By the end of May, nearly 1,000 tornadoes had touched down across the United States in a record-setting outbreak that left entire regions of the country devastated and meteorologists flabbergasted—on average, 750 tornadoes are recorded in an entire year. Drenching rains led to historic flooding that left entire communities under water for weeks as bloated rivers rose and rose and rose without subsiding. Many communities welcomed the rain at first because it brought much-needed relief from suffocating drought—until it submerged their homes, roads, and farms. In the summer of 2018, more than 8,500 fires destroyed nearly 2 million acres of land in the largest, costliest, and deadliest wildfire outbreak in California history—at least 85 people died in the devastating Camp Fire alone. For anyone living in hurricane-prone regions of the country, names like Harvey, Katrina, Sandy, and Irma ring out as reminders of Mother Nature's ability to wreak havoc.
For much of the country, summer is the most dangerous time of the year, and in the era of climate change, the stakes have been raised as fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and other severe weather events have become more frequent, more intense, and more widespread. In short, it is now more important than ever to plan and prepare for nature's wrath, which—except for blizzards and dangerous cold spells—is at its meanest and least forgiving in the late spring through early fall.
It's usually too late to prepare once the storm is on its way—jammed highways and empty grocery store shelves are common sights on news broadcasts covering approaching storms. The time to prepare is now. Preparation should involve the whole family and comprise two parts. First is general emergency preparation that will come in handy no matter the catastrophe, and the second is emergency-specific preparation that changes depending on whether you live in an area prone to fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, or summer's most common and obvious danger: heat. Keep reading to learn how to get ready for whatever summer throws your way. The first several entries address general preparation while the rest give tips, tricks, and advice on how to get ready for weather events specific to your region.
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Accurate, up-to-date, real-time information is critical in any summer weather emergency, no matter what that emergency might be. Ready.gov/alerts provides information on how to sign up for wireless emergency alerts (WEAs), as well as information on the Emergency Alert System, NOAA Weather Radio, and other critical sources of information that public officials and agencies rely on to keep at-risk citizens informed.
Just like emergency alerts and information, a store of critical supplies is necessary for any emergency—and it will likely be too late to gather them by the time the emergency arrives. An emergency kit should contain enough supplies to last for three days, and it's important not to forget special needs like medication and pet supplies. The Ready.gov Build a Kit page offers comprehensive instructions on how to build an emergency kit designed to weather the aftermath of any emergency.
Families should not presume they will be together when disaster strikes and should develop and rehearse a course of action in case of an emergency. Each household has to plan according to its own specific needs, but all families should plan for how to receive alerts if they're apart, how to contact each other, where to meet, how to evacuate, and where to seek shelter. The Ready.gov Make a Plan site provides helpful information on creating a family plan if disaster strikes when loved ones are separated.
Ordinary people can prepare to help themselves, their families, and communities during natural disasters by learning first aid, participating in emergency-volunteer programs, and educating themselves about community emergency-response plans. The federal government's Get Involved program offers a wealth of information on how regular citizens can become community leaders capable of sustaining themselves and others in difficult situations until help arrives.
Social media is an excellent way to communicate with family and friends while also receiving emergency information and updates from public officials. Twitter and Facebook are the primary platforms that government agencies, emergency broadcasters, and weather forecasters use to send alerts and disperse information. The Ready.gov Severe Weather Social Media Toolkit page provides all the important pages and hashtags to follow, but never rely solely on social media as your primary family communication and planning strategy—electricity and internet services are often among the first casualties of severe weather.
Dangerous summer weather doesn't wait for its victims to get home, so an emergency car kit is essential should trouble strike while on the road. Insurers like Allstate are excellent sources for checklists and essentials that could become lifesavers for anyone braving the elements while driving. Just as with survival kits for the home, a car kit should include a few days' worth of necessities along with car-specific gear like flares and jumper cables, as well as specialty items like medicine, baby gear, sunscreen, rain ponchos, and pet essentials.
Although tornados and hurricanes grab the headlines, heat is the big summer killer. About 175 Americans die in a normal year from high heat, which the National Weather Service considers any day with temperatures above 90 degrees. It's important to know the symptoms of heat exhaustion, which include, but aren't limited to, muscle cramps, dizziness, faintness, heavy sweating, fatigue, weak and rapid pulse, nausea, headache, muscle cramps, and cool, moist, goose-bumpy skin.
Perspiration cools the body by covering the skin in water, but sweating alone does nothing at all—it's the evaporation of that water on the skin that lowers the body's temperature. Humidity impedes evaporation, which means the body cools slower and stays hotter when it's humid, even if the temperature is the same. In short, a 95-degree day with high humidity is significantly more dangerous than a 95-degree day that's dry.
