According to the World Health Organization, natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, landslides, tsunamis, floods, and wildfires affect about 160 million people worldwide each year. In 2017, disasters caused $306 billion in damages in the United States alone, making it the most destructive and expensive year on record. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, while wildfires destroyed more than 15,000 acres of land in California. Around the world earthquakes struck China, Iran, and Mexico; floods came to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh; droughts impacted Brazil and Somalia; and landslides and avalanches hit Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
While each type of natural disaster has a different cause, they can have common effects and impact individuals and communities in similar ways. After a disaster people are often without shelter, either because their homes are destroyed or because they have had to evacuate or leave their home and cannot safely return to it right away. Whole cities and towns can also be without electricity, which makes a recovery from a disaster and returning to normal life difficult. Some communities lose access to clean water after a disaster which can lead to illness and disease if people drink water that has not been filtered or purified. Access to food can also be challenging, particularly in communities that rely on local farms for fruits, vegetables, milk, and meats. There can also be longer lasting economic effects of disasters, especially in places that attract a lot of tourists or vacationers.
While disasters can be scary and seem overwhelming, there are many organizations that help people and their communities prepare for and recover from natural disasters. Most governments have different departments or agencies that are responsible for providing support in the event of a disaster. Here are a few in the United States:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA helps people before, during, and after disasters. They also help to coordinate resources and support from other government organizations. In 2012, FEMA started the Youth Preparedness Council (YPC), which brings together students in 8th-11th grades to support disaster preparedness and make a difference in their communities by completing disaster preparedness projects. (You can learn more about the YPC and apply to be part of the Council here.)
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Emergency Preparedness works in partnership with FEMA to provide health and medical services after disasters.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA assembles data about earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions through its National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). This information can help scientists, inventors, government officials, and others understand what has happened in the past and see patterns or trends in disasters. This can help them better plan to prepare for and respond to disasters in the future.
The American Red Cross is a private organization, but it works closely with the government to provide shelter, food, and healthcare immediately following disasters.
There are many other private organizations that work in the United States and around the world to provide help and assistance after a disaster. Doctors Without Borders (also known by the French name Medecins Sans Frontiers) provides medical services for both small- and large-scale emergencies. They are often the first medical personnel on the scene after a disaster. UNICEF also works around the globe, particularly focusing on the needs of children. They help communities develop plans to prepare for disasters and also provide health and education services, clean water, and sanitation after disasters strike.
While we often focus on the effects of a disaster and what can be done to help people after an event, there are things citizens can do to prepare and be ready to act if they need to:
- Know what systems are in place to warn of potential disasters. This might be a siren or alarm that sounds throughout a city or town, an alert that comes to our computers or phones, or an app like SkyAlert that inventors created to alert of earthquake activity before a quake hits.
- Pack an emergency kit to have at home, school or work. Include food, bottled water, a change of clothes, a blanket, medicine, batteries, a flashlight, and any other items that might be needed right away. These supplies can be helpful immediately following after a disaster.
- Read newspapers, listen to the local news, and talk to others to understand what disasters might affect the areas we live in.
- Invent! Create an invention to help our community—or someone in another part of the world.
How can you help people prepare for or receive relief after a natural disaster? Tell us in the comments below!