Homeownership—like life itself—can be entirely unpredictable. And while we might not like to think about it, unforeseen disaster can strike our homes at a moment’s notice. As with so many things, it’s often our initial response that determines the extent to which our lives are impacted. When a house suffers from such devastation, it’s crucial to take a cool-headed, methodical approach in responding. The steps below will vary depending on the severity and nature of the disaster, but they provide a basic framework for how to respond in the sudden case of catastrophe.

  1. Account for everyone’s safety and well-being. If anyone has sustained serious injury, seek immediate medical assistance. For less severe health issues, you should have a first-aid kit at the ready. In addition to standard first-aid items, your kit should include any prescription medicines and contact information for medical professionals. If possible, contact family members, friends, and neighbors to check in and assure them that you’re all right. Depending on the scale of the disaster, emergency relief services such as the American Red Cross or Salvation Army may have set up shop nearby—they can be an invaluable resource during these chaotic times.

  2. Refer to your hazard checklist. You next need to determine whether it’s safe to be in your house. Remember that damage to your home isn’t always readily apparent, and unforeseen threats can arise—err on the side of caution, and don’t take risks. If necessary, contact local authorities to report immediate hazards, and find new shelter for the time being. Also have in place a plan for where any pets can stay during this time.

  3. Bring out the emergency supplies. Here’s where a bit of preparation comes in handy. In addition to your standard first-aid kit, some items you’ll want accessible include: blankets, plenty of clean drinking water (the CDC recommends about five gallons per person), batteries, flashlights, a battery-powered radio, nonperishable food, a manual can opener, personal hygiene products, and insect repellant.

  4. Mitigate environmental risks. Oftentimes, water will have found its way into your house. Avoid contaminated water entirely, and prevent mold by fixing easy leaks, cleaning and drying affected areas, and tossing out any items that can’t be dried. Check to see if a “boil water” advisory is in effect. If so, avoid using tap water until it has come to a rolling boil for at least one minute or been treated with unscented household chlorine bleach. (The CDC suggests using ¼ teaspoon bleach to 1 gallon of cloudy water—stir and let stand for 30 minutes before using.) Protect yourself from carbon monoxide poisoning by never using a generator or other fuel-burning device indoors—even with doors or windows open—and keeping a CO detector functional within your home. Finally, be wary of wildlife and pest intrusion into your home; contact a removal specialist rather than trying to handle it yourself.

  5. Contact your homeowner’s insurance provider. Take pictures and document everything in order to substantiate your claim. Also know that you will be responsible for ensuring that no additional damage is done to the property, so ask your insurance agent what steps they recommend you take. If this requires the purchase of any materials, be sure to retain the receipts.

  6. Replace important documents. Items such as licenses, birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, and tax records may have been lost in the disaster. Contact the necessary agencies or departments to inquire how to get new copies.

Additional Points of Consideration

  • In the event of a large-scale disaster where others in your community have been affected, response times may not be as fast as you’d like. This is precisely why you’ll want to be prepared with emergency supplies (and a good bit of patience).

  • The aftermath of a disaster is often a time of great distress, especially for children. Try to maintain and exhibit a calm, positive attitude. Things will get better.

  • Don’t get duped. Shady contractors might use this opportunity to prey upon homeowners during a period of vulnerability. Stick with reputable, licensed Best Pick companies to do the work.

It’s our sincere hope that you never have occasion to use the steps above. But a simple glance at the day’s headlines suggests that it’s probably a good idea to be ready for the worst—just in case.

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Sources: American Red Cross; CDC; FEMA.

For more information on our sources, please contact us directly.