How College Students Can Plan for a Natural Disaster

From Independent Agents & Brokers of America

Complete Plans for Every Disaster

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Most of the time, college is safe and fun, but it's not always disaster-proof. What would you do if you were faced with a natural disaster, especially if your college locale isn’t your permanent residence? It’s good to know how to respond before it happens, so start your planning by gathering whatever information you can. As you would for any class, take advantage of readily available information already compiled. Some information may be offered by your independent rental insurance agent.

  • Disaster preparedness depends on your college residence, since campus student housing and off-campus private housing are fundamentally different.
    • Campus housing: Whether it's a dorm room, campus apartment or on-campus organization house (fraternity, sorority, society, etc.), you're obligated to follow campus policies related to student housing. You'll have to adapt disaster preparation and response activities to conform to the rules and procedures applicable to your shelter type.
    • Off-campus rentals: The structures might be the same—you may live in an apartment or house with multiple roommates. But private rental housing, especially with roommates, makes you beholden to private contracts with landlords. You’re entirely responsible for the lease terms you agree to. Be sure your lease contains provisions that allow you to employ these tips to protect yourself and your property before, during and after disasters.
  • Know which local media provide news and warnings, even if you don’t have cable or watch television regularly. Some schools offer a list, or you can find the information online.
    • Register for alerts from your college or university and keep your contact information updated. (During course registration each semester always is a good time.)
    • Sign up for the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio for emergency alerts, or make sure the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) system from FEMA is activated on your mobile phone.
    • Learn what school emergency hotline numbers, chat apps and websites are available to you before and during disasters. Store the information on your phone and download the apps.
  • Know if there are disaster preparedness plans for your dorm or other student housing, including where emergency exits, generators, call boxes and fire extinguishers are. Don’t skip or ignore drills; create your own if none are planned where you live.
  • Download disaster preparedness apps to keep in touch with family, friends and neighbors, track disasters and weather, know where emergency resources are in your area, keep digital medical records, have GPS available, and communicate wirelessly if you lose phone service. 
  • Once you start hearing disaster watches and warnings from reliable sources, keep phones and other critical digital communication or healthcare devices charged.
  • Plan to save phone calls for emergencies. Phone systems are often down or busy after disasters. Use text messaging, apps or social media to communicate with family and friends. 
  • Make sure those you need to contact maintain access to alternative methods of communication or remain connected to those who do.
  • Maintain emergency supplies like a first aid kit, nonperishable food, a gallon of bottled water per person (or a portable water filter with pitcher), blankets, batteries, battery-operated flashlights, and backup phones. Also, make sure laptop chargers, copies of medical and other vital records, and extra medication are on hand.
  • Pack a “go bag” with your emergency supplies, a few changes of clothes, and other essentials—things you can’t live without like sanitary products, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, and multipurpose wipes.
  • Do laundry at the first hint of a natural disaster in case you can't later because of loss of electricity and water.
  • Learn about established evacuation routes and how students without vehicles or whose vehicles are too damaged to drive would evacuate.
  • Contact your college city's or town's planning and emergency assistance organizations. Ask them for information about disaster planning specific to college students in your area and learn if there are different plans for various housing types. 
  • Make an emergency plan with your roommates or dorm mates, including a meeting place where you’ll keep track of one another. Exchange emergency contact information for loved ones.
  • Talk with parents and other loved ones about what emergency procedures you will follow.
  • Take a first aid/CPR class from the American Red Cross and attend disaster preparedness programs for your area, especially if you’re new to the types of disasters common to your college location.
  • Make sure your residential lease allows you to conduct the specific disaster preparedness activities identified below. That way, you won't be held financially responsible for damage caused by adopting them.
  • If you have pets, have a contingency plan in place. Many emergency shelters won't accept them.
  • Don’t assume a disaster means classes will be canceled. Know your school’s academic continuity policies to determine if you’ll complete classes online.
  • Create a pre-disaster residential inventory of your personal belongings for rental insurance claims you may make post-disaster. You can find apps to help you with that.

