Following a Disaster

Introduction

Immediately following a disaster, your first priority will ensuring your safety and the safety of your family (and if safe to do so, consider checking on elderly and medically fragile neighbours).  Depending on the situation and damage sustained in your neighbourhood, it might be necessary to evacuate.  Emergency officials will provide safety information and instructions as quickly as possible, but do not wait for instructions if you are in immanent danger (i.e. broken gas lines in your home) – leave your home. Residents who must leave their homes will often have the option to report to a municipal emergency shelter, or find their own accommodations at a hotel, or with friends or relatives.

In some instances it will be safer for you to remain in your home, so you will have to use your judgement and seek official information and instructions.

Residents who are prepared to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours following a disaster will have the essential supplies necessary to be as comfortable as possible following a disaster.  When you are able to provide for your own needs, you reduce work for emergency officials who will be responding to the disaster and assisting those in greater need.

Please continue reading for more advice about what to do following a disaster.

Your Neighbourhood

For safety reasons, emergency officials may block road access to areas where heavy damage has occurred.  Residents may also be advised to evacuate.  Do not attempt to enter these areas until permitted.  It is illegal to travel on roads that have been closed by Police Order.  Buildings that have received significant damage may actually be deemed unsafe by building officials and you will be required to contact the municipality to determine next steps.

Photo of man walking down a damaged street.
Walking north on Front Street after the 1953 Sarnia Tornado. Lambton Archives photo.

Returning Home

Immediately following a disaster or before emergency responders arrive, if it is safe to do so, carefully walk around the outside of your home and check for loose power lines, gas leaks and structural damage. Also check the roof, foundation and chimney for failure. If it appears that the building is unstable, do not go inside. If you have any doubts about safety, evacuate your home. An inspection may actually be required by municipal building officials before re-entry is permitted.

If you are satisfied that it is safe to enter your home, listen for shifting or unusual noises that signal that the structure may fall.  Leave immediately if you hear strange noises, or if you smell gas or suspect a leak. If you smell gas, do not turn on the lights, light matches, smoke, or do anything that could cause a spark. Use a battery-powered flash light to inspect a damaged home, but turn it on outside before entering – the battery may produce a spark that could ignite leaking gas, if gas is present.

Once you’ve assessed your situation, call your insurance agent if your property has sustained noteworthy damage. Take pictures of damages. Keep good records of repair and cleaning costs.

 

When assessing your home, check for the following:

Natural Gas Leaks

If you smell gas or hear a hissing or blowing sound, leave immediately. Turn off the main gas valve from the outside, if you can and know how. Call your natural gas provider on a cell phone from outside the building or call from a neighbour’s home. If you shut off the gas supply at the main valve, you will need a professional to turn it back on. Do not smoke or use lanterns or candles for lighting inside a damaged home until you are sure there is no leaking gas or other flammable materials present.

Union Gas and Enbridge Gas both provide safety information for customers on their websites.

Home Electrical Problems

Look for sparks, broken or frayed wires. Do not check the electrical system if you are wet, standing in water or unsure of your safety. If possible and you know how, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker.  Do not touch the electrical panel or use power tools, if you are standing in water. If the situation is unsafe, leave the building and call for help. Do not turn on the lights until you are sure they’re safe to use. You may want to have an electrician inspect your wiring before turning the power back on.

Do not touch fallen electrical wires. They may be live and could hurt or kill you or others.

If appliances are wet, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker, if it is safe to do so, as explained above. Then, unplug appliances and let them dry out. Have appliances checked by a professional before using them again.

Household Water and Sewage Leaks

If water pipes are damaged, turn off the main water supply valve (learn how to do this if you don’t already know). Once the system is repaired and water service restored, watch for special instructions from the municipality or Lambton Public Health – residents may be instructed to run their taps or boil the water first. Do not flush toilets until you know that sewage lines are intact.

Flooding

If your basement has flooded, pump it out gradually (about one third of the water per day) to avoid damage – the walls may collapse and the floor may buckle if the basement is pumped out while the surrounding ground is still waterlogged.

Mold

Heavy rainstorms can overwhelm storm sewer systems and cause water to back-up into basements.  Although combined sewers are becoming less common as they are replaced, extremely heavy rainfalls can cause sewage and storm water to combine in some cases, resulting in sewage back-flowing into basements.

Consider hiring a professional restoration company for clean-up or, thoroughly clean all hard surfaces (such as concrete, metal furniture, countertops, appliances, etc.) with hot water and laundry or dish detergent. Then disinfect the surfaces with a mixture of 1 cup of bleach in 22 litres (5 gallons) of water. Note that flood water may seep under flooring or into particle board furniture, which may be impossible to disinfect and dry.

