NCOA National Council on Aging

Help With Decision Making


Can you cope with a disaster?

Get information on how you might be able to get help from the U.S. government before, during, and after a disaster.

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Key Questions to Consider

How do I protect my home against a natural disaster?

Make sure you have adequate homeowners insurance coverage against natural disasters. You can get insurance for a tornado or wildfire in a standard policy that covers the replacement cost of your home and contents. Tornado coverage falls under “wind events,” which may be defined differently by insurance companies. You may qualify for a discount on your insurance by adding safety features such as storm shutters or an impact-resistant roof.

How do I protect my home against wildfires?

If you live in an area that is prone to fires, keep the area around your home clear of brush and other highly flammable growth. Create a defensible space of 100 feet around your home to protect your home and firefighters who defend your home. Visit the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention website for fact sheets on fire prevention.

How can I modify my home to withstand a hurricane?

If you live in an area that experiences hurricanes, such as the Gulf Coast, make sure your home meets or exceeds local building codes. This will help ensure that it is more resistant to possible damage. You can also install straps or clips to fasten your roof to the frame of your house.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that you secure your property with permanent storm windows when possible. As another option, you can board up windows with 5/8” marine plywood. Trimming back trees and shrubs near your home also helps to prevent damage to your home.

What are the requirements for flood insurance?

Standard homeowners insurance policies do not cover damage from flooding. It is important to have protection from floods due to hurricanes, tropical storms, and heavy rains if you live in a high-risk area for floods.

When you apply for a loan for a house in a flood zone, you must get flood insurance before the lender can close the loan.  The maximum amount of coverage that you can purchase for a flood insurance policy is $250,000 for the building and $100,000 for contents.

Check to learn more about the National Flood Insurance Program and to get a map of your local flood zones.

How can I prepare for situations where I am trapped in my home?

Keep one week’s worth of supplies on hand in case you are trapped in your home or stores are closed during a natural disaster. Canned goods and dry staples are the best choices because they do not spoil. You will need at least a gallon of water per day for each person in your household. Bottled water is easy to store in case your pipes break or the water supply is compromised.

Battery-operated or hand-crank flashlights, radios, and lamps are important items to keep on hand in case of power failures. If you have an alternate heating source like a fireplace, make sure the chimney is clean and have a supply of dry wood on hand.

Do I have a communication plan with my family members?

Expect local land lines to be down or busy during an emergency. Plan to use friends or family outside of your local area as a central communication center to let your family know you are okay. Agree on a meeting spot outside your home in case of fire evacuation and where you would meet outside of your city in case of a major emergency.

How can I protect myself and home during a disaster?

Depending on the type of disaster, your local police and fire department will broadcast emergency warnings and instructions on local radio and television stations and will likely post information on the Internet. Visit the National Weather Service for storm warning and severe weather alerts.

In some areas, you can call 511 for local non-emergency information. Do not call 911 unless you need emergency help. When evacuation is mandatory, police or firemen will usually come door to door and make announcements over their loudspeakers in the street.

How do I stay healthy during a disaster?

If you need to evacuate your home during a disaster, it is essential that you have several weeks’ supply of medication. Be sure to check the shelf life of these medications to ensure their potency. Ask your doctor to prescribe the additional amount of medication you will need. It’s also a good idea to keep a supply of common medications for headaches, colds, flu, allergies, and the like in case someone becomes ill during a natural disaster or its aftermath.

Cost Concerns

How much insurance do I need to protect my home against a disaster?

You can estimate the amount of disaster insurance you need by finding out how much it could cost to rebuild your home if it is completely destroyed. Make a list or video of the contents of your home. For each item, identify the manufacturer’s name, date, and place of purchase and price in case you ever need to file an insurance claim.

What are some tips for filing insurance claims?

Take photographs showing the damage to your home. If it is a flood situation, take photos that show the height of the water. Separate damaged from undamaged property to help the insurance adjuster. Let the adjuster know if you need an advance. Good records of the items you have lost and their purchase price can help speed up the processing of your claim.

Who do I contact to apply for disaster assistance?

First check the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website to make sure your county is covered by a disaster declaration. Then check to see what your homeowners insurance covers. Your insurance company should respond within 30 days. If you have filed for insurance benefits and the damage to your home is not covered by your policy, or the insurance settlement does not cover your losses, you may be eligible for “Housing Needs” Assistance or “Other than Housing Needs” Assistance through FEMA.

How can I receive my Social Security and other federal benefits if mail service is interrupted?

Sign up for direct deposit to your bank account so that your Social Security check or other funds transfer electronically and will not be delayed. You can also sign up for a “Direct Express” prepaid debit card if you do not have a bank account.

Consumer Cautions

How do I make smart decisions in an emergency?

It is easy to panic when you do not have enough information. Staying calm and thinking clearly will help you arrive at the right decisions to deal with a disaster.

Where do I go if I cannot stay at home?

Local schools, community centers, and churches may be used as emergency shelters. If you decide to evacuate to a shelter, expect crowded conditions. Shelters will not provide medical equipment like walkers and wheelchairs. Put your name and phone number on yours.

Most emergency shelters refuse pets, so check with your local Red Cross and the Humane Society in advance for places where you can leave your pets.

Do I have a “grab and go” bag prepared to take with me?

Keep a bag handy with essential items in case you need to evacuate your home. Be sure to include a list of your insurance policies, along with your medications, flashlight, hand sanitizer, energy bars, water, an extra pair of socks, underwear, toilet paper, band-aids, and trash bags.

Am I aware that natural disasters seem to bring out the scam artists?

Natural disasters often inspire con artists and crooks to launch new scams. Guard your personal information carefully. If your house needs repairs, do not respond to high-pressure sales tactics or agree to any proposed repair work without a written contract.

Beware of contractors who want their payment upfront—they may not complete the job or may do substandard work. Scam contractors may also steal your valuables while they are in your home.

Do I know which neighbors need help and who can help me?

Get to know your neighbors. Is there someone who is blind or has a disability who may need help to evacuate his or her home? Is there someone you could rely on to help you in case of an emergency?

Keep their names and numbers handy so you are not searching for them in a disaster. Keep local numbers for fire, utilities, law enforcement, and doctors handy, too.

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