Take small steps now to be prepared when disaster strikes

By: Kristyne E. Demske | Metro | Published September 22, 2021

Shutterstock image

METRO DETROIT — Fire, flood and storm damage could strike at any time. The difference between disaster and making it through could hinge on how much one is prepared for the worst.

St. Clair Shores Fire Chief James Piper, who is also the city’s emergency management liaison, said there are typically three things people fail to do when it comes to being prepared for an emergency: they fail to recognize that emergencies happen; they fail to make a plan for emergencies; and they fail to prepare for emergencies.

It’s important for people to realize that disasters happen, and it’s best to make a plan about what they would do in case of an emergency before they find themselves in that situation.

“They get out and they work the plan rather than, when adrenaline takes over ... if you haven’t thought about it, you’re just reacting on instinct,” he said. “By having a plan, hopefully, that’s what kicks in.”

For something like a house fire, having working smoke detectors and checking their batteries, having a fire extinguisher on hand to put out small fires, keeping important documents in a fireproof box, and determining a meeting place for the family are good ways to be prepared.

“Plan for a bad day on a good day,” Piper said. “When it’s a nice day, you’re sitting around after dinner talking about what could happen, make a plan.”

Each September, National Preparedness Month raises awareness about the importance of preparing for disasters and emergencies that could occur at any time. This year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is emphasizing the theme of “Prepare to Protect,” with steps families can take each week: make a plan, build a kit, low-cost and no-cost preparedness, and teaching youth about preparedness.

In Michigan, large natural disasters tend to center around ice storms, flooding and, sometimes, tornadoes, Piper said. Power outages related to one of those emergencies are also good things to plan for, he said. Resources available on ready.gov are great tools to use when making an emergency plan, he said.

“It talks about the different things that could happen. There’s lots of aids in there to help you make a plan, make a disaster kit, to get you thinking about how to prepare,” he said. “If you’re ready for the fact that this could happen and you’ve taken some time to plan if it happens, then you follow it up by getting the items together for when it happens.”

He recommends that Michiganders have a small kit in their car for the winter with water, some snacks, flashlights and blankets to help keep warm if a vehicle becomes stranded in the snow. Making sure the gas tank is at least half full is also key.

When preparing a home for a power outage, he recommends gathering some food and water that will last, flashlights and extra batteries, and a battery source to recharge a phone to stay connected and up-to-date with emergency updates on the news. Having a portable disaster kit is also useful in areas where wildfires or hurricanes are more prevalent, when evacuation would be necessary — a scenario that is less likely in Michigan but may be applicable for snowbirds who winter in Florida. Such a disaster kit should include a three-day supply of food and water, extra medication, baby supplies if necessary, and warm clothes and blankets, along with photocopies or scans of important documents, all contained in a plastic bin.

“Something you could quickly grab, throw in the car and go,” he said. “The first step is recognizing that these disasters can happen.”

Municipalities are also required to have disaster plans in place that include means of alerting citizens in case of emergency. Many communities use social media for that purpose and may also have a service that will email, text or call citizens who sign up in the case of an emergency.

“We have a plan that is updated annually, and we have a countywide plan that our plan is part of and actually gets sent to FEMA every five years,” Piper said. “We are continually updating our plan so we’re able to help keep the citizens safe.”

When Mother Nature dumps buckets of rain, there are items that can be addressed to help prevent flooding, although nothing is foolproof, said Richard Piccirilli, a partner with Foundation Authority in Clinton Township.

“Gutters need to be cleaned. They need to be extended away from the house,” he said. “Check your basement. Make sure all the drains are cleaned, sump pumps are working.”

Gutter spouts should be extended away from the house, and the grade of the landscape should run away from the house to prevent water from washing away the dirt surrounding a home in a storm. Water will find its way in if there are any cracks in the foundation, so check for cracks in the mortar surrounding bricks, as well.

“Just like on a car, preventative maintenance is key,” Piccirilli said. Before a storm hits, “look for the cracks in the bricks or the cracks in the basement walls.”

There are two different types of waterproofing that can help protect a home from flooding: internal and external. An internal system has drain tile on the internal perimeter of the house to divert water that’s made its way inside the home. An external system is when a company digs around the home, replaces drain tile and repairs the cracks, then waterproofs the walls.

However, Piccirilli said, “if a sewer is going to back up, it doesn’t matter how great of a waterproofing job you have.

“They basically close the storm (drains) off, and when the water can’t flow, it backs up.”  

He said anything important should not be stored on the floor in the basement. Older homes without sump pumps should have their drains checked by a plumber to make sure the lines are clear.

“Preventative maintenance is a great thing,” he said. “If you’re seeing signs of water, you should always have a professional come and look at it. If you’re considering finishing your basement on an older home, you should absolutely consider doing an internal drain system.”

Preparedness is something that can be done a little each day, Piper said.

“If you’re always prepared, you’re less likely to be significantly impacted by a disaster,” he said.