September 30 is National PrepareAthon! Day – Be Smart. Take Part. Document and Insure Your Property


With signs of fall creeping up across the country, families may be feeling as if the hurricane season is over. The experts say no. In fact, September is not only the peak of hurricane season, September 30 is National PrepareAthon! Day the perfect time to take stock of disaster plans.

Today, National Hurricane Center Director Dr. Rick Knabb joined forces with Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson during a national satellite media tour to raise awareness about flood and hurricane safety, prevention and financial protection options.

“Hurricanes are not just a coastal problem,” said Knabb. “Their impacts can be felt hundreds of miles inland. You need to find out what types of hazards could happen where you live, and then start preparing for how to handle them.”

Chapman-Henderson concurs. “If a disaster strikes, having the proper insurance for your home is the best way to ensure you will have the necessary financial resources to help you repair, rebuild, or replace whatever is damaged.”

Before a disaster strikes, get #HurricaneStrong with these tips:

  • Be Smart. Take Part. Document and Insure Your Property. Have an insurance check-up. Coverage amounts, deductibles, and payment caps can vary significantly. Consult with your insurance professional to be sure your policy is right for you. Make updates based on new purchases, renovations, increases in property value, or increases in costs to rebuild or replace items. Buy flood insurance. This is not part of your homeowners’ policy and there is a 30-day waiting period before coverage begins.
  • Know your evacuation zone. Plan your escape route, where you will stay and what you will do with your pets. Storm surge is the greatest threat to life and property from a hurricane regardless of wind speed.
  • Family Preparedness – Build a disaster supply kit. You’ll need to plan for two situations: Remaining in your home after a disaster or evacuating to a safer location. Keep cash on-hand because ATMs won’t function during a power outage.
  • Damage Prevention – Strengthen your home. The best place to start is with a Do-It-Yourself Wind Inspection to find out what needs attention. Make a list of what needs to be done, such as securing loose items that could be blown away by high winds. Trim your trees of dead branches that could become windborne missiles.
  • Community Service – Help your neighbor. Join with others to prepare for emergencies and participate in National PrepareAthon! Day on September 30.

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#NoFuelNoFire – We Can Stop Wildfire Before It Starts

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

Golden Gate Estates in Southwest Florida east of Naples looks quite a bit different than it did back in 1985. Today there are four lane roads, strip malls, housing developments, and, of course, traffic. Thirty years ago, the roads were two lanes that faded into dusty streets with a few homes scattered amongst the Pine trees and cabbage palms. Heck, I don’t recall a traffic light, just stop signs at intersections. NoFuelNo Fire Facenook

January of that year brought with it bitter cold and a nasty biting wind. Couple that with drought conditions and you had an ideal recipe for a wildfire. We got the call January 30, “Get over to Golden Gate.” A young Forest Ranger had been killed when he was plowing a fire break and the head of the fire blew up around him.

None of us had ever covered a wildfire before. That night you could see the embers jumping from tree to tree and swirling in the cold wind. I stood in the high dead grass at the edge of a dirt road with my back to the woods. I had just started my on-camera presentation when Steve Sonnenblick, our engineer, saw it coming. He yelled to watch out, grabbed my winter coat, and pulled me onto the gravel. The fire swept across the dry brush where I had been standing. The heat was like opening an oven door. That’s the nature of wildfires. They are like living, breathing organisms consuming everything in their path. When there is nothing left to devour, they move on. And in an instant, a place you thought you were safe was NOT.

I was reminded of that night in 1985 while watching coverage of the fires raging in Southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona. While the American West sees more than its fair share of fires, every state is at some risk. Remember the headlines “Florida on Fire” back in 1998? More than 2,000 fires scorched half a million acres causing $600 million in losses. Three hundred homes were engulfed. At one point, 100,000 people were evacuated. In 2002, the Hayman fire outside Denver consumed nearly 140,000 acres and destroyed 130 homes. Annually, there are 75,000 wildfires that burn an average of 7 million acres and destroy thousands of homes and structures. And get this. Many fires are caused, firefighters have told me, just by people who throw cigarette butts out their car window.

During those 1998 Florida fires, one woman apparently in shock spilled her heart about losing everything, “Every baby book. Every hair lock from when they were young. Everything. All their clothes and all their toys.” That doesn’t need to be you. There are things you can and should do to easily make your home a defensible space. Here are a few:

  • Clean leaves and debris from gutters, eaves, porches, and decks.
  • Remove dead vegetation from under your porch and deck and within 10 feet of your home.
  • Move flammable material like firewood piles and propane tanks to no closer than 30 feet from your home.
  • Cover exterior attic vents with metal mesh to prevent hot embers from entering.
  • Keep your yard watered and maintained.
  • Prune trees so the lowest branches are no less than six-to-10 feet from the ground.

