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And what to do if it happens to you

Writing by Lindsey Gaynor

Artwork by Cara McPartland

Here’s a riddle for you: What is difficult to imagine but impossible to forget? The answer: a natural disaster. 

“We were once called to provide additional aid for a fire in Bedford,” says Michael Roper, a volunteer firefighter with the Katonah Fire Department. “As we pulled down the home’s long driveway, we passed the chief firefighter helping the family to safety. It was a horrible fire; most of the house was destroyed. The fear and sadness of the family have always stuck with me, and it is just one of those moments where you recognize true devastation. I will never forget the true fear on their faces.”

But it’s not just fires that can destroy our homes. 

“The most common disasters in our area are microbursts or water events, like wind-driven rain or excessive deluges of rain that overwhelm the natural and man-made drainage systems in place,” explains Allen Randolph, the owner of SERVPRO in Bedford Hills, which provides restoration and cleaning services after disasters. “A hurricane is an extreme example, but it’s not uncommon for our area to get a spring/summer storm or a nor’easter.”

“We’ve seen it all,” Randolph continues. “We once responded to a home where a river overflowed into their townhouse. Their home was a restored mill, and the water burst through their ground level, depositing three inches of gunky mud into their finished basement. The event was so violent that the owner ended up with mud all the way up to the third floor of their house.” 

While we can’t avoid every home disaster, there are many things we can do to prepare and minimize the damage. Here’s how to achieve emergency success. 

Local risks

Our region is prone to aggressive water events, which can translate into toxic mold.

“Many people are unaware of the low-lying areas where mold can grow, and they lack the experience to dry their home properly,” says Randolph. “This creates a perfect environment for mold to populate, and it is not until after the mold develops that homeowners understand how damaging mold can actually be.” 

The other major risk is fire, but thankfully, extreme fire outbursts have decreased over time. The most common reason for a fire is doing more activities (especially cooking and building fires) in your home more than usual. When you’re entertaining or cooking for a large gathering, there’s a greater risk that something could catch fire.

“People fall out of their natural rhythm and routine, making accidents more likely to occur,” Roper explains. “Cooking is the leading cause of fires nationally, and home heating is a close second.”

While no fire is ideal, some are better than others. A fire confined to your oven will likely cause minimal damage, while a fire on your stove can quickly grow beyond its place of origin and cause greater destruction.

“Regardless of the type of fire, you should immediately leave your home and call 911 once you are safe from danger and threat,” Roper advises.

Disaster prevention

Structural and supportive repairs are crucial to keeping your home safe. Self- or professional inspections are the best way to ensure everything is functioning properly, or to identify what weak points need repair. 

If you remodel your home, be sure to survey your insulation, drainage system and water flow off the roof. When one of these fundamental aspects of your home deteriorates, the safety of the structure and your family is compromised. 

“Especially if you live in an older home, ensure your electrical system is up to code and regulated by obtaining a professional inspection,” Roper recommends. “And having your chimney checked is also an easy way to protect your home from pending danger.”

But, as the saying goes, it’s the little things in life that have the greatest impact. 

“Even the smallest things, like windows and doors closing tightly, can make a large difference in an emergency,” Randolph adds. “I suggest surveying the structural issues once or twice a year and really taking the time to search for changes and repairs you should make to protect your home.” 

When it comes to flooding, the best thing you can do is try to keep water as far from your home as possible. Consider landscaping or establishing a system that redirects water away from your house.

Disaster preparation

First things first: Get high-quality fire extinguishers and make sure they work. 

“There is an immeasurable difference between cleaning a house where a fire extinguisher was used compared to a home where the fire got completely out of hand before anyone could stunt its growth,” says Randolph.

Roper recommends purchasing ABC extinguishers, which help fight off three types of fires: Class A (ordinary combustible materials: wood, cloth, paper, rubber), Class B (flammable liquids) and Class C (electrical).

“We encourage everyone to invest in one for maximum protection and safety,” he says. “It works for everyone; it’s not super complicated. You can also buy them as a two-pack with an additional extinguisher for cooking.” 

Next, make sure your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in working order and are placed properly in your home.

“I cannot understate the importance of a functioning alarm system in every area of your home,” Roper emphasizes. “A good rule of thumb is to test them monthly, replace their batteries annually, and dispose of and replace the unit every ten years.”

