Newswise — ​The images out of Houston are nothing short of harrowing. Dozens have died, countless more injured, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have been displaced from their homes, many having lost everything.

A storm as devastating as Hurricane Harvey makes it natural to wonder: Is it possible to be ready for a disaster, especially one of that magnitude?

Disaster preparedness expert Frances Edwards, Ph.D., professor of political science and director of the Master of Public Administrationprogram at San José State University, says most of us can take important steps before a storm, earthquake or other calamity strikes, and that it could make all the difference in saving lives and property.

Dr. Edwards, whose research focuses on seismic safety, emergency management, homeland security, and continuity of operations for government and businesses in the event of a disaster, offers her best advice to Californians on how to get ready — and what not to do.

Q: What would you want Californians to know about emergency and disaster preparedness?

Dr. Edwards: When your community is at risk and an evacuation warning is issued, take the following steps:

  • Gather critical information, such as passports, driver's licenses and other forms of personal identification; proof of residency; property insurance company name and the policy number and contact number; address book for family members; bank account numbers and checkbooks; credit cards; and cash. Place all these items in a waterproof bag and place in a tote bag to take when you leave the house.
  • Gather your valuables, pack them as compactly as possible, and place them in the trunk of your car. Gather irreplaceable items, like family photos and pack them in a waterproof or sturdy container and place in the trunk of your car.
  • Gather toiletries for each family member and three sets of clothing, including a spare pair of shoes, a sweater or jacket, rainwear, umbrellas, and extra socks.
  • Gather all prescription medications for each family member and all over-the-counter medications that you use frequently — headache remedies, allergy medications, etc.
  • Gather essential comfort items, such as a towel, washcloth, pillow and a blanket for each family member and a small bag of toys for each child.
  • Keep all pets in the house or on a leash outdoors. Prepare their food, medications and leashes for evacuation. Use kennels and cages for pets when possible.
  • Gather your small electronics and charge them all. Pack chargers and battery packs with the fully charged phones, laptops, iPads and other devices.
  • Take photos of each room in your house showing the furnishings and other contents clearly. Open cabinets and take photos of the contents. E-mail these photos to a friend or relative.
  • Fill the gas tanks in all vehicles you will be using to evacuate. Move other vehicles to high ground as far as possible away from the evacuation area.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes people make when a natural disaster strikes?

Dr. Edwards:  Many people are reluctant to evacuate due to the disruption and cost or the fear of looting once they have left. Your life and the lives of your family members are your most valuable possessions. Everything else can be replaced or you can live without it. Follow public safety directions.

Californians more frequently experience evacuation orders as a result of wildland interface fires, although this past winter several communities were evacuated for flooding.  

When the order comes to evacuate, follow directions and drive carefully to the evacuation centers or shelters. A mandatory evacuation order requires your cooperation and you can be arrested for failing to comply.

Q: Where should people go to learn more about their community's specific emergency preparedness plans? 

Dr. Edwards: [Former California] Governor Pete Wilson called California 'America's disaster theme park.' Some parts of California have [nearly] every kind of natural disaster. Residents should contact their local office of emergency services or fire department for a copy of the community's emergency operations plan.

This plan will detail the specific kinds of natural, technological and human-caused disasters that the community is preparing for. This will help to guide residents' preparedness efforts.

Also, people can sponsor a Community Emergency Response Team program. Community members then become responsible for their own emergency preparedness and can engage in self-help and community help during disasters when public safety personnel are overwhelmed.

 Learn more about disaster preparedness at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's "Ready" website. 

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