These days, it seems that natural disasters are cutting a wider swath than ever. From hurricanes, floods and dust storms to twisters, earthquakes and raging wildfires, Americans are buffeted from coast from coast. 

What's the most common disaster people face? Home fires, according to the American Red Cross. Every 2 seconds, someone in the United States calls in a  house fire, according to that group. That's why one of the American Red Cross’s main goals is reducing fire-related injuries and deaths by 25 percent over the next five years.

Related: Quiz: Are You Prepared for a House Fire?

During National Preparedness Month, which rolls around every September, the organization joins other aid groups in stepping up efforts to get Americans ready for fires and natural disasters.

Are you prepared?

Russ Paulsen is executive director of community preparedness for the American Red Cross. In an interview with SafeBee, he shared some of his favorite tips for disaster preparedness.

Be prepared to wait for relief to arrive. Firefighters act as first responders after a disaster, rescuing people, digging them out of collapsed houses and administering first aid. But you can't necessarily expect help to arrive right away. “A lot of people don’t realize that there are more than 400 Americans for every firefighter,” Paulsen says. “Depending on the scale of the disaster, help may not be immediate." That's why it pays to do some planning in advance. "We’ve seen that there are some really simple things families can do to make their lives after a disaster so much better if they just plan it out.” These include storing water and food, medications, personal hygiene supplies and an emergency kit.

Related: 5 Simple Ways to Prepare for an Emergency

Bringing water and Gatorade to tornado victims, Red Cross volunteer Mary Daw shares an embrace with Neal Sibley of Moore, Oklahoma, after hearing his survival story about the twister that devastated his community.Bringing water and Gatorade to tornado victims, Red Cross volunteer Mary Daw shares an embrace with Neal Sibley of Moore, Oklahoma, after hearing his survival story about the twister that devastated his community. (Photo: Colston Moore/American Red Cross)

Remember that stores are closed after a catastrophe. When stocking an emergency kit, Paulsen encourages people to think about what they’d need on an average day. “Those are the things to pack,” he says. You'll want five to seven days' worth of supplies if you need to evacuate to a shelter, according to the group.

Don’t forget your meds. If you have to evacuate, remember to bring your medicines, Paulsen says. “Shelters are not drug stores, and a pharmacy may not be open,” he says. “You’ll need water, food and a first aid kit. But start with a family disaster plan and essential medications.”

Know how to get out of a room if fire is blocking you. Everyone should know at least two ways out of a room in case one escape is cut off by smoke or fire.

Know where to meet up after you escape. Figure out a designated meeting place outside the house a safe distance away.

Practice the drill. Run a family fire drill at least twice a year.

Test the smoke alarms. Yes, you’ve installed the smoke alarms, but be sure to test them at least twice a year.

How will you find your family?

From their first-hand experience with disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast 10 years ago, Red Cross experts have another tip that’s often neglected: Plan how to find your loved ones after a disaster.

“As I talked to people after Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst things I heard was families who were separated for weeks and had no idea if their family members were alive,” says Paulsen. "It was heartbreaking."

What was most crucial to disaster victims, he found, was connecting with family and friends.

“Think about how to get in touch with every member of your family after an emergency,” he says. The American Red Cross now maintains a Safe and Well website to let family and friends know you are okay (and vice versa).

If there’s no Internet access, call 1-800-RED CROSS and select the prompt for "Disaster" to register yourself and your family, Paulsen says. This way, you won’t have to wait weeks to find your loved ones.

Related: In Case of Emergency: How Will You Get Your Loved One to Safety?

1 million relief items, 7 million downloads of disaster prep apps

Red Cross volunteer Melody Belloff wraps up a 4-year-old to keep her warm in a Red Cross shelter where she and her family are staying after fleeing a wildfire in Wickenburg, Arizona on July 4, 2013.Arizona Red Cross volunteer Melody Belloff wraps up a 4-year-old to keep her warm in a Red Cross shelter where she and her family are staying after fleeing a wildfire. (Photo: Courtesy of Colston Moore/American Red Cross)

In a given year, in addition to providing shelter, meals and medical help, the Red Cross may distribute 1 million relief items, including 33,700 toothbrushes. What’s new for the 134-year-old organization, founded by nurse Clara Barton back in 1881? Among other things, it has enlisted Disney to help teach children how to prepare for a disaster. It also offers a dozen downloadable emergency apps for your smart phone, covering everything from floods and first aid technique to tornado warnings. There’s even Monster Guard, the organization’s first app designed for kids. Presented in the form of a game, Monster Guard instructs children how to be ready for an emergency.

The all-inclusive Emergency App delivers more than 35 emergency alerts as well as safety tips on what to do when confronted by floods, thunderstorms, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires and other disasters.

“We’ve had over 7 million downloads of our apps,” Paulsen says, adding that the response far exceeded his expectations. “People don’t tend to pay attention until the disaster is right on them, and no one is going to carry a checklist around in their pocket. But with these apps on smartphones, you’ve got information at your fingertips when you need it. You don’t even need cell service for it to work.”

Related: 5 Emergency Apps Everyone Should Have on Their Phone

Lean on me

After nearly 26 years with the Red Cross, Paulsen says he can think of no other work that would bring greater satisfaction than helping people get through these crises and carry on.

Paulsen never planned to go into disaster work, but the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake in northern California changed his mind. He was living in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 when the earthquake struck, collapsing the Bay Bridge, pancaking double-decker freeways and killing 63 people and injuring nearly 3,800 others.

“I wanted to do something to help out, so I joined the Red Cross,” Paulsen says. "We’re trying to save lives in advance of a disaster and help people move forward after a disaster. I can't think of anything I'd rather do."

Related: Need Post-Disaster Home Repair? Avoid Contractor Fraud

Steve Evans, MA, is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years experience in daily news, investigative, health and business journalism. Among other jobs, he has served as managing editor of the Central Virginia Newspaper Group, as a senior writer for SNL Financial and as a staff writer for The Progress Index and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.