And finally, store important names and telephone numbers somewhere easily accessible, like your phone or the cloud. Be sure to have multiple forms of contact information for your family members before disaster strikes so you know that everyone is safe and accounted for in case you are separated. And you should also store important information, such as your driver’s license number, household utilities’ account numbers, etc., in the same location. 

“You should have the name and phone number of your insurance agency, along with your insurance policy number, so you can file a claim,” Randolph advises.

Disaster practice

Roper says being aware and practicing smart habits are some of the most important ways to prepare yourself for unanticipated danger.  

Roper and other Katonah Fire Department volunteers visit local kindergarten and preschool classrooms annually. They review safety practices and protocols and suggest parents do the same. 

“It’s important to practice your plan before an emergency strikes, so you are well prepared and can respond to the situation as calmly as possible,” Roper advises. “It is important for everyone to know the best way to exit their home safely, during both the day and night.” 

Asking yourself important logistical questions and factoring them into your plan is crucial for preparation. For example, Roper suggests you ask yourself:

  • Who would help the kids? 
  • What is the most sensible way to get 
  • out of the house? 
  • Is that exit covered/constricted? 
  • Where is our family’s meeting place?

“I don’t think people understand how disorienting it is to wake up to smoky air, no electricity, the alarm sounding and more when a fire develops,” Roper says. “This is why it is so important to be sound in your plan before an emergency strikes. Because when it does, it will be an unimaginable experience.”

When an emergency strikes

In an emergency, always prioritize the safety of you and your loved ones over material objects or personal belongings. Every natural disaster is unique, so it’s difficult to have the correct response prepared in advance. 

If your home floods, never walk into the flooded space; electrical elements are often triggered by the event. And if there’s a fire you can’t easily extinguish, leave your house. 

“You can always replace things, but you can never replace people,” says Roper. “Get out of your house as quickly and safely as possible. Returning to your house to retrieve something is never worth it; that is our job.”

When support arrives, identify and communicate any unusual circumstances in your home.

“It can range from explosives to someone living in a space that is uncommon, like an attic or a basement,” Roper explains. “But all contextual information is important for us to know how to help and support you best.” 

Final words of wisdom

As anxiety-inducing as a natural disaster may be, preparation is truly the best way to protect yourself, your loved ones, your personal belongings and your home from the severity of unforeseen circumstances. 

Here are some final safety tips.

Store personal items in plastic bins that latch shut. “They are the most effective way to protect items in a fire,” says Randolph. “They rarely catch fire, and their tight seal effectively keeps smoke, soot and water away from their contents. They are much better than using cardboard boxes.”

Don’t plug too many things into the same outlet. “People often overload electrical outlets or make silly electrical mistakes, like overloading a circuit or hiding a cord under a rug,” says Roper. “That increases the risk of fires.” 

Check your appliances seasonally. “Homes expand with heat and shrink with freezing temperatures,” says Randolph. “This means your seals will shrink with the change of seasons, and that eventually wears them down. It is worth an hour or so to ensure everything is in good working order.”

Take secondary damage seriously. “Do not underestimate the secondary damage that can occur from natural disasters, particularly water,” Randolph cautions. “Water is the biggest enemy of a house.”

Stay aware. “Do not leave anything being cooked or home heating, like fires, unattended,” says Roper. “Be aware of your children; keep cooking and heating areas clean and free of clutter.” 

Begin repairs immediately. “After an accident, the best thing to do is not ignore the problem at hand,” says Randolph. “Call a mitigation company, and let the professionals handle your situation with seamlessness and ease. Be polite, ask questions and understand that what must be done is done to ensure the structure is sound for the future and can be restored to its pre-loss condition.”

This article was published in the March/April 2024 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Lindsey Gaynor
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Lindsey Gaynor is a junior at Greenwich Academy, but is a Bedford native. She dedicates her time to local and national community organizations and initiatives, including Neighbors Link and St. Jude’s Research Hospital. She is also involved in her school’s arts and athletics programs, where she sings with the Madrigals chorus and is a member of her school’s Varsity Field Hockey and Varsity B Lacrosse teams. In her spare moments, she spends time with her friends or walks her beloved dog, Buckeye. Her favorite time of the week is Sunday night, where she relaxes by the fire and unwinds with her family.