Storm Preparedness for Natural Disasters

What you need to know to prepare for lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes, flash flooding and excessive heat.

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by AdobeStock/Matthew
Tornadoes can occur at anytime of the year, but in the Southern states they tend to occur in the Spring.

All you need to know about basic storm preparedness for the homestead.


It is estimated that 100,000 thunderstorms occur each year in the United States, and that approximately 10% of those can be classified as severe. The National Weather Service classifies a thunderstorm as severe if it produces hail 3/4-inches in diameter and winds of 58 mph or greater.

Thunderstorms can occur at anytime of the day or night and at anytime of the year, however most occur in the afternoon or evening hours of spring and summer months . . . and all produce lightning. Lightning kills about 90 people and injures nearly 300 each year. It is generally classified as high or low voltage and high or low amperage. The low-power lightning bolts are also known as hot lightning bolts. They have low voltage but high amperage and a relatively long duration (about 1/10th of a second). This combination bolt produces tremendous heat and can reach temperatures of 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (hotter than the sun). Cold lightning, on the other hand, is high voltage, low amperage and has geometrically greater power. Cold bolts can have up to ten times the voltage of hot lightning, but they last only about 1/10,000th of a second. They are often responsible for massive destruction.

WHAT TO DO: When it comes to basic storm preparedness if you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning. If possible, get inside a sturdy building. Such areas as sheds, tents, cars and under isolated trees are not acceptable. If a hard top automobile is your only option, roll up the windows and do not touch any metal surfaces. Contrary to generations of dangerously misguided lore, the rubber tires of autos do not offer full protection, as the steel frame can transmit electrical energy. You may still be injured in the vehicle, but much less so than if you were outside. If you are involved in watersports, get to land, get out of the boat and away from the water. Do not shower or bathe. Use telephones only for emergencies, unplug any appliances, turn off air conditioners. If you are outside and remote from any safe shelter, find a low area that is not subject to flash flooding and is away from trees, fences, poles, etc. If you are in wooded areas, seek shelter under the shorter trees. If at any point you feel your hair stand on end or your skin tingle, you must immediately make yourself the smallest target possible. Squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet, place your head between your knees and put your hands on your knees. Minimize any contact with the ground.


The most violent storms in the world cause an average of 82 deaths in the U.S. annually. Tornadoes can occur at anytime of the year, but in the Southern states they tend to occur in the spring (summer in the North). Most tornado deaths occur while people are in autos or mobile homes.

WHAT TO DO: A tornado warning indicates a need to take shelter immediately (not to be confused with the less severe “watch”). If you are at home or in a small building, go to the basement or to an interior room of the lowest floor. If possible, take cover under a large immovable object such as a workbench. Wrap yourself in heavy blankets or coats to protect from flying debris, and put on any motorcycle or bicycle helmets. If you are in a large public building, stay away from glass-enclosed areas or areas with a wide roof span, such as gymnasiums or auditoriums and warehouses. Crouch down, roll into a ball and cover your head with your hands. This position protects most vital organ areas. If you are in a car or a mobile home, abandon them immediately, go to a sturdy structure or a designated tornado shelter. If there is no suitable structure nearby, lie flat in the nearest ditch or depression in the ground and cover your head with your hands.


Hurricanes are tropical cyclones in which winds reach a constant speed of 74 mph or greater. The visual hallmark of these storms is a tightening spiral around an area of extreme low pressure. The winds flow in a counterclockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere (clockwise in the Southern). Near the center of the storm, winds can exceed 200 mph. An “eye of the storm” is unique to hurricanes, and this calm center, with mild winds and clear skies, can last half an hour or longer. An important thing to remember is that on the far side, the winds blow in the opposite direction and are at the storm’s maximum strength. Initial forward speed of a hurricane can be as little as 15 mph, but the farther it gets from the equator the faster its
forward speed becomes.

