Columbus, MS -- Individuals and families whose homes were damaged as a result of severe storms and tornadoes and who have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) toll-free number don't need to wait for a FEMA inspector to visit before they start cleaning up.
"Our top priority is to make sure that everyone has safe, livable housing," Federal Coordinating Officer Michael Bolch said. "The disaster housing program is designed to provide immediate assistance to those whose homes were made unlivable because of the tornadoes.
"But you should be very careful when entering tornado-damaged homes," Bolch warned. "Anyone who is unsure of a situation should ask for help or seek advice from an expert."
"The danger is not over when the tornado has passed," State Coordinating Officer Leon Shaifer added. "Hazards including weakened foundations and exposed live wires are not always obvious but can be life threatening. Play it safe."
Officials offered the following general guidelines:
- Wear sturdy clothing (heavy-duty boots, long pants, long-sleeved shirts or jackets to protect against sharp objects. For eye protection, wear goggles or glasses with side shields. If removing damaged portions of structures, wear hard hats.
- Clean any wounds thoroughly. Have a first-aid kit handy. Check with medical professionals in case a tetanus shot is needed.
- Turn off the gas at an outside meter or call the gas company. If there is a gas odor, air out the house. Do not turn on lights or appliances. A short circuit could cause a spark, possibly a gas explosion.
- Guard against electrical shock. Watch for downed power lines. In homes, turn off power at main fuse or breaker box. Even if area is without power, use a dry wooden stick to move wires as the power company could restore power at any time. Portable generators can help when power is out, but only a qualified electrician should hook a generator directly into household wiring.
- Check the house foundation. The house should be resting firmly on it. Also check porch roofs and overhangs to make sure they are adequately supported. If safety is in doubt, contact a contractor before going in. If a door sticks as it opens, the ceiling could be ready to cave in. Once a door has been forced open, wait outside to avoid falling debris. Check the ceiling for signs of sagging-loose ceiling plaster and wallboard are heavy and dangerous. Knock down hanging plaster before moving around in the house. If a house or porch rests on an open foundation, be sure the structure will not collapse before removing debris from underneath.
- Remember carbon monoxide hazards. Use generators, camp stoves, and barbecue grills outdoors only; they give off carbon monoxide fumes.
- Beware of snakes and other animals. They often move into damaged homes.
Anyone who sustained tornado damages or losses, and lives or works in a disaster-declared county, may register for disaster assistance by calling FEMA's toll-free number at 800-621-FEMA (3362) or for the hearing and speech impaired (TTY) 800-462-7585 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Those affected by the disaster also may visit a nearby Disaster Recovery Center where they can talk face-to-face with relief workers about the kinds of assistance that may be available to them.
People who may have questions about disaster assistance programs, the status of an application for assistance, or the locations of Disaster Recovery Centers, may also call the FEMA toll-free number for answers.