10 Things Every Homeowner Should Know Before Disaster Strikes

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If a disaster were to strike your home right now, would you know what to do? What would your first move be—besides, you know, panicking?

If we've learned anything recently, it's that hurricanes, earthquakes, and wildfires can affect anyone—at any time. So it's probably a good idea to take a quick refresher on how to help yourself during an emergency. Granted, no one likes to imagine themselves in the midst of a natural disaster. But a little preparation could prevent damage to your home, make processing claims easier—and, most importantly, save your life.

Here’s what every homeowner needs to do now that will help you if disaster strikes later.

1. Make sure your smoke detectors work

Whether because of damaged electrical wiring or generators being used improperly, “fires tend to happen around natural disasters,” warns Tom Heneghan, senior program manager for Disaster Cycle Services at the American Red Cross.

Make sure that your smoke detectors are properly placed inside your home—and that they work. If they’re hard-wired, make sure they also have battery backup. (You can change the batteries each time daylight saving time begins and ends.) And don’t forget to replace the detectors themselves every 10 years—the sensors go bad over time, Heneghan says.

2. Memorize your escape plan

Everyone in your family should know not one, but two ways to get out of the house fast, Heneghan says. Then, set up a safe meeting place nearby—like the elm tree across the street or a neighbor's porch—and arrange to meet there once you’re out.

3. Know where to access your most important belongings

Social Security cards, birth certificates, wedding and baby photos ... if you have to evacuate quickly, you shouldn't be running through your house trying to remember where you keep these precious things.

Instead, your most valuable possessions should live in a fireproof safe or a container you can quickly grab on your way out of the house, Heneghan says.

4. Be prepared to survive for a few days on your own

“Have a grab-and-go kit ready to go at the foot of your bed," Heneghan advises. "A flashlight, water, and all-purpose tools can go a long way."

Don’t forget a battery-powered or hand-crank radio, which will help you to communicate with the outside world and keep up with local breaking news, even when the power's out.

“It's important to follow the directions of your local officials,” Heneghan says. They’ll be able to tell you, for instance, if your water is safe to drink, if and when you should leave your home, and where you can go for help.

5. Know how to deal with your utilities

“If you smell natural gas, see downed power lines, or suspect another emergency situation, leave the area immediately,” says Teresa Young, a spokesperson for Pacific Gas and Electric.

Call 911, then call your utility company. Alert everyone nearby, and head to an upwind location.

“Don’t use anything that could be a source of ignition, including cellphones, flashlights, light switches, matches, or vehicles until you’re a safe distance away,” Young adds.

Although your gas can be turned off at the main gas service shut-off valve, experts don't advise attempting this unless you smell or hear gas, see a broken gas line, or suspect a leak. (In which case, you really should get the heck out of there anyway.)

It's also wise to know where your main electric panel is. In an emergency, you can flip the main breaker switch inside to turn off all the power in your house. But use common sense. For instance, if your panel's located in a flooded basement, you shouldn't go anywhere near it until an electrician gives you the all-clear.

6. Anchor your heavy furniture

Live in a fault zone? Don't wait until "the big one" hits to anchor your heavy shelves to the walls. Not only will these tip over and hurt you, Heneghan says, but the various tchotchkes on them could become projectile missiles as well.

7. Read your insurance policy

Do you have flood insurance? Are you protected against earthquake damage? Now's the time to make sure you're covered.

“If your home was impacted by a major disaster, you may be eligible to apply for federal assistance,” says Jenny Burke, a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman.

That said, any grant money you're eligible for might not cover all your damage. Or, you might only qualify for a loan that will need to be paid back.

8. Estimate how much everything in your home costs—and will cost to replace

One of the most common mistakes homeowners make, Burke says, is not documenting and insuring property, valuables, and critical documents.

Get ahead of the game by taking video or pics of all of your belongings—that means everything from your grandmother’s diamond ring to your sectional couch to your juicer. If your home is damaged during a natural disaster, this inventory can help prove to your insurer what you own and speed up processing of your claim.

9. Get to know the people you'll count on

Now's a great time to meet your neighbors.

“You’ll really depend on each other during and after an emergency,” Heneghan notes. “Who’s near you who will need help? Who can help you?”

Get friendly with your block now.

10. Know that you got this

Panic might be your default setting in an emergency, but when you freak out, you lose the ability to think clearly and help yourself and others around you. Learn some coping mechanisms before you truly need them, even if it's just taking a few deep breaths and asking yourself, "What can I do right now?"

You can also download one of the Red Cross' free apps for advice on handling common first-aid emergencies, tracking weather alerts, and other tips on preparing for specific emergencies.

Sure, it's scary to think about being stuck in a natural disaster. But being prepared will help you panic less.

These tips were pulled from an article on realtor.com