Earthquakes

These events happen with very little warning, often in the most unexpected places or at the most unexpected times. That includes when you’re visiting an earthquake-prone city for an event with your team or for fun. But even if you live on a campus in a part of the country where you expect these events, you almost take it for granted—except don’t. Get prepared, because trying to ride these out without advanced planning can be life-altering or ending.

Before an Earthquake

  • Determine if your campus schedules “Shake Out Drills” and participate. Learn how to be safe during an earthquake before one happens.
  • Understand the vulnerability to earthquakes of your college residence, whether it’s a dorm, student apartment complex or off-campus private housing. Find out if you’re living near a fault line by obtaining and reviewing fault zone maps from the school or your city or county planning department.
  • Know the location of designated safe places to go in your structure when an earthquake occurs, depending on your housing type. Choose a spot away from windows where nothing can fall on you, preferably under a sturdy table or desk, or under an interior doorway.
  • Help quake-proof your residence by not keeping anything in your dorm room or campus apartment that’s prohibited because it creates a danger during earthquakes. That includes certain additional furniture types and appliances.
  • If you live off-campus in a private rental, make sure your lease allows you to bolt or secure furniture to wall studs. Attach mirrors, pictures, and other objects securely to the wall. Do not hang glass-framed pictures or mirrors above your bed or use a mirrored headboard.
  • If you live in housing that contains them, make sure flexible connectors were used in your for gas-fueled appliances to prevent them from snapping.
  • Install sturdy latches on cupboards and cabinets to prevent objects from falling out. Put heavier items, including canned goods, on bottom shelves.
  • For private rentals, check with your local building inspector to determine if the building has any issues that would make it unsafe during an earthquake that haven't gotten rectified.
  • If a severe earthquake does occur, you may be asked to evacuate. Review the tips above, so you have your disaster supplies kit packed and know your evacuation plan.

During an Earthquake

  • The shaking that occurs during an earthquake lasts for a few minutes, although it may seem like an eternity. To protect yourself, remember these three words: duck, cover, and hold.
  • Move away from windows and exterior doors.
  • Lie down and take cover, preferably under a table, desk or another safe spot. Protect yourself by curling up, if you can. Cover your head, spine and chest areas. Hold on to the furniture and be prepared to move with it.
  • If you're in a high-rise building, move against an interior wall: Again, try to find a desk or table to crawl under. Do not use the elevators. Expect the fire alarms and sprinklers to go off.
  • If you're in a car, pull over and stop; stay in the vehicle until the shaking stops. Avoid bridges and overpasses. Don't try to drive through water puddling in roads, as flash floods can carry your car away.
  • If you're outdoors, find a spot away from buildings, trees, and power lines. Lie on the ground.
  • If you're on a sidewalk near buildings, try to duck into a doorway to protect yourself from falling glass and debris.

Natural Disaster Risk Map

natural disaster risk map

Source:  Natural Disaster Coalition

After an Earthquake

  • Be prepared for aftershocks. Although they may be smaller and less intense than the main quake, they could cause additional damage or cause tottering buildings or other structures to fall. Stay indoors until after the shaking stops and you're sure it's safe to exit.
  • If no one in your residence got injured, put a sign saying "all OK" on the door so emergency teams can assist those who do need help.
  • Be prepared to allow designated inspectors to enter and carefully check your residence for parts of the structure, like walls, that might be damaged and ready to fall.
  • Reposition or remove anything in your closets and cupboards that may be damaged or ready to fall. Remember to open them carefully, so nothing falls and injures anyone in your residence. 

Wildfires

Wildfires around college campuses

Even in areas where you expect there to be wildfires, they almost always start unexpectedly and in places you didn’t predict. The US government defines a wildfire as “an unplanned fire that burns in a natural area such as a forest, grassland, or prairie.” All it takes is really dry conditions, high winds, and heat from a human or natural source to start a wildfire anywhere in America. They can lead to floods and disruptions in transportation, utilities and communications. It’s essential to be ready if one of these events happens near where you live during the school year—or anytime.  

What Should You Do?

