Disaster Preparedness for Military Families: Practical Advice and Steps to Take

Last Updated: August 8, 2023

Are you a military family worried about emergency preparedness? Official Military websites already have some advice about what you need to do to prepare – like building an emergency kit, writing down phone numbers, and knowing how to turn off the gas main.

While this advice is essential, it’s also pretty generic. Here, I wanted to focus on some unique problems military families face when preparing for disasters.

How Is Disaster Preparedness Different for Military Families?

Like anyone else, military families need basic emergency supplies, a Go Bag packed, and a disaster plan.  

However, many military families move every year or two and are on a tight budget. This can make it incredibly difficult to stockpile supplies. The logistics of evacuating are also more complicated when a family member is on active duty or a first responder.

Below I’ll get into some practical ways to deal with these issues so you can be prepared.

Also read:

1. Learn about Disasters Each Time You Move

Nowhere in the world is safe from natural disasters – but some places are much riskier than others. Unfortunately, as a military family, you don’t always have much control over where you live. You could end up in a very high-risk area.

Before you relocate, make sure you understand what disasters are most likely.

For places in the United States, the website www.usa.com is a good resource. Just type in your zip code. Then select the option “Natural Disasters and Extremes.” You’ll get info on how likely certain disasters are, plus a 60-year list of disasters that occurred in the area.

Research what steps you need to take before, during, and after the disaster. 

These steps can be very different depending on the type of disaster. For example, the safest place in your home during a tornado is in a basement. However, basements can be dangerous during hurricanes because they are prone to flooding.

I highly recommend watching videos of real-life disasters (try searching for things like “earthquake street camera”). Seeing just how bad things can get (and how dumb people often act in a storm!) helps you mentally prepare to react properly during the event.

Also read: Mental Preparedness Techniques to Help You Get through Disasters

Know where the utility shut-offs are.

With natural disasters, you often need to shut off the utilities. Sometimes you need to shut off the utilities before the disaster hits (such as if you are evacuating). Other times you need to do it after the disaster (such as if you suspect a gas leak).

Each time you relocate, ensure you know where the utility shut-offs are and how to shut them off safely. You might need a Silcock tool for some of them. I suggest making a “map” of these and writing down instructions. Keep a hard copy of the info somewhere accessible.

2. Stockpiling Disaster Supplies As a Military Family

FEMA and the Red Cross recommend stockpiling at least 3 weeks’ worth of emergency supplies. In the ideal world, everyone would have even more than this.  

But it’s pretty hard to build up even 3 weeks’ worth of supplies when you move every year or two.  

You probably aren’t going to buy things like tanks of fuel only to have to discard them when you move (or spend a fortune trying to bring them with you to your new location). Instead, you can do these things…

Have an Emergency Food Budget when Moving

Make sure you have enough money to buy at least 3-weeks’ worth of non-perishable foods. Buy these foods immediately when you move to your new home. If you eat these foods, replace them with new items. That way, you will always have three weeks of food at home.

When it comes time to relocate, start using up the food stockpile. That way, you won’t be stuck trying to pack and move a bunch of food, nor will you have to worry about gifting the food or throwing it away.

Also read: Emergency Foods List (What to Stockpile)

Decide Which Gear Is Worth Taking with You When You Move

While food and water get the most attention, there is a lot of other disaster gear, which is equally as important. 

Some of these items are expensive and worth taking with you each time you relocate

For example:

  • NOAA emergency radio
  • Water purification system
  • Flashlights
  • Good batteries
  • Emergency power supply (such as a solar panel or hand-crank generator)

Some other items are also crucial but aren’t expensive. For example, bleach, trash bags, and duct tape are all essential emergency items. These items might make more sense to buy after you relocate rather than trying to take them with you each time you move.

Know How to Stockpile Water

Water is arguably the most critical disaster supply you need. Not only do you need it for drinking, but you also need it for cooking, washing your hands, disinfecting surfaces…  

Even though FEMA recommends just one gallon of water per person daily, chances are you need much more water than this.  

Read: How much water to stockpile for emergencies

The problem is that storing large amounts of water isn’t always easy.   

For people who don’t move, the best solution is to buy good-quality water storage containers. But these containers are expensive and probably too big and bulky to take with you when you move.  

A better option for military families is using recycled containers to store water. For example, each time you finish a bottle of soda, clean it and fill it with water. Unfortunately, though, plastic bottles actually “expire” – they can start to leak over time. You’ll need to rotate through the water bottles. 


3. Disaster Mitigation

A big part of disaster preparedness is mitigating damage. For example,

  • Hurricane shutters can guard against flying debris and even prevent the rise in air pressure, which can cause the roof to fly off.
  • Sump pumps can keep water out of basements and prevent a mold disaster.
  • Clearing tree branches can prevent damage during high winds.

*Not sure what supplies you need to mitigate disasters? We have some good guides about protecting a home from earthquakes, flooding, and severe wind.

Consider Disaster Mitigation Supplies When Deciding Whether to Live on Base

The “disaster readiness” of the housing is something you must consider when deciding whether to live on base or not.

