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Fact: Disasters are political

On the eve of the US Presidential election it’s been barely a week since North America was impacted by one of the costliest disasters in US history. Although the mass media has largely moved on from the effects of the storm, its impact on the US Presidential election is likely to be debated for some time to come.

Before Hurricane Sandy even hit though there were the usual calls for the disaster not to be politicised. However endorsements for Obama’s handling of the response from Republican and Independent leaders, along with the crackpot right blaming gays and the Muslim Brotherhood and the green left blaming climate change quickly quashed those calls.

Fact is, disasters are political.

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IDRC Davos 2012: Post Conference Reflections

During the final week of August 2012 I had the opportunity to attend and volunteer at the 4th International Disaster and Risk Conference in Davos, Switzerland. This report summarises the conference and my experiences there. At the end of the report are links to the conference program, papers and presentations which I would encourage the reader to peruse.

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Resilience in an increasingly globalised world

This morning I read this article about pharmaceuticals and other medical products. It turns out that many essential medicines and devices have complex supply chains that depend on products produced in just a handful of locations. The supply of some of these products is vulnerable to natural disasters, civil unrest and other crises. Countries like Australia, which don’t have large pharma industries are quite vulnerable to these interruptions with potential consequences on the health of many people with chronic and acute conditions.

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IDRC Davos 2012

Tomorrow I’m off to the International Disaster Risk Conference 2012 in Davos, Switzerland.

I’ll be volunteering there and checking out as much of the latest research and best practice in disaster risk management as I can. It’s particularly encouraging to see sessions on cascading mega disasters, urban risks, the future of risk management and broader governance approaches in a post-Hyogo Framework for Action environment.

I hope to post a couple of updates during the conference and a longer recap on my return to Kathmandu. In the meantime check out the conference website or follow them on twitter.

Emergency Services Levy: Towards a risk based approach?

The New South Wales Government has recently released a discussion paper on changes to the way the emergency services are funded in the State. Fire and Rescue NSW, the NSW Rural Fire Service and the NSW State Emergency Service currently cost about $1billion a year to run. The current model sees contributions from the insurance industry, local government and the state government towards the funding of the three services. The insurance industry contributes to 73.7% of their total budget.

This state of affairs has been widely acknowledged as being inefficient, inequitable and counter-productive. Insurance taxes have been widely acknowledged to reduce rates of insurance. Un-insurance rates in NSW are some of the highest in the country. A move towards a property based level is strongly recommended in the discussion paper which is asking for community views on the design.

Most of the questions relate to how a fair and efficient property based tax can be levied. I wish to focus on a different aspect: If the current levy disincentivises risk management measures (ie. insurance) could the future levy be designed to incentivise risk management measures?

In theory the levy could be based on a service delivery model (which do exist for the various services). However any decision to do so would be primarily based on equity grounds – this does raise the tricky question of whether you would charge on the basis of the service provided (which are generally lower in rural areas) or the cost of providing the service (which are generally higher in rural areas).

The paper dismisses the use of a risk based approach to determine a property levy as impractical, but I think it deserves closer examination. How could a risk based approach work? Would it be feasible to implement? And would it actually lead to risk reduction?

Property risk comes from two sources – the site of the property (ie. its exposure to hazards) and its construction/use (ie. its vulnerability to hazards). For hazards like urban fire and hailstorm the site doesn’t matter too much. Other hazards, such as flood and bush fire depend on both building construction and location.

Exposure to hazards

The component of the risk attached to the site of the property is very difficult to move. It’s unclear what the effect of a site-based risk levy would be. On one hand, a higher levy could increase property prices and lead to more wealthy folk moving into the area. On the other hand higher rates for disaster prone properties combined with high insurance premiums, could just end up reducing the income and wealth of those who are disaster-prone, increasing their vulnerability.  Although there has been substantial research on the effect of flooding on property prices, there remains substantial methodological flaws in much of this research and more work still needs to be done. Changes to insurance costs are not a good indicator, if the prices get too high, consumers can just opt-out.  And council rates are generally based on property values, not the other way around, so they too make a poor guide of how individuals would respond.

What about the construction of the property? Here retrofitting, property maintenance, the installation of safety systems and other practices (particularly for commercial and industrial sites, which I will leave out in this discussion as they’re already highly regulated and only represent a small portion of the overall risk) could make a difference.

