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Preparing for disasters at a family level

Adapted from Disasters and the Local Church by Bill Crooks and Jackie Mouradian

Available in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish

Flooding in Pakistan in 2010 affected 20 million people. Photo: Ashraf Mall/Tearfund

From: Managing disasters – Footsteps 88

How to prepare for disasters and reduce the risk of them occuring

Preparing for floods

  • Where possible, keep a small stock of dry food that requires no cooking or refrigeration – dry fuel and electricity may become unavailable.
  • Fill water containers with clean drinking water and cover them.
  • Learn to swim. Family members who cannot swim should be encouraged to keep things which will enable them to float eg banana tree trunks, plastic bottles or coconuts.
  • Store some essential items (such as sandbags or plastic sheeting) to protect your house and to make emergency repairs. If money permits, some wooden boards, a hammer and some nails would also be useful.
  • Seeds should be double-wrapped in plastic bags or sealed in clay pots and buried in the ground, at a location which can be easily identified later.
  • Prepare a family evacuation plan, taking special care of vulnerable members (see more in the box below).
  • Consider how to alert others if you become trapped on a rooftop (eg tie coloured clothes to a stick and wave it as a flag).
  • Put all electrical items in a higher place to avoid damage in flooding.

Two people filling a bag with seeds.

Preparing for windstorms

  • If a windstorm is predicted, put together enough food to feed the family for five to seven days, and some containers of clean drinking water.
  • Make sure the sick, elderly and most vulnerable people have access to safe, warm shelter and adequate food. They should be evacuated to safety as soon as warnings appear.
  • Make sure all livestock are collected and placed somewhere safe on higher land. Animals are often left untied, so that they are free to save themselves
  • Wrap up seeds for planting in small plastic bags, then – if possible – in a large piece of plastic for protection.
  • If you have electricity in your home, turn off all electrical supply points and unplug appliances. Also turn off gas appliances and shut the valve on gas cylinders: this reduces the risk of fire.
  • To reduce damage to property in a windstorm, fishermen sometimes cover grass roofs with their nets weighed down with stones. Other communities who live on the coast have chosen to live in houses which can be easily dismantled. They simply pick up the building materials and carry them inland to a more sheltered area!

A grass roof covered with fishing nets weighed down with stones.

Preparing for earthquakes

Practice the earthquake procedure of ‘drop, cover and hold on’.

  • Drop means sit down on the floor. 
  • Cover means protect your head using a school-bag or cushion.
  • Hold on means grab hold of some solid furniture. If you do not have sturdy furniture, sit on the floor next to an interior wall and cover your head and neck with your arms.

Drop! Cover! Hold on!

 A family sheltering under a table.

You should take the following steps to protect yourself and others:

  • Make sure you know about the fire evacuation procedures and any earthquake plans for all of the buildings you occupy regularly.
  • Identify safe places in each room of your home, workplace or school. A safe place could be under a piece of heavy furniture or against an interior wall – away from windows, bookcases or tall furniture that could fall on you.
  • Make sure everyone in your family knows the correct action to take, especially children.
  • Keep a torch (or candles and matches) and shoes by each person’s bed at night, plus a bottle of drinking water (changed regularly).
  • Place all furniture at the sides of your room and store any heavy objects on the floor, not on high shelves. Consider ways of attaching heavy cupboards and bookshelves to the wall with hooks and brackets.
  • Make sure that all high-up cupboards or cabinets are shut, and locked if possible, when not in use.
  • Many fires result from leaking gas after a quake. If you have gas piped into your home, learn how to shut off the gas valves in your home and keep a spanner (wrench) handy for that purpose. It is a good idea to turn off gas at night, or if leaving the house.

Please note: Around the world, most buildings do not collapse in an earthquake. You are much more likely to be seriously injured by falling objects, breaking glass or falling down stairs exiting the building. However if you are in a particularly vulnerable building you should try to move outside to an open space as quickly as possible. These buildings include:

  • an unreinforced building (eg mud-brick) with a heavy ceiling
  • a building on a steep slope supported by pillars

Preparing an emergency box 

An emergency box

Keep and maintain a box of emergency supplies. It should include torch (flashlight), dry matches and candles, First Aid materials, a bar of soap, basic medicines, water and some dry food supplies. You might also want to store personal items such as passports, identity cards, certificates, land documents and cash in a safe place so that you can find them quickly in an emergency. In the case of flooding, it is wise to store these items in a waterproof bag. If you have a mobile phone, make sure it is charged and has key contact numbers on it (including the local government and emergency services where possible).


A community evacuation route marked out with a clear sign.

Shelter: Where there is a threat of windstorms and flooding, the community should choose a safe place where families can shelter for the duration of the storm. This needs to be on high ground and should have plenty of space for members of the community. In some countries, the government or NGOs have built strong cyclone shelters which are raised off the ground on pillars. Often schools, churches, mosques or government offices are used. They need to be cleared and prepared before the storm arrives.

Route: Next the community should mark out a series of evacuation routes to the shelter with clear signs, either on white-topped posts or painted on the walls of houses or on tree trunks. These white marks will help people to find their way to a place of shelter, even in darkness or in flooding.

Please note: Take special care of elderly people, disabled people, pregnant women, those with long-term sickness and young children. These people should be evacuated quickly and with support from family members or volunteers.

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