Wear rubber boots, rubber gloves, and goggles when cleaning with bleach. Open windows and doors to get fresh air. Never mix bleach (laundry bleach, some bathroom cleaners) and ammonia (found in products such as glass and oven cleaners) because the fumes from the mixture could kill you.

Use fans and dehumidifiers and open doors and windows to remove moisture. To remove mold, mix 1 cup of bleach in 4.5 litres (1 gallon of water), wash the item with the bleach mixture, scrub rough surfaces with a stiff brush, rinse the item with clean water, then dry it or leave it to dry.

Discard items that cannot be washed and disinfected (such as mattresses, carpeting, upholstered furniture, pillows, books, wall coverings, etc.).

Remove and discard drywall and insulation that has been contaminated with sewage or flood waters (or hire someone to do the work). Check with your insurance company to see if you are covered for damages.

Your municipality may arrange for special garbage collection following a disaster or flood event.

Hazardous Materials

Call your local fire department’s administration number to have it inspect or remove chemicals and other dangerous materials.  If you cannot reach the fire department or municipal office, call 9-1-1.  In some cases, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change will also have to be notified. Be sure to wash any exposed skin that may have come in contact with hazardous materials.

Much of the information for this article was obtained from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency website.

Photo of volunteers helping.

Volunteering

Following disasters, local residents who have not been impacted and even people from outside the community, often want to help in any way they can and will arrive at an emergency scene to lend a hand.  In many instances however, emergency scenes are dangerous places, closed off to residents and the public by emergency officials.  What people may not know is, anyone acting as a volunteer on behalf of the municipality must be registered and possess the same level of training and safety equipment as someone who might be hired to undertake that particular work.  Volunteers who register with the municipality and demonstrate that they have the required skills are covered under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act during a declared emergency.  Disaster scenes are often dangerous places and it is not uncommon for people to be injured during clean-up rather than during the disaster itself.

Please do not arrive at an emergency scene to provide assistance unless the municipality has requested volunteers from the public.  In most instances, emergency officials will use staff or contract professionals – i.e. restoration companies, construction companies, tree removal companies, etc. – to assist with clean-up.  When volunteer assistance is requested by a municipality, it is often for individuals with specific training, experience and equipment to perform specific tasks.

Potential volunteers may wish to join an accredited community or faith-based volunteer agency that can provide proper training, screening and support.  Getting involved with a volunteer agency before an emergency occurs will improve your ability to help during a crisis or when help is needed.  Some of the community organizations that provide assistance following disasters are The Salvation Army, Victim Services of Sarnia-Lambton and the Canadian Red Cross.

Donating

Following a disaster, many people want to help those in need in other ways, such as making donations.  During an emergency however, it may not be possible for municipalities to accept clothing or household items because they do not have the capacity to store or distribute donated items.  Many communities have been overwhelmed by donations of clothing, furniture and food that cannot be used and must be disposed of.  Some well-meaning residents will incorrectly guess what items or resources might be needed, which means that the municipality, already dealing with an emergency, must also deal with storing or disposing of unwanted articles.

Please do not donate any item unless specifically requested by the affected municipality or community service organizations.  Residents can call 2-1-1 to find out what items might be needed.  Local media and official Facebook and Twitter accounts will provide details on what items are needed and where they can be donated.

Due to health and safety regulations, prepared food donations often cannot be be accepted.  If food donations are being sought, residents will be informed of what food items are needed and where they can be donated.

In many instances, financial donations are greatly appreciated and can be used to purchase goods or services needed to assist affected residents.  Once again, residents can call 2-1-1, follow local media, or look to official Facebook and Twitter accounts for information about where to make financial donations.  Be wary of potential scams and door-to-door collections.  Residents will typically be requested to make donations to specific community organizations or to accounts set up specifically for disaster relief.

Property damaged caused by the July 2014 EF-1 Grand Bend Tornado.
Property damaged caused by the July 2014 EF-1 Grand Bend Tornado.

Property Insurance

You may wish discuss your home insurance policy with your insurer to clarify what actions you should take if your residence is damaged during an emergency.  If you rent, you should obtain renter’s insurance.

If your residence is damaged in a disaster, do not undertake any major repairs or construction work without contacting your insurance provider to determine whether the damage is covered by your policy.  Also, do not begin any major repair work without contacting the municipality and speaking to a building inspector to determine whether demolition or building permits are required.  Do not do any work on damaged electrical or telephone lines to your home.  If you need to clean up damaged trees or tree limbs, only undertake work on your property, if you can do so safely – do not do any major work on the road or road allowance.  Consider hiring a tree removal company for large jobs.

If a large portion of your municipality or the County has been impacted by a disaster, the province may provide financial assistance under a program called “Disaster Recovery Assistance for Ontarians“.  This program may be activated following a wide-scale natural disaster by the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.  Please note that the program is not a substitute for private homeowner’s insurance, but may assist with expenses and losses not covered by insurance.