Disasters and Emergencies

Disasters and Emergencies

We know it’s not fun to think about every possible threat to your safety and well-being. Rest assured that Pennsylvania’s dedicated emergency workers are trained to help you after a disaster, but they may not be able to reach everyone right away.

It’s imperative that all Pennsylvanians know what they need to do to keep themselves safe in an emergency. In this guide, learn the top 10 threats to Pennsylvania, how to get prepared today, and what to do if any of these threats impact you.

For even more information, download the Pennsylvania Emergency Preparedness Guide from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

If you or someone else is in danger, call 911. These resources are intended for informational use only.

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Download the 511PA app to your smartphone for hands-free alerts while driving. Follow your regional 511 to get travel information on Twitter.



Flooding destroys thousands of U.S. homes and costs billions of dollars each year.

Floods can happen:

  • Slowly, after extended periods of rain
  • When a heavy snow begins to melt
  • Quickly, without visible signs of rain (flash floods)

A flood watch means flooding could happen, and you should:

  • Stay alert
  • Monitor rivers and streams
  • Be prepared to move to higher ground

A flood warning means there is flooding:

  • Act now — move to higher ground

Stay safe

  • When flooding is a risk, get to higher ground, and out of areas subject to flooding (low spots, canyons, etc.)
  • Never drive through flooded areas or standing water — turn around, don’t drown
  • If your vehicle stalls, abandon it and seek higher ground
  • Be especially cautious at night when it’s harder to recognize flood dangers

Prepare now
Prevent damage to your property and keep you and your loved ones safe by being prepared.

More information



Fire moves quickly. In just two minutes, a fire can become life-threatening. In five minutes, your home can be engulfed in flames.

As fire burns, it emits poisonous gases, which can cause you to become disoriented and drowsy.

Stay safe
In the event of a fire, follow these tips from ready.gov and PEMA:

  • Get out as quickly as you can. Don’t open doors except the ones you use to escape.
  • Crawl low. Heavy smoke and poisonous gases first collect along the ceiling.
  • Check the doorknob and door before opening. If it’s hot or there’s smoke around the door, leave it closed.
  • Stop, drop, and roll if your clothes catch fire. If you can’t do so, smother the flames with a blanket or towel.
  • Call 9-1-1. Let the dispatcher know the location of those still inside.
  • Tell firefighters right away if there are pets trapped inside.

Prepare now

  • Teach kids not to hide under beds or closets in the event of a fire.
  • Create an escape plan and practice it twice per year. Include at least two ways to get out of each room.
  • Install smoke detectors on every level of your residence. Test/clean them once a month and replace batteries at least once a year.
  • Check your home:
    • Make sure windows aren’t nailed or painted shut
    • Have working fire extinguishers and teach family members how to use them
    • Have your home’s wiring checked by an electrician
    • Place heaters at least three feet away from flammable materials

More information

Winter Storms


Winter storms can be dangerous.

Risks include car accidents, hypothermia from prolonged exposure to the cold, heart attacks from overexertion, frostbite, carbon monoxide poisoning, and more.

The good news is that we can be prepared and know how to stay safe.

Stay safe

  • Pay attention to weather reports and warnings
  • Stay off the roads when possible. If you must travel:
    • Check your route before you go
    • Stay up-to-date on road clearing with the plow truck tracker at 511PA.com
    • Try to travel during the day and stay on main roads
    • Make sure your cellphone is fully charged
    • Have an emergency supply kit in your vehicle
    • Know what to do if you get trapped in your car:
      • Pull off the highway, turn on hazard lights, and hang a distress flag from the radio antenna or window
      • Remain in your vehicle. Don’t set out on foot unless you can see a building close by.
      • Run the engine and heater about 10 minutes each hour
      • Huddle with other passengers and use your coat for a blanket
      • Take turns sleeping; one person needs to be awake at all times to look for rescue crews
      • Drink fluids to avoid dehydration
  • Prepare for power outages
  • Check on your neighbors, especially older adults
  • Use caution and do not over-exert yourself when shoveling snow
  • Wear layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing
  • Use extreme caution when using alternative heating sources

Home heating
If you have no heat during a winter storm:

  • Close off unneeded rooms
  • Stuff towels or rags in cracks under doors
  • Cover windows at night

If you need financial help heating your home, apply for assistance from the Department of Human Services. If you are out of fuel or have broken heating equipment, you may qualify for a crisis grant.

