Overview: Do you know what to do?According to disaster experts, 9 out of 10 people either panic or
freeze during an emergency; only one is able to jump into effective
action. We have no doubt that TFH readers are part of the
10 percent who deliver—you're hands-on kinds of folks.
To make sure you're ready for anything, here are common
home emergencies and the steps you should take first to tackle
these disasters head on.
Emergency 1: Wild animal invasion
A squirrel or raccoon in the house may not seem like
an emergency, but those critters can do a lot of damage
quickly. If all else fails, you may have to call in a
wildlife removal service or your town’s animal control
What to do first: Isolate the varmint by closing the
doors to all the other rooms in the house. Then open a
window. Leave the room and shut the door. The animal
will eventually find
its way out the window.
What not to do: Don't try
to chase the invader out.
It'll just panic and hide. If
it crawls into a hidden
spot and poops, has babies
or dies...that's a smelly
set of different problems.
The worst thing to do:
Don't let your dog or cat
help with the eviction.
That could result in an
expensive trip to the vet
or a gory mess.
Emergency 2: Burst pipe
A gushing plumbing leak can dump
several gallons per minute into your
home. You have to act fast to stop the
stream—and that's just the beginning.
Stop the flow: Shutting off the main
water valve is an obvious move. But
there may still be a few gallons of
water held in pipes above the leak.
Turn on the lowest faucet in the
house, which will let the water
harmlessly drain out of the faucet
instead of through the leaking pipe.
Don't delay cleanup: The longer
things stay wet, the more likely you'll
have permanent damage. Delay can
even lead to mold problems inside
walls, which can cost thousands to
eradicate. So before you run off to buy
plumbing parts, clean up the mess.
Emergency 3: Flooded basement
Your first impulse will be to wade in and rescue
your stuff. But that water might be dangerous, so
put on your boots and take these precautions.
Don't get fried: Any water in contact with electricity
might be deadly. Even a shallow puddle could
be electrified by a cord on the floor. Stay out of the
water until you've turned off the power to your
basement. If you can't reach the circuit breaker
box, call an electrician or your utility to cut the
power to your home.
Don't get sick: If the flooding is due to flash floods
or your belongings are leaching toxins, the floodwaters
may contain toxic chemicals and will
almost certainly breed dangerous bacteria. Protect
cuts and open sores from floodwaters and wear
plastic gloves when handling your possessions.
Did You Know?
If the damage
to your home
isn't covered by
don't report it
to your insurance
The report may
still go on your
and look like a
claim when you
shop for new
Emergency 4: Kitchen fire
More than any other emergency, fire makes people
panic and do dumb things. But armed with a few basic
rules, you'll reduce the panic and respond effectively.
React fast: If it's a toaster fire, unplug the cord and use
an ABC (dry chemical) fire extinguisher or pour baking
soda into the toaster (and then get a new toaster). If it's
a stove-top fire, turn off the burner and smother the
flames by dousing them with baking soda or putting
the lid on the pan.
Or do nothing: If it's an oven fire, the most dangerous
thing you can do is open the door. Just leave the oven
door closed and turn off the heat to the oven. The fire
will eventually smother itself.
Bad move: Don't use water to put out a grease fire. It
can splash the burning grease and cause burns.
Worse move: Never carry a burning pan outside. It can
cause a full-scale house fire if flaming grease spills and
ignites something else.
Get to Know Your Fire Extinguisher
Household fire extinguishers are for small fires and have a short “discharge time”(10 seconds is typical). That means you can't learn as you go.
So take a minute now to read the label. Check the expiration date and the pressure gauge to be sure the extinguisher will work when you need it.
There's nothing complicated about basic fire extinguisher technique:
- Stand a few feet from the fire, start blasting and move toward the fire. The instructions will tell you how far away to start.
- Move the extinguisher's stream in a sweeping motion.
- Aim at the base of the fire, not at the flames.
But there are a few other things to know. First,
fire extinguishers blast the area with chemicals
and make a mess. So an extinguisher may not be
the best tool for every small fire. In the case of a
stovetop grease fire, for example, it's usually
best to smother
the fire with a pot lid. Second,
fires that seem to be out can reignite. So keep an
eye on the area for a few minutes afterward.