And, by all means have an evacuation plan. You may have to get out in the face of a wildfire, but if you do the simple things to protect your property, chances are you will still have a home to go back to. There are many other invaluable tips and videos you can find at

I went to California for the Anderson Cooper show in 2007 to cover the horrible fires outside Los Angeles and in San Diego. The first night, we flew in a helicopter over the foothills. You could see pockets of fire in all directions. While some of them were caused by lightning strikes, others were, sadly, the result of arson. At least five people were arrested. FLASH documented one homeowner’s journey during these fires in the video Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire.

Whatever the cause, why risk losing everything when just doing the little things could save your home and more importantly your life? Take a good look at those wildfires burning out west. Do you need any more of a wake-up call?

Links of Interest:

Fight Wildfire Before it Starts

Tale of Two Homes – Wildfire (video)

Wildfire Protection for Your Home (video)

#NoFuelNoFire (wildfire photo gallery)

Dr. William Gray – A Man for All Seasons

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

Oh joy. Hurricane season is nearly upon us. It’s like an annual check-up at the dentist. You don’t know what to expect! But if you brushed and flossed, you should be okay. Same can be said for hurricane season. If you have your emergency supplies ready, you’ve secured your home, and have an evacuation plan, you should be fine. If not, what are you waiting for? You need me to come over and hold your hand?

For me, this season will be very different. Perhaps the most recognizable voice in forecasting over the past half century will be silent. Bill Gray passed away last month. He was the “Vin Scully” of hurricanes. I hope you got a chuckle out of that line Bill. I know you were a huge baseball fan.Dr-William-Gray

When Dr. Gray started putting out his seasonal hurricane forecast in the 1980’s just about everybody rolled their eyes. Those who didn’t certainly raised an eyebrow. How times have changed! It’s safe to say Bill got the last laugh. Who doesn’t put one out these days? Heck, even I did. Bill was needling me one year to come up with my own numbers.  So, I did. He put it up on the board in his office at Colorado State University. At the end of the season, he sent a letter to my boss at CNN, Eason Jordan, telling Eason that my forecast had beaten his. I’m not sure how true that was but that was Bill, a wonderful, kind man with a tremendous sense of humor who at least publicly laughed off all those who thought he was a snake oil salesman.

Dr. Gray’s contribution was far more than just the science of forecasting. He elevated hurricane awareness more than any single individual. At CNN we’d attend the National Hurricane Conference and Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference just to hear what Dr. Gray was forecasting and to get an interview with him. His forecast was always one of the top stories in the newscasts not just for CNN, but for other national news outlets and for local radio and televisions stations across the country. Today we would say his forecasts always went viral! Bill’s work transcended science. He would be the first to admit that over the years he threw in a clunker or two. But he got people’s attention like no one else could.

Now I’m not going to beat you over the head to get your attention.

Look, preparing for a hurricane is not rocket science and it doesn’t need to be crazy expensive. You know that. So, here’s something that will guide you through the process.

A new campaign called #HurricaneStrong is rolling out. Along with, it is everything you need to know about how to secure your home and protect your family. Is there anything more important? Do I need to answer that?

There are a number of activities this month to promote the campaign:

  • May 15 – 21 is National Hurricane Preparedness Week
  • On May 15, The Home Depot will conduct free do it yourself hurricane workshops in 695 stores in hurricane prone states. The same day, The Weather Channel program “Wx Geeks” will feature the campaign
  • The five day Hurricane Awareness Tour kicks off in San Antonio, on the 16th followed by stops in Galveston, New Orleans, Mobile, and Naples. Hurricane Hunter aircraft, pilots, and storm experts will be on hand.

Some of you are probably saying to yourselves, “I don’t need all that. I’ve been through a hurricane and know what to expect.” Do you? Last month I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the National Tropical Weather Conference in South Padre Island, Texas. I was talking about the speech with a producer, Rich Phillips, who had covered dozens of hurricanes with me. It struck both of us that out of all those storms, only on a few occasions we were close to the core of the storm where the really bad stuff happens. And consider this, no major hurricane, category three or higher has hit the U.S. since Wilma in 2005. Just because you experienced a hurricane doesn’t mean you really went through one. Keep that in mind in case one heads your way this year!

Here’s the bottom line. The more you do now, the easier it will be to recover after the storm passes. It’s real simple. Misery does not have to follow disaster.

Tornado Safety Tips – Before During and After the Storm

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)®  offers the following tornado safety tips to help before, during, and after a tornado strikes.


