Saturday, January 16, 2010

Emergency Preparedness

The earthquake in Haiti has reminded me of a post I've wanted to make for a while now, about Emergency Preparedness.

Are you ready for an emergency if one happened in your own community?

Do you have at least a 72-hour kit, with:
  • Drinkable water (lots!) and a way to purify more water
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
  • Flashlight and extra batteries (or alternate power)
  • Food and a manual can opener
  • First Aid Kit
  • Plastic Sheeting and Duct Tape to help shelter in place if needed
  • Garbage Bags, ties, TP, moist towelettes for personal sanitation
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities if needed
  • Whistles to signal for help
  • Utility knife
  • Dust Mask or bandanna to help filter contaminated air (dust etc.)
  • Local maps to help find shelters or to help evacuate if needed
  • Cell phone with alternate ways to charge it
Probably the most important thing on the list is water. It's the thing you can do without the least, and it's often the thing in shortest supply in an emergency. Even in a flood with water everywhere, the water may not be potable (i.e. drinkable); you need a way to have or get drinkable water.

Sadly, I think this is the item people are least prepared for in an emergency. I think it's best to have a combination of stored potable water and a way to purify water so it can be drinkable. And remember, you have to swap out the stored water every so often and put in a fresh supply.

Really, a 72-hour kit is not much; it's better to have 1-2 weeks' worth of preparation or more. But a 72-hour kit (3 days) is the minimum you should have. And it's surprising how many people don't even have that.

Other Items To Consider

If you already have the basics, start adding "extras"---the things that might come in handy, even beyond the basics. For example, a fire extinguisher, matches in a waterproof container, and ways to keep warm and/or dry (tarps, coats, sleeping bags, rain ponchos or garbage bags, blankets) seem like a no-brainer to me.

I think it's also important to have dependable access to sturdy shoes, gloves, a headlamp, and tools, in case you have to dig through wreckage. Extra cash on hand might also become useful in an extended emergency, as things can become pricey in an emergency.

Some people think it's helpful to have a "grab-and-go" kit in case you need to evacuate your area very quickly. This should be in a container like a sealable plastic tote, a duffel bag, camping backpack, or even a sealable trash can, ready to go in an easily accessible place. Or you can have a small emergency backpack for every member of the family (with snacks, flashlight, small comfort item, and a change of clothing), plus a tote for family needs (sanitation supplies, more food, water purification tablets, flashlight, radio, etc.). An updated family picture in a plastic baggie is a good idea in case anyone goes missing.

You should also have a mini-emergency kit in your car at all times in case you get stuck somewhere or have to evacuate without access to home....simple things like water, some non-perishable food, flashlight, first-aid supplies, a blanket, seasonal supplies, flares, jumper cables, etc.

If you really want to be prepared, experts recommend copies of insurance information, deeds, important phone numbers, credit card information, photo ID, bank account numbers, birth certificates, health insurance etc. in a safe place in a waterproof container. If your home is badly damaged, you may not be able to get to documentation needed in order to expedite insurance or emergency paperwork. Extra copies in a safety deposit bank are a good idea. If you can afford it, a fire safe in your home is also a good additional precaution.

Specialty Items

Beyond the basic items for emergency kits, consider whether there are any special needs that may need accommodation.

For example, for people of size, I think it's really important to have a change of clothes or two handy (as well as a warm coat or rain poncho) because emergency resources are not likely to have extra clothing in our sizes and stores will probably be closed. If you become injured, wet, cold, or have to be away from home for an extended time, extra clothes in the proper size might be really helpful.

If you are a parent, it's important to have items to address the special needs of your kids. Breastfeeding is a huge advantage during an emergency because clean water is often a problem, you can easily run out of formula, and of course breastfeeding provides important immunological protection that formula does most of the time, breastfeeding mothers are in a far better position to provide for babies during an emergency. However, you do have to remember that mama might be injured or killed in an emergency (or might get stuck far away from home) and so a small emergency supply of ready-made formula might be a reasonable precaution, even for breastfeeding families.

(I had some frozen breastmilk on hand as our primary back-up. Of course, if the electricity failed for long, that pumped milk would not have lasted very long, so we did keep some ready-to-go formula on hand in case of emergencies.)

You might also need to plan for other members of the family with special needs, like older family members or those with mobility concerns, etc. Pets take special planning too.

But first, get the basics down. You can fill in the special items later.

