power goes out. Another thing you want to look at is a solar-powered phone charger, so if you're without power for an extended period of time, you can still communicate.

Next, you need to have the supplies necessary to survive at least 72 hours on your own.  In heavily hit or rural areas, it can take rescue personnel a long time to make it to you.

"You want to have three days' worth of water for each individual," Madden said. "Any resources that they need, obviously, food and water is their primary concern."

He said the most important things are water, a first-aid kit and a flashlight, followed by necessary medications and specific needs such as formula and diapers for small children. He also said non-perishable food is not a bad idea to keep on hand.

"It's not something you have to focus on every time, just you know when you go to the store, grab a couple of things that will keep," he said, and advised storing the food somewhere besides the pantry so it's out of the way.

He also said that people with critical medical conditions that require special treatment, such as dialysis patients, should get in touch with their local emergency manager, fire department, or EMA to inform them ahead of time about your condition. That way emergency personnel know where you are in case of a disaster.

You can find a full list of precautions and responses to have in case of specific emergencies at http://www.ready.gov.

If you have to evacuate

If you have to evacuate, the No. 1 thing to keep in mind is that you'll have to move very quickly. As part of that, Madden said you'll want an evacuation kit to be light and easy to move.

It should include things such as water, food, extra clothing, medicine, medical support and any important paperwork.

Also, don't leave Fido behind. If conditions are not safe for people, they aren't safe for animals.

If you have a pet, the ASPCA listed a few guidelines for keeping them safe. They include preparing ahead of time and arranging a safe haven, or caregiver, for your pet if you can't take them with you, and keeping emergency supplies such as a leash and collar or cat carrier and food with your evacuation kit.

The full list of precautions you can take for a pet in the event of a disaster can be found on the ASPCA's website.

Madden, however, emphasized that in the case of an emergency, human life takes precedence over that of pets.

"You have to make critical decisions, if time is of the essence, save yourself," he said.

But he said planning ahead now can prevent making difficult decisions later.

How to prepare your home

Once a year, you should look over your homeowner's insurance to make sure your home and belongings are covered.

"Understanding your policy is really good heading into any storm season, this is a good time to review it, understand your coverage and understand your deductible," said State Farm spokesperson Missy Dundov.

Dundov said sometimes homeowners may make additions throughout the year and forget to update their insurance to cover their cost. Another important aspect to look at is flood insurance.

"Homeowner's insurance, your standard homeowner's insurance, covers most weather-related claims; the only big one it doesn't cover is flooding, and that's a separate policy," she said.

Flood insurance is handled by FIMA, or the Federal Insurance Mitigation Administration.

Something else people should consider is making a home inventory, which is important when filing claims and can help expedite the process.

Kevin Smith, a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance, suggested making a list and storing it online, or in another system such as Allstate's Digital Locker, which can be accessed through a mobile phone app or through the web. A third option is storing it on a flash drive you keep with you in the event of an emergency.

Smith said the most important thing to do is take pictures. Both Smith and Dundov said not having a home inventory list can making filing difficult when a room or home is destroyed.

"It does help your insurance adjuster when they come out to help them know what the room looked like beforehand," Dundov said.

Dealing with the immediate aftermath

After a disaster hits, Madden said your first line of response is going to be your neighbors.

"I can't emphasize this enough, especially in this day and age, most people don't know who their neighbors are," Madden said.

Next comes local emergency managers and responders, who will try to direct relief to the areas that are the most severely impacted. Phone lines may be down, or busy, leaving you with limited options for communication.

Afterwards, FEMA steps in.

"We come in to reinforce the initial first response. We can activate the search-and-rescue teams, we can then find out where unmet needs are and obviously bring those resources together," Madden said.

The Red Cross may also set up to help victims of the disaster, and provide things such as food, water and shelter.

Also, it's important to prevent injuries from disaster cleanup.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends protecting yourself from insects, staying out of standing water, staying away from uninspected buildings and leaving immediately if you hear shifting or unusual noises coming from a structure.

The organization also said you should use machinery, such as generators, in well-ventilated areas to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Also be aware of water in your surroundings and don't use electrical devices near it to prevent accidental electrical shock.

Finally, be aware of possible gas leaks and opt for using battery-powered lights instead of candles, which can be a fire hazard.

If you take steps now and plan ahead, it will make recovery easier later. But Madden warned that preserving human life is the No. 1 goal of any safety measure, not saving your home or belongings.

"One thing that we really kind of want to emphasize is property damage can be repaired, and individuals cannot," Madden said. "Always use common sense."

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