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Texas News

How Texans can prepare for extreme weather

Natural disasters like winter storms and hurricanes can create life-threatening situations for Texans. These types of disasters can be devastating and can hit at any time.

As climate change continues to affect weather patterns across the world, scientists and forecasters say extreme weather is becoming more severe, ushering in stronger hurricanes, extreme droughts, wildfires and other weather events in Texas.

The state is already experiencing more days of dangerous heat, rising sea levels along the Texas Gulf Coast and water scarcity.

Here’s a guide on how to prepare for a disaster — including winter storms, hurricanes, extreme heat, wildfires and droughts.

[Texans asked to conserve energy as demand was expected to put strain on electric grid]

This guide was compiled with information from the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and more. For additional information, visit their websites.

Building a disaster kit

Eboni Davis and her boyfriend Jesse Holloway load water into their car outside an H-E-B grocery store in Houston on Nov. 28, 2022.
Eboni Davis and Jesse Holloway load water into their car outside an H-E-B grocery store in Houston on Nov. 28, 2022. Credit: Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune

Preparation is key to staying safe during an emergency. Following a natural disaster, you may be without access to electricity, gas, roads, grocery stores and more. Building a disaster supplies kit can ensure you have the necessities.

A basic disaster kit should include enough food, water and first aid supplies to last several days. During emergencies like winter storms or hurricanes, it may be necessary to have enough supplies to last up to two weeks.

The American Red Cross recommends you have the following basic supplies in your kit:

  • Water: one gallon per person, per day
  • Non-perishable food like canned or dry foods
  • A flashlight
  • A battery-powered or hand-crank radio
  • Extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Prescription medications and medical items
  • A multi-purpose tool that includes a screwdriver, a knife and pliers
  • Sanitation and personal hygiene items such as wet wipes
  • Copies of personal documents like medication lists, medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates and insurance policies
  • Cellphone with chargers and/ or a portable battery bank
  • Family and emergency contact information
  • Extra cash
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket
  • Maps of your area

You should also consider whether you need to include supplies for children, pets or those who may have additional medical needs.

Some additional items you may think about including in your disaster kit are:

  • A whistle to signal for help
  • Duct tape
  • Baby supplies such as bottles, formula and diapers
  • Dust mask or face mask
  • Manual can opener
  • Soap and hand sanitizer
  • Over-the-counter medications
  • Contact solution
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Rain gear
  • Towels
  • Pet food
  • Gel chafing fuel or a bunsen burner to heat food
  • Bug spray
  • Cash in case of power outages

Each year, Texas offers a tax-free weekend for emergency supplies. In 2024, the emergency preparation supplies sales tax holiday will take place April 27-29.

Texas residents can also apply for the state’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which is designed to help low-income families insulate their homes and reduce energy cost burdens. Weather stripping your home and updating cooling and heating systems can help prepare you for extreme heat or winter weather.

Signing up for disaster notifications

A road sign along Ben White Blvd. in South Austin warns motorists of icy conditions as unprecedented winter storm conditions grip the state of Texas on Feb 13, 2021.
A road sign in South Austin warns motorists of icy conditions on Feb 13, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

To know when a weather emergency is expected or to stay updated during a disaster, sign up for emergency alerts from your city or county. Residents can look up their county emergency management office online to sign up for emergency emails and texts.

Texans who rely on electricity for medical reasons can apply for chronic condition or critical care status which can provide extra notifications ahead of interruptions or suspensions of service. Applications have to be approved by a physician and submitted to the transmission and deliver utility that is responsible for your address. The status doesn’t guarantee uninterrupted power, so if electricity is a necessity, make other arrangements ahead of a storm if possible.

Texans with disabilities or people who would require additional medical assistance during an emergency can also sign up for the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry, a free system run by the state that gives emergency responders additional information about the communities they are helping in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Major phone providers participate in the federal wireless emergency alert system, which enables federal, state and local authorities to broadcast alerts to mobile devices. Checking the settings on your phone can ensure you have these alerts turned on. They are often labeled “Government Alerts” or “Emergency Alert Messages.”