Everyone Should Plan, No Matter Where They Live

Years ago, I lived near an area that had a bad earthquake. I was not close enough to be really affected, but I saw the first-hand news reports on the devastation and everything that happened afterwards. I also had friends who were first-responders to the area and heard stories from them about it. That experience made a deep impression on me.

I also had a wildfire nearly destroy my home once. It started unexpectedly and quickly spread to within about a half-mile of my house before it was put out. We had our animals in crates and had thrown a few emergency things into the car, but by and large we were not prepared for such a quick evacuation. That brought home the value of a grab-and-go kit.

So perhaps you can understand why I'm a little more aware of emergency preparation than most people. That doesn't mean I'm perfect at it, but I do seem to have more preparation than most.

It amazes me how many people do not even have a 72-hour kit with the very basics of emergency preparedness in it......even people who live in areas that are very likely to experience emergencies. Why is that?

I know, I know. Denial is a very potent force that keeps people from becoming as prepared as they should be, and procrastination (my specialty) is a close second. Finances can be another barrier. Plus we are all just busy people and it's not easy to find the time to get all this stuff organized.

But think about it -- there is not one place on this earth that is not prone towards some kind of emergency. Think about what kind of emergencies are most likely in your area (blizzards, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, wildfires, etc.) and start taking steps towards the emergency preparedness that would be most useful in the types of emergencies you'd be most likely to experience. That's the place to start.

Of course, the sad fact is that perfect preparedness is a dream. We cannot prepare for everything. Unexpected things can happen, and we may not be perfectly prepared for every type of emergency that could ever happen. And sometimes, even when we are prepared, our kits are destroyed or become inaccessible somehow. Preparing won't guarantee survival. But it does make it more likely.

Remember, in the first few days after a major disaster, essential services are often not available. It may take days or even weeks for the authorities to be able to get help to you. You have to be ready to act on your own.

Getting Started

Preparing emergency kits can seem overwhelming in terms of organization, finances, time or just plain fear. (Even I don't have all of these supplies yet, and what I do have is certainly not optimally organized.) Sometimes the task just seems too overwhelming to do, too scary, too costly, or too much work.

That's okay. The key is baby steps. Take a deep breath and start putting together things for your kit, little by little. And start right now.

Start by evaluating what you have, list what needs to be added or updated, and then decide what items to add to your shopping list for your next trip out. Decide where the best place is to store your kit, and start gathering things together and putting them in a container there. (It doesn't have to be the perfect container; just get a collection started for now.)

If finances are a barrier, prioritize your list and shop secondhand. Instead of trying to buy everything at once, buy one or two items for your kit every few months so the cost is more spread out. Think of building your kit as a long-term project --- starting with the most important stuff, like making arrangments for storing and purifying water.

Make your time commitments in small blocks too. Next weekend, organize something---a grab-and-go bag, your emergency car supplies, refresh your emergency water supplies, update your sanitation supplies---just tick one item off your to-do list. Then schedule another couple of hours in another week or two to work on another aspect of your kit. Or, if procrastination is your issue, schedule bigger chunks of time and get the rest of the family involved so you have more momentum for getting things done.

Little by little, you'll get a handle on things. Just start whittling away at preparedness, one baby step at a time. Anything is better than nothing, and if you add a bit at a time, eventually you will have a more complete kit. Think of it as an ongoing project and remember to update it too.

But the first step is to get a 72-hour kit going. Here are some links to help you plan.

What's in YOUR emergency kit? Feel free to chime in with your favorite emergency preparedness hint, website link or book on emergency preparedness, other items that should be in emergency kits, things to talk about with family ahead of time, etc.


Laureen said...

Because we live on a boat, ditch bags are a critical part of boat supplies, and because we have three kids on the boat, more advance planning goes in than for most ditch bags. Also, since boats do passages, figuring out how to keep everyone fed for weeks at a time where there is no grocery is an additional trick.

I am flabbergasted at the number of land dwellers who have no preparations at all. The area where I live, the San Francisco Bay, is due and overdue for a big earthquake, and the local CERT training tells folks that if anything over a magnitude 7 hits, we will be without services (read: groceries) for 3-4 weeks, easy. Yet they tell people to be prepared for the scant minimum, 72 hours, as if that was enough, when they *know* it isn't going to be.

I spend a stupid amount of time begging people to learn how to collect water from their environment (whether that's a solar still, dew and rain cachement, or purification of a