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Recovering from Disaster

General advice on steps to take after disaster strikes to begin putting your home, your community, and your life back to normal.

Health and safety
Your first concern after a disaster is your household's health and safety.

  1. Be aware of new hazards created by the disaster.  Watch for washed out roads, contaminated buildings, contaminated water, gas leaks, broken glass, damaged wires and slippery floors.
  2. Be aware of exhaustion.  Don't try to do too much at once.  Set priorities and pace yourself.  
  3. Drink plenty of clean water.  Eat well and get enough rest.
  4. Wear sturdy work boots and gloves.  Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and clean water often when working in debris.
  5. Inform local authorities about health and safety hazards, including chemical releases, downed power lines, washed out roads, smoldering insulation or dead animals.

Returning to a damaged home
Returning to a damaged home can be both physically and mentally challenging. Above all, use caution.

  1. Keep a battery-powered radio with you so you can listen for emergency updates.
  2. Wear sturdy work boots and gloves.
  3. Before going inside, walk carefully around the outside of your home and check for loose power lines, gas leaks and structural damage.  If you smell gas, do not enter the home and leave immediately.  Do not enter if floodwaters remain around the building.  If you have any doubts about safety, have your home inspected by a professional before entering.
  4. If your home was damaged by fire, do not enter until authorities say it is safe. 
  5. Check for cracks in the roof, foundation and chimneys.  If it looks like the building may collapse, leave immediately.  
  6. A battery-powered flashlight is the best source of light for inspecting a damaged home. CAUTION:  The flashlight should be turned on outside before entering a damaged home-the battery may produce a spark that could ignite leaking gas, if present. 
  7.  Do not use oil, gas lanterns, candles or torches for lighting inside a damaged home.  Leaking gas or other flammable materials may be present.  Do not smoke.  Do not turn on the lights until you're sure they're safe to use.
  8. Enter the home carefully and check for damage.  Be aware of loose boards and slippery floors.  
  9. Watch out for animals, especially poisonous snakes.  Use a stick to poke through debris.
  10. If you smell gas or hear a hissing or blowing sound, open a window and leave immediately.  Turn off the main gas valve from the outside, if you can.  Call the gas company from a neighbor's residence.  If you shut off the gas supply at the main valve, you will need a professional to turn it back on.
  11. Check the electrical system where visible and accessible.  If you see sparks, broken or frayed wires, or if you smell hot insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker.  If, however, you are wet, standing in water or unsure of your safety, do not touch anything electrical.  Rather, leave the building and call for help.
  12. Check appliances.  If appliances are wet, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker.  Then unplug appliances and let them dry out.  Have appliances checked by a professional before using them again.  Also have the electrical system checked by an electrician before turning the power back on. 
  13. Check the water and sewage systems.  If pipes are damaged, turn off the main water valve.
  14. Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches and gasoline.  Open cabinets carefully.  Be aware of objects that may fall.
  15. Try to protect your home from further damage.  Open windows and doors to get air moving through.  
  16. Clean and disinfect everything that got wet.  Mud left behind by floodwaters can contain sewage and chemicals.
  17. If your basement has flooded, pump it out gradually (about one third of the water per day) to avoid damage.  The walls may collapse and the floor may buckle if the basement is pumped out while the surrounding ground is still waterlogged.
  18. Check with City authorities before using any water; it could be contaminated.  Wells should be pumped out and the water tested by authorities before drinking.
  19. Throw out fresh food, cosmetics, and medicines that have come into contact with floodwaters.  
  20.  Check refrigerated food for spoilage-your power supply may have been disrupted during the emergency.  Throw out all spoiled food and any food that you suspect might be spoiled.
  21. Call your insurance agent.  Take pictures of damages.  Keep good records of repair and cleaning costs.

Getting disaster assistance
Throughout the recovery period, it's important to monitor local radio or television reports and other media sources for information about where to get emergency housing, food, first aid, clothing and financial assistance.  Following is general information about the kinds of assistance that may be available.

Direct assistance to individuals and families may come from any number of organizations.  The American Red Cross is often stationed right at the scene to help people with their most immediate medical, food and housing needs.  Other voluntary organizations, such as the Salvation Army, may also provide food, shelter and supplies, and assist in cleanup efforts. 

Church groups and synagogues are often involved as well.

In addition, social service agencies from county or state governments may be available to help people in shelters or provide direct assistance to families.

In the most severe disasters, the federal government is also called in to help individuals and families with temporary housing, counseling (for post-disaster trauma), low-interest loans and grants, and other assistance.  Small businesses and farmers are also eligible.

Most federal assistance becomes available when the President of the U.S. declares a "Major Disaster" for the affected area at the request of a state governor.  When this happens, FEMA may establish a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC).  A DRC is a facility established in, or near to, the community affected by the disaster, where persons can meet face-to-face with represented federal, state, local, and volunteer agencies to: 

  • Discuss their disaster-related needs.
  • Obtain information about disaster assistance programs.
  • Teleregister for assistance. 
  • Update registration information. 
  • Learn about measures for rebuilding that can eliminate or reduce the risk of future loss. 
  • Learn how to complete the Small Business Administration (SBA) loan application, which is also the form used to qualify all individuals for low cost loans or grants, including those for repair or replacement of damaged homes and furnishings. 
  • Request the status of their Disaster Housing Application.

In a Presidential Disaster Declaration, persons can apply for assistance by telephone without going to a DRC by dialing 1-800-621-FEMA (3362).


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