Natural disasters: How to prepare for them and protect your air quality

In certain sections of the US and the world, seasonal weather can turn dangerous in a matter of days, hours or even minutes.  We want to help you be ready for these situations by planning ahead.  Having the proper plans and supplies in place is reassuring during a stressful time! Before any storm is on the horizon, you can:

  • Purchase appropriate insurance.
  • Take a household inventory of major household items and valuables with photos and model numbers. 
  • Store important documents in fire- and water-proof boxes.

Then, you can have a basic survival kit on hand at home, to get you through several different types of emergencies. Here is an example kit from ready.gov:

  • Water (one gallon per person per day for several days, for drinking and sanitation)
  • Food (at least a several-day supply of non-perishable food)
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Whistle (to signal for help)
  • Dust mask (to help filter contaminated air)
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape (to shelter in place)
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties (for personal sanitation)
  • Wrench or pliers (to turn off utilities)
  • Manual can opener (for food)
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery

Wildfires.  You may not live in fire-prone areas, but as we’ve seen in the past few years, even a small wildfire can affect thousands of homes outside the burn zone with deadly smoke.  In our post about wildfires, we outline some basic things you can do to prevent wildfire smoke from making your home inhabitable:

  • Seal doors and windows with weatherstripping, caulk and door sweeps.  
  • Find out how to adjust your HVAC system accordingly: you’ll want to close the fresh air intake and change over to recirculation, no matter whether you have central AC, a window air conditioner or portable air conditioner.
  • Purchase extra MERV 13 or higher filters for your HVAC system, to be used on poor air quality days.
  • If you live in an apartment building or condo with little control over the HVAC, consider purchasing vent filter material so you can place them in the vents into your space. Carbon vent filter material will neutralize many VOCs as well.
  • Purchase a HEPA air cleaner (non-ozone producing type) and be sure to have an extra filter or two on hand. 
  • Keep a stash of N95 respirator masks on hand.    
  • Don’t cook during a wildfire emergency, because cooking indoors increases small particulates and vapors in the air, and you won’t want to turn on your stove exhaust, as that will draw polluted outdoor air into the house.  Try to use just the canned food you have on hand.
  • Check your local air quality and receive updates from airnow.gov . Fire and smoke maps are available under the heading fire.airnow.gov

Hurricanes:  Although a number of hurricanes have formed in May and December, hurricane season for the Atlantic is June 1 through November 30.  The intensity and frequency of storms is predicted to be above normal in 2022, for the seventh consecutive year (economist.com).  It’s all the more reason to be ready in case one of these mega-storms comes your way.  

Here’s some interesting facts about how hurricanes affect air quality:

  • Whether you stay in your home or evacuate, it’s good to be aware that the reaction of local oil and petrochemical refineries to the storm is critical.  According to a report published by environmentalintegrity.org, industrial plants in the Houston area waited too long to shut down after receiving warnings about Hurricane Harvey.  This resulted in 8.3 million pounds of unpermitted air pollution being released into the air, including dangerous plumes of cancer-causing benzene, “much of it triggered by flooding-related mishaps like electrical outages, equipment malfunctions, and the failure of floating roof tanks.”  These releases subsequently caused 3 of the worst days of high ozone levels in the same area.
  • You may not have accurate air quality information during and after the storm.  The same report confirmed that “part of the TCEQ’s (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) disaster planning strategy included shutting down air monitors to protect them from damage. Approximately 75 percent of the stationary air monitoring equipment from the Houston, Corpus Christi, and Beaumont-Port Arthur areas was temporarily removed in preparation for Hurricane Harvey, according to state officials.  These heavily industrialized areas are home to many of the largest sources of air pollution in the United States. “
  • The intense winds of hurricanes can pick up dust and broadcast it in large areas, including coarse grit sand down to fine grains of 2.5 microns and smaller. (nbcnews.com) These fine and ultra-fine particles are super-dangerous to lungs and our whole bodies, because they can lodge deep in the lungs and even transfer into the bloodstream.  You can see the effects of hurricane winds and what they pick up when viewing road signs after the storm: if they are still standing, many road signs have a “sand-blasted” effect that is not just from water but also from the dust picked up by the winds.  
  • During a hurricane, power outages cause humidity levels to climb in your home, encouraging the growth of mold and dust mites, two major indoor allergens. (Allergy and Asthma Care of Florida)
  • After a hurricane, excess standing water can promote the growth of grasses and weeds, at a time when homeowners, business owners and governments are not prepared to cut them.  This can worsen allergies for many.  (Allergy and Asthma Care of Florida)  Trees that are stripped bare during the hurricane can also regrow their leaves and even bloom again, because the stress of the hurricane changes the plants’ hormone levels.  (morningagclips.com)  That can mean almost double the pollen in one year!
  • Roof damage and water penetrating the home’s exterior will allow mold to grow in places that may remain undetected for months or years.  