Emergency 5: Bat in the house
In most people, bats
cause a visceral reaction
(like screaming and covering
your head). But keep in mind
that a bat doesn't want to
tangle with you (or your
hair) any more than you
want to tangle with it.
Plan A: Open a window
and get out of the way.
There's a good chance the
bat will leave on its own.
Plan B: If the bat lands
before it can exit, look for
it in places it can hang,
such as behind drapes or
When you find the bat,
throw a thick towel over
it and carry it outside
(just to warn you, the
bat will complain loudly,
but don't drop it!).
Shake out the towel so
the bat can fly away.
Worst move: Don't approach a bat with bare hands.
Bats can carry rabies. Wear thick gloves to avoid bites.
Did You Know?
Each year, one
out of every
has a kitchen
Top 5 Causes of home fires:
- Cooking fires
- Heating equipment
- Electrical (wiring, lamps, outlets, etc.)
- Children playing with lighters and
To prevent these and other common
causes of home fires, see How to Prevent Home Fires.
Emergency 6: Power outage
Surprisingly enough, the worst trouble caused by power
outages often occurs when the problem is resolved and
the power comes back on.
Prepare for surges: Turn off and unplug all electrical
equipment, including your tools, appliances and electronics,
and turn your heating thermostat down (or
cooling thermostat up) to prevent damage from surges
when the power returns. (Major appliances can be
turned off at the breaker box.) Leave one light on so
you'll know when the power is restored.
What not to do: Once the power is restored, don't turn
everything back on at once, which can create internal
power surges. First restore the thermostat setting on
the heating or cooling system and turn on your larger
appliances. Give the electrical system a few minutes to
stabilize before plugging in your
remaining appliances and
Watch for more trouble:
If your lights are
noticeably dimmer or
brighter after the
power is restored, turn
off all the power at the
breaker or fuse box and
call your electric utility.
Emergency 7: Electrical storm
Lightning strikes can burn out circuit boards in appliances,
computers and telephones, doing thousands of
dollars in damage in less than a second. If you hear
thunder, power surges are possible, even if you don't
see any lightning.
Protect your gadgets: Unplug computers and phone
lines, and unplug corded telephones and sensitive
electronics to prevent damage from power surges.
Don't wait for flames: If your home gets hit, call the fire
department immediately. Lightning strikes can cause
small fires inside walls that smolder for hours before
you notice anything.
Play it safe: Lightning may strike nearby electrical and
phone lines and travel to your home. Avoid contact
with electrical appliances and telephones (landlines).
Wacky but true: Lightning strikes can travel through
metal plumbing pipes. Avoid sitting on the toilet and
don’t shower or bathe during electrical storms.
Did You Know?
Lightning is the second-leading weather-related
killer in the United States. More
deadly than hurricanes or tornadoes, lightning
strikes kill an average of 70 people
and injure 300 others each year.
Emergency 8: Tornado or high winds
Straight-line winds cause as much damage as tornadoes,
but they're more unpredictable. So when a storm
with high winds approaches your area, don't wait for
the sirens to sound before you take action.
Take cover: Move to a protected interior room on the
lowest floor of the house, as far as possible from exterior
walls and windows. Use pillows, cushions, blankets
or mattresses to protect yourself from flying debris.
Ignore the myths: Don't open windows to “equalize
the pressure” no matter what your grandparents told
you. This can cause even greater damage. And the
southwest corner of the basement may not be the safest
spot to hunker down, especially if it's near an outside
wall or window.
Did You Know?
year in the
United States—over 10 times
in any other
Emergency 9: Carbon monoxide alert
Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental
poisoning deaths in the United States.
Take it seriously and make sure you have
working CO detectors in your home. (When to Replace a Carbon Monoxide Detector for more information.)
Check for symptoms: The early symptoms of
carbon monoxide poisoning resemble those of
the flu. If the alarm sounds and anyone is experiencing
headaches, dizziness, fatigue or vomiting,
get everyone out of the house and call 911.
Never ignore the alarm: Don't assume all is
well if no one feels ill. Open your doors and
windows to thoroughly ventilate the house.
