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Drs. Oz & Roizen: Disaster Do’s and Don’ts

Here, the good docs answer your questions on what to do when emergency strikes.

Q: I’ve been hearing about natural disasters in the news and want to prepare my family for emergencies if we are trapped in our home without power. What essentials should we have, aside from obvious things like a flashlight and water?

A: Great choices so far. For water, store a gallon a day per person—a two-week supply—for drinking and sanitation. Add to the list nonperishable foods that don’t need to be cooked—nuts, energy bars and canned foods like cooked salmon. And a manual can opener (more on that in a minute).

Once you have everything you think you’ll need, do a practice drill, which we believe is invaluable for discovering what you might have missed. At one point Dr. Mike and his wife lived in California, where they did regular earthquake practice drills. Here’s what they discovered on their inaugural practice weekend:

“We turned off the electricity and water, and started the experiment with a tent and our emergency stuff in the backyard. We were well-prepared… until we tried to eat something. We had cans but had forgotten the can opener. We now have two can openers. Other items we had on hand: plastic bags for food storage and sanitation, scissors, a thermometer, tweezers, sunscreen, shelf-stable probiotics, aspirin, cleansing agent/soap, boxes of latex gloves, towelettes, a solar battery charger for the flashlight and cellphone, and a crank- or solar-powered radio. Over time we’ve added a mechanic’s kit with tools, propane tanks and stove, and air mattresses.

“We practice every other month so we can continue to learn what we really need and replace what we use with fresh stuff.” You can find a comprehensive list at Ready.gov/kit.

Q: Although I know it’s unlikely to happen, I worry about what I should do if my car goes off a bridge and into a lake. Am  I supposed to roll the windows down first? Or keep them up until the car is submerged to retain the air inside the car?

A: Wow—we’ve never been asked that before. But about 8 to 10 percent of all deaths by drowning in the U.S. occur in vehicles, so your question is on point! We consulted our resident expert on all things weird and wonderful, Dan Neides, M.D., who’s in family medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. We also reached out to an expert in vehicle submergence, Gordon Giesbrecht, Ph.D., head of the Laboratory for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the University of Manitoba, who has done dozens of studies on this scenario.

First off, they say to act fast to get out. Your best shot of escaping is at the beginning of the “floating phase,” where you have 30 seconds to two minutes before the water reaches the bottom of the side windows (that’s when it becomes much harder to open them and the car starts to sink).

The second your car hits the water, follow these steps: 1) Unbuckle your seat belt. 2) Unbuckle your children’s seat belts and bring them close to you or another adult who can assist them. 3) Open the windows ASAP. Power windows should continue to work for a few minutes, but if they fail, break them with a flashlight or hammer or a window-breaking device. (A hammer or flashlight will be in each of our cars after this weekend—thanks for your question!) Whatever you do, don’t open the doors while the car is still floating, because that will accelerate the water coming into the vehicle, causing it to sink faster. 4) Push children out first and then follow. Experts refer to this as Seatbelt, Children, Windows, Out—memorize it.

If you’re still inside as the car starts to sink and tilt, you can still escape, but your chances of survival decrease. That’s because once the water rises above the bottom of the side windows, the pressure makes it difficult to open the windows or doors. At this point, move everyone to the back seat of the car, which will start to point straight up when the car tilts. As water rises inside the car, an air pocket remains at the back where you can breathe. Only when the vehicle is nearly filled with water will the pressure equalize and allow you to open the windows and doors and get out. Once this happens, open any door or window you can (or break it if necessary), push the kids out and get yourself out.

As for calling 911, experts say not to because it wastes precious time during the floating phase, when you have the highest probability of escaping; plus, a rescue team can’t reach you fast enough within that 30-second to two-minute window to help.

Q: I love a good lightning storm, and fancy myself invincible, so I step outdoors to watch the sky. My wife is terrified for me, but I tell her that I’m taking precautions. I don’t stand near trees, and I wear rubber-soled shoes. Is there anything else I should be doing?

A: You’re kidding, right? Are you trying to have the golf course to yourself in that thunderstorm? No one else would want to stand anywhere near you. Lightning is in the top three of storm-related killers in the U.S., with most deaths occurring in summertime. Rubber-soled shoes as protection is a myth. Also, don’t think that because it’s not raining on you that you’re not in danger—lightning often strikes outside the rain area, as far as 10 miles away.

If you want other adventures that are equally dangerous, you can drink a sugared soda at every meal or smoke a pack of cigarettes daily. That is how crazy we think your hobby is—if you keep it up, make sure you have a great life insurance policy.

Q: I’m a worrier, so I’m concerned that during an emergency I’ll freeze up and won’t be able to think clearly or act rightly. Is there anything I can do to help me calm down and do what needs to be done in that  moment?

A: Yes, practice in advance. As you can tell from our first question, we believe in that. In fact, all docs in training are exposed to emergencies in simulation centers so they can learn to respond appropriately and as a team. Most simulation centers will offer, for a price, to train you in basic life support and common emergencies—look online for the one nearest you.

If all else fails, do some deep breathing. We believe in it for all stressful events, and learning how to respond to stress is basic for staying young and healthy. You can take our online research-based program Stress Free Now at ClevelandClinicWellness.com to learn breathing and other techniques that help you navigate stress.

When you’re in the moment, don’t worry about being perfect; just try to do your best. And for support, call 911 to speak to a live operator who will talk you through what you should do and help keep you calm.

Get more emergency advice from the docs—find out what they say to do if you’re bitten by a snake.

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