How to get help and stay safe after a hurricane or devastating storm


Hurricane victims returning to damaged homes face a barrage of challenges — if they’re lucky enough to have a home at all.

Flooding. mold damage. Insurance headaches. Deadly Hidden Dangers.

The onslaught of mental anguish and danger after a hurricane can seem overwhelming. Here’s how victims can stay safe, get help, and take the first steps toward recovery:

Just because the hurricane is over doesn’t mean it’s safe to drive.

Residents should “only return home if local officials say it’s safe to do so,” says the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

When they see a flooded street, officers reiterate a life-saving but often ignored mantra: “Turn around, don’t drown.”

More deaths occur each year from flooding than from any other thunderstorm-related hazard, according to the National Weather Service.

“Don’t drive in flooded areas — cars or other vehicles won’t protect you from flooding,” says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “They can be washed away or stand still in running water.”

If going home is too dangerous, check the American Red Cross or Salvation Army websites for open shelters in your area.

You can also download the FEMA Mobile App to find open shelters, text SHELTER (or REFUGIO in Spanish) and your zip code to 4FEMA (or 43362).

If it’s safe to go home, try to arrive during the day so you don’t need a light, the CDC says. You may not have electricity in the area.

Once you get there, “walk carefully around the outside of your home to check for loose power lines, gas leaks, and structural damage,” says the National Weather Service.

If your home is flooded, “wait to re-enter your home until professionals tell you it’s safe, with no structural, electrical, or other hazards,” the CDC says.

If the home is damaged, “vacate immediately if you hear any shifting or unusual noises,” the CDC says. “Strange noises could mean the building is about to collapse.”

If you must use lighting, carry a battery-powered flashlight—no candles or gas-powered lanterns.

“Turn on your flashlight before entering an abandoned building,” says the National Weather Service. “Battery could create a spark that could ignite escaping gas, if present.”

Flooded homes require extra precautions to prevent electrocution.

“If you have standing water in your home and you can turn off the main power from a dry location, then go ahead and turn off the power,” says the CDC.

“If you have to step into standing water to get to the main switch, get an electrician to turn it off. NEVER turn the power on or off yourself or use any power tool or appliance while standing in the water.”

In general, “do not wade in flood waters, which may contain dangerous pathogens that cause disease, debris, chemicals, debris and wildlife,” according to FEMA’s website. “Buried or routed power lines can also electrically charge the water.”

If it’s safe to go inside, don’t start cleaning right away.

First, “contact your insurance company and take pictures of the home and your belongings,” the CDC says.

Those seeking government assistance can call 1-800-621-FEMA (1-800-621-3362 or TTY 1-800-462-7585) or apply at

Residents who have flood insurance from FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program can submit their claim at

“If your house flooded and was closed for several days, assume your house has mold,” says the CDC.

“You need to Completely dry everything, remove the mold and make sure you don’t have a moisture problem.”

The CDC has a list of ways to eliminate and prevent mold growth, with or without electricity.

Mold can be cleaned with a mixture of 1 cup bleach and 1 gallon water. Don’t use the bleach solution in an enclosed space — make sure doors or windows are open, the CDC says.

But anyone with a lung condition, such as asthma, or who is immunocompromised, “should not enter buildings with indoor water leaks or visible or smellable mold growth, even if they don’t have a mold allergy,” according to the FEMA website

“Children should not be involved in clean-up work.”

Remaining flood water can contain sewage and other hazards that are difficult to detect.

“Floodwater can harbor dangerous bacteria from sewage overflows and agricultural and industrial waste,” says the CDC.

“While skin contact with floodwater does not in itself pose a serious health risk, eating or drinking from items contaminated with floodwater can cause illness.”

With widespread power outages to be expected, it’s important not to overexert yourself when air conditioning isn’t available.

“If exerting yourself in the heat has your heart pounding and gasping for air, STOP all activity,” the CDC warns. “Go to a cool place or shade and rest, especially if you get dizzy, confused, faint, or faint.”

During intense heat, it’s also important to stay hydrated, “regardless of how active you are,” the CDC says. “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty.”

Generators can be immensely helpful for storm victims without electricity. They can also be deadly if used incorrectly.

“Carbon monoxide poisoning is a leading cause of death after storms in areas with power outages,” says the National Weather Service.

“Never use a portable generator in your home or garage,” even if the doors and windows are open.

“Only use generators outdoors, more than 20 feet from your home, doors and windows,” says the NWS.

Be especially careful when using gas powered appliances as they can also cause carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s also a good idea to have a battery-powered carbon monoxide alarm, as carbon monoxide is invisible and odorless.

Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible until power is restored. If it has been less than four hours, food is still safe to eat. Otherwise, the food may spoil and cause serious illness.

“When in doubt, throw it away,” says the CDC.

Throw out any food that may have come into contact with flood or rain water, perishable food that may not have been properly refrigerated, and anything that doesn’t look, smell or feel like it should.

If your area has a recommendation for boiling water, take this guide seriously. If boiling water is not possible, use bottled water.

However, never use contaminated water—whether suspected or confirmed—to wash dishes, brush teeth, wash and prepare food, wash hands, ice cream, or baby food.

Ideally, residents have the option of charging cell phones without electricity – for example with an external battery pack or battery-powered chargers.

Those who don’t may need to get creative – like using your car and a car adapter to charge your phone.

“Stress, anxiety and other depression-like symptoms are common post-disaster responses,” says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.

When logistical nightmares meet overwhelming emotions, don’t try to go through it alone. That can actually hinder your recovery, the CDC says.

Jenna Fountain carries a bucket to recover items after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 in Port Arthur, Texas.

“Taking care of your emotional health during an emergency can help you think clearly and respond to the urgent needs to keep yourself and your family safe,” the CDC says.

“Coping with those feelings and getting help when you need it will help you, your family and your community recover from a disaster.”

Storm victims can contact SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline by phone or text at 1-800-985-5990.

The Helpline “is a 24/7, 365 days a year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or man-made disasters,” according to SAMHSA’s website.

“Our staff provide advice and support before, during and after disasters, and refer people to local disaster-related resources for follow-up care and support.”

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