If you need to find community resources during a disaster, dial 2-1-1 or 877-541-7905 for information about resources including food, health, housing and more.

Winter storm preparation

Whitney Morrow serves dinner, cooked on a propane camping stove, by a battery-powered desk light used for working from home in Wooten, Austin on Feb. 6, 2023.
Whitney Morrow serves dinner, cooked on a propane camping stove, by a battery-powered desk light used for working from home in Wooten, Austin on Feb. 6, 2023. Credit: Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune

A winter storm in 2021 left millions of Texans without power in subfreezing temperatures for days, killing hundreds.

High winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall and dangerously cold temperatures are the main hazards associated with winter storms, according to the National Weather Service.

These storms can cause an increased risk of car accidents, hypothermia and frostbite. They can also increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by generators or other gas-powered heaters.

Winter weather often puts a strain on Texas’ electric grid. When energy demand outpaces supply, regulators at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas are forced to take emergency measures, which can include temporarily shutting off power to customers to maintain grid stability.

How to prepare your home ahead of freezing weather

  • Insulate your pipes.
  • Place covers on water hoses outside.
  • Turn off and drain outside faucets before temperatures hit extremely low levels.
  • Locate your main water valve so you can cut off your water in case of an emergency, like a burst pipe.
  • Open up cabinets, particularly in the kitchen and bathroom, to make sure heat is properly circulating to your pipes.
  • Fill up bathtubs with water as a backup supply for flushing toilets.
  • Cut down any weak branches or trees to prevent them from falling on power lines or your home and cars.

Additional winter-related emergency supplies

  • Blankets
  • Extra warm clothes
  • A shovel for digging out of snow
  • Booster cables
  • Something to create traction on your tires, such as sand or kitty litter

If your home or car is damaged in a winter storm by falling branches, power lines or hail, take photos of the damages to submit to your insurance.

Hurricane preparation

Rescuers and volunteers help evacuate a neighborhood along Eldridge Parkway flooded by waters released from Addicks Reservoir on Aug. 30, 2017, in Houston, added to flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Rescuers and volunteers help evacuate a neighborhood along Eldridge Parkway flooded by waters released from Addicks Reservoir on Aug. 30, 2017, in Houston, added to flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Texas’ Gulf Coast is at risk of hurricanes during a major portion of the year.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, with the months of August, September and October being the most active.

Hurricanes can produce storm surge flooding, inland flooding from heavy rains, destructive winds, tornadoes, and high surf and rip currents.

The National Hurricane Center tracks systems in the tropics throughout hurricane season and issues advisories on storms and hurricanes.

If a hurricane or tropical storm impacts your area, strong winds could knock out your power for days or weeks, and flood waters could rise into homes or streets. If your area is in the direct path of a storm, officials may issue an evacuation notice. If you choose to stay despite a notice, flooded roads and downed trees could make it hard for first responders to reach you if there’s an emergency.

How to prepare for a hurricane

  • Make an evacuation plan and know your evacuation routes.
  • If you have pets, plan ahead of time how to take care of them during a storm.
  • Make sure your insurance policies and personal documents, like your IDs, are up to date.
  • Take photos of your home or other property to provide to insurance providers if your items are damaged in a storm.
  • Consider purchasing a generator to use if electricity goes out.
  • Install and check carbon monoxide alarms.
  • Seal any openings in walls or roofs.
  • Cut down weak branches and trees regularly.
  • Install storm shutters.

What to do when a hurricane is approaching

  • Follow evacuation instructions from local officials if you are in an area expected to see life-threatening conditions. If you choose not to evacuate, keep in mind that hurricanes can cut off power supplies and water as well as block roads for extended periods of time.
  • Make sure your car is ready if you have to evacuate in an emergency by filling your tank with gas and moving your car under a cover or garage if possible.
  • Clear your yard and cover up windows and doors.
  • Use storm shutters or protect your windows with plywood.
  • Fill clean water containers with drinking water in case you lose your water supply during the storm. Fill up your sinks and bathtubs with water for washing.
  • If you evacuate, unplug your appliances and turn off gas, electricity and water if time allows.
  • Take photos of your home before a storm hits for insurance in case you suffer damages.