Turn off all potential sources of CO—your oil or
gas furnace, gas water heater, gas range and
oven, gas dryer, gas or kerosene space heater,
and any vehicle or small engine. Have a qualified
technician inspect your fuel-burning appliances
and chimneys to make sure they're operating
correctly and that there's nothing blocking
the vents that let fumes out of the house.
Emergency 10: Leaking roof
High winds that tear off shingles or send broken tree branches
through your roof are usually accompanied by rain, so you have
to act fast to minimize water damage.
Quick fix: For damage larger than a shingle or two, the fastest
bandage is a plastic tarp. Secure a tarp over the damaged area
with 2x4s or lath nailed to the roof. If possible, secure the tarp
over the roof ridge; it's difficult to make the tarp waterproof at
the upper end.
Don't kill yourself: Trying to patch a slippery, wet roof during a
storm is dangerous. Add in high winds or lightning and the situation
is deadly. So think twice before you head up there.
Photo 1: Patch a small hole
Photo 2: Tarp large areas
First Aid for Roof Damage
Minor roof damage can lead to major water damage inside your home. But if you keep a
few simple materials on hand, you can seal most roof injuries in just a few minutes.
A section of flashing is the perfect patch for smaller holes—often caused by blowndown
tree branches (Photo 1). Don't forget to caulk around the hole. Special roof sealant
is best, but any type of caulk is better than nothing.
For larger areas, a tarp is the best bandage. But before you spread a tarp, screw plywood
over large holes in the roof. Left unsupported, a tarp will sag into a hole, fill with
rainwater and possibly leak. If shingles have blown off but there are no holes in the roof,
you can lay the tarp directly over the roof sheathing. Stretch the tarp so it lies smoothly
over the roof and batten down the entire perimeter (except the ridge). Just a few inches of
loose tarp will allow strong winds to drive in rain or rip the tarp to shreds. Use screws
and any type of lumber you have on hand to secure the tarp. Whenever possible, extend
the tarp over the roof ridge (Photo 2) so water won't flow down and under it. If there's no
way to run the tarp over the ridge, slip sections of flashing under shingles and over the
upper edge of the tarp. Then drive nails through both the flashing and the tarp.
Emergency 11: After a hurricane
High winds and storm surges cause a lot of property
damage during a hurricane. But more people die in the
aftermath of a hurricane than during the storm itself—primarily from carbon monoxide poisoning and
Act wisely: Don't use generators, charcoal grills or
propane camping stoves indoors. And don't clear
debris from your home and yard without surveying the
area carefully. Downed or damaged power lines can
send electrical currents through tree branches and
What not to do: Avoid an “every man for himself” mentality. Once officials have signaled the “all clear,” survey the damage to your home and reach out to your
neighbors. It will be difficult to drive anywhere for
supplies (if stores are even open), and you'll conserve
resources by pooling them. Assess your neighbors'
stocks of food, water and other resources. Eating meals
collectively will reduce the amount of food that spoils
(use fresh foods first) and will conserve cooking fuel.
Did You Know?
are the top
three causes of
but far more
injured in ordinary
Emergency 12: Dead furnace
As the temperature drops inside your house, your first worry may be
the budget-busting cost of an after-hours service call. But there are
things you can troubleshoot before you pick up the phone.
Check the simple stuff first:
- Is the filter filthy? A clogged filter can cause the furnace to shut down.
- Is it getting power? There's a switch (just like a standard light switch)
near the furnace. Make sure it's on. Check the circuit breaker or fuse
box, too. A natural gas furnace won't work without power either—the
thermostat, fan motor and gas valve all need electricity to operate.
- Is the gas valve on? The handle should be parallel to the gas pipe.
- Is the exhaust pipe clear? Sometimes heavy snow can cover up the
exhaust vent to the outside.
- Does the thermostat need to be reset? Turn it down, then turn it
Prepare for the worst: If the inside temperature continues to fall, take
action to prevent burst pipes. Turn off the main water valve and drain
the pipes by turning on the faucets to let out the remaining water. Use a
plunger to drive water out of the toilets and drain traps.
