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 12 big and little
home emergencies and the steps you should take first to tackle
these disasters head on.
Emergency 1: Wild animal invasion
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Raccoons can chew up a lot of stuff fast.
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
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Turn off the water at the main valve quickly. Water damage can be expensive.
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
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Keep dry until you turn off electrical power.
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
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A grease fire that spreads to nearby curtains is a common cause of kitchen fires.
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.
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 type
“home fires” in the search box above.
Emergency 5: Bat in the house
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Open a window or door; the bat wants out.
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.
Emergency 6: Power outage
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Always keep a flashlight loaded with good batteries in a handy drawer.
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
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Unplug sensitive electronics to protect them from power surges.
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
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Twister in action
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.
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
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Big roof leak
Don't climb on your roof to stop leaks until after the storm. Wet roofs can be slippery.
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.
Emergency 11: After a hurricane
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The period after is as dangerous as the storm itself.
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
find out how to
Emergency 12: Dead furnace
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Check the simple things before calling for service help.
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.
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.