09/13/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

It's Up to Us to Be Ready When Disasters Strike

When I served as the CEO of the Florida Governor's Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, eight hurricanes -- including Rita and Katrina -- struck the state during a particularly rough period from 2004 to 2005. While the storms caused billions of dollars in damage, they really highlighted the importance of emergency preparedness and the responsibility we all have to be ready when disasters happen.

All of us have the power to make a difference in times of emergency. I remember seeing those storms rumble through Florida and being amazed as we were able to coordinate more than 250,000 volunteers to help with recovery efforts. Without this ready-and-willing group and their leaders trained in disaster preparedness, our work would have been much harder.

September is National Preparedness Month, and we have many members and volunteers at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) who are experts in disaster preparedness and have instructed thousands of men, women and children about how to react in time of emergency.

During the next year, CNCS will be working with FEMA to highlight America's PrepareAthon!, an effort to encourage communities to raise awareness about emergency concerns in their areas and create specific drills and exercises to increase readiness. We may not be able to plan for the unexpected, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't prepare for disasters that may come our way.

At CNCS, our programs are working with local leaders to engage citizens in a number of ways. We have AmeriCorps NCCC members in Maryland who provide emergency preparedness presentations during summer camps. FEMA Corps members are working in Massachusetts to help FEMA develop a program to increase public awareness of how to respond in the event of terrorist attacks.

Senior Corps RSVP volunteers support more than 700 people in Colorado who are educating local seniors about how they should react in emergency situations. And we have more than 100 new AmeriCorps members working with the American Red Cross in the National Preparedness & Response Corps who will improve disaster preparedness at 21 chapters across the nation.

These efforts are just a few examples of the most important resource in preparedness -- people. After all, when these incidents occur, you could be a "first responder" for someone you know.

We want everyone to make preparedness a priority this month. Here are some steps you can take now to get ready to help.

Make sure you're ready first: Before you decide to help others, make sure your family is prepared first. The list of things you need to get stated with your personal preparedness project can be found at FEMA's Ready website. Some of the basics include a three-day supply of non-perishable food and water for each person, a can opener, flashlights, a battery-powered or hand-crank radio, extra batteries, tools to turn off utilities and first aid supplies.

And one more thing -- every family should have an emergency communications plan detailing how to reach each other to let everyone know they're okay. In the immediate period after an emergency, people trying to reach friends and family can overwhelm the telephone networks and prevent calls from going through.

Cellular data or internet connections may be easier to access, so plan to leave messages through social media sites like Facebook or Twitter to provide status updates when phone lines are congested.

Become your "brother's keeper": Many of us are on top of what we need to do to be prepared for emergencies, but you probably know someone who may not have the resources to do the same.

Keep those less fortunate than yourself in mind during times of disaster. Identify those who could use your help preparing for emergencies -- especially your elderly or disabled neighbors -- and work with them to get important papers, prescriptions or medical equipment in order, and assemble emergency supply kits.

Help relief organizations now: This year's hurricane season has been calm so far, but we are far from being safe from these powerful storms. As we all remember, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc along the East Coast near the end of the season last October, and 2004's first-named storm did not form until August.

We're seeing more hurricanes and flooding in the U.S., and I can tell you from personal experience that resources are always stretched to the limit for the charities that provide relief services. Consider making a donation now to a disaster relief group that you trust. Don't wait until something big happens.

Connect with a relief group: Disaster preparedness training isn't just for emergency responders -- we all need to be ready to help in times of trouble. Connect with your local American Red Cross chapter or the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster to get training and be prepared. They can always use some extra helping hands.

No matter how many people we train, the real responsibility for being prepared for emergencies falls on you and your neighbors. Let's all get ready to help now, before the next disaster strikes.

Wendy Spencer is CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, the Social Innovation Fund, and other service programs. Spencer is also co-chair of the Task Force on Expanding National Service along with Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.