Emergency 13: Sewage backup
Floodwater doesn't just fill streets and basements. It
can also fill sewer or septic systems, causing sewage to
“backflow” through drains and into homes. Sewage is a
nasty, toxic soup—more damaging, dangerous and disgusting
than ordinary floodwater. The lower the drain,
the greater the risk—so homes with basements and
homes in low-lying areas are the most vulnerable. To
find out if this is a likely danger in your home, talk to
your neighbors. If they've ever had sewage backflow
during a flood, your house is probably at risk too. Don't
wait to plan and prepare; home centers sometimes run
out of backflow-stopping gear just before a flood.
In some situations, blocking off individual drains is a
good approach. In a basement with only a floor drain and
a laundry tub, for example, you can stick a test plug in the
tub drain and install a “backwater” valve in the floor
drain (Photo 1). But other types of drains are more difficult:
The best way to block a toilet drain, for example, is to
remove the toilet and plug the pipe. The most reliable way
to block a bath or kitchen sink is to remove the trap and
cap the drain stub-out pipe. That's a lot of work.
So instead of fussing with individual drains, consider
blocking the main drain line at the cleanout (Photo 2).
Most homes have a cleanout near the point where the
main line exits the house. Unscrew the cleanout plug,
insert a test plug and inflate it with a bicycle pump.
This single solution protects your whole house, but has
three drawbacks: First, you have to do it immediately
when flooding begins and the flow is weak. Strong
backflow will make it impossible. Second, any water
that seeps into your home (through basement walls, for
example) can't flow out through floor drains. And
finally, since your entire drain system is blocked, you
can't use toilets, sinks or tubs. To prevent accidental
use, it's a good idea to shut off the water supply.
The ultimate solution is a whole-house backwater
valve (not shown) installed in the main line. Prices start
at about $50 online. Once installed, it protects all your
drains without any effort or inconvenience. Installation
isn't tricky but usually requires breaking up the floor—a
big, messy job.
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Emergency Shutoff Tips
Your main shutoff valve is one of the most important
disaster-stoppers in your home. When a pipe
leaks or bursts, this valve lets you shut off water
flow to your entire home. But there's a good chance
your main valve will fail when you need it. So take a
few minutes now to make sure you can close it.
Ball valves rarely fail, and testing is easy. But if
you have a gate valve, you might need a little
patience and know-how. Turn the handle clockwise
to close it. If you can't turn the handle, loosen the
packing nut just a little (Photo 1). A shot of lubricant
or penetrating oil may also help. Then try again.
Don't worry about cranking too hard. There's a small
chance that you'll damage the valve, but a valve
that won't close is useless anyway and needs to be
replaced. For help with that project, see How to Replace the Main Shutoff Valve.
Reopening a stubborn gate valve is more risky
than closing it; you're more likely to break internal
parts and could end up without running water. If
the valve is stuck closed, tap it with a hammer
(Photo 2). When the valve opens a little, stop for a
few minutes. That allows water pressure on both
sides of the valve to equalize, instead of pressing
against one side and locking the valve in place.
Emergency shutoff tips
- If a toilet or faucet is leaking, try the shutoff
valves below them first. If they won't close, head
for the main valve.
- If you're able to close your main valve most of the
way but it's still allowing a trickle of water
through, simply open the lowest faucet in your
house. Water will trickle out of that faucet, but it
won't flow to the higher pipes in the house.
- If your home has a water meter, you have two
valves—one on each side of the meter. If one
won't close, try the other. Closing either of them
will stop the flow.
- If you have a hot water leak, you can stop the flow
by turning off the valve at the water heater.
Garage door opener release cord
Emergency Tips From Our Field Editors
Backup water supply
If your water supply
shuts down, remember
that your water heater
holds enough drinking
and cooking water to
last several days. Let the
water cool for a few
hours before you open
the drain valve at the
bottom of the tank.
St. Charles, MO
If your basement is
flooding, remove the
basement toilet to create
an instant, high-capacity
That will also let in
nasty sewer gases, so
don't leave the drain
unplugged any longer
You don't have to live
without a toilet just
because the water supply
is off. If you have a
pool or other water
source, you can flush
with a bucket. Pour
about 3 gallons into the
bowl (not the tank) to
get a fine flush.
Santa Rosa, CA
Don't get locked in
Garage door openers
lock up when the power
goes off. Make sure
everyone in your home
knows about the cord
that releases the door
from the opener. That
way, they can lift the
door open and get the
car out in an emergency.