The possibility of natural disasters depends on your geography. If you go to school in Kansas, for example, you may not have to worry about tsunamis or landslides, but you do need to prepare for tornadoes and winter storms. Students in Florida should prepare for hurricanes, and students in California should know how to react during an earthquake. Your college will have calculated the probability of natural disasters and extreme weather events and have a protocol in place for dealing with situations as they arise. Yet much of disaster preparedness is understanding what the disaster is and how to best react.
It is possible to experience an earthquake in every state, but the risk is much higher in states on the West Coast, where there are more active geologic faults (cracks in the Earth’s crust that are prone to movement). This United States Geological Survey map shows generally where earthquake hazards are highest and lowest. Earthquakes cannot be predicted, so there is no way to preemptively prepare for one. Instead, you will have to react as the earthquake is occurring. Unfortunately, earthquakes rarely happen one at a time. The largest earthquake in a sequence is the main shock, but there may be smaller earthquakes leading up to it (foreshocks) and after it (aftershocks). Prepare to be rumbling for a while.
The main hazards during an earthquake are falling debris and building collapse. In locations where earthquakes occur frequently, many buildings are constructed in such a way that they can withstand a certain amount of shaking and swaying. When you feel an earthquake, you should drop to the floor and protect your head and neck from anything that may be falling. If you can, crawl under a desk, table, or chair and hold on to it, as this will provide additional protection. Contrary to popular belief, you are not safer in a doorway than anywhere else, but you should avoid windows and exterior walls if possible. If you are outside when you feel an earthquake, the procedure is similar; however, you’ll want to be in an open area away from exterior walls and power lines to avoid falling debris or snapped wires. Once you are in an open area, fall to your knees and protect your head and neck with your arms.
If an earthquake occurs while you are on campus, campus security or police will know what procedures to follow. You may receive a briefing or a handbook of guidelines if you’re in a particularly earthquake-prone area. It is wise to consider not hanging any heavy artwork or mirrors over your bed. If an earthquake were to occur during the night, these could fall off the wall and severely injure you. The QuakeFeed Earthquake Map is an iOS app that will alert you to large earthquakes worldwide, provide preparation tips, and let you explore earthquakes worldwide in real time. The best thing to remember if there is an earthquake, however, is to drop, cover, and hold on, and to follow the instructions of all emergency personnel.
A flood is what happens when there is an outpouring of water beyond where it is normally confined. This may happen quickly as the result of a massive downpour (flash flooding), build up over time as the result of an extended period of rainfall, or occur as the result of weather upstream from a specific location. The most important thing that you can do during a flood is to avoid driving or walking through flooded areas. It only takes six inches of moving water to knock you off of your feet, and only one foot of moving water to overpower and move a car. Getting to higher ground is key, especially in flash floods, which are one of the top causes of weather-related deaths in the United States. Even if someone needs rescuing, you should never enter moving water during a flood. Instead, toss something that floats (a tire, a beach ball, etc.) to the person in need of rescue and call 9-1-1.
A hurricane is a circulating weather system that forms over the ocean and has the potential to bring strong rain, strong winds, tornadoes, and flooding to coastal communities. To be classified as a hurricane, a storm must have sustained winds of at least 74 miles per hour; smaller weather systems are known as tropical storms. Hurricanes are rated on a one to five scale, with a Category 1 hurricane causing the least amount of damage. A Category 5 hurricane is likely to cause catastrophic damage and has sustained winds of at least 155 miles per hour. If you live in a town that is prone to hurricanes (areas along the Gulf of Mexico or the East Coast), there are likely marked evacuation routes that should be followed as a storm approaches. Hurricane season for this region is between June 1 and November 30 each year, with September being the most active month.
Your school will tell you if it will be closing due to a tropical storm (winds between 39 and 73 miles per hour) or hurricane. If you have time and transportation, getting out of the path of the storm is your safest bet. The further inland you go, the less likely you are to experience hurricane conditions. However, hurricanes often downgrade into large thunderstorms and continue to dump rain and spout tornadoes in their paths for days after their initial landfall.
Under no circumstances should you go to the beach to watch the storm. When a hurricane makes landfall, a storm surge accompanies it. This is a wave of water that is pushed onto shore by the pressure of the storm. Surges can range from just a few feet in a Category 1 hurricane to the size of a building. Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane at landfall, and its storm surge reached 28 feet.
If possible, you should plan on staying with family or friends who don’t live on the coast or in the predicted path of the hurricane, but your school will provide you with options if you have nowhere else to go. Florida Atlantic University, for example, provides transportation from campus to the nearest Red Cross shelter for students who have no friends or family to stay with. If you cannot leave the area, you will want to ensure that you charge your cell phone, that you’ve covered all windows, and that you have prepared an emergency kit. This kit should include at least three days’ worth of food and bottled water, a first aid kit, a flashlight, a battery-operated radio, cash, and protective clothing. Be sure that you have let someone know where you are.
A landslide can occur anywhere in the United States that has a hill, whether it is natural or artificially constructed (rock walls on the side of highways, for example). A landslide is simply the slippage of material down a slope. This can happen slowly, or quite suddenly, the latter of which causes more damage. If the material that is sliding gets wet (for instance, if there is a rainstorm that triggered the landslide), it can become a debris flow. These can move up to 200 miles per hour and have the power to destroy everything in their paths. Landslides and debris flows are common after wildfires, since there is no plant material left to maintain stability in the ground through their roots.
Landslides are unpredictable. You can watch for warning signs like trees, telephone poles, and fences that are no longer standing upright or have moved; widening cracks in sidewalks or pavement; or a bump at the base of the hill. These all indicate that a landslide may be coming. If you feel the ground shift or tilt beneath you, hear a rumble like thunder, or see debris spilling out over a roadway, a landslide is imminent and you should get as far away as possible and to higher ground. Stay away from bodies of water and low-lying areas, as they will be the first to fill. If you cannot escape, your best bet at survival is to roll into a ball and cover your face and neck with your arms.
Thunder and Lightning
Thunderstorms can happen anywhere, producing lightning and sometimes heavy rains, flash floods, tornadoes, and/or hail. The easiest way to remain safe during a thunderstorm is to stay inside with doors and windows closed. If you are outside and cannot get inside before the storm strikes, you want to minimize your risk of getting hit by lightning. From 2009 to 2018, an average of 27 people died annually from lightning strikes (often a result of cardiac arrest), while 243 are estimated to have survived.
To protect yourself when outdoors, you have three options. If you’re out on the water, you need to get to land as fast as possible. Once on land, if there’s only an open area, you will want to lie down in the lowest point you can get to. If you’re surrounded by trees, you will want to find a group of the shortest trees and get beneath them. If you have a vehicle, it is safer to be inside of it than outside. Do not touch anything metal in the car. Once the storm has moved on, take shelter indoors.
During a thunderstorm, you should not take a shower or do dishes, as plumbing conducts electricity. Likewise, you don’t want to be fiddling with electrical cords or appliances. Turn off (if your computer is plugged into a surge protector) or unplug your computer, in case of an electrical surge, as this can cause irreversible damage to your electronics. Stay off the landline phone. Generally, avoiding anything metal or associated with electricity is a good rule of thumb during a storm. If someone has been struck by lightning, call 9-1-1 and immediately begin lifesaving medical procedures (mouth-to-mouth or CPR if you cannot find breath sounds or a heartbeat).
Thunderstorms often travel in lines or groups, meaning that after the initial storm, there may be more headed your direction. Watching the weather or listening to the radio will alert you to a severe thunderstorm watch (meaning that a severe thunderstorms is likely) or a severe thunderstorm warning (meaning that severe weather is en route and you should find shelter). Lightning strikes and high winds can down power lines and cut off electricity. Call your power company to report an outage and stay away from any downed lines as they are highly dangerous. Once the storm has passed, associated threats are likely diminished. Be aware of rising water on roadways, which indicates flash flooding, but once a thunderstorm watch or warning has ended, the immediate threat of lightning has also ended.
A tornado is a funnel-shaped cloud made up of rotating winds, water, and dust that typically forms during thunderstorms and can cause extreme damage when it makes contact with the ground. Every state in the United States is at some risk for a tornado, but Tornado Alley (reaching northward from central Texas and consisting of parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and South Dakota) is most well known for the high number of tornadoes that it experiences each year. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas also experience higher risk for tornadoes than coastal states. Tornadoes happen year round, but mostly between May and July. Often, tornadoes occur between 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m, but one can strike at any time given the right conditions.
In parts of the country where tornadoes are common, towns have implemented tornado sirens, which alert residents that there is a tornado warning (meaning a tornado has been spotted nearby), and that they should immediately find shelter. Students on college campuses may hear warning sirens or be alerted to the situation via email or text message. The safest place to be during a tornado is in a basement or storm shelter. If you are in a building that has no basement, go to the lowest level, find an interior room with no windows and away from exterior walls, and take shelter under a desk or table. If you are outside and cannot reach shelter, you want to find a low-lying area, lie down, and cover your head with your arms and anything else that you may have (a jacket or blanket, for example).
Tsunamis occur as the result of an underwater earthquake, landslide, volcanic eruption, or in exceedingly rare cases, a meteorite impact. The force of the underwater movement creates massive waves that have the capability of inundating the nearest land. Low-lying coastal areas are particularly at risk, but anywhere with a shoreline could experience a tsunami. The biggest threats from a tsunami are drowning and flooding, but they can also result in contaminated drinking water, destruction of property, and fire (if a propane tank is destroyed or a gas line is severed, for instance).
States with the highest risk of tsunamis are Washington, Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Alaska. As they do in locations that frequently experience hurricanes, coastal areas in these states often have marked evacuation routes that you can use during an emergency. You should never travel closer to the coast, visit a beach, or try to watch for the waves when there is a tsunami warning. If you are close enough to see the wave, or on shore when the water quickly pulls back (a sign that a wave is coming), you are too close and in immediate danger; run as far away as you can as fast as possible. You should also avoid rivers and streams that feed into the ocean, as they will be affected by a tsunami.
If you feel an earthquake in a coastal area, immediately travel to higher ground, as this may be enough to trigger a tsunami. However, tsunamis can be triggered by earthquakes across the globe, so you may not immediately know of the threat. Listen to the radio and news stations for information about a possible tsunami. If a warning is issued, you should evacuate. Your school will also pass along this information.
Nearly 85% of wildfires in the United States begin as a direct result of the negligence of people (leaving a campfire unattended, discarding a cigarette in a dry area, or burning trash) or deliberate acts by people (arson). The remainder start naturally as the result of lightning strikes or lava flows. Regardless of how a fire starts, there are many contributing factors to whether a wildfire can be contained. These include the amount of moisture in the air (the more humid it is, the harder it is to start a fire), the amount of moisture in plants (the more water stored in plants, the harder it is for them to burn), drought levels, lightning activity, the weather (wind can spread fire rapidly), and the landscape (rivers retard the spread of wildfires). These all combine to create a fire danger rating.
When the fire danger rating is high, it means that wildfires will be easy to start and quick to spread. No cigarettes should be discarded outdoors and nothing should be burned. If the fire danger rating is low, however, wildfires are unlikely to catch and are likely to be easily contained if they do. This map shows current wildfire ratings throughout the United States. Wildfires can be unpredictable and hard to contain. In 2015, over 10 million acres of land burned, and at least 13 firefighters lost their lives.
If a wildfire approaches your area, depending on the severity, you may be ordered to evacuate. If you receive such an order, grab your pet, pack up the car, and leave immediately. Do not stay to try to wait it out or hope that it changes direction; this is putting your life in danger. Do not return to the area until after fire officials have given the all clear. If there are wildfires in the area but you have not yet been ordered to evacuate, maintain constant vigilance. Watch TV or listen to the radio for updates and make sure your car has a full tank of gas, just in case the evacuation order does come. Know your evacuation route and alert family members of your situation.
Winter weather and extreme cold can affect many places throughout the United States, including the East Coast, the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain Region. These are not the places where storms exclusively happen, however, and a winter storm can strike anywhere. Winter storms can bring strong winds, freezing rain, extreme cold, and buckets of snow. Limit your exposure to the outdoors during winter storm events, and if you do need to go out, wear appropriate clothing (winter coats, mittens, hats, scarves, and boots) to protect against frostbite and hypothermia.
A winter storm on the East Coast in early 2016 left eight people dead, nearly 133,000 people without power, and caused nearly 1,000 car accidents. Schools may or may not elect to cancel classes due to extreme cold or winter storms, depending on whether or not the school is residential, the temperature and snowfall predictions, and the overall safety of students. If classes are cancelled, stay inside as much as possible. Keep extra food and water in your dorm or apartment, just in case the storm is severe enough that you cannot leave your home and school facilities cannot open. Try not to drive until the storm passes due to low visibility and the possibility of black ice on the roadway.
If you live in an apartment and your power goes out, try to find another place nearby (with power) to stay for the duration of the storm. Wear appropriate clothing and pack extra when you leave, and take care to stay dry; if you’re wet, frostbite and hypothermia occur more quickly. If you cannot leave your apartment, bundle up. Wear hats and plenty of layers, line door cracks with towels to retain heat, and seal your windows with plastic bags and tape. Be sure that someone knows where you are.
Page last updated: 03/2019