  • Have a family tornado plan and know where you can safely take shelter.
  • Closely monitor NOAA Weather Radio
  • Install a tornado safe room or storm shelter built to FEMA 320 guidelines or the ICC/NSSA 500 standard. Always use a licensed contractor to install a safe room within, adjacent to, or outside of your home.
  • View this video playlist to find out Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You.


  • Take refuge in a tested and approved storm shelter, safe room, or a community shelter labeled as an official tornado shelter. Community shelters may include stores, malls, churches, even airports.
  • If no shelter is available:
    • Are you indoors? Go to the lowest floor, to a small, central, interior room, under a stairwell, or to an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch down as low as possible to the floor, face down, and cover your head with your arms. Cover yourself with a blanket, mattress, helmet, or other thick covering. Wear footwear with thick soles to your safe location.
    • Are you in a mobile home? Get out. Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as a sturdy building. Go to a nearby permanent structure. Do not seek shelter under an overpass, bridge, or in a drainage ditch. If you cannot safely exit your vehicle, park it out of traffic lanes. Stay in your vehicle with your seatbelt on. Put your head below the windows and protect it with your arms and a blanket, coat, or other cushion.
    • Are you outdoors? Shelter in a sturdy building. If no shelter is available, lie face down on low ground protecting the back of your head with your arms.


  • Keep your family together in a safe location and wait for emergency personnel to arrive.
  • Stay away from power lines, downed trees, and puddles that could hide live wires.
  • Watch your step to avoid sharp objects.
  • Stay out of heavily damaged structures, as they may collapse.
  • Do not use matches or lighters in case of leaking natural gas or fuel tanks.
  • Listen to your radio for information and instructions.

Rising Up from the Rubble: A Look Back the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

There are moments, events in all our lives that are etched in our memories. They are with us forever. The good ones, we gladly recall. The bad ones, we’d like to forget or at least stuff away in some remote receptacle in our minds.

For me, one of those haunting events took place a little over thirty years ago in Mexico City, Mexico. On the morning of September 19, 1985 a magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook the ground beneath the city. More than four hundred buildings collapsed. People died. To this day, no one is quite sure how many. The 144225-004-6BAC8B6Festimates vary wildly from five thousand to thirty thousand.

That night, I was on the ground reporting for CNN. Fires still burned. Smoke rose from every corner of the city. People dazed and in shock stood on the streets, the rubble of homes and businesses around them. All they had left were the clothes they were wearing.

Yet, the image that remains most vivid for me is what transpired over the next week at the city’s Juarez Hospital. It had collapsed floor on top of floor.  Hundreds of doctors, nurses and patients died. Every night we would go there for updates and to watch rescuers dig through the debris. Hundreds of people watched too, some hoping a relative would be pulled free others were just there because there was no place else to go. Huge spotlights run off generators were focused on the building, what was left of it. Every time the rescuers would hear something, a hint of life, the crowd went silent. There were survivor stories. In fact, more than dozen infants were pulled out alive. To this day, they are known as the “Miracle Babies.”

Mexico City was a long time ago and much has changed when it comes to earthquake resilience, awareness, and preparedness. I’d call it “RAP” if it helped get folks attention. Here at home, the focus on educating the public and strengthening infrastructure has never been greater. Look no further than next month when the National Earthquake Conference convenes in Long Beach, California. Held every four years, it brings together scientists, engineers, emergency managers, first responders, insurers; everybody who’s got skin in the game to discuss what’s new, what’s next, and developing a national strategy.

So now you’re raising your eyebrows. A national strategy you ask? Isn’t that like telling people in Alaska they need to worry about hurricanes! Well, unlike hurricanes, just about every state can be impacted by an earthquake. Remember 2011? The epicenter of a magnitude 5.8 was Louisa County, Virginia. If we go back a ways, between December of 1811 and February 1812, three earthquakes all estimated greater than magnitude 7.0 struck the central U.S. along the New Madrid Seismic Zone.  Experts say that area is thirty years overdue for a quake greater than six.

Now, unless you’ve seen it, lived through it, it is impossible to comprehend. But every expert will tell you that being prepared can be a game saver for you and your family. Just knowing the very basics can make a difference. So here’s a pop quiz. Do you know what to do if the ground starts shaking? It’s pretty straight forward…Drop, Cover, and Hold On. What you don’t do is run. Mark Benthien is Outreach Director for the Southern California Earthquake Center at USC. “When people run it’s not necessarily because they are in panic mode. It’s a rational reaction-they’re running because they are afraid of being hurt.” However, research shows people who run are more likely to be hurt. “It’s like running down the center of a plane during heavy turbulence,” Benthien says. The bottom line he adds, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”

And, the “afterwards” will last a whole lot longer than the event itself. Even in the biggest earthquake in Southern California, Benthien says, “Ninety-nine percent of the people will be alive and probably not injured but living in a different world. Their concern should be how are they going to live after that.”