Preparing for riding out a hurricane in your home is similar to a wildfire (see tips above). You’ll want to have the appropriate filters, masks, canned food and water on hand, and also know how to prevent fresh air intake if the air quality outside gets too bad.  You’ll want to have portable fans on hand in order to circulate air in your home, because air circulation can prevent mold growth.  Being able to run a generator if the power goes out can also improve your comfort by having access to frozen food supplies, light, power to cook with, and fans to circulate air so you can sleep!  If you do run a generator, check out our recommendations on running it safely in our post Power Outages and Air Quality. 

Tornadoes:  Being intensely windy storms, severe thunderstorms and the tornadoes they can spawn bring many of the risks of hurricanes.  The wind, rain, and potential damage are all there, most times with even more intensity in a tornado.  According to the University of Miami, “While both types of storms are capable of producing destructive winds, tornadoes can become stronger than hurricanes. The most intense winds in a tornado can exceed 300 miles per hour, while the strongest known Atlantic hurricane contained winds of 190 miles per hour. “  This means that the amount of dust and debris a tornado can pick up is many times more than a hurricane per area.  Tornadoes an hurricanes are both storms of wind and rain.  The reason a tornado is “visible” to the human eye, as well as radar systems, is because of the massive amount of dust, debris and hail that it contains!

The other problem with tornadoes is their lack of warning.  Many times residents, businesses and industry have 10 minutes or less to take shelter, let alone prepare their dwelling or workplace for the possibility of severe damage.  Therefore, it’s critical to have supplies and a plan to execute in case of one.

  • Of course, the most important thing is getting to shelter.  Your tornado shelter needs to be a place which is always accessible and well-known to your family or co-workers.  Whether or not your home has a purpose-built safe room, be sure to have the above mentioned supplies of the disaster kit, plus warm clothing and bedding, because weather conditions can change drastically with such a storm.
  • If you know that a tornado is in your area and you have time before sheltering, you can:
    • Turn off gas and water to your home, to avoid fire or flooding. 
    • Close fresh air intake into your home and close all windows.  According to weather.gov, “It is now believed that a solid structure (no windows or doors open) has a better chance of escaping major damage.”

Flooding.  Meteorologists cannot always predict the amount and path of water in storms, and building in floodplains is a common practice in some areas.  According to a 2021 study, “damaging floods are increasing in severity, duration and frequency, owing to changes in climate, land use, infrastructure and population demographics.”  From 2000 to 2015, approximately 58 to 86 million people moved to flood-prone regions, they found, which translates to a roughly 20% increase in the population exposed to floods. If your area even has a minimal chance of flooding (see this page to decode the flood zone category of your property, or search FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center by your address), then you should prepare for one.  Here are some ways to do it:

  • A flash flood is “A flood caused by heavy or excessive rainfall in a short period of time, generally less than 6 hours.”(weather.gov)  Warnings issued for flash floods are serious because the flooding can be very unpredictable.  Do not attempt to drive in areas where flash flooding is predicted, and never through floodwaters.
  • You should attempt to move yourself, and if possible anything of value to you, to higher ground.  For example, in your home you can move smaller valuables to upper stories or the attic.  In your car, drive away from the flooded area to higher ground.  
  • Moving back into a flooded home requires quick remediation; mold can start growth within 48 hours so it’s important to get all waterlogged furniture and carpeting removed, and surfaces like floors and walls dried out as soon as possible.  If your area sustains major flooding, professional help can be difficult to secure, but don’t give up!  
  • Air quality in your home depends on how extensive the flooding is and long water remains, but even the humidity of a few inches of water can start to affect those who are prone to asthma.  Therefore those who have respiratory issues should not try to help clear a flooded house. 
  • If you’re working on your own (without professional remediation), you’ll want to:
    • Use respiratory protection and appropriate clothing, shoes and gloves
    • Remove all drywall and insulation below the floodline, as well as 2-4 feet up the wall.  This is because the drywall wicks up water, and the insulation behind it will be wet also.  The goal is to get the studs and all of the wall cavity dry.
    • Use as many fans as possible to increase air circulation for drying. 
    • Clear particulates from the air using a large HEPA filter such as our Cleanroom WindPRO 650, or if you don’t have the budget, make a Box Fan Air Cleaner
  • Flooded neighborhoods can increase in mosquitoes, fleas, ticks and mites very quickly after a storm, so be sure to wear insect repellent and change clothing at least daily if you’re encountering insect problems. 
It’s not a matter of if, but when…according to a Wells Fargo survey in 2021, 84% of Americans live in areas that have experienced some form of natural disaster in the last three years, but not many are prepared for it. Be part of the ones who are prepared, because you never know how you can help your family and neighbors as well!
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