What to do after a hurricane hits

  • Stay out of flood waters.
  • Stay away from damaged power lines.
  • Don’t enter damaged buildings.
  • Take photos and document damages to your home or property.

Extreme heat preparation

As climate change steadily warms the planet and increases the range of typical temperatures, record-breaking heat and heat waves are becoming more common and more frequent in Texas.

Extreme heat causes more deaths per year than any other weather-related hazard, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Excess exposure to extreme heat can cause weakness, dizziness, heat-related illness and in severe cases, heat stroke.

Heat stroke requires emergency medical treatment. Heat stroke can cause extremely high body temperatures of 104 degrees or above; red, hot and dry skin without sweat; rapid pulse; throbbing headache; confusion; loss of consciousness and even death.

Children, older adults, people experiencing homelessness, people with preexisting medical conditions, outdoor workers, emergency responders, incarcerated people, low-income communities, pregnant people and athletes all have a greater risk of heat-related illness.

Texans can find a list of cooling centers on local government websites and on the Texas Health And Human Services Commission’s website. The National Integrated Heat Health Information System also provides heat and health information for the nation.

How to prepare for a heat-related event

  • Weather strip doors and sills to keep cool air in.
  • Cover windows that let in lots of sun.
  • Build a disaster kit with food, water, first aid supplies and medications in case of outages.
  • Hydrate with water throughout the day.
  • Take frequent breaks when working outside.
  • Minimize sun exposure and wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothes.

What to avoid during excessive heat

  • Never leave adults, children or pets alone in a hot vehicle for any amount of time.
  • Avoid exercising outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., the hottest time of the day.
  • Don’t wear heavy or dark-colored clothing.
  • Avoid sugary drinks, caffeine and alcohol.
  • Don’t forget to wear and reapply sunscreen.

Wildfire preparation

More than 90% of wildfires in Texas are caused by people, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service, and careless debris burning is what starts most human-caused fires.

Weather forecasters issue a fire weather watch when potentially dangerous fire weather conditions are possible over the next 12 to 72 hours.

A fire weather warning or red flag is issued when dangerous fire weather conditions are either occurring or expected to occur within 24 hours. If the danger is imminent, local authorities may issue an evacuation notice to alert residents.

Smoke from wildfires can pose a serious health threat, especially for kids, older adults and those with chronic heart or lung disease and asthma.

Exposure to wildfire smoke can trigger asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. It can cause eye and respiratory irritation, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Smoke from wildfires can also create a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Inhaling carbon monoxide can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and, in high concentrations, premature death.

Texans can find information about local wildfires through their local fire departments or online using the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Incident Viewer.

How to prepare for a wildfire

  • Keep your lawn hydrated and maintained.
  • Clear leaves and debris from gutters, porches and decks.
  • Replace or repair shingles or roof tiles, which can be either fully or partially fire resistant.
  • Install smoke alarms on each level of your home and change the batteries at least once a year.
  • Create an evacuation plan and know your local evacuation routes.

What to do during a wildfire

  • Close all windows, vents, doors and
fireplace screens.
  • Disconnect automatic garage door openers so doors can be opened by hand if you lose power.
  • Close and protect all of your home’s openings to prevent hot ash from penetrating your home.
  • Place valuable documents and family mementos inside the car for quick departure if necessary.
  • Connect garden hoses and fill any pools, hot tubs, garbage cans, tubs or other large containers with water. Firefighters have been known to use the hoses to put out fires on rooftops.
  • Evacuate immediately if authorities tell you to do so and leave the lights on in your home so that firefighters can see it through dense smoke.

What to do after a wildfire

  • Wait for officials to say it’s safe before returning home or using water.
  • Avoid ash, charred trees, smoldering debris and live embers.
  • Avoid damaged or fallen power lines,
poles and downed wires.
  • Follow public health rules and wear
safety equipment.
  • Protect your skin with long-sleeved clothing
and wear goggles to protect your eyes.
  • Wear an N95 respirator and minimize time outdoors breathing in smoke.
  • Wash off ash that gets on your skin or in your eyes or mouth as soon as you can.
  • Document property damage with photographs and contact your insurance company.