Signs of frostbite
Seek medical attention immediately if you experience these symptoms:

  • Loss of feeling in extremities
  • Pale appearance of extremities

Signs of hypothermia

  • Uncontrollable shivering
  • Memory loss
  • Disorientation
  • Incoherence
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Apparent exhaustion

If you notice signs of hypothermia:

  • Get the victim to a warm location
  • Remove wet clothing
  • Put on dry clothing and wrap body in blanket
  • Warm center of body first
  • Give warm beverages if the victim is conscious (avoid alcohol/caffeine)
  • Get medical help as soon as possible

More information

Thunderstorms, Tornadoes, and Tropical Storms

Tornado damage

Pennsylvania is at risk of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and tropical storms. Residents need to be prepared for lightning, high winds, and flooding.

Stay Safe

  • When thunder roars, go indoors: A sturdy building is the safest place to be
  • Pay attention to weather reports and be ready to change plans if you have to
  • Avoid running water or using landline phones because electricity can travel through plumbing and phone lines
  • Unplug appliances and other electronic devices, and secure your outdoor furniture
  • Avoid flooded roadways: Turn around, don’t drown!


  • Know the difference between a watch and a warning:
    • Tornado watch — Conditions are favorable for a tornado to develop
    • Tornado warning — A tornado has been detected and/or has been sighted
  • Know the signs of a tornado
    • Rotating, funnel-shaped cloud
    • Approaching cloud of debris
    • Load roar similar to a freight train
  • If under a tornado warning:
    • Go to a safe room, basement, or storm cellar
    • No basement? Go to a small interior room on the lowest level
    • Stay away from windows, doors, and outside walls
    • In a car? Don’t try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle
    • If shelter isn’t available, lie in a flat ditch or other low-lying area and cover your body with a coat or blanket, if possible. Do not shelter under an overpass or bridge
    • Shield your head and neck with your arms
    • Surround yourself with furniture and blankets

Tropical storms

  • Know the difference between a watch and a warning:
    • Tropical storm watch — Conditions indicate that a tropical storm is possible
    • Tropical storm warning — A tropical storm is expected to strike the area within 24 hours
  • If under a tropical storm warning:
    • Bring all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything not tied down inside
    • Cover all windows with pre-cut plywood or hurricane shutters
    • Turn off utilities as instructed
    • Turn refrigerator thermostat to coldest setting and keep doors closed
    • Turn off propane tanks
    • Fill your bathtub with large containers of water

Prepare Now

  • Put together a home emergency plan and a home emergency kit
  • Identify sturdy buildings close to where you live, work, study, and play
  • Trim trees and shrubs so they are more wind resistant
  • Review your insurance policies
  • Consider buying surge protectors and other items to protect your home, appliances, and electronic devices
  • Keep your car in good working condition and stock your vehicle with emergency supplies

More information


Woman administering medicine

What’s a pandemic? A global outbreak of a new virus that can spread easily from person to person. Unlike the seasonal flu, we’d have little immunity to the new virus, and many people would get sick.

What to expect

  • Hospitals and doctors might be overwhelmed with sick patients
  • Schools and businesses might close to keep the virus from spreading or because too many people are sick
  • Essential supplies and services could become limited or unavailable
  • Travel and public gatherings might be limited to keep the virus from spreading
  • Public health officials could suggest using isolation or quarantine measures to control the spread of infection
  • There might not be a vaccine to protect people against the pandemic flu.
  • Antiviral medicines could be in limited supply. If vaccines or antiviral medicines are available, you may be asked to go to a certain community location to get vaccinated or to receive the medicine
  • The pandemic could last a long time. Sometimes, there are waves of illness that occur over a series of months or even more than a year

Prepare now

  • Put together a home emergency plan and a home emergency kit
  • Practice good hygiene and wash your hands frequently
  • Cover your nose and mouth when coughing/sneezing
  • Regularly clean surfaces touched by multiple people
  • Stay home from work or school when sick
  • Stay healthy
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Get regular exercise
  • Get enough rest
  • Get your yearly flu vaccination
  • Discuss any health concerns with your doctor
  • Plan how you’d help family, friends, and neighbors (especially those who live alone) who would need assistance during an emergency