As the list of potential anthropogenic and natural hazards is rather long I’m going to concentrate on the major ones our emergency services respond to: urban fire, bush fire, hail and windstorm and flood.

Urban Fire

Around two-thirds of all residential fires in NSW (in 2006/07, the most recent year for which data is available) were caused by some form of human action, whether through negligence, misadventure or malice. Only 8.37% of fires were due to short circuits and other electrical failure, but this is the leading cause of fires due to equipment and design failures (which make up 15% of all residential fires).

These causes are reflected in the majority of home fire advice which relates to individual and family preparedness. Additional guidance is targeted at a few electrical items such as Halogen down-lights, but even this advice is heavily weighted to maintenance and inspection. Attempting to incentivise good behaviour through behaviour based discounts to a property levy would be virtually impossible to implement (at least without your house into some sort of AI surveillance machine to make sure you’re doing things right). With few structural and non-structural measures that can be implemented to reduce fire risk that leaves fire response equipment.

Smoke Alarms are already mandatory in NSW, so no additional incentive is needed to install them. However Fire and Rescue NSW does recommend the installation of Home Sprinkler Systems, which have been proven to be very effective at preventing deaths in house fires. Given that this is a very specific measure the best form of incentive may be some form of rebate on the installation of home sprinkler systems, rather than discounts to a property levy.

Bush Fire

As with urban fire much of the potential for mitigation of bush fire relates to maintenance and inspection. However design and construction are just as important. In NSW new dwellings and renovations must comply with Planning for Bush Fire Protection. However much of the risk is associated with existing dwellings in bush fire prone areas. There is the potential to retrofit existing dwellings using the construction methods outlined in this guide published by the Victorian Country Fire Authority. Some simple measures on existing dwellings such as installing steel screens on doors and windows, enclosing under-house spaces, fitting a rooftop sprinkler system and installing gutter guards are relatively cheap and practical for almost all dwellings.

As the methods vary depending on fire hazard and existing construction – a broad incentive could be effective in letting home-owners select their own retrofitting methods. A risk rating and scoring system for various mitigation measures could form modifications for a property based levy. The number of bush fire prone properties is only a fraction of the total building stock in NSW, a carefully targeted and capped levy ‘surcharge’ with reductions based on some sort of checklist of mitigation options might work – it needs further investigation.

Hail and Wind

Roof damage due to hail and windstorms (I’m going to ignore water ingress due to poorly maintained gutters and downpipes – another maintenance issue) is one of the major areas of response for the SES and a significant cause of property damage from natural disasters.

There are a variety of trade-offs when it comes to different roof types including cost, longevity, maintenance needs, damage potential and ease of repair. Corrogated Fibro is probably the worst roofing material due to its fragility and toxic nature. However I haven’t found any quantitative research on the costs and benefits associated with different roofing materials.

Roughly three quarters of all new dwellings are constructed with tiled roofs with sheet metal and slate making up the majority of the other quarter. Tiles and slate are the most vulnerable roofing materials to hail as shown in the following table:

Hailstone Size (cm) Damage
3.0–4.0 Glass and plastic roofing broken
4.0–5.0 Old slate 100+ years old, Old tiles 50+ years old, cracked
5.0–6.0 Old slate tiles broken, new tiles crack
6.0–7.5 New concrete tiles and terracotta tiles break
7.5–8.5 Sheet metal dented – all other roofing broken
8.5–9.0 Sheet metal dented – all other roofing smashed
>9.0 Sheet metal roofing penetrated/ cracked

Clearly sheet metal is the most hail resistant form of roofing, and if appropriately tied can be remarkably wind resistant too. Roofs are most likely to be replaced during renovations or at the end of the roof lifespan, or after damage. Although it’s unclear what the ‘best’ material is, incentives could encourage people to replace roofs (or build with a better roof in the first place) if a levy presents a clear cost disincentive when keeping the previous material. Gathering data by visual inspection or even remote sensing should be relatively affordable and not need to be repeated too often.

Flood

If a property is to be built or renovated in a flood prone area (noting that in some areas there can be a substantial difference between a 1% AEP flood, the usual residential building standard, and the probable maximum flood) there are a number of design and construction features that can substantially reduce flood damage. These include using flood compatible materials, installing the electrical wiring higher than normal and considering the use of ground floor rooms.