  • If there is a threat of a wildfire, monitor warnings. Listen to your local radio or TV news programs or monitor your weather app for the most reliable, latest information. Observe warnings and instructions given through your campus alert system.
  • Evacuate immediately after you hear any order from your school or local authorities, using the evacuation routes and paths they provide. Take your disaster supplies kit with you and begin implementing the disaster preparedness plan you already developed.
  • Park your car in an open space if you live on campus, or back your car into the garage of your off-campus rental, facing in the direction of the escape route. Shut the car doors, roll up the windows and, if possible, leave the key in the ignition. If the car is in the garage, close the garage door but disconnect the automatic garage door opener.
  • Confine your pets to one room so they'll be easier to find in case you have to evacuate.
  • Secure the inside of your residence. Close windows, vents, doors, blinds, and drapes. In private rentals, open fireplace dampers, and close screens.
  • Move flammable furniture and items away from windows to the center of the room, but leave ample space around the things so you can get around them safely.
  • Turn a light on in each room to increase the visibility in your residence in heavy smoke.
  • Secure the outside of the residence in private housing: Seal attic and ground vents with plywood; turn off propane tanks; put patio furniture inside; connect garden hoses to taps; set up a portable generator; and water the shrubs close to the house.

Floods

floods around college campus

These disasters—the temporary overflow of water onto previously dry lands—are the most common of all. They can happen anywhere in America and result from rain, snow, coastal storms, storm surges, and overflows from dams or other water systems. Some happen slowly, others, in a flash. Both types are dangerous and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Knowing how to handle a flood can save more than your property.

Before a Flood

  • When a flood watch is issued, if you live in private housing, move your furniture and valuables to higher floors in your home. If you live in campus apartments or dorms, learn from your school where you should move your furniture in your building, or move lighter furnishings to friends’ rooms or apartments.
  • Fill your car with gas in case you have to evacuate. Do it when you confirm the first flood watches, since flood warnings may lead to long gas station lines.
  • Get your disaster supplies kit ready to take with you. You may have very short notice to evacuate.
  • Digitize your print photos; put them or any irreplaceable mementos in a water-resistant container on a high shelf or in another place away from floodwaters.
  • Bring outdoor furniture and recreational items inside no matter where you reside.
  • When you hear about a flood watch, confirm it by listening to your local radio or TV stations and weather apps for information. Watch for warnings and information through your campus alert system.
  • Know where the main switches and gas valves are in your private rental so you can turn off utilities and close the main gas valve if local authorities tell residents to do so.
  • If told to evacuate, leave immediately, especially if the warning is for flash flooding. It is easier to leave before the flood waters become too deep.
  • Know where emergency building materials, shovels, and sandbags are in case you need to use them at your residence.
  • Know if your rental has check valves installed in sewer traps to prevent floodwaters from backing up in sewer drains, and how to use them or when your landlord will.
  • Have large corks or stoppers on hand to help plug showers, tubs, and basins.
  • Fill cleaned tubs, sinks and jugs with fresh water in case the water supply becomes contaminated. Heed warnings about contaminated water and follow instructions for or learn how to decontaminate water after a flood.

During a Flood

  • Don't attempt to drive through floodwaters. Cars routinely get swept under, even during flash floods.
  • Abandon your car if it stalls in an area where there are rapidly rising waters.
  • No matter where you are, move to higher ground and stay clear of floodwaters.
  • Move away from rivers, streams, creeks, and storm drains, so you're not swept off the shore into uncontrollable waters.
  • Avoid walking through floodwaters to keep from being swept under.
  • Obey traffic instructions and detour information. They are being issued for your safety.
  • Stay clear of downed wires, which may be live and therefore dangerous to walk or drive over.
  • Keep your devices safe from water, using a backpack or other bag that falls no lower than your waist, to carry them during floods.

