Does the threat of disaster have you nervously stockpiling food and ammunition? Well, the good news is that a little preparation can go a long way to calm your nerves if the big one hits. Think about it: If you've got a good plan, you and your property are much more likely to be safe. If lots of other folks prepare, too, that could greatly reduce the impact of a disaster and make it less scary for everyone. So preparation is good — or is it?
OK, before you climb into your underground bunker, let me explain. There's a lot of great disaster safety advice out there that you should definitely pay attention to (FEMA's Ready.gov is a great place to start). But some survival tips, even ones that sound reasonable, might best be ignored. These could be old wives' tales that have, over centuries, elbowed their way into the realm of common knowledge. Or they might be the brainchild of scientists, who, given the hindsight provided by decades of disasters, would regret ever suggesting them in the first place.
Either way, it's good to know what advice might be ineffective (or even harmful) so you can be sure to do what's best for you and your family when catastrophe strikes. So put down that dehydrated food pack and click through our list of disaster safety advice you should ignore.
Cruising the highway in a luxury sports car, you notice an ominous cloud with an occasional pop of lightning ahead. You should be fine since you're sitting on top-of-the-line rubber tires, right? Not necessarily.
Cars do provide pretty good lightning protection, but that's not because of the rubber tires. It's thanks to a principle called the Faraday effect. See, when lightning strikes something like a thick copper wire or a hollow pipe, the outer surface carries most of the current. Likewise, when a car is hit, current moves down the metal roof and sides, funneling the bolt around you and into the ground. So vehicles without such a metal enclosure, like convertibles, motorcycles and bicycles offer no protection from lightning, even if they do have rubber tires. This fact was tragically demonstrated in 2014 when the list of 26 lightning fatalities included a motorcyclist [sources: National Lightning Safety Institute, National Weather Service].
So what should you do if you're caught in your car during a lightning storm? The National Lightning Safety Institute recommends pulling over and putting your hands in your lap until the storm passes because things like door and window handles, radio dials, gearshifts and steering wheels can transfer current from the outside in (another of 2014's lightning fatalities was a man closing his car windows). Cars can still be damaged by a strike, but hopefully the harm will be limited to burned paint or a fried electrical system.
Disaster safety advice isn't always final. What seems smart to one generation can seem foolish to the next. Take the whole open-windows-during-tornadoes suggestion.
It all started when some very intelligent people tried to explain why tornadoes took the roofs off of houses and often blew walls outward. The going theory was that when the extreme low pressure at the center of a twister engulfed a house, the higher pressure inside would cause it to explode from within. Therefore, opening a window or door would equalize that pressure and save the house from bursting.
A 1979 tornado in Wichita Falls, Texas, however, turned this advice on its head. A team of researchers who studied the devastation found that houses with storm doors and shutters fared much better than those with open windows. It was the wind getting inside the homes, not the pressure, that was lifting the roof and flattening the walls.
Aside from the faulty premise, it turns out that running around and opening windows during a tornado isn't a good idea for another reason. Flying debris is responsible for most twister-related injuries, so standing next to an opening that could potentially blast you with shards of glass and other projectiles isn't a great plan. The best advice, according to the Storm Prediction Center, is to head to an interior room on the lowest level of your house — and stay away from windows!
You see it on TV every time there's a hurricane threatening the coast: businesses and homes with giant duct-tape "X"s on their windows. But the truth is that damage from hurricane-force winds is the one problem duct tape CAN'T fix.
Hurricane preparedness brochures promoted window taping into the 1980s before experts realized that this technique might just do more harm than good. The idea was that tape could help brace windows against the effects of winds, or at the very least prevent them from shattering into a million tiny pieces. In reality, taping does nothing to strengthen windows. And sure, it might prevent tiny shards of flying glass, but it could also produce the one thing that is worse: giant shards of flying glass held together with tape!
Like many disproven disaster safety tips, this one has demonstrated remarkable resilience. A 2011 survey conducted during the buildup to Hurricane Irene found that 7 in 10 respondents taped their windows in preparation for a hurricane.
This misconception is so pervasive that the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes initiated a "Go Tapeless" campaign to warn people about the ineffectiveness and danger of window taping. Instead, they recommend installing impact-resistant windows or shutters. Even plywood works pretty well. Just not tape.