There’s no reason to sugar coat it. It won’t be pretty. Benthien laid out what might happen in the aftermath of a large quake on the San Andreas Fault:

  • There could be as many as sixteen hundred fires burning. Not enough firefighters to put them all out. Mutual assistance from surrounding areas might not happen because they’d be dealing with their own issues.
  • Water and sewer pipes will fracture. Repairs to the concrete pipes could take weeks or longer and replacing them? In a given year Benthien says, “There isn’t enough concrete made in the world to replace it.”
  • Interstates 5 and 10 and the rail line might be impassable making it difficult at best to get in relief supplies and help.
  • With the Interstates and rail line crippled, goods coming into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach might pile up on the docks. The entire nation would be affected.

So look, go to Just take a few minutes of your time. You will find invaluable tips for keeping your family safe and your home earthquake ready. You can also go to and look for the seven steps to earthquake safety. What Mark Benthien said bears repeating, “Preparedness is about what you do ahead of time so you can survive and recover afterwards.”

Coastal or Inland: Where it Rains – It Can Flood

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

The rain had been coming down for days.  By the early morning hours of November 6, 1977, an earthen dam near the North Georgia town of Toccoa couldn’t take it any longer and ruptured. The people at a tiny Bible College downstream were mostly asleep when the flood waters hit.  Thirty-nine perished. Many were children.

At the time, I was working for a local Atlanta television station.  I had only been in the business a couple of years.  Now, nearly forty years later, Toccoa remains the deadliest flood event I was ever involved in covering.

Unless you hatoccoa03d relatives there or were a journalist, Toccoa is one of those largely forgotten moments in history.   But it is, and should be, a tragic reminder of how quickly inland flooding can change or even take your life.

At Toccoa the people never had a chance.  But in most flooding events, people who die didn’t have to. That’s right, they didn’t have to! How many times have you heard this:  “Some of these people on the highway trying to drive through this stuff—they’re very stupid.” That was a quote to CNN from a Missouri flood victim this past December.

If you look at federal statistics, more than half of all flood related deaths come when a car is driven into water.  Bill Read is a former Director of the National Hurricane Center.  Even in hurricanes, inland flooding is the number one killer.  Read told me, “they don’t think it’s as bad as it really is and they drive into it and it’s too late when they finally figure out its going to float their car.”

People who survive always, Read says, have the same refrain, “The people that are rescued or made it out alive they almost invariable say ‘I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.’”

It’s not as if the “stay out of the water” messaging isn’t out there.  The “Turn Around Don’t Drown” program by the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes and the National Weather Service is exactly what it says.  Don’t drive into that water!   The yellow signs are in high risk, low lying areas around the country.  Local meteorologists always get out that message to their audience whenever there’s a flood threat.

Over the course of forty years, Read has seen every kind of flooding imaginable – from hurricanes, flash floods, to riverine.  “The most phenomenal thing to me was just the incredible rate of rainfall. We’ve had events where the hourly rainfall rates approach 4 to 6 inches in an hour. Almost nobody lives in an area that can be designed to handle the runoff from that kind of rain. So it almost invariably leads to rather severe flooding.”

Read’s takeaway from all he’s witnessed, we must be aware of our risk.  And he adds, that risk is not is not isolated to one part of the country or another.  “When you come right down to it there’s no place in the U.S. that’s not vulnerable to inland flooding.”

Just last year major flooding events occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida.  If you know you are at risk, there are measures you can take to protect your home and property. The most import of which is to get a flood insurance policy.  Consider elevating your air conditioning unit, water heater, and furnace. For more tips and information, go to the FLASH website.

Sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason. Bad weather “stuff” just happens. It’s fickle, unpredictable, weird, and strange. You can attach all sorts of adjectives to it.

Back in 2008, Tropical Storm Fay set a record-making four landfalls in Florida.  Unpredictable, weird, fickle, strange…you pick the adjective.  As it meandered across the state, it just kept dumping water. In some places more than twenty inches fell.  North of Melbourne the rain gauges swelled to a record twenty-seven inches.

We started chasing Fay on August 17 for CNN in Key West and Key Largo.  The next three days, reporting from Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and Melbourne required high water boots. At a place called Lamplighter Village, Florida Wildlife officers used swamp buggies to go in and rescue folks. As always, some wouldn’t leave. All the wildlife officials could say, “If you decide to get out, give us a call.”