After a Flood

  • Know what re-entry and clean-up policies your school has in place for dorms and other student housing and follow them.
  • The danger caused by floods isn't over when the water recedes, so don't attempt to return to your residence until the authorities say it's safe to do so. 
  • If your car gets submerged, let it dry out thoroughly before trying to start it.
  • Use battery-powered flashlights or lanterns to examine your residence. Do not attempt to turn the lights on until you the authorities tell you it is safe to do so. 
  • Watch out for snakes or other animals that may have come into your residence with floodwaters. Use a stick or broom handle and wear work gloves while poking through debris. Wear thick-soled, closed-toed footwear to protect your feet when walking through a flooded area. 
  • In private housing, get your landlord to pump water from flooded basements to avoid standing water that attracts vermin and disease pathogens.
  • Shovel mud our of your residence while it is still moist.
  • Raise wall-to-wall carpeting to allow air to circulate through it if you're renting off-campus housing. Make sure you alert your landlord that you’ve done this and for what purpose.
  • When plaster walls have dried, brush off loose dirt. Wash with a mild soap solution and rinse with clean water. If your school has a specific process for doing this, follow it, or search online for how to do it without damaging the walls.
  • Make sure your landlord will clean out HVAC and plumbing systems so you can use them.
  • To prevent metal objects from rusting, clean immediately, wipe with a kerosene-soaked cloth, and apply a light coat of oil.
  • Allow clothing and household fabrics to dry before brushing off loose dirt.
  • Boil any water you use for drinking or food preparation until the water supply is declared safe. 
  • Throw out any food or medicine that has come in contact with floodwaters.
  • Take wooden furniture outside to dry, but keep it out of direct sunlight to prevent warping.
  • Before the house is aired out, scrub all woodwork and floors with a stiff brush. Search online about how to do this correctly to prevent damage. 

Saving Photos and Mementos

  • When people are interviewed after a major disaster, they often express profound sorrow over the loss of their photos and mementos. Almost everything in your residence can be replaced, but your memories and family history can't. If your photos and mementos aren’t digital already, these tips may help you preserve your water-damaged pictures and mementos.
  • Most prints, negatives, and slides can be air-dried. Put the image or picture side face up and avoid touching the front surface.
  • Hang the items on a clothesline, using wooden or other non-abrasive clothespins, or use a fan to circulate the air. If using a fan, do not aim it directly at the photos or mementos.
  • For a framed photo, place the frame glass-side down and remove backing materials. Remove the picture and air-dry it. If the photo is stuck to the glass, don't remove it. Keeping the glass side down, try to dry the frame with the photo inside.
  • If photos are covered with mud or dirt and are still wet, gently rinse them in clean, cold water.
  • If negatives are stuck together or if your photos are severely damaged, contact photography experts in your school’s art program or find help online before trying to fix the problem.

Hurricanes 

hurricane disaster plan

These massive storm systems form over warm ocean waters and move toward land. Hurricanes often bring powerful winds, heavy rainfall, storm surges, coastal and inland flooding, rip currents, tornadoes, and landslides. If your campus is along any US coast or in any territory in the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, even 100 miles inland, you could experience one. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. The Pacific hurricane season runs from May 15 to November 30. They're most active in September, right when you return to school. So come to campus ready to confront one.

Before a Hurricane

  • If you live in private off-campus housing, know if you or your landlord will install hurricane shutters or precut 3/4" pieces of marine plywood on each window of your residence. Make sure your lease provides you with protection if your landlord requires you to do this yourself. 
  • If you’re renting a house with a group of friends, determine whether surrounding trees are wind-resistant. If not, find out if your landlord will remove diseased or damaged limbs and other branches so that wind can blow through the trees. If you must do this, make sure you won't be held liable for damage to the trees by getting that in writing from your landlord.
  • When a hurricane is approaching, a hurricane watch or a hurricane warning will be announced through your school’s local news media, emergency warning systems, or the weather apps you use. 
  • Be prepared to evacuate, especially if you live on the coastline, near a river, or on a floodplain. 
  • You should expect high winds even if the hurricane doesn't make landfall, so follow all warnings, policies and evacuation instructions, including recommended evacuation routes. 
  • Take your disaster supplies kit, which should include sleeping bags and blankets.
  • When you evacuate, lock the windows and doors of your residence before leaving. Turn off and unplug all electrical devices.
  • Put away lightweight objects that could become airborne.
  • Anchor outdoor objects that you can't bring inside.
  • Call your emergency contact person to report your plans.
  • Fill your car's gas tank when you hear the first hurricane warning.
  • If you are not told to evacuate, settle in and stay put. Keep the roads free for those who need to use them; don’t decide to “chase” or “witness” the hurricane firsthand. 
  • Don't be fooled! A period of tranquility follows the first part of the storm. It is only the eye of the hurricane passing over. The rest of the storm is still to come.
  • Collect your disaster supplies kit, blankets, and sleeping bags and keep them near you.
  • Keep pets indoors.
  • Make sure your battery-powered radio is nearby.
  • If you're on the immediate coast and in danger of a storm surge, go to a room on an upper floor, preferably one without windows, or a hallway if you live in a dorm or an apartment complex. Stay there until the storm passes.
  • If you're in a location not susceptible to a coastal storm surge, then go to an interior room or common room in the building, or another building on campus that your school designates for students to go to.
hurricane disaster planning

