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Coming Home After a Disaster: Things You Need to Know

Updated on September 9, 2017
Jody Newton profile image

Jody has written about emergency management and disaster topics for first responders for over 7 years and researched the topics for 19.

Louisiana Living Room after Hurricane Katrina
Louisiana Living Room after Hurricane Katrina | Source

The Secondary Disaster: Debris Clean-up and Muck

As I write this, Hurricane Irma is barreling toward Florida. Most South Floridians have heeded the warnings and left. Many Caribbean islands are badly damaged. Meanwhile, Texas is in week 2 of recovery from Hurricane Harvey, and the Western states are seeing one of the worst wildfire seasons in history. To say we are being battered right now is an understatement. Millions of Americans are in need of disaster assistance right now, something so few of us really think about until it is too late.

Many residents of hurricane- or storm-damaged areas focus on immediate needs of surviving the storm: evacuate or shelter-in-place? Do I have enough food and water for my family? Do I have all the necessities, like clothing and prescriptions? What about pets? What about everything else? It is an incredibly painful and scary thing to go through, but most people don't think about the secondary disaster waiting after the storm.

As the winds die down and the floodwaters recede, homes and businesses will be subject to mold, mildew, raw sewage, and floating chemical hazards. There will be mud and other debris, including dead animals, to clean up. On top of managing the overall shock of the storm and it's impact, it is a lot to deal with. There are places you can turn and things you should know when trying to work through this.

Who to Call for Assistance

Regardless of the state of your home and belongings, the first order of business is to take care of your family's needs, including food, shelter, and health care.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides financial assistance to people impacted by federally-declared disasters. If you are in an area heavily impacted, there will likely be FEMA people canvasing the areas to help you sign up, and there may be Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) in a building (library, school, etc.) where you can go and sign up. The DRCs can help you get inspections for your property, food and lodging, replace important identification documents, and more. There are also Small Business Administration representatives to assist business with loans. Please see this FEMA site for more information on FEMA assistance. You may also call (800) 621-3362 / TTY (800) 462-7585 to apply during standard hours of operation (7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Time), 7 days a week.

In addition, DisasterAssistance.gov helps you find active shelters, open hospitals, lodging, and more. The American Red Cross and many, many other charities are also on the ground working to help.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to apply for disaster assistance. These programs are free of charge and are there to help you get back on your feet. It is your tax dollars at work, please

Florida devastation from Hurricane Andrew, almost exactly 25 years ago
Florida devastation from Hurricane Andrew, almost exactly 25 years ago | Source

Coming Home to Devastation

If you have had water damage to your home, be prepared to deal with a mold or mildew problem and a variety of other issues. There are numerous resources available for homeowners on these topics and I will attempt to address them below, but here are a few general sites that contain a number of different topics.

A group of government agencies wrote several guides to help homeowners and renters manage mold, radon, lead, and asbestos issues when cleaning up their homes and property. These reports, and more information on these issues, can be found on the Housing and Urban Development website linked above. They are also available in Spanish.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information available for homeowners on cleanup after disasters such as floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and more. Some of this information is available in both Spanish and French. It is extensive.

Hurricane Irma damage on Sint Maarten
Hurricane Irma damage on Sint Maarten | Source

Mold and Mildew

After Hurricane Katrina, one of the biggest problems homeowners and businesses faced was mold. Flooded homes provide an ideal environment for mold to take hold and spread. Here are some resources to help mitigate this problem:

Chemical Hazards

The sheer amount of chemical cleaners and whatnot in our houses is incredible and during a hurricane or flood it can get swept away, leak, and become a serious health and safety hazard, which people often forget about. Here are some resources on this:

Natural Gas, Propane, and Electricity

Did you know propane tanks float? Yup, and with the whipping wind, they can not only float but break off from their pipes and leak! Even worse, propane is heavier than air, which means it can pool in low places in your house, just waiting for a spark to set off a large, deadly explosion. Talk about dangerous! If you are in a floodzone, contact your propane provider and have them ensure it is properly secured. Here are some propane and natural gas resources:

Obviously there is a serious threat of electrocution during flooding conditions and it is important to turn of power to your house before you evacuate. Here are some other things to think about:]

One of dozens of FEMA response facilities waiting to be deployed to the disaster zones
One of dozens of FEMA response facilities waiting to be deployed to the disaster zones | Source

You Don't Have to Do It Alone

I am a contractor with FEMA. I have been working to get the first responders on the ground information that can and will help save their lives and the lives of those they are coming to help.

Five people on the hallway I work were deployed to Texas to set up and run Disaster Recovery Centers. Dozens more from the facility I work with also went. They join thousands more FEMA employees that flew in from other parts of the country. 8,000 FEMA employees have been "forward deployed" to Florida before Irma hits and are on the ground, waiting. Teams in other states are staged and ready to go when the call comes, and backup teams are waiting to relieve them in a few weeks.

My federal supervisor and about 6 other people I work with directly have been taking calls of disaster survivors in Texas to get them signed up for disaster assistance 8-12 hours a day, and will likely continue through the next 2 weeks in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Help is there. Help is coming. Use it; it is there for you, but you have to make the call or visit the DRC if one of the FEMA canvassers doesn't find you first. The stories I hear from people doing this work is humbling. Just know you are not alone.

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