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Emergency Preparedness and Response for Natural Disasters and Agricultural Impacts

The Department of Homeland Security defines natural disasters as:

“all types of severe weather, which have the potential to pose a significant threat to human health and safety, property, critical infrastructure, and homeland security.”

Natural disasters, including weather and climate events, that impact rural areas include:

  • Flooding
  • Hurricanes
  • Tornadoes
  • Ice and snowstorms
  • Extreme heat
  • Drought
  • Wildfires
  • Earthquakes
  • Tsunamis
  • Volcano eruptions

Climate change has resulted in extreme weather events becoming more frequent, which poses considerable risk to rural populations. Extreme weather events threaten infrastructure, livelihood, and quality of life for rural communities. In rural communities in particular, natural disasters can have agricultural impacts that pose threats to human health. These impacts include diseases from contaminated water, such as parasites like Cryptosporidium and Giardia, for example. Rural farms may experience outbreaks in flocks and herds, which can increase human susceptibility to disease.

Other health and safety concerns from natural disasters or severe weather include:

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning can result from unsafe levels of carbon monoxide buildup due to improper use of alternative fuel or electricity sources, such as generators, that may be used during a power outage for heating or cooking. For more information on power outages, see Emergency Preparedness and Response for Equipment and Infrastructure Failure.
  • Animal and insect hazards can be posed by wild or stray animals, mosquitoes, and snakes that may be swimming in floodwaters, which can cause illness or injury to humans after a natural disaster. Rural communities should also consider potential risks related to displaced pets, such as dogs, and health risks related to animal remains, including wild animals and livestock.
  • Mold can grow from excess moisture or standing water in buildings after hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods. Mold can pose health risks, especially for people with asthma or weakened immune systems.

Planning for Natural Disasters and Agricultural Impacts

Many natural disasters are predictable. Forecasting for weather events, such as storms and hurricanes, can ensure that rural communities have adequate time to prepare immediately preceding a natural disaster. Still, advance planning is essential to mitigate the impacts of natural disasters. Specific measures can be taken to prevent morbidity and mortality from natural disasters and agricultural impacts.

Emergency Action Plan

To prepare for natural disasters, rural communities should develop an emergency action plan that addresses key topics and considerations, including:

  • Plans to ensure continued communication with residents during a natural emergency, such as establishing app or text message systems to send alerts and reach rural community members
  • Equipment and resources, such as generators, that are needed for critical service providers and sites like water stations
  • Evacuation plans and meeting locations

Personal Preparedness

It is important to encourage rural community members to develop personal emergency preparedness plans. Personal preparedness plans help individuals ensure that their families, homes, businesses, farms, crops, and pets and livestock are prepared in case of a natural disaster. Personal preparedness for a natural disaster might include gathering food, water, and medical supplies; preparing backup power sources in case of a power outage; and gathering important documents like insurance cards and personal identification. Personal emergency preparedness plans should consider the specific needs of each family or household in case of a natural disaster. To learn more about creating a personal emergency preparedness plan, see Community Engagement and Volunteer Management for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Prepare Your Health resources and tools are designed to help health departments and other preparedness partners communicate the importance of personal preparedness for natural disasters and other emergencies.

Coordination with Farms

Farms are often located in remote areas, which can result in a longer response time from first responders during a natural disaster. Therefore, farmers should develop an emergency action plan and examine their farms' level of preparedness. Farmers should take inventory of their facilities, materials, and people; understand which buildings are inhabited and which contain hazardous chemicals; and prioritize areas of the operation that may need attention during an emergency. Farmers are encouraged to coordinate planning with local emergency organizations and professionals to help the community understand potential hazards, enhance the safety of emergency responders, and improve outcomes in case of an emergency.