It’s no secret that a lot of military housing is old and outdated. Don’t expect the housing to have modern disaster protections like roof bracing, sump pumps against flooding, and storm shutters.  

However, some military housing has undergone upgrades. Make sure you ask about this in detail. Especially if you’ll be living in a high-risk area, it makes sense to pay more for a more disaster-ready home.

Get Your Landlord to Pay for Disaster Mitigation

No one wants to pay for things like hurricane shutters on a rental – especially if they will only be there short term.

One solution? Get your landlord to pay for disaster mitigation supplies.

Most landlords understand the need to protect their investment. If they aren’t, then it’s a bad sign, and you probably shouldn’t live there anyway.

Before you sign the lease, see if you can get your landlord to pay for things like:

  • Fire extinguishers: Landlords are not required to provide them in most places.
  • Clearing tree branches: These can fall on the home or your vehicle during earthquakes, high winds, etc.
  • Hurricane shutters: Also, make sure you understand who is responsible for putting them on during an evacuation.
  • Sandbags: These should be ready and waiting in flood and hurricane areas. You’ll have difficulty getting them once a disaster watch is in place.

Understand USAA Renter’s Insurance

Whether you are a military family or not, it’s a good idea to get renter’s insurance. But don’t assume your renter’s insurance will cover all natural disasters. 

For example, the USAA homepage makes it seem like they automatically cover flood damage. However, this coverage is offered separately through the National Flood Insurance Program. The same applies to other insurance policies – you must pay for flood insurance separately.

Also, remember that coverage often takes at least 30 days to kick in. You can’t just buy coverage the days before a hurricane is set to hit.

So make sure you understand exactly what is covered! More on that here.

4. Evacuation Plans

During Hurricane Harvey, the average evacuation cost was $1,200 in expenses and lost wages. But that amount was for people who had friends or family in the area. The evacuation cost was much higher for people without friends or family to go to because they had to pay for hotel rooms or other accommodation. 

In short, evacuation can be costly!

To make evacuation cheaper and easier, you need to have a plan. Here are some critical components of an evacuation plan for military families.

Leave Early

If you look at past natural disasters, those who were able to evacuate early had the easiest time. The longer you wait to evacuate, the more likely you are to encounter problems like:

  • Traffic jams
  • Long lines for gasoline
  • Gas stations running out of gas
  • ATMs running out of money
  • Hotel rooms getting fully booked
  • Blocked roads, downed bridges, etc.

Leaving early also means it will probably be cheaper. For example, if you are out quickly, you can find cheaper accommodation instead of paying for whatever is still available.

To make sure you can leave early:

  • Have a “Go Bag” packed and ready: Don’t wait to pack this. It wastes valuable time, and you will probably forget something essential in the stress of the situation. Read what to pack in your family’s Go Bag.
  • Discuss your plan: In particular, talk to your partner about what conditions you’ll evacuate under. For example, will you evacuate each time there is a hurricane watch? Or will you wait until there is a hurricane warning? Discussing this in advance means you don’t have to make crucial decisions under stress. Read how to make a bug-out plan.
  • Know where you are going: Have a list of evacuation shelters, hotels, or friends/family that you can go to. 
  • Know how you will get there: This can be especially complicated if you don’t have a vehicle—research what public transportation options are provided during emergencies.

Have a Separate Budget for Evacuating

Since you probably don’t have family or friends in the area, you’ll need to budget for accommodation. Bear in mind that accommodation gets booked up quickly during disaster evacuations. You’ll need to have a Plan A, B, C…

Depending on how bad the disaster is, you could end up staying away from home for a long time. You’ll need to have funds to cover living expenses during this time. It can add up quickly, so start building that disaster fund now!

Know Where Your Local Emergency Shelters Are

Make a list of where the designated emergency shelters are. Include addresses and mark them on a paper map (don’t rely on your phone during emergencies). Also include relevant info about the emergency shelter, such as whether pets are allowed.

Note that most emergency shelters only have basic supplies. You still need to bring your own essentials to the shelter, such as toilet paper, bottled water, emergency food, etc.

Also read: What FEMA and Red Cross Emergency Shelters Are Like

5. Family Communication Plan

Every family needs to have a communication plan for emergencies. This includes things like:

  • Knowing each other’s contact info: Memorize phone numbers and write down info on a hard copy to keep with disaster supplies and in Go Bags.
  • Having hard copies of important documents: You might need this info when contacting hospitals, for example.
  • Establishing modes of communication: You’ll need to designate ways to get in touch in case cell phones aren’t working, for example, through social media or establishing a “central contact” person.
  • Designating meet-up locations: You’ll need to set multiple meeting points in case one is unsafe, or a family member cannot get there.

Read more about how to communicate with family after a disaster.

Military families also need to know about their service’s Personnel Accountability and Assessment System (PAAS). These systems allow service members and their families to check in and account for each other during emergencies.

Here are links to the PAAS:

In addition to these, there are other systems for finding lost family members during emergencies:

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