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


Hurricane victims returning to their damaged homes face a host of challenges if they are lucky enough to keep their homes standing.

Floods. Mold damage. Insurance headaches. Hidden deadly dangers.

The onslaught of mental distress and post-hurricane hazards 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 return home when local officials say it is safe to do so,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency says.

If you see a flooded road, officials stress a life-saving but often ignored mantra: “Turn around, don’t drown.”

Each year, more deaths occur from flooding than from any other storm-related hazard, the National Weather Service says.

“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 completely done or they can be stuck in moving water.”

If it’s too dangerous to go home, look for open shelters in your area on the American Red Cross or Salvation Army websites.

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).

When it’s safe to go home, try to get there during daylight hours so you don’t need light, the CDC says. You may not have power in the field.

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

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

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

If you must use lighting, carry a battery-operated flashlight, not candles or gas lanterns.

“Turn on your flashlight before entering a vacant building,” says the National Weather Service. “The battery can create a spark that can ignite the leaking gas, if present.”

Homes under water require additional precautions to prevent electrocution.

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

“If you have to go into standing water to access the main switch, call an electrician to turn it off. NEVER turn it on or off yourself, use any tools or power tools while in the water.

In general, “Do not wade through floodwaters, which may contain dangerous pathogens that cause disease, debris, chemicals, debris and wildlife,” says FEMA’s website. “Underground or downed power lines can also electrically charge water.”

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

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

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

Residents with flood insurance under FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program can start a claim at

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

“You have to completely dry everything, clean the mold, and make sure you still don’t have any moisture problems.’

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

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

But anyone with lung disease, such as asthma or who is immunocompromised, “should not enter buildings with visible or smellable indoor water leaks or mold growth, even if they are not allergic to mold,” according to FEMA’s website. he says

“Children should not be involved in disaster cleanup.”

The rest of the flood may involve dirty water and other hazards that may be difficult to see.

“Floods can carry dangerous bacteria from overflowing sewage and agricultural and industrial waste,” the CDC says.

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

When there is no air conditioning, it is essential not to overexert yourself.

“If exertion in the heat makes your heart race and you become short of breath, STOP all activity,” the CDC warns. “Get into a cool place or shade, and rest, especially if you feel light-headed, confused, weak, or weak.”

In intense heat, it’s also important to drink plenty of fluids “regardless of how active you are,” says the CDC. “Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.”

Generators can be very helpful for storm victims without power. They can also be deadly when misused.

“Carbon monoxide poisoning is one of the leading causes of death after storms in areas facing power outages,” says the National Weather Service.

“Never operate a portable generator inside your home or garage,” even with doors and windows open.

“Only use generators outdoors, no more than 20 feet from your home, doors and windows,” the NWS says.

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

Keep refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible until power returns. If less than four hours have passed, the food is still safe. Otherwise, it can spoil the food and cause serious illness.

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

Throw away food that may have come into contact with floodwater or stormwater, perishable food that has not been properly refrigerated, and anything that does not look, smell, or feel right.

If your area is under a boil water advisory, take that advisory seriously. If you can’t boil water, use bottled water.

But never use contaminated water – whether suspected or confirmed – to wash dishes, brush teeth, wash and prepare food, wash hands, make ice or make baby formula.

Ideally, residents have ways to charge their cell phones without using electricity, such as with an external battery or a battery-powered charger.

Those who don’t should be creative, such as using the car and the car adapter to charge the phone.

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

When logistical nightmares collide with overwhelming emotions, don’t just try hard. This can actually hinder your recovery, the CDC says.

“Taking care of your emotional health during an emergency will help you think clearly and react to the urgent needs of protecting yourself and your family,” says the CDC.

“Confronting these feelings and getting help when you need it will help you, your family and your community heal from a disaster.”

Storm victims can contact SAMHSA’s Disaster Emergency Hotline by calling or texting 1-800-985-5990.

The Helpline “is a 24/7, 365-day national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling to individuals experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or man-made disaster,” says SAMHSA’s website.

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