How can you help when disaster strikes?

June is the start of hurricane season and, in the southern part of the country, residents are bracing for the worst.

The latest prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center projects 13 to 17 named storms. Seven to 10 are expected to become hurricanes, with three to five possible “major” hurricanes.

Meanwhile, tornadoes — like the one that just decimated Greensburg, Kansas — continue to wreak havoc in the middle of the country, while floods and earthquakes threaten other areas. It seems that no one is safe from Mother Nature’s Wrath.

What can you, as a pilot and aircraft owner, do to protect yourself? Perhaps more important, what can you do to help those who have been devastated by nature’s fury?


“The most important thing is to make sure you get prepared,” says Phil Attinger, a spokesman with the Red Cross in Polk County, Florida.

The first thing to do, counsels Attinger, is prepare yourself. It may sound selfish, but you can’t help anyone else if you are in need of help. “This enables pockets of humanity to take care of themselves until help arrives,” he says.

Put together an emergency preparedness kit. Keep some of those supplies in your car. The Red Cross and other organizations have lots of information on what should be in the kit, but be sure to include the essentials: water, food, medicine, a battery-operated radio, toiletries, etc. The standard rule is to prepare for three days. If you head to a shelter, take the kit with you.

Put together an evacuation plan. Designate someone outside your area as a contact person. Everyone affected by the storm or disaster can call this person and say they are all right, saving countless hours of worry when people can’t reach you and the television news reports are filled with scenes from the tragedy.

Move your plane, if you can do it safely. NTSB accident reports are filled with stories of plane owners who, while trying to move their planes out of harm’s way, crashed or had a forced landing because they didn’t check their fuel. Don’t be one of them.

If you don’t plan to move your plane, make sure it is in a hangar or tied down securely.

Obviously, this works only in disasters where there is plenty of warning, such as a hurricane. There’s no chance of running from an earthquake or tornado.


When disaster hits a community — no matter how far from your hometown — you may want to help. But don’t just jump in your airplane and head toward a disaster zone.

The help you can offer after a disaster actually begins months before it occurs. Attinger advises that pilots who want to help contact a local Red Cross chapter — or any other organization that responds to emergencies — and let them know they are willing and able.

“Don’t be discouraged if they don’t need your Piper,” he says. “There may be a place and a time to use it, but be ready to find out what else they may need you to do to assist.”

The Red Cross holds classes throughout the year to certify volunteers to run shelters, work in food distribution and other areas that are critically needed after a disaster. But if you are untrained, they aren’t going to send you into a disaster zone.

Each volunteer is trained in his or her own time. It could take weeks or months, depending on how motivated the volunteer is, the availability of classes and other factors.

One thing you can do right now is to get trained in first aid and CPR. “You may be the only medical help that is available until the storm dies down,” Attinger says.

Even if you aren’t a a fully trained volunteer, you can still help out in an emergency. Your skills can be used on the local level, while the local chapter sends its more experienced volunteers to the disaster zone.

Some organizations, including the Red Cross, will want your piloting skills and your airplane. Organizations like Angel Flight were instrumental after Hurricane Katrina in bringing supplies into the stricken areas and — perhaps more important — transporting people out of the area. Sometimes private pilots are used for damage assessment, although the Civil Air Patrol is often tasked with that mission.

Another important mission for private pilots is transporting blood. Check with your regional blood center to see if your help is needed. If it doesn’t need your help, it may be able to refer you to another organization that does.

Pilots are especially welcome as volunteers, even without their airplanes, according to Attinger.

“Pilots know the importance of preparation,” he says. “They are trained to have their equipment prepared and ready to go. They also have two key characteristics that all volunteers need: Flexibility and dependability.”

Want to help, but don’t have the time?

Many pilots want to help, but can’t because of work and family obligations. The next best thing is to donate money to emergency response agencies.

In fact, at the Red Cross and Salvation Army, you can designate your donation for a specific disaster. If you do that, all your money will go to that disaster.


While hurricanes and tornadoes are seen as the biggest disasters hitting the country, the most common disaster in the U.S. hits one family at a time — a house fire. Nationally, the Red Cross responds to 150 house fire each day.

“They are so common,” Attinger says. “Often people don’t have anything left.”

These “small” disasters are good training grounds for volunteers.

“We like our volunteers to get used to responding to disasters locally,” he says. “Once they get used to that, it’s not so much of a shock when an area is decimated. But no amount of training is going to prepare people for what they are going to see.”

It’s important for volunteers to arrive at a disaster zone and be able to get to work right away, work autonomously and know the procedures that need to be followed to get aid to those who need it, he says. They learn those skills one fire at a time.

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