Source:  FEMA

After a Hurricane

  • If you have evacuated, wait until the authorities tell you it's safe before returning to your residence, whether it’s on campus or off.
  • Be alert for tornadoes.
  • Stay away from floodwaters.
  • Use a flashlight. Do not light matches or turn on electrical switches.
  • Sniff for gas leaks if you live in a private rental. If you smell gas or suspect a leak, carefully open windows and evacuate the unit. If you have any concerns, contact your landlord to have the gas system checked by a professional.
  • Do not touch wires or outlets.
  • Check for frayed cords and cracked or broken prongs and plugs before use.
  • Get your landlord or campus housing to restore electricity or deal with electrical issues. Don’t do it yourself. 
  • Watch for holes in the floor, loose boards, or hanging plaster and report them to campus housing or your landlord.
  • If your residence got flooded, check for snakes and other animals that may have entered the property.
  • Before you start cleaning up debris, prepare an inventory of all damaged or destroyed personal property. Videotape or photograph the damage.
  • Get your landlord or campus housing to make temporary repairs to prevent further damage.
  • Get help from your landlord or campus housing to clean up any flammable or toxic materials that got spilled near your residence.
  • Dispose of all spoiled food immediately. If you have insurance coverage for spoiled food, document your losses.
  • Don’t do permanent repairs on your private rental until you've received approval for reimbursement from your landlord.
  • Save remnants of damaged or destroyed property for the insurance company adjuster for your renter’s policy.
  • Keep a written record of everyone you talk to about your insurance claim, including the date and a summary of the conversation.
  • Keep all receipts.
  • Your pre-disaster residential inventory will be of great assistance to you at this point. After you've examined everything and determined the extent of damage, call your independent insurance agent as soon as possible to file a claim.

Thunderstorms

How to prepare for a thunderstorm

These dramatic, sudden and totally unpredictable storms often bring real danger, including powerful winds over 50 mph, hail, flash flooding, and tornadoes. But lightning strikes are one of the biggest threats. The federal government identifies lightning as a leading cause of weather-related injury and death. While most lightning victims survive, they often report multiple, long-term, debilitating symptoms. Thunderstorm preparation gives real meaning to the warning “better safe than sorry,” because it’s crucial to take it seriously.

Before a Thunderstorm

  • Ask your landlord to remove dead tree branches near your house that could ignite and cause a fire if struck by lightning.
  • Unplug all your devices and appliances before the storm hits to prevent power surges.
  • Close blinds and shades.
  • Plan to wait out the storm out entirely while indoors.