The American Public Health Association offers tips that may seem obvious but are nevertheless a person's best protection against succumbing to dangerous heat. It's best to stay indoors during the hottest part of the day if possible and to take frequent breaks to cool off inside if not. Officials advise people to avoid sugary drinks and alcohol on the hottest days and instead to drink plenty of water—but it's important not to wait until they're thirsty to hydrate.
Thirty-eight kids and countless pets die in hot cars every year, all of which are classified as preventable deaths. The internal temperature of a car can climb 20 degrees in just 10 minutes, according to the North Carolina Consumers Council, and dogs can die of a heat stroke in just 15 minutes. Cracking windows doesn't help, so motorists should never leave a child or dog in a hot car for any length of time, and if they see someone who has, they should remain with the car until the situation is resolved and the child or pet is safe.
Geographically, tornadoes are not as widespread a summer threat as excessive heat, but they're also not confined to well-known Midwest hotspots like Kansas and Oklahoma—the New York City metro region was jolted with tornado warnings at the end of May 2019. Tornado warnings give only minutes of notice, so people who live in tornado-prone regions should get to know their region's warning system, learn what the different alerts mean, map out local shelters in case they're on the road when a twister strikes, and prepare a course of action with their families.
If a tornado does touch down, the safest place is a pre-designated shelter. When that's not an option, it's best to stay away from windows, seek shelter in a basement or a sturdy building, and never remain inside mobile homes, which can't withstand even small tornadoes. Motorists caught on the road should keep their radios tuned to an emergency station, stop driving, and seek shelter in a building, and if that's not possible, keep their seatbelts on and their heads down below the windows.
Summer is hurricane season in much of the country, and unlike tornadoes, they creep toward land in a slow and fairly predictable trajectory. That runup time is critical, and families in the path should develop plans for what to do 36 hours, 18 hours, and six hours before landfall—and they should always heed evacuation warnings. The Ready.gov Hurricane page can help families create timeline-driven plans, as well as strategies on how to survive during hurricanes and in their often-as-dangerous aftermaths.
Lightning strikes are rare, but summer electrical storms are dangerous and sometimes deadly. Since the outside is the single most dangerous place to be in a lightning storm, the CDC's motto is "when thunder roars, go indoors." A general rule of thumb is the 30/30 rule: people should count to 30 when they see lightning and if thunder is audible before they're done counting, they should head inside and suspend all outdoor activities for at least 30 minutes after they hear the last thunderclap.
It's always safer to be inside than out during an electrical storm, but lightning can find paths into the home. The CDC advises anyone riding out a storm inside to avoid plumbing and water, electronic equipment, and corded phones, all of which can give lightning a path to travel inside, although cell phones are safe. Also, stay away from concrete floors and walls.
Precipitation, coastal surges, and busted or overflowing dams or levees can all cause major floods, one of the deadliest natural events of summer. Floods can build gradually or wash over in an instant. People in flood zones should visit the FEMA Flood Map Service Center with their families before trouble strikes, plan evacuation routes to higher ground, and stock up on supplies, which, along with valuables, should be stored higher in the home.
Anyone attempting to flee a flood or who is caught in one while on the road should remember the slogan "turn around, don't drown": never attempt to walk, swim, or drive through floodwaters. According to Ready.gov, six inches of rushing water can knock a person over and a single foot of water can sweep away a car. No one should ever drive around barricades, and it's important to avoid low bridges over fast-moving water.
The annual summer menace of wildfire is more common and severe in the age of climate change, especially in the West. Anyone living in fire-prone areas should prepare like they would for any other natural disaster: by building a 72-hour survival kit, signing up for alerts, and planning evacuation routes and meeting places with their families. If fires encroach, it's critical to heed evacuation notices and to keep all doors and windows closed until it's time to leave. When that time comes, evacuees should keep outdoor lights on to help them see through thick smoke, shut off the gas before they leave, keep windows and doors unlocked to aid firefighters, and roll up the windows and close the vents as they drive.
Although hailstorms are sometimes precursors to tornados, many are independent weather events that can be dangerous and even deadly to people and animals all by themselves—get inside immediately and stay there when hail falls. People trapped in cars should never leave their vehicles, and they should cover their faces with cloth to protect themselves from broken glass if windows break. Anyone caught outside with no building close by should find whatever cover they can, but avoid hiding under trees unless it's an absolute last resort, as branches and limbs can fall in heavy hailstorms.
Every region in the country is prone to power outages in the summer, which can result from storms or over-extended grids during heatwaves, and the key to enduring an extended time without power is preparation. A checklist of critical items that require electricity is a good place to start, and it's crucial to learn how long medication can last without refrigeration. A good 72-hour kit should already include batteries, flashlights, and solar or hand-crank radios, and it's important to remember to keep freezers shut—if left unopened, food will keep for 48 hours.