Be Prepared

I recently got a letter from a 5th grader in Washington asking for information about disaster recovery. I wrote a very long response that I hope is helpful to everyone!


Although our organization focuses on insurance claims after a disaster, having gone through natural disasters myself and having dealt with the aftermath several times I will try to address your general question and not just focus on our organization’s mission. This is not necessarily geared towards a 5th grader and it’s going to get long so I hope your teacher can help you get through it.

To help answer your questions let me first lay some groundwork.

When a disaster hits it comes in phases. The first phase is the actual disaster. This is when the disaster is actually happening. Fire, earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, terrorist attack and volcanic eruptionare the most common in the US, although tsunami’s can also happen, especially on the west coast. This phase will come with very little to no warning and last the shortest of all of the phases.

The second phase is immediate needs. This phase is immediately after the disaster, but before aid workers arrive. It lasts until everyone has met the basic needs of being able to provide their own food and shelter and has free access to their house and can last anywhere from a single day to several months.

The third phase is recovery. This is the longest lasting of the phases and the most overlooked by the public. It lasts at least one year and more likely than not three years but sometimes as much as five years. When it ends can be different from household to household and ends when a family is in a “new” permanent living situation which can vary in scope from someone finding a new rental unit to buying a new house to rebuilding their old house.

Now on with your questions.

Your first question was “What are the most important things you need when a natural disaster happens?When preparing for phase one of a disaster the first thing you have to do is identify the types of disasters possible in your area and learn how to survive that phenomenon. Be aware that there is most likely more than one type of disaster to prepare for in your area. Most of the west coast is in the Ring of Fire (ask your teacher for a geology lesson on this topic) and as such is subject to earthquakes. Washington even has an active volcano so if you’re in that area you should prepare for that and if you’re close to the coast you need to be aware of tsunami’s and fire can break out anywhere. There are numerous sources found online and there is no way I can go into much detail, but as an example, there is a great YouTube channel called “We Are Unprepared” ( that has lots of videos that talk about what you can do to prepare for an earthquake.

Another way to prepare for phase one is to have a phone that can use SMS texting. Many times during a disaster it’s the only way to communicate since the regular phone network is jammed with people making calls. After almost every disaster you hear stories of how the only way to communicate during the disaster was through SMS texting.

Related to that is Twitter. Sometimes you need information and can’t get it through traditional means (radio and TV). Even if you don’t use it for anything else you (or your teacher or parent) should join twitter and put the app on their phone. When you want information and can’t find it on the radio or TV you can always search Twitter.  You can also create lists of local news and information organizations that you can view to see what they’re posting all in one place. For example CARe has created a list for San Diego ( where you can view news from 21 different news, government and relief organizations.

To go a little further with this idea is to make sure you connect Twitter to the SMS texting on your phone and tell your friends and family you’re on Twitter so you can send Twitter messages via texting. Then if you’ve survived a disaster you can Tweet via SMS and your friends and family can see you’re okay (I don’t think they don’t need twitter to view your account). If Twitter is too much, you can also use the Red Crosses “Safe and Well” list ( I suppose this idea ventures into phase two so let’s move on.

To prepare for phase two the most necessary thing to have is a “go bag” which is basically supplies necessary to survive for three days and includes emergency food, water and sometimes even shelter or some sort of warmth to get you through the night. To answer your last question “What are the most important things you need inside a natural disaster kit?” I have created a list on Amazon that has a list of items I think are the minimum necessary to have at home in case of a disaster. 

It’s nice to have this in your house, but I also like having one in my car. My car kit is contained in a backpack and includes:

1.       Bottled water

2.       Energy bars

3.       Local map

4.       Crank radio/phone charger

5.       Athletic shoes, socks and yoga pants (in case I can’t drive home and need to change shoes like everyone had to do after 9/11)

You and your teacher should have a kit at school as well. This website has some pre-packaged kits for schools:

Another major thing to do when preparing at home is to place important documents in a safe place away from the house. You can put the originals in a safe deposit box, but I recommend scanning everything and storing it online. You can create a free account on a site like which will give you plenty of storage to store the major things.

There are three major categories of “important documents”.

1.       Things like copies of your state ID card, social security card, birth certificate, passport, car and home ownership information, insurance cards etc.

2.       Photos and home movies.

3.       Insurance preparation photos and movies. This is basically where you go into every room and take a picture and/or movie of everything you own. Open every closet, box and drawer and take a picture. It’s way easier than making an inventory (which is never done and is a thankless task that you will hopefully never use) and can be done in a matter of a couple of hours and will make your life a LOT easier getting through phase three.