Responding to and Recovering from Natural Disasters and Agricultural Impacts

Engage the Community

Natural disasters can destroy property, cut off water supplies, contaminate food, and result in loss of life. Bringing community members together to clean up and rebuild following a natural disaster can help the community resume typical activities more quickly. It can also foster community resilience. Uniting community members to address natural disasters is beneficial, and it is also important to consider the implications related to training, coordinating, and organizing volunteers. For more information, see Community Engagement and Volunteer Management for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Mental Health and Trauma

Experiencing a natural disaster can be stressful and traumatic. Taking care of the community's emotional health while coping with the aftermath of a disaster is an important component of emergency response and recovery. Following a disaster, community members may be grieving, and it will be critical to address mental health concerns and trauma as a result of the disaster. Community members may require long-term mental healthcare and support. The Disaster Response Template Toolkit from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides resources for reaching people affected by a disaster and establishing disaster behavioral health response programs. For more information, see Mental and Behavioral Health Considerations in Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Understand the Environment

To mitigate impacts of future natural disasters and build resilience, it is important for rural communities to understand and address natural systems, like their local land and watersheds. For example, by understanding the local watershed, communities can limit construction in areas at high-risk for flooding or design a plan to restore the river system. By understanding the environment and protecting these local resources, communities can make decisions that mitigate the human impact on our natural systems and build resilience toward natural disasters.

Considerations for Natural Disasters in Rural Communities

In rural areas, residents are more likely to live farther apart from others. Being more isolated means there are fewer people nearby to help individual families and the community recover after a natural disaster. Natural disasters can make it even more challenging to travel long distances to get help and seek safety due to potential flooding, downed trees and power lines, or severe weather. Rural communities may also lack critical personnel and infrastructure to be able to send support into remote areas to reach families or individuals who may need assistance during a natural disaster. For more information on geography, transportation, and resource barriers, see Rural Barriers to Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Additionally, natural disasters can make it even harder to access food in rural communities, where residents may already be food insecure. Additional access challenges may occur due to agricultural impacts, disruptions to the supply chain for rural communities, limited or destroyed food inventories at grocery stores and food pantries, and challenges accessing food sources.

Existing economic challenges in rural areas can be further exacerbated by natural disasters and put community members at increased risk for adverse health impacts. Natural disasters can have a detrimental impact on important industries that make up the rural economy. Additionally, rural communities that experience persistent poverty are more likely to have community members living in less stable housing, like mobile homes. Manufactured homes are more likely to be damaged during a natural disaster, putting vulnerable populations at increased risk. This may further reinforce the cycle of poverty. It is critical to ensure the needs of vulnerable populations, especially those who may be living in poverty or experiencing housing instability, are being met when preparing for, responding to, and recovering from rural natural disasters. For additional population considerations, see Population Considerations for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

Emergency Preparedness and Response Case Studies

Lessons Learned from a Bomb Cyclone Flood in Eastern Nebraska
On March 13, 2019, the small town of North Bend, Nebraska, was flooded when the Platte River overflowed its banks as a result of a bomb cyclone that hit the Midwest portion of the United States. The storm caused over $2.6 billion in damage statewide and was estimated to have resulted in over $3 million of damage in the small town of North Bend. Ultimately, through a combination of community spirit and outside support, the town was able to recover from this disaster.

August Complex Wildfire and the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Northern California
The August Complex fire, which began in August 2020 as a result of lightning from Tropical Storm Fausto, burned nearly 1 million acres and damaged hundreds of buildings. The residents of Round Valley Indian Reservation feared for their safety, their homes, and their livestock as well as faced air quality issues associated with smoke from the fire. Tribal leadership coordinated with federal, state, and tribal agencies, and the area sustained minimal property damage and there were no injuries or deaths within the community. After nearly three months, the fire was considered fully contained on November 12, 2020.

Landslide in Sitka, Alaska, Leads to Unique Approach for Creating an Early Warning System
On August 18, 2015, Sitka, Alaska, was devastated by a large landslide that destroyed property and killed three community members. Though Sitka was already prepared for a tsunami with a warning system in place, the landslide was an unexpected natural disaster. The event spurred the community into action and, after creating a GeoTask Force and engaging scientists and local, state, and national partners, the community built a landslide warning system using technology to assess and communicate landslide risk.