Drought preparation

A customer exits the West Bear Creek General Store after making a purchase on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Junction. A sign outdoors reads “Pray For Rain” as local residents endure exceptional drought conditions according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.
A sign outdoors reads “Pray For Rain” as local residents endure exceptional drought conditions according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Texas often experiences prolonged periods of drought, and in 2022 the state experienced one of its worst droughts on record.

A drought is generally defined as an extended period with little to no rainfall that leads to a water shortage, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.

As climate change both strengthens and lengthens heat waves, hotter temperatures make droughts more intense than they would be otherwise.

Droughts can hurt agriculture in Texas, harming crops and livestock. They can also affect water supply and reservoir levels across the state.

When drought conditions become serious, officials may issue notices asking residents to conserve water. Check to see if your city or public water system has issued water restrictions or requested water conservation on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s list.

How to conserve water

  • Cut back on water use for landscaping and/or limit watering to before sunrise or after sunset.
  • Check for leaks in your home.
  • Turn off the faucet when you aren’t actively using water like when you brush your teeth, shave or shower.
  • Change your lawn to include plants and grasses that require less water.
  • Set up a rainwater collection system.

Recovering after a natural disaster

Dora Portello, right, hands out boxes of free food to help people outside of their store, Brianna’s Home Decor Thrift Shop, during the winter weather that went through Dallas on Feb. 2, 2023.
Dora Portello, right, hands out boxes of free food to help people outside of their store, Brianna’s Home Decor Thrift Shop, during the winter weather that went through Dallas on Feb. 2, 2023. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

If you are impacted by a natural disaster, government services and community resources are available to help you with recovery.

Organizations like the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and local volunteer organizations can help you find food, shelter and supplies, as well as even assist you with clean-up efforts. Texas Health and Human Services is also responsible for coordinating efforts to help Texans in need immediately after a widespread emergency.

After a disaster, a state’s governor can issue a disaster declaration, asking the president to declare an emergency or major disaster, which then frees up federal funds to help those affected. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides disaster assistance in these situations.

Before applying for assistance from FEMA, insured Texans should first file claims through their existing policies. People cannot receive disaster and insurance assistance for the same damages. Doing so would be considered insurance fraud, according to FEMA.

If you need to file an insurance claim because your home or property was damaged, call your insurance company to report the damages and be ready to answer questions about how you were impacted. Be sure to take photos and videos to submit to insurance or FEMA and document damages for your records.

If you need help quickly, you can ask your insurance company about an advanced payment. If you aren’t able to live in your home after the disaster because of extensive damage, most policies will cover some housing costs, according to the Texas Department of Insurance, so be sure to keep your receipts.

If you need help filing a claim, TDI has a help line that operates Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time. Texans can call 800-252-3439 to find out contact information for their insurance company and ask any questions about claims.

The State Bar of Texas also offers a toll-free legal hotline to assist low-income Texans with issues like replacing lost documents, insurance questions, landlord-tenant problems, price-gouging or avoiding contractor scams following a natural disaster. Residents can call 800-504-7030, which is answered in English, Spanish and Vietnamese. Those who qualify for assistance are matched with Texas lawyers who can provide free, limited legal help, according to the state bar’s website.

It’s also common to feel increased anxiety or mental health concerns following a natural disaster. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration runs the Disaster Distress Helpline to provide support to people experiencing emotional distress related to disasters, including severe storms, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, disease outbreaks, incidents of mass violence, community unrest and anniversaries of traumatic events or triggering events. Read more in our natural disaster and climate anxiety mental health guide.

The helpline operates year-round, 24 hours a day and is free and confidential. You can call or text 800-985-5990 to be connected with a trained crisis counselor who can provide counseling, healthy coping tips and more information on signs of emotional distress.

SAMHSA also administers grants after disasters to help provide crisis counseling services. Those services are free for people if they reside within a disaster-declared county.

You can check federal disaster declarations and resources through FEMA’s website.

Allyson Waller, María Méndez and Bryan Mena contributed to this story.

Disclosure: State Bar of Texas has been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/11/texas-disaster-preparedness/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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