Since 2007, more than 14 million people worldwide have reportedly lost their homes in natural disasters. Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires, winter storms—these types of disasters are a possibility no matter where in the world you live. It’s important for all of us to be prepared for anything from a temporary power outage to a catastrophe. Fortunately, none of us are completely alone when it comes to disaster preparedness. Local, regional, and national agencies work tirelessly before, during, and after natural disasters. Still, natural disasters often make it hard for agencies to launch an immediate response. It’s critical for each of us to make emergency preparations so we can keep ourselves, our families, and communities safe during and after a disaster.
As we’ve seen time and time again, people and communities are resilient. Earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, fires, tornadoes, and other large-scale catastrophes level towns and cities and yet we rebuild. If you owned a house severely damaged by a flood, earthquake, or tornado, would you throw up your hands and move to a new state or would you rebuild?
A 1982 U.N. study revealed how people have established shelter during and after major disasters throughout history. The study found that “the primary response to shelter needs has been provided by the survivors themselves.” The study also found that “local organizations, especially those “in place” at the time of the disaster” provided secondary support, while national or international organizations provided the least amount of support. Time, the scale of the disaster, and the self-reliance of the residents in affected areas were found to limit the response of external agencies. Though this report is twenty years old, recent disasters around the world show that self-reliance is one of the most important factors when it comes to emergency shelter during and after a disaster.
When it comes to emergency shelter, there are several options depending on the situation. Some of these include personal homes, storm shelters, bomb/fallout shelters, local relief shelters, portable shelters (vehicles, tents, tarps, etc.), and improvised shelters. It’s important to become familiar with these types of emergency shelter, so you and your family will be better prepared to respond to disasters with self-reliance and community cooperation.
Most likely, you’ll store the majority of your emergency preparedness supplies in your home. Since it isn’t always practical to carry all those supplies with you, staying home is preferable when possible. In certain emergency situations, your own home can be the best shelter. These situations might include extreme heat or cold, winter storms, thunder and lightning storms, blackouts, tornadoes, and pandemics. Some of these can last days or weeks, so make sure you store at least two weeks’ worth of food, water, and other needed supplies. Every home emergency kit should include emergency lighting and communication. In all situations, having a battery or hand crank operated radio will help keep you informed as the emergency develops.
For extreme temperatures, make sure your home is well-insulated and your heating/air conditioning system is in good repair. A backup generator can keep these systems running during a power outage. Also consider single room heaters or air conditioners that use less energy or concentrating heating/cooling to a single room or small section of your house.
For in-depth information on specific disasters, visit the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s website Ready.gov.
There are many types of storm shelters, both commercially- or home-made. If you live in a disaster-prone region, a well-built above- or in-ground storm shelter can save your life and the lives of your family. If you can buy a premade shelter, make sure the manufacturer is credible and builds high-quality shelters that meet government guidelines. Commercially-made shelters often cost anywhere from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Making a shelter yourself can save money, but make sure you have the proper knowledge, skills, plans, and materials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) published guidelines for proper shelter, or “safe room,” construction in the document FEMA P-320, Taking Shelter from the Storm, Building a Safe Room For Your Home or Small Business. To download this document, visit fema.gov.
Though a large-scale foreign attack on the United States seems unlikely, some of us remember life during the Cold War. For decades, the threat of a nuclear attack prompted cities and private individuals to build fallout shelters. Many of these shelters still exist in the basements of government and other buildings, though they are likely out of commission. These and other types of bomb shelters are still commercially available.
Local Relief Shelters
After a major disaster strikes, emergency relief organizations like FEMA or the Red Cross set up temporary shelters to provide for the needs of residents in the affected area. If a natural or man-made disaster makes sheltering at home unsafe, a mass shelter may be your best option. Remember, it takes time for these agencies to set up shelters, so they recommend having at least three days’ worth of food, water, and supplies in an emergency kit. Because staying at a mass shelter with a crowd of strangers can be uncomfortable and stressful, staying with a friend or relative outside the affected area may be a better option. Make sure you plan ahead of time if you want to avoid mass shelters.
Local news agencies will most likely announce the location of relief shelters, so a portable radio can be your best source of information. If you have internet access, you can find open Red Cross shelters on their website’s ‘Find Open Shelters’ page. You can also text “SHELTER” plus your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find the nearest FEMA shelter in your area. To prepare for possible disasters in your area, consider contacting your local emergency management agency and Red Cross office to get more information. Your town may already have a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Go to CitizenCorps.gov/CERT for more information. To find state and local emergency preparedness information, visit our map, “Emergency Preparedness in Your State.”
Common types of portable shelters include vehicles, tents, or tarps. Depending on how many people you need to cover, something as small as a rain poncho can provide shelter from the elements. Vehicles make great shelter, but many are too small to sleep in comfortably, especially for a family. If an emergency makes driving impractical or impossible, you may need to carry your shelter. There are many high-quality, lightweight backpacking tents available. For larger groups, consider distributing the contents of larger tent among the members to carry.
If you plan to use a tarp for a shelter, make sure you know how to set it up before an emergency. There are many configurations of tarp shelters that offer different types of coverage. Learn a few options (i.e., using trees or setting up in the open). Whether using a camping tent or tarp, practice setting up quickly using teamwork. A backyard campout is fun and gives family members, especially children, a chance to learn important skills for an emergency.
If you find yourself without shelter in an emergency, knowing how to improvise a shelter out of available materials might save your life and the lives of your family members. There are many books on wilderness survival that include instructions for building improvised shelters. It is best to have both knowledge and experience to successfully construct a shelter, but do so with care and caution. If possible, consult a local wilderness survival expert or take a class.Whether sheltering at home or away, knowledge is your most valuable tool. Learning the different options for emergency shelter can reduce stress and provide protection when it’s needed most.
Habitat for Humanity International. ShelterReport 2012: Build Hope: Housing Cities After a Disaster. p. 3. http://www.habitat.org/gov/take_action/shelter_report_2012.aspx
The United Nations. Shelter after Disaster: Guidelines for Assistance. New York: United Nations, 1982. p. 5. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/E4FE896AFFF16709C1256CB10056558E-undro-shelter1-jul82.pdf