If you can afford it I would recommend backing up your computer online with a service like You must assume you won’t be at home to save anything. It happens more often that you’d like to think and there is so much information stored on a computer now-a-days that it’s an essential part of life.

To prepare for phase three the answer is simply GET INSURANCE. If you don’t even have the most basic of insurance (even renters can get insurance) your recovery will be extremely long and painful. Phase three is not news worthy and rarely gains extended media exposure so most people don’t realize that the government (state and federal) only has very limited assistance programs that will in NO WAY get a family back to a fully recovered status. Government programs are geared towards helping your local government get reimbursed with their costs associated with moving through phases one and two.

For people who do not have insurance, it will be local, everyday people, philanthropic and religious organizations that get together to organize long term recovery. Since San Diego suffered two major disasters in four years (2003 and 2007) we now have a Community Recovery Team that is active in keeping prepared for a disaster. Their website is Even with these organizations help there is no guarantee an uninsured household will be able to find adequate recovery. Sometimes even insured people have that problem, but in every case I have ever been involved with, an insured household is, without exception, better off than an uninsured household.

Another way to prepare for phase three is to get to know your neighbors. Make a phone list of everyone in your neighborhood and join your local neighborhood organization (almost all of them have a group of volunteers that gather regularly to discuss local issues) and join a neighborhood social network like Neighbors that know each other can communicate much easier and when the entire block disappears you no longer have the luxury of knocking on their door and telling them about a local recovery meeting.

Your next question is “What kind of structure do you need to build a natural disaster proof building?” There is no way to make your structure disaster proof. Just build to code and keep things strapped to the wall in case of an earthquake.

What could I do to help?Do not send physical donations (like clothing) to a disaster location as most organizations don’t have the capability of processing the flood of things they get (and many call it the second disaster). You can of course donate to local organizations that regularly take those donations like the Salvation Army. They have the ability to process and sell the items and then buy what they need to help with disaster recovery.

If you want to help with a disaster send money to a local organization who will give the money to a long term recovery team. For example, the San Diego Foundation funded the Community Recovery Team following both the ’03 and ’07 disasters in San Diego. Many other areas have similar foundations. These organizations generally help teach people to fish instead of just giving them fish. Well, they don’t actually hand out fish, but in general people have the ability to learn how to recover and money is better spent teaching them how to do it instead of just buying their way out of their recovery problems.

If you have no money to give then sign up with a local organization and give them your time. I’m sure the Salvation Army would love help digging through the mountains of household goods they have to sort to sell, local animal shelters need help feeding stray animals and the local Food Bank needs help stocking shelves. The Red Cross has a disaster relief team, but you have to sign up well in advance and go through training before you can help with active disaster recovery.


What are you already doing to help when a natural disaster happens?” We teach insurance lessons to help people through phase three of recovery. Since we help people well after the disaster and immediate needs phases, we generally wait a while before we go into an area to teach. 

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."  Disasters usually strike without warning.  In these days of terrorist (human) threats as well as natural perils, preparation becomes even more essential.

Articles on Underinsurance

Teresa Manley & Joe Raffetto - Stepping up in a disaster - June 19, 2008

Insurance Update - May 31, 2008

Most American Homes Are Underinsured - ABC News, September 7, 2005

Homeowners haunted by underinsurance - Elliot Spagat of the Associated Press, July 11, 2004

Water and food are generally the first items on anyone's preparation list.  However, preparation is also making one's property stronger and safer in the event of a natural or human disaster.

Metal fasteners, bolts, plywood and water hoses, properly applied and placed, can save lives and prevent damage.  Sand, shovels, brooms, buckets and blankets can save property from fire.  Trimming and removing trees, shrubs and other plants from the perimeter of real property can keep accumulated fuel (vegetation) from adding to the heat and consequential damage to your home.

In the 1991 Oakland fire, one fire victim was unable to defend his home from the fire's path because his neighbor had stacked pine needles along the property line.  The pine needles acted like a wick, directing the eventual flames to the house.

Clear pathways to shelter, fire fighting equipment and water can save lives before a disaster strikes and the immediate emergency afterwards.


Outside Resources

Retrofitting before the next earthquake by Seismic Safety™/ Ed Sylvis Construction

Is Your Home Protected From Wildfire Disaster? by the Institute for Business & Home Safety

Be Prepared by the Red Cross

Preparedness by FEMA

Inspirational Quotes

Misfortune, n. The kind of fortune that never misses.

From The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce


We... want to thank the volunteer folks at CARe – Community Assisted Recovery who have given us moral support, information, and have reviewed our situation/paperwork at important points in the recovery process.

Poomacha Fire Survivor, 2007