For existing dwellings some of these methods can also be employed, or there are other means including a variety of temporary flood protection products that can be retrofitted on existing buildings (usually designed to keep <1m of slow moving water out of the house).

The most expensive method is house raising. There are funding sources for the raising of houses in some jurisdictions, including NSW, however these are generally only in areas with approved programs. Anecdotally there is demand for funding for these projects outside of these areas. A levy reduction could help people pay for this type of project, however I’d argue that making funds available for any property that meets a particular criteria would be a more effective method.

Although there has been substantial work done on cost benefit of around flooding, I haven’t seen any work specifically relating to property based incentives/disincentives for these measures. As with bush fire and storm, plenty of potential for mitigation – but uncertainty if a property levy approach would work.

Conclusion

There is some work happening in building design and construction in relation to climate change, including looking at regulatory mechanisms to enhance mitigation and retrofitting and incentives. However more work is needed to better understand the risk, effectiveness of retrofitting measures and community response to incentives.

The Insurance Council of Australia commissioned Deloitte to investigate a number of models for a property based levy. It did propose a risk based model calculated on an LGA-wide basis with the risk measure based on previous fire incidence in that LGA. This would not create significant differences for individual properties to create incentives. It does recommend that additional research could be conducted, and models prepared to investigate a levy raised on a per-property basis.

With significant existing risk associated with natural disasters in Australia and new development increasing risk too, all possible measures to encourage property mitigation need to be examined. A risk-based emergency services levy with discounts for mitigation could be expensive and difficult to implement, and may not encourage enough mitigation to balance out the cost of the approach. However where this balance lies has not been established by research – I think it is worth further detailed investigation.

Go Bag #4: Sanitation

FEMA - 24788 - Photograph by Andrea Booher taken on 10-29-2005 in LouisianaIn the fifth of this regular series I explore what you need to put in your go bag. This week: sanitation.

Much of the morbidity and mortality associated with disasters comes not from the impact of the disaster itself, but from avoidable infections associated with damaged infrastructure and poor hygiene in the aftermath of a disaster.

I will talk about first aid in a later post, but here the old adage “prevention is better than cure” is much more important.

Sanitation boils down to two things: staying clean and waste disposal.

Staying Clean

The most important thing to keep clean are you hands, most pathogens are spread by hands coming into contact with your face. In the past this meant washing with soap and water, which may be scarce or contaminated in a disaster.

Now with the advent of hand sanitiser, soap becomes less of a necessity. Some studies have even shown that it is more effective than hand washing with soap. Hand sanitiser should be the number 1 sanitation item in your Go Bag.

Make sure that you use a product that contains at least 60% alcohol for maximum effectiveness. However if your hands are covered in dirt or grime that will compromise the effectiveness of the hand sanitiser, so you will need to find a water source and use soap to clean them. It is a good idea to use hand sanitiser afterwards. To wash your hands liquid soap is a good addition to your Go Bag.

In between cleaning your hands make sure you avoid touching your face and mouth or any open wounds. Try and keep your clothes, particularly socks and underwear as clean and dry as possible.

If you need them make sure you keep a decent supply of sanitary pads in your Go Bag – these also make pretty good wound dressings.

Waste Disposal

You can’t be sure that you will be able to find a functioning toilet, the sewerage or water supply may have failed or buildings may be unsafe to enter. You may have to improvise a toilet.

The most portable are plastic bags that you can do your business in and then dispose of away from your shelter. There are a number of purpose designed products on the market such as the PeePoo bag, but any plastic bag will do in an emergency situation. Make sure you have a decent supply of these and toilet paper in your Go Bag.

Other options include lining an existing toilet with a larger plastic bag or using a bucket in a similar fashion. Keeping some bleach on hand can help disinfect and control odours.

If you end up having to shelter for a lengthier time in place without an operational sewerage system it may make better sense to dig a latrine or pit for defecation, make sure you line these with plastic though so contamination doesn’t leach into water supplies.