More information

Earthquakes and Landslides


Stay safe during an earthquake

  • If indoors
    • Take cover under a sturdy desk, table, or bench or against an inside wall
    • Cover your face and head with your arms
    • If you are in bed, stay there (unless you’re under a heavy light fixture that can fall) and hold on while protecting your head with a pillow
    • Stay inside until shaking stops and it is safe to go outside
    • Do not use elevators
    • Be aware that you may lose electricity, and sprinkler systems or fire alarms may turn on
  • If outdoors
    • Stay outdoors
    • Move away from buildings, streetlights, and utility wires
  • If in a moving vehicle
    • Stop as quickly as safety permits. Try to avoid stopping near buildings, trees, overpasses, and utility wires
    • Stay in the vehicle
    • Proceed cautiously once the earthquake stops
  • If you become trapped under debris
    • Do not move around or kick up dust
    • If possible, cover your mouth with a handkerchief or clothing
    • Tap on a pipe or wall so rescuers can locate you
    • Shout only as a last resort, as you can inhale a dangerous amount of dust

Stay safe during a landslide

  • Move uphill from the path of the landslide as quickly as possible
  • If escape is not possible, curl up into a ball and protect your head
  • Listen to local news stations on a battery-powered radio for warnings
  • Heed all warnings and evacuation notices
  • Don’t cross a road with flowing water or mud
  • Don’t cross a bridge if you see a flow approaching
  • In times of danger, avoid river valleys and low-lying areas

Landslide warning signs

  • Unusual sounds (rushing water, mud, trees cracking, boulders knocking together)
  • Faint rumbling sound that increases in volume
  • Moving fences, retaining walls, utility poles, boulders, or trees
  • Changes in your landscape
    • Patterns of storm-water drainage on slopes
    • Land movement
    • Small slides/flows
    • Progressively leaning trees
  • Doors or windows stick or jam for the first time
  • New cracks in plaster, tile, brick or foundations
  • Outside walls, walks, or stairs start pulling away from building
  • Slowly developing, widening cracks on the ground/in paved areas
  • Underground utility lines break
  • Bulging ground at the base of a slope
  • Water breaks through the ground surface in new locations

More information

Hazmat Incidents

People in hazmat suits

Hazardous materials are transported on our roadways, railways, waterways, and pipelines every day. If released or misused, hazardous materials can threaten our environment and health.

Some sources of hazardous materials

  • Chemical manufacturers
  • Service stations
  • Hospitals
  • Hazardous materials waste sites

Stay Safe

  • Call 911 to report any hazardous materials incident, spill, or leak you witness
  • Pay attention to emergency reports for detailed information and instructions
  • Stay away from the incident to minimize the risk of contamination
  • Avoid eating or drinking food/water that could be contaminated
  • Keep your body fully covered and wear gloves, socks, and shoes
  • Outside? Try to stay upstream, uphill, and upwind of the incident
  • In a vehicle? Stop and seek shelter. If you have to stay in your car, close your windows and vents, and shut off the air conditioning/heater
  • You may be told to evacuate and should do so immediately
  • You may be told to stay indoors or shelter in place
    • Close and lock all exterior doors and windows
    • Close vents, fireplace dampers, and as many interior doors as possible
    • Turn off air conditions and ventilation systems
    • Go to a pre-selected shelter room (above ground with the fewest openings to the outside.

More information

Nuclear Threats

Nuclear threats

There are five operating nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania, all closely regulated and monitored.

The chance of a nuclear incident is slight. Still, knowing how to react in the event of something happening can reduce your risk of injury.

The 5 locations
There are five nuclear facilities in Pennsylvania:
Nuclear facilities in PA

  1. Beaver Valley Power Station | Shippingsport
  2. Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station | Harrisburg
  3. Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station | Delta
  4. Susquehanna Steam Electric Station | Berwick
  5. Limerick Generating Station | Pottstown

Stay safe
If an accident were to release radiation in your area, local authorities would activate warning sirens. They would also instruct you on next steps through the Emergency Alert System. Steps you should take:

  • Take cover immediately, as far below ground as possible
  • Close windows and doors
  • Turn off air conditioners, heaters, and other ventilation systems
  • Watch TV, listen to the radio, and/or check the internet for official news as it becomes available

More information

Mass Violence

Mass violence

The threat of mass attacks is real, but we can learn to recognize suspicious behavior, stay as safe as possible, and be prepared to help others.

Additionally, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security provides free security assessments for public and private facilities within the commonwealth.