In Port St. Lucie, a volunteer rescuer got people out in an airboat, again, those who would leave. His warning to the others, “Just try not to wait too late. It’s easier in the daylight than it is at night.  Everything bad happens at night.”

Tropical Storm Fay is a poster child for all those adjectives, and how it can happen anywhere.  And the message is clear, bad weather “stuff” happens.  Know your risk.

Safe Rooms Save Lives

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

I had been in Oklahoma City (OKC) for just over a week. It was 1995. Spring, a time for rebirth, was put on hold and buried beneath crumbled concrete and shattered lives. Many of us had gone in to cover the aftermath of the bombing at the Murray Federal Building. Crews and reporters had been rotating in and out since the horrific April 19th attack.

By now, April had turned to May. The seventh was a quiet Sunday. We were staffing the CNN workspace in case there were any developments on the bombing. But the story that day centered more on the weather. The local stations were reporting that the atmosphere was ripe for supercells. They were right.

By midafternoon, bulletins were coming in of a half-mile-wide tornado on the ground west of Ardmore, a city one hundred miles to the south of OKC. This tornado dissipated after killing an elderly man and injuring several other people.  But this supercell wasn’t done. It recycled and a second tornado, just as big, dropped out of the sky crossing the Red River and heading toward Ardmore.

We were nearly two hours away, but there was no question we had to go. This could be really bad. I had chased plenty of hurricanes over the years but never a tornado. I kept scanning the landscape around us, half believing that I’d see one suddenly appear. I remember as we drove south thinking just how strange the clouds looked and that the colors were an eerie cotton candy—unlike any I’d seen in Florida.  A Michelin tire factory had reportedly been hit hard, and we headed there first. Of course, by the time we arrived, the tornado was gone. The tornado also damaged some nearby buildings on the outskirts of Ardmore but lifted up just before it reached the heart of the city. They were fortunate that day. Combined the two tornadoes were on the ground for about a combined sixty miles.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’m suddenly connected back to that Spring in OKC. Pataya Scott, a PHD candidate at Texas Tech University told me growing up in Oklahoma City she had spent, “lots of time in a closet under the stairs.” Pataya was one of several brilliant University students at the FLASH Annual Conference giving presentations on their work in various fields of disaster mitigation.

These students were studying roofing systems, human behavior and response before and after disasters, communications, and hurricane winds. Pataya is studying the devastating 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. She explained, “I’ll be looking at remote sensing data on damage from the Joplin tornado so things like aerial photos, drive by photos, and Google street views seeing the level of damage for each building. So, it’s going to take a lot of time analyzing all those six thousand documented damaged buildings.”

On the ground for twenty-two miles and thirty-eight minutes, the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado killed nearly 160 people. Pataya is focusing on construction, wind direction, materials, and architecture; and is determining what kind of buildings hold up better, for instance homes with attached garages and those without.

“Two story buildings area usually more robust so they’re going to do a little better than one story, but how much better is what I’m going to see,” she says. Pataya is just now finishing up the database. Time to start answering the questions!

In listening to Pataya’s work, I was immediately struck by how far the disaster mitigation movement has come in twenty years. Sure, there was talk about it back in 1995, three years after Hurricane Andrew. That storm was the wake-up call. But today, mitigation addresses all perils.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling has spent a lifetime studying tornado mitigation. Shelters are his expertise. “I would have thought in terms of storm shelters we’d be a little further along,” he says, “But overall, I’m grateful for the progress.  We’ve taken a lot of steps, lots of small steps.  We’re getting there.”

As we ramp up toward the height of tornado season, Kiesling says it’s a double edged sword. “We worry about the vulnerability of communities, but also take heart that there is an increase in interest in tornado shelters and improved construction. So, there’s good news and bad news with that because we certainly see with every major tornado an uptick in public consciousness of safety and increased sales in storm shelters and better readiness for the future.”

However, he warns that not all that glitters is gold. Consumers need to carefully consider what they are getting when purchasing a shelter. “There are excellent products available, but there’s also a lot of stuff that’s not good on the market. We have a real problem in quality control and requiring standard compliance, and it’s not a regulated industry.”

Back in 1995, the people of Ardmore were very fortunate. They got lucky. But today, science, engineering, and public awareness is finally beginning to remove luck from the equation. As Dr. Kiesling says, “we’re doing pretty darn well.”

Related Links 

Community Tornado Shelter “Absolutely Saved Lives” in Alabama 

Tale of Two Homes – Tornado