What could be more terrifying than the ground shaking beneath your feet? Probably the things that might then fall on your head! During an earthquake all kinds of objects can drop to the floor, including picture frames, bookcases and even the ceiling. So it makes sense that you should get under something sturdy. For a lot of folks, that place has always been a doorway, but this might not be the best idea.
Evidently, the doorway earned its reputation as an earthquake shelter thanks to a photograph showing a collapsed adobe home with a doorway standing defiantly above the rubble (though this "enduring" image is curiously difficult to track down). Perhaps doorways are the safest place in unreinforced adobe structures, but in modern homes they aren't necessarily any better than elsewhere in the house. They won't likely protect you from falling debris, and good luck staying upright!
So what do you do then? Earthquake safety experts are big fans of "drop, cover and hold on." When a tremor strikes, immediately drop to the floor and cover your head and neck with your arms. Don't move unless you fear falling objects. In that case, move away from exterior walls and try to crawl under a sturdy desk or table. Grab something secure and hold on until the shaking stops. Then, by all means use the doorway — to go outside and get away from damaged areas once it's safe to do so [source: Southern California Earthquake Center].
Hollywood loves a good epidemic (see "Outbreak" , "The Crazies" , "Contagion" , etc.). They usually involve a highly contagious, fast-killing strain of some sort that forces the government to quarantine large numbers of people — healthy and sick — in an effort to stop a biological apocalypse.
In reality, experts rarely recommend such extreme measures, as demonstrated by the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. While American politicians from both parties called for travel restrictions, health officials were busy explaining all the reasons why that was actually a bad idea.
For one, such restrictions really don't work. In 2009 several countries banned flights to and from Mexico in response to a swine flu outbreak, but a subsequent study found this just delayed the arrival of the virus by about three days.
Not only are travel restrictions largely ineffective, but they might even make things worse. Such limits would make it really hard to get doctors, nurses and supplies to the affected countries. They would also complicate contact tracing, in which health workers seek out and test those who have come in contact with infected individuals. People would likely cross borders anyway by avoiding airports or lying about where they came from, making it nearly impossible for officials to retrace their movements.
The best way to contain an outbreak? Stop it at the source. Not too exciting, but hey, we'll leave that to the movies.
I know what you're thinking. "Ridiculous. Everybody this side of the 1950s knows that's not going to do anything." But bear with me; there's more to it than you think.
First, a quick history lesson. At the close of World War II, the United States boasted the world's only nuclear arsenal. Then the Soviet Union successfully tested some weapons of their own in 1949. As you've probably heard, those countries didn't get along very well, so in response, the United States formed the Federal Civil Defense Administration in 1951.
As part of the agency's mission to educate the public about nuclear preparedness, the film "Duck and Cover" was born. It featured a turtle named Bert who helped show children how to duck under desks and cover their heads when they saw a bomb detonate.
Crazy, huh? Not completely. When the film came out in 1951, scientists figured the main dangers from a nuclear attack were the blast and the heat. They didn't fully understand the whole radiation thing yet. And the atomic bombs of the time, though devastating, were like firecrackers compared to the hydrogen bombs tested the next year. Given the circumstances, duck and cover made a certain amount of sense [source: Kelly].
Of course, these drills continued long after officials fully realized the effects of radiation and the power of the hydrogen bomb. But it was a scary time, and people needed to feel like they could do something — even if they might be vaporized doing it.
Have you ever read your homeowners insurance policy? Me neither. But you should probably break out the bifocals and scour the fine print, or a disaster could make you the proud owner of a costly pile of rubble.
While every policy is different, most standard policies cover losses from fire, lightning, tornadoes, windstorms, hail, explosions, smoke, vandalism and theft. Many will also reimburse you for damage caused by falling objects like tree limbs or even meteors.
This coverage accounts for a lot of potential threats, but it leaves out some big ones — namely floods and earthquakes. Insuring against these events requires additional policies and, of course, additional costs. If something did happen, though, boy, would you be glad to have them. Consider asking your agent about flood and earthquake insurance if you live in an area prone to such disasters.
Finally, it's important to understand that not all insurance is created equal. Here's one important distinction: Replacement cost coverage will reimburse you for what it actually costs to rebuild a house and replace its contents, while cash value coverage will compensate you only for the value of your property when it was damaged (minus deductibles). Also good to know: Many policies place caps on items like jewelry, computers, furs and firearms, so you might need to purchase additional coverage, called riders, to ensure those items are fully protected.