Recognize suspicious behavior

  • Unusual or violent communications
  • Expressed anger or intent to cause harm
  • Ideologies promoting violence
  • Suspicious behavior, such as excessive questioning and/or attention to security details
  • Unusual items or packages

Report suspicious behavior to authorities

Stay safe

  • Be aware of your surroundings
  • Report suspicious behavior
  • Leave or move if you feel uncomfortable or something doesn’t seem right
  • Don’t accept packages from strangers
  • Don’t leave luggage unattended
  • Be aware of emergency exit locations
  • Know high-risk targets
    • Military and civilian government facilities
    • International airports
    • Large cities
    • High-profile landmarks
    • Large public gatherings
    • Water and food supplies
    • Utilities
    • Corporate centers
    • Mail (sending of explosives or chemical/biological agents)

In the event of an attack

  1. Stay alert so you can react quickly
  2. Run to safety if there is an escape path
  3. If evacuation is not possible, cover/hide and stay silent
  4. Defend/disrupt/fight as a last resort
  5. Help the wounded get to safety and provided first aid if you are able to do so

Prepare now

  • Learn to recognize and report suspicious behavior
  • When visiting a new place, take time to identify at least two nearby exits
  • Identify areas in familiar places where you could hide/seek cover
  • Learn and practice casualty care, CPR, and first aid
  • Organize and participate in safety drills where people gather

More information

Be Ready PA

We can’t avoid all emergencies, but we can get prepared. Read the tips below and download the full Pennsylvania Emergency Preparedness Guide (PDF) for detailed information and printable checklists.

Important emergency tip: If you ever call 911 from a cellphone, remember that your location and phone number are not always readily available to the emergency operator. Provide the operator with your number and information about your location as soon as you can.

At home

Home emergency kit

  • Prepare an emergency toolkit that includes:
    1. Water: One gallon, per person, per day (for at least three days)
    2. Food: Three-day supply per person of nonperishables
    3. Battery-powered radio with extra batteries
    4. Flashlights (2) with extra batteries
    5. First aid kit
    6. Clothing and gear
    7. Cash and important documents (put in waterproof container)
    8. Tools and supplies
    9. Extra keys for your home and vehicle
    10. Hygiene items

View a more comprehensive home emergency toolkit checklist provided by PEMA.

  • Have a plan: Your family might not be together when disaster strikes. Create a family emergency plan to contact each other and what to do in the event of an emergency.
  • Create an emergency contact list for each member of your family. Keep them in a prominent location in your home.

On the road

vehicle emergency kit


    • Prepare a vehicle emergency toolkit that includes:
      1. Weather-proof flashlight and batteries
      2. Battery-operated radio
      3. Vehicle supplies — like jumper cables, a tire gauge, and spare fuses
      4. Extra cellphone charger
      5. $20 in small bills and change
      6. First aid supplies
      7. Blanket, extra clothing, gloves, and boots
      8. Bottled water and nonperishable foods (enough to last three days)
      9. Basic tools — screwdriver, pliers, a knife, a bottle opener, etc.

In winter, keep a snow shovel, sand/cat litter, chemical hand warmers, and ice scraper in your toolkit. View a more comprehensive vehicle emergency toolkit from PEMA.

  • Keep a full tank of gas in your car if an evacuation seems likely. Gas stations could close in an emergency, or you might not be able to pump gas if the power goes out.
  • If you need to evacuate: Leaver early, follow evacuation routes, and keep an eye out for downed power lines and washed-out roads and bridges. Avoid shortcuts as they could be blocked. NEVER drive into flooded areas.

At work
Your workplace should have plans in place to keep you and your coworkers safe in the event of an emergency. Now is the time to familiarize yourself with those plans and important workplace emergency contacts.

  • Participate in fire drills
  • Never ignore fire alarms
  • Know the location of common emergency equipment, such as AEDs and first aid kits
  • Take first aid and CPR classes

Learn more about keeping safe in your workplace.

Don’t forget your pets!


During a disaster, what’s good for you is what’s good for your pet. Don’t forget to include them in your emergency planning.

Include these pet items in your emergency kit:

    • 3-day supply of food and water
    • Medications and medical records
    • Pet first aid kit
    • Extra leash and collar
    • Dishes/bowls
    • For cats: Litter and pan
    • Copies of licenses
    • Name and phone number of veterinarian
    • Microchip/tattoo number
    • Toys, treats, and bedding
    • Paper towels and clean-up bags
  • Things to think about now:
    • Who can check on your pet(s) if you’re not home during an emergency?
    • If you had to, where could you board your pet near your evacuation facility?
    • Is there a veterinarian/animal hospital near your evacuation facility in case your pet would need medical attention?
    • Is your pet microchipped? Is the linked information up-to-date?