Evidence based disaster management and the Triangle of Life

One of the big drawcards for me to disaster management is that it is such an interdisciplinary career. It brings together expertise in economics, geography, psychology, sociology, geophysics, meteorology, climate science, technology, business management, information technology, public policy, statistics, anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, culture and ethnography, engineering, environmental science, health, education, agriculture and more.

In a field that draws on so many areas of knowledge, research is critically important. This includes research that may not immediately be identified to have an emergency management impact.

As emergency management has so much knowledge to draw on I often ask myself why there isn’t a stronger engagement between practitioners and researchers in the field.

Conferences seem to be dominated by consultants and professional speakers (often those leaders who presided over emergency management disasters). Governments and NGOs in these times of austerity are cutting budgets and emergency management organisations aren’t immune. In any budget cuts, research is often the first to go.

Part of the problem is that large parts of academia, including many emergency management trade journals are walled off behind expensive paywalls. This problem is particularly acute for those working in developing countries who don’t have alternative means of access to this knowledge. Subsidised journals like the Australian Journal of Emergency Management are extremely important, as they enable any emergency manager to access high quality research and researchers to reach a broad emergency management audience.

Yet few publications see emergency management practitioners and researchers collaborating on papers, or indeed researching areas of interest to local practitioners.

The problem extends beyond that though. Emergency management lacks the culture of critical thinking common to the sciences. This tends to lead to an over-reliance on good ideas, historical practice and ‘common-sense’ which may in reality turn out to be ineffective or worse, actually harmful.

The Triangle of Life: Where’s the evidence?

In a place like Kathmandu earthquakes are never too far away as a discussion topic. In a couple of different conversations the ‘triangle of life’ idea has come up. This concept basically states that you should seek shelter next to heavy objects in an earthquake, as this will be where the survival spots are if the building collapses. I always thought that the concept had some utility in developing countries, without the enforcement of building codes in places like the US and Japan.

The concept first surfaced in an email chain letter (and continues to do the rounds, with elements of it popping up in this recent youtube video) authored by self-proclaimed rescue expert Doug Copp. The triangle of life idea has been thoroughly refuted by every government emergency management agency and experienced NGO I’ve been able to find. Some of the advice in the email is consistent with that of most earthquake preparedness experts, however most of it and especially the triangle of life are absolute nonsense. The credibility of the author is also highly questionable.

But what does the evidence say?

The Triangle of Life has an intrinsic appeal to some urban search and rescue practitioners who focus on rescuing people from collapsed structures. (On the other hand plenty have put together excellent rebuttals). However the people that these professionals rescue are not typical survivors. Most will either not be trapped or be rescued by other survivors using hands and basic tools.

By the time heavy Urban Search and Rescue teams arrive on the scene very few survivors will be found. Those that are found by these rescuers will be in voids within the collapsed structures – aka triangles of life.

This produces a sampling bias, the people in these voids are not representative of the total population of survivors.

The only experimental evidence for triangle of life came from an exercise in Turkey, which  Copp was involved with (Unfortunately the links to all the primary source material on this exercise are broken). Dummies were placed within a structure, which was then collapsed. They found that the dummies placed in ‘duck, cover, hold’ positions were crushed and those placed in ‘triangle of life’ positions were not. Now by collapsed I mean demolished with conventional demolition techniques. Unfortunately this does not simulate how buildings fail in earthquakes, so little can be drawn from the results.

The other aspect of a controlled collapse is that the voids are much more predictable.  Now I’m not suggesting that the ‘experimenters’ deliberately placed the dummies in these locations but subconsciously the experimenter effect could have come into play.

So the only piece of evidence for this advice is seriously flawed at best. The ‘triangle of life’ is already on shaky ground.

The other problem with this concept is that as an earthquake survival strategy the triangle of life will only protect you in the event of a building collapse. Odds are a total structural collapse will very likely ruin your day, despite what the theory claims. Any survival strategy will only increase your chances of survival, not guarantee it, in the event of a building collapse.

But what about if your building doesn’t collapse?

Most of the injuries (and some of the deaths) from an earthquake are caused by non-structural items such as bookcases, shelves, cabinets and the items on them. Many injuries are also caused by people fleeing (often without shoes) and cutting themselves on broken glass and other falling debris. This is precisely what the ‘duck, cover, hold’ strategy is aimed at avoiding.