Make sure you have the proper insurance, or you might be up the river without a paddle — both literally and figuratively!
Do a quick Google search for "how to survive a disaster." There are recommendations about everything from food and water storage to weapons and communication. A favorite topic is money, with warnings about the instability of paper currency and the benefits of stockpiling gold or silver. While global economic collapse can't be completely ruled out, past experience has shown that it's highly unlikely. Even after the worst disasters, financial systems are usually back up in a matter of days or weeks.
A better plan would be to prepare for short-term interruptions. Financial experts recommend having a three-day supply of cash on hand for disasters. That way you'll be able to buy things if credit card systems are down and you don't have access to banks or ATMs. That sounds simple, but when was the last time you had enough cash for three days' worth of food, gas and lodging?
For the longer term, you'll want to have three to six months of living expenses somewhere easily accessible, like in a savings or money market account. As an extra precaution, you could put some of that money into a financial institution outside your region so it's less likely to be threatened by the same disaster. Still want silver and gold? OK, but just remember that the price fluctuates daily and unlike money in a bank, it's not insured if lost or stolen.
Plus, if worldwide disaster strikes, the main liquidity issue you'll be worried about is finding clean water to drink!
It's a dark and stormy night, and Michael Jackson's undead "Thriller" dancers are moonwalking their way toward your brain. How would you want to be armed for this disaster?
Popular culture has given many people the misconception that gruesomely powerful weapons like chainsaws and flamethrowers are the best zombie killers available. Not so, says Max Brooks, author of "The Zombie Survival Guide." Chainsaws are limited by their heavy weight, finite fuel supply, unsafe operation and zombie-attracting noise. Flamethrowers, assuming you could find one, are even heavier and run off of jellied gasoline. Where are you going to find jellied gasoline? Best leave this one for the movies.
As it turns out, the most practical weapons are a little less flashy. For close combat, try the trench spike, a short blade with a brass knuckle handle. It's perfect for braining zombies (stabbing them in the head) or at the very least knocking them down. Bolt- or lever-action rifles are a great choice for longer range strikes. The one-shot capacity makes users choose their shots wisely, saving a great deal of ammunition over showier automatic weapons. They are also easy to maintain, and bullets are widely available.
Is a zombie apocalypse likely or even possible? Probably not. But if it does happen, you're one step closer to becoming a one-man (or woman) zombie-killing machine.
You're on an airplane waiting to leave the gate. After settling into your cramped seat, you start a podcast only to be interrupted by a flight attendant holding up life vests and oxygen masks. "What's the point," you sigh to yourself. "If this plane goes down, then we're all dead anyway." You replace your earbuds and close your eyes.
But wait — maybe you should be paying a bit more attention. The survival rate in plane accidents is actually about 95.7 percent, meaning the odds are on your side, especially if you know what to do [source: NTSB].
Take Josh Peltz, a passenger on US Airways Flight 1549, which crashed into the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. Seated in the exit row, Josh used the chaotic moments before impact to brush up on how to open the exit door. After hitting the water, he jumped into action, swiftly opening the door and preventing a pileup of people behind him [source: Northedge].
Aside from noting instructions printed on the plane and delivered by the flight attendant, there are other ways to improve your chances of survival. Try to sit within five rows of an emergency exit and keep your shoes on during takeoff and landing. This should help you escape quickly and safely: Most crash survivors evacuate in less than 90 seconds [source: Sherwood].
And if that doesn't make you feel better, remember: Your chance of dying in a plane crash is only 1 in 90 million! [source: Sherwood]
Far fewer Americans die from lightning strikes today than in the 1940s. HowStuffWorks explains why lightning deaths are so rare today.
Author's Note: 10 Pieces of Disaster Safety Advice You Should Ignore
Writing this article led me to reflect on my own experience with disaster. When I was just 5 years old, my family and I huddled in the hallway as a tornado threatened our home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Luckily, it hopped over us, but nearby neighborhoods were not so lucky. I remember obsessively watching the weather reports for years after this encounter. Certainly, my fear has diminished with age, thanks in no small part to a greater understanding of disasters and how to prepare for them. And yet, in researching this piece I learned even more comforting disaster safety advice. Now I know not to touch any metal on my car during a lightning storm, and not to seek shelter in a doorway for an earthquake. I don't know about you, but I'm feeling better already.
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