Find comprehensive pet safety information on Ready.gov.

After an Emergency


It’s normal to feel like your life has been turned upside-down after an emergency, and it’s also common to feel reluctant to accept help. Disaster assistance programs are paid for by donations and tax dollars — you likely have contributed to them in the past.

Now is the time to let people help you.

Do you have a safe place to temporarily stay?

Find an open shelter and/or contact your nearest American Red Cross:

Disaster Distress Helpline
The federal Disaster Distress Helpline provides free, 24/7 crisis counseling and support to those experiencing emotional distress due to a natural or human-caused disaster.

Home safety

  • If your home has been damaged by a disaster, don’t enter it without checking with local code enforcement or fire officials to make sure it is safe. If you do get the go-ahead to enter, be careful. Floors and walls may not be as safe as they look.
  • If you evacuated your home, contact your local police so they are aware it is vacant.
  • If your utilities have been disconnected, check with your municipality about how to restore service.
  • Avoid eating, drinking, or breathing in items that have been exposed to water, smoke, soot, heat, or flames.

Home recovery

  • If you have insurance, contact your insurance company as soon as possible.
  • If you don’t have insurance, connect with community groups for aid and assistance.
  • Inform your landlord or mortgage company about the disaster as soon as possible.
  • Locate valuable documents and records
  • Keep receipts for any money you spend related to the disaster. You could need these to prove losses for your insurance and income tax.
  • Identify items you wish to save

Cleaning up

  • Ask your insurance company for names of cleaning/restoration companies you can trust
  • Contact city/county officials to ask if assistance with clean-up will be available. If so, be ready to describe what help you will need, and ask to be put on the waiting list
  • Check with city/county officials for clean-up specifics:
    • How to properly dispose of damaged property
    • Will dumpsters be available?
    • List of non-salvageable items
    • Steps for cleaning and sanitizing at home
    • Guidelines for safe clean-up procedure

Supporting children

Kids need special care and attention after an emergency.

  • Encourage kids to talk about their fears
  • Let them ask questions and tell them how you’re feeling
  • Reassure them that they are safe
  • In simple language, tell them what is happening
  • Tell them they are not responsible for what happened
  • Limit the amount of news they take in

Help prepare your kids for emergencies with resources and activities.

More information

Important Contacts

american red cross

Below is a list of important contacts from this guide and beyond, gathered in one place for your convenience.

Disaster contacts in your community
These county contacts are within your community and can help you during a disaster, particularly if you have special needs. You also can connect with them to prepare for emergencies before they happen.

Report suspicious behavior

United Way of Pennsylvania
Call 211 for customized health, housing, and human services.

Department of Human Services
Contact your county assistance office and/or apply online for help with food, medical assistance, home heating, and more.

Disaster Distress Helpline
Provides free, 24/7 crisis counseling and support.

American Red Cross of Pennsylvania

Access a searchable database of rental properties statewide through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Insurance issues
The Department of Insurance helps policy holders settle disputes with their insurance companies and can answer questions about your coverage. Call 877-881-6388.

Utility assistance
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission helps settle utility disputes and assist those who are having issues paying for their utilities. Call 1-800-692-7380 for help.

Birth/death certificate replacement
Certificates lost in a disaster? Call the Department of Health at 717-772-3480. Fees are waived if there is a state disaster declaration.

License/registration replacement
Call PennDOT at 800-932-4600 or access vehicle services online for driver’s license and registration card replacements. Fees are waived if there is a state disaster declaration.

Assistance for disabled homeowners and senior citizens
The Office of Vocational Rehabilitation helps remove debris from damaged dwellings and sanitize after a flood. Call 800-442-6351 or 800-830-7327 (TTY).

Assistance for older adults
Older adults can contact their Area Agency on Aging for support and services.

Narcotic treatment
If your narcotic treatment program is closed or public transportation has been shut down, find out where you can get a guest dose by calling the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs at 1-800-662-4357.

Bias and discrimination
Call the Human Relations Commission at 717-787-9780 for bias and discrimination complaints.

Agriculture help
Get guidance on how to handle crop and feed contamination issues and pursue financial assistance through your County Extension Office.

Fraud protection
The Attorney General’s Office helps answer questions about repair scams. Call 800-441-2555.

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