For example in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake most fatalities were caused by building collapse, most injuries by falling over and being hit by falling objects. There were about 4 times more injuries than fatalities.

Researchers in Iran calculated that for a large earthquake there the number of people in areas exposed to falling debris (and not building collapse) would be 12,000 times the number of people exposed to building collapse. (Unfortunately this is the only scholarly article that I’ve found that directly compares ‘duck, cover, hold’ with ‘triangle of life’.)

So when the shaking starts, odds are that ‘duck, cover, hold’ will be the most appropriate strategy.

But what about community education? Could ‘triangle of life’ be explained too,allowing people to choose their own strategy?

Trying to communicate anything about earthquake preparedness is difficult enough. You could take a mixed strategy, that attempted to explain where the limited applicability of the triangle of life might be useful. However, this would only end up confusing most of the target audience, who may end up doing nothing or panicking. To reach the broadest audience any disaster preparedness message needs to be simple and the advice that will be applicable to the largest number of people is ‘duck, cover, hold’.

There’s no evidence to suggest that the triangle of life is any better than chance.

Which brings me back to my initial discussion:

Many career paths into disaster management don’t provide a strong background in research methods or critical thinking skills. When you combine this with the poor engagement between researchers and disaster managers and the difficulty in accessing scholarly publications its no wonder that rumours like the triangle of life to continue to circulate, even among disaster management professionals.

Research accessibility, critical thinking skills and cross sector engagement all need to be addressed to ensure disaster management is evidence based and thus successful.

Go Bag #3: Food

GranolabarIn the fourth of this regular series I explore what you need to put in your go bag. This week: food.

Now you’ve got enough water and some shelter it’s time to turn your mind to your stomach. Whilst the average adult can survive more than a week without food they won’t be functioning too well.

Food will keep you energised, help stop you from getting sick and most importantly boost your morale.

For your go bag food needs to satisfy a few requirements:

Weight – You’re going to be lugging it around, so tinned food is out. You need to go for food that is light and in lightweight packaging.

Energy – To keep you going you’re going to want to eat small amounts often. So nutritious, energy dense food is important.

Water – You’re already using your limited supply for drinking so you don’t want to be re-hydrating food, or cooking something. By the same token foods that are very dry or salty will make you thirsty, putting further strain on your water supplies.

Shelf life – You don’t expect to be needing your go bag on a regular basis, so your food needs to last a while. At least six months is a good length (change it when you do your smoke detectors and other emergency kit maintenance). Don’t forget that there’s a difference between the various forms of labelling “best before” dates.

Taste – At the end of the day though you want food you like. This will boost your spirits and make it easier to rotate your stash so it doesn’t go stale.

All these factors limit your options pretty significantly. Think about packing Muesli/Granola bars, trail mix (aka scroggin), nuts (unsalted), some chocolate, dried fruit, some crackers and spread (in a tube or plastic container) and other pre-packed snacks. I know some folk who swear by tubes of sweetened condensed milk, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Others will get some army rations/MREs, but these aren’t necessarily terribly tasty. Just make sure there’s some variety.

As for the amount there isn’t really any rule of thumb. You probably should have enough to stretch out over 2-3 days, but this may not be practical depending on what else you have in your go bag and how much weight you’re willing to carry.

Do you have a favourite food for your go bag? Leave a note in the comments and I’ll add it to the post.

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The Census and Emergency Management

Yesterday saw the release of the first batch of data from the 2011 Australian Census and my inner statistics nerd was very excited. But the census is not just for demographers and statistics nerds – it has real practical uses for emergency managers. Here’s just a few areas where it comes in handy:

Risk Management

Risk is often characterised as Hazard X Vulnerability. Hazard is generally easy to determine and there are substantial studies on natural hazards in particular. Vulnerability can be much more difficult to determine, especially when talking about people. What makes someone vulnerable will ultimately depend on a host of complicated factors and relationships, but demographic data can provide some coarse indicators.

A description of a community and its vulnerabilities is grounded in solid demographic data, the best of which comes from the census. It can suggest specific issues in a community and allow researchers to target further work to better reveal and understand its vulnerabilities.

The census reveals a raft of data about socioeconomic status, education, age, family characteristics, motor vehicle ownership, English language ability and employment. It can help identify communities where there are concentrations of people who may be more vulnerable in the event of a disaster and thus at higher risk. This can inform risk assessments and ultimately target mitigation and preparedness measures at these communities.