During a Thunderstorm

  • Get indoors as quickly as possible if you begin to see or hear a thunderstorm coming your way, even if the rain hasn’t started. Sometimes hail comes before or instead of rain.
  • All thunderstorms bring lightning, even outside heavy rain areas. Keep away from windows to avoid lightning strikes.
  • Avoid using a corded phone. Telephone lines can conduct electricity.
  • Don’t use faucets, sinks, or bathtubs, since plumbing and water also conduct electricity.
  • If you are in or near water, get out immediately, go to land and find the best shelter you can—preferably inside a building rather than in a car. 
  • If you're in a car, keep the windows closed and don't drive. Hydroplaning, where your tire treads take on more water than they can handle, causing your vehicle to glide across the water like it's on ice, could cost you control of the vehicle. 
  • If you’re in traffic and can’t pull over, turn on your hazard lights and headlight high beams and drive slowly, keeping a distance of a few car lengths between you and other cars, until you can pull over safely.
  • When possible, pull to the side of the road to wait until the heavy rain and hail subside. Flash flooding, also a risk, could carry your vehicle away and lead to drowning. 
  • Park away from trees or power lines that could fall on your car. The latter could lead to electrocution.
  • Even if you're in your driveway or the parking lot near your residence, but the lightning is severe, try to wait out the storm before exiting the vehicle. That includes waiting for the lightning to stop entirely.
  • If you are outside, find a location that is not likely to flood. Avoid tall structures, such as towers, trees, fences, telephone lines and power lines, because they can conduct lightning that could strike you.
  • If you are outside in an open space, squat low to the ground and assume a tucked position. Place your hands on your knees with your head tucked between them. Try to touch as little of your body to the ground as possible. Do not lie flat on the ground, since your fully extended body will provide a larger surface to conduct electricity.
  • If you feel your hair stand on end in a storm, drop into the tucked position immediately. This sensation means electrical charges are already running up your body from the ground toward an electrically charged cloud. If you can minimize your contact with the ground, you will reduce your injury.

After a Thunderstorm

  • Once lightning has struck a person or an object, they do not carry a charge and cannot harm you. So don't be afraid to touch or assist a person who needs help.
  • Administer first aid or CPR immediately. A lightning victim usually suffers burns in two places on the body—where the lightning entered and where it exited.
  • Assess vehicles or residences for damage from rain, lightning, hail, fallen trees or downed wires. Document any damage thoroughly.
  • Contact your independent insurance agent to make a claim. 

Tornadoes

How to prepare for a tornado

These ominous funnels are violently rotating air columns that can form out of thunderstorms at any time, anywhere and roar across the land. They can bring extreme winds of over 200 mph and can destroy buildings, flip cars, and create deadly flying debris. These aren’t events to chase; they’re dangerous weather incidents to avoid and prepare for.

Before a Tornado

  • Become familiar with the type of alarm or notification system your school or local government will put into effect to let you know when they’re issuing a tornado watch or warning. 
  • Don't wait until a tornado warning is issued to find out what to do. Make sure everyone in your college household is fully prepared to take responsibility for their safety; that will keep you safe.
  • The best preparation for a tornado is to be alert to changing weather patterns. Pay attention to weather reports and rely on your instincts and experience. 
  • Nature provides certain environmental clues that may precede a tornado. Look for a dark, greenish sky, a wall of clouds, and hailstones that are sometimes as large as grapefruit. 
  • Eyewitnesses say a tornado produces a loud roar, similar to that of an approaching freight train.
  • Don’t plan to be a “storm chaser.” That’s dangerous even for weather professionals. Take steps to avoid the storm.
  • Identify a safe shelter and practice going there in the event of high winds.

During a Tornado

  • The safest place to be during a tornado is underground. If there is no basement in your campus or off-campus rental, a small room in the middle of the structure—like a recreation or quiet study room—is best. Stay away from windows. 
  • Get under a stable piece of furniture, such as a heavy table or desk. Hold on to it and use your arms to protect your head and neck. 
  • If there is no safe place inside, go outside and lie flat on the ground with your hands over your head and neck.
  • If you're in a car, get out and seek safe shelter or lie down in a low area, again with your hands over your head and neck.
  • Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You’re safer in a low, flat location.
  • Watch out for flying debris that can cause injury or death.
  • If you're in a high-rise building, make your way to an interior room on the lowest floor. Avoid elevators and stay away from windows, doors, and outside walls.

After a Tornado

  • Check for injured or trapped people. Do not move them unless they are in immediate danger of further injury.
  • If you are trapped, cover your mouth with a cloth or mask to avoid breathing dust. Try to send a text, bang on a pipe or wall, or use a whistle instead of shouting.
  • Stay clear of fallen power lines and broken utility lines.
  • Do not enter damaged buildings until you get the “all clear” from your school or local authorities.
  • Be careful during clean-up. Wear thick-soled shoes, long pants, and work gloves.

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