Extreme Freeze Leaves Rural Community Without Power or Running Water in Texas: Pottsboro Area Library Coordinates Emergency Response
In February 2021, Texas suffered a massive power crisis when a winter storm debilitated the statewide power grid infrastructure. The Pottsboro Area Library in Grayson County organized response efforts to address compounding factors of concern, such as access to clean water, food availability, portable restroom access, and neighborhood support. Through use of social media, the library connected community partners to residents in need, effectively filling the gaps in the rural community's emergency response efforts.

COVID-19 and Hurricane Sally Present Dual Threat in Gulf Shores, Alabama
In September 2020, Hurricane Sally blew into the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall over Gulf Shores, Alabama. The community also faced the added threat of the COVID-19 pandemic during hurricane season, and Hurricane Sally was a surprise, deviating from its projected path at the last moment and picking up speed as it came ashore. As a tourist destination with a population larger than its permanent residency and an island with limited evacuation routes, thorough planning and a quick response were critical for Gulf Shores.

Derecho Windstorm in Langlade and Oconto Counties in Northeastern Wisconsin
In July 2019, a derecho windstorm produced straight-line winds up to 100 mph in a path 15 miles wide and 25 miles long across northern Langlade and western Oconto Counties in Wisconsin. Trees and power lines were snapped or uprooted across the counties. Local volunteer fire departments were first to respond across the disaster area. Support from law enforcement, local government, local volunteers, the National Guard, the Red Cross, Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) Strike Teams, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources were critical to recovery. Lessons learned from this disaster included the need for increased clarity in jurisdiction, required training in emergency management for local government officials, trained volunteers, and accountability tracking systems and documentation.

Tornadoes Tear a Swath Through Western Kentucky Leaving Scores of Rural Communities in Need of Help
On Friday, December 10, 2021, an EF4 tornado cut a 160-mile swath across Kentucky, wreaking havoc on the ground for nearly three hours. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in the nation on record for the month of December. It destroyed more than 15,000 buildings and resulted in approximately 80 deaths. After the storm had passed, the massive destruction and sheer numbers of injured citizens required an extensive, coordinated emergency response, made up largely of small rural hospitals, emergency medical services (EMS), and disaster personnel that utilized their existing relationships and collaborative partnerships to get resources where they were needed.

Historic Flood Cuts Off All Roadways to Rural Fremont, Nebraska: Hospital Plays a Vital Role in Coordinating Community Response
In early March 2019, severe flooding caused by a large winter storm left the city of Fremont in northeastern Nebraska cut off from the outside as roads in and out of the city became inaccessible. In response, the local hospital, Methodist Fremont Health, relied on their well-practiced emergency plan and training to successfully continue hospital operations by focusing on key areas of patient needs, staffing levels, staff support, and resource acquisition and allocation. In addition, the hospital was able to leverage well-established partnerships within and outside the community, including federal, state, local, and regional relationships, to not only provide care for existing and incoming patients but to also reach beyond the hospital walls and serve as an important emergency resource in the community at large. These partnerships were instrumental in efforts to set up and staff emergency shelters, organize transportation, and facilitate communication and collaboration among organizations and agencies responding to the flood.

Wildfire Forces Evacuation of Critical Access Hospital in Estes Park, Colorado
In October 2020, the rural community of Estes Park, Colorado, was forced to evacuate the town over the course of just a few hours due to the encroaching East Troublesome Fire. Estes Park Health (EPH), a Critical Access Hospital, safely evacuated their patients and long-term care residents in a very small amount of time. Fortunately, EPH had developed an emergency evacuation plan just two months prior when the Cameron Peak Fire was threatening to advance near the hospital. Though the Cameron Peak Fire never reached Estes Park, EPH was prepared for a wildfire response from this event. The town of Estes Park evacuated for 4 to 5 days following the initial order, and EPH was able to maintain communication and some critical operations remotely during those several days.

Resources to Learn More

Natural Disasters and Severe Weather
Offers resources on natural disasters and severe weather.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Natural Disasters
Provides resources to help communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from a variety of natural disasters.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Homeland Security

ReadyAG: Disaster and Defense Preparedness for Production Agriculture Workbook
Helps farmers and ranchers prepare for natural disasters and catastrophic events that can occur on their farm or ranch.
Organization(s): Penn State Cooperative Extension
Date: 2010