Evacuation

Modern evacuation management depends on demographic data to ensure that the population of an area can be evacuated safely in the event of an emergency. It is particularly relevant for emergencies where there is some warning such as floods, tropical cyclones and bush fires. Here are some key items useful in evacuation planning which can be derived from census data:

Total Population: This number isn’t as important as you might think, but it’s a good starting point. Evacuation centres need to be able to cope with evacuees who go there, but most people who evacuate prefer to stay with friends and family. Still the total population can give an indication of the number of people evacuation centres may need to assist.

Number of households: Although technologically based systems, such as Emergency Alert in Australia, are being increasingly utilised by the emergency services doorknocking remains a mainstay of evacuation warning. It is an effective means of warning, particularly when combined with other methods such as mass media and new technology. Doorknocking is resource intensive in terms of personnel and time. To know how many teams you need or how long it will take you need to know the number of doors that need to be knocked. The census provides answer in the number of households in an area.

Number of cars: In Australia and most other developed nations motor vehicles are the traditional method of evacuation. Australian emergency managers pioneered simple methods for calculating the time required to evacuate an area along a limited number of routes. The number of motor vehicles is a key factor in this calculation. Most households will take all their cars with them, so you can’t just rely on household numbers. With the rise in number of motor vehicles per household, knowledge of the number and growth over time in an area is critical to ensuring safe evacuation.

Number of households without cars: This is a critical factor to ensure that sufficient alternative transport is provided to evacuate those without a vehicle.

Number of vulnerable people: Those who are elderly, have a disability or are from a Non-English Speaking background may find it difficult to either evacuate on their own, or understand the evacuation warnings. These people are present in all areas, but if the census identifies a particular concentration this can allow for emergency planners to take their needs into account and plan accordingly.

Census data can also show changes in population in an area over time indicating when evacuation routes may reach capacity. This should trigger the need to either curb development or increase the capacity of these routes.

Community Engagement

Community engagement material and programs will function best if they are targeted and tailored to the at risk communities. Some of the useful census data for community engagement includes:

Language: A common and relatively cheap option is to reprint preparedness materials in different languages and then distribute these materials among the communities who speak that language.

Non-Private Dwellings: The census doesn’t just count people at home. It counts people in hospitals, prisons and other institutions. This can help emergency managers identify areas with a large concentration of facilities like nursing homes and hotels, which need to be targeted with education materials specific to their circumstances.

Private Dwelling types: The types of private dwellings in an area and the number of people in them can also suggest how community engagement should be targeted. For example caravans are a high risk group combining both high hazard (caravan parks are often in hazard prone areas) and high vulnerability (long term residents of caravan parks often have low socioeconomic status and may also be elderly or have a disability). Census data can identify at a broad scale areas with large concentrations of caravan residents enabling emergency managers to locate the individual parks and target education efforts.

New features in the 2011 census

There have been some changes to the way the census data is packaged for use. Of particular relevance to emergency managers are changes to the geographical areas on which census data is reported have improved in granularity. This allows emergency managers to examine demographic data on much smaller areas. Over time this will enable approaches that are increasingly customised towards communities.

Go Bag #2: Shelter

CZ-IJ14a Tábořiště pro stany In the third of this regular series I explore what you need to put in your go bag. This week: shelter.

If your home or workplace becomes unsafe or is destroyed, and other buildings aren’t safe you’re going to need somewhere to stay. That means that you really need to think about shelter if you’re in an area prone to devastating earthquakes.

The most important thing here is climate:

How hot or cold does it get in your location, especially at night? What about rain, or snow? And if it does rain, how cold is it usually. Being wet is uncomfortable – being cold and wet can kill.

You can choose a tent or, if you’re the adventurous type, two tarpaulins and some rope will usually work nicely.

You will also need something to keep you warm. An emergency blanket, regular blanket or sleeping bag will work, also consider that you might need some insect repellent. Make sure that if you need a sleeping bag, it’s rated for the sort of weather you might be facing.

Think about your pets too. Much of the time evacuation centres won’t have the facilities to cater for them. Even though you might be safe and dry make sure you have taken their needs into account.