Drowning is the major cause of hurricane deaths. As the storm strikes a coastline, it brings huge waves and tidal storm surges that can reach 25 feet above normal tide lines, while torrential rains cause inland flooding. The Atlantic hurricane season is from June 1 to November 30.

destroyed yellow house after a hurricane

WHAT TO DO: Hurricanes can rapidly change in intensity, course and speed, so keeping a vigil over the radio for current storm information is absolutely critical. Clear your yard of any loose debris and anything that can be blown about and cause damage. Take the time to fill your vehicle with gas and any supplies you might need upon evacuation. An important item to keep on hand is a road map; if all major roads are impassable, either closed or clogged, you may need to take alternate routes. Also have on hand plywood, nails, and any other materials needed to board up windows and shutters.

Flash Flooding

Flash floods are the number one weather related killer in the U.S. each year, resulting in approximately 140 deaths. Most fatalities occur at night when people become trapped in automobiles. Hikers trapped in canyons with no means of escape are also at high risk. Water one foot deep can displace 1,500 pounds — enough force to sweep away an automobile.

WHAT TO DO: If you are inside of a building and are ordered to evacuate, do so immediately. Never drive through a flooded area. Even though it looks passable, the roadway may not be intact or stable. If you are caught outside away from safe shelter, immediately seek higher ground. Avoid canyons, dry riverbeds, streams, creeks and rivers. Keep children away from culverts, drainage ditches or storm drains.

Excessive Heat

Although not a “storm,” excessive heat conditions can have a devastating effect, particularly in congested urban areas. Heat cramps, exhaustion and heatstroke are life-threatening.

WHAT TO DO: Cramps are simply muscles contracting due to excessive water loss through perspiration. Gently massage
the muscles, sit in a cool place and drink plenty of fluids. Heat exhaustion is manifested in profuse perspiration, cool and clammy skin, a weak pulse, possible fainting and nausea or vomiting. If left untreated, exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. Have the exhausted person lie down in a cool place, loosen any restrictive clothing and place cool washcloths over pulse points (wrists, neck, head) to help the body cool off. Drink cool water. If the person is vomiting and unable to keep down fluids, seek medical help. Heatstroke causes the body’s heat regulatory system to fail, thereby rendering it unable to produce perspiration. Death can occur very rapidly after initial onset of symptoms. Look for hot, dry skin, confusion, irrational behavior, coma, seizures, and a very rapid pulse. If the heatstroke is induced by heavy exertion, the person may still have perspiration on his or
her skin while being unable to produce more. Take the victim to a cool place, remove clothing, sponge with cool water, fan him or her and call 911. Do not give fluids by mouth.

Assemble a Disaster Supply Kit

Small kits (the list below is for a larger one) should be kept in a family’s vehicles at all times. Depending on where you live, pack the kit for at least 12 hours of survival. If you live in or are traveling to remote areas, plan the kit to last three days or longer.

Have your family trained in basic safety measures, such as CPR, and basic first aid. Quiz your gas company on when and how to turn off the supply to the house, and ask the same question of the local water service and the electric company. Designate a meeting place outside of the home where your family will meet in an emergency.

Disaster Kit

(Suggested: all kits should be personalized)

  • 3-day supply of nonperishable food
  • 3-day supply of water (1 gallon per person per day)
  • Special items for baby, child or elder care
  • Radio, with alternate power source
  • Flashlights, lanterns, space batteries
  • First aid kit, prescription medications or special needs items, pain relievers, laxatives, anti-diarrheals, antacids, tropical creams
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Candles and matches (waterproof)
  • Sleeping bags, pillows, spare clothing, shoes, coats, jackets, rain gear, sunglasses
  • Maps, paper and pencils
  • Hand tools, shovel, saws, hammers, crowbar, can opener, utility knife, tarps
  • Plastic sheeting, duct tape
  • Bleach, garbage bags
  • Money, credit cards, identification, immunization records, board games, cards, books, toys for children
  • For a vehicle kit, include: Whistle, safety flares, jumper cables

Originally published as “Basic Storm Preparedness” August/September 2000 MOTHER EARTH NEWS.