"Disaster's not something that people are prepared for," says Anthony Tornetta, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross, whose more than 150,000 volunteers nationwide respond to a disaster — whether it's Hurricane Michael or a home fire — every eight minutes. That is around 64,000 disasters a year. "Even if you think you're prepared for it, until you've actually gone through riding out a major storm or being evacuated from your house in the middle of the night for a home fire, you've never really been through it."
The first move for anyone who evacuated to avoid a disaster is to stay put until it's safe, and once you return, be careful. Then look for the help that is there. Much of that comes from grassroots, local level organizations, churches, civic organizations and town governments. The Red Cross, a national nonprofit, often works with local groups to provide food and shelter, even in small disasters like house fires. In bigger disasters, the Red Cross has a fleet of mobile response vehicles, also known as Emergency Response Vehicles, that patrol devastated areas to provide food, supplies and much needed information on the next steps to take.
In major disasters that disrupt entire communities, the governor of an affected state can request federal aid, and after the president approves it, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will step in to help, too. That will immediately establish links with local and state governments to get assistance to those in need.
"The state, the local government, those local nonprofit organizations are survivors' first line of defense. The local municipalities, the counties — those are the ones that can provide the immediate help," says Alexandria Bruner, a spokesperson for FEMA.
The first few days after a disaster strikes are unnerving for survivors, no doubt, especially in bigger disasters that affect hundreds or thousands of people. Sometimes no help seems available. If you can't find anyone to help — and, again, often help will find those in need; local agencies and others physically get into disaster areas to connect with those who don't know where to turn — the United Way has a service, 211.org, that will point the way. Just dial or text 211 for help in your area. (Each state has an emergency management agency, too, that can help. Here's a list.)
The first order of new business for many displaced by disaster is finding a place to stay. If no shelter is immediately available, you can text SHELTER and your ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA). Dialing 911 is an option, too, as is contacting the local police department, though in a major catastrophe like Hurricane Michael, it may not do you much good.
Finding shelter and food is, of course, paramount. Only after that is secured can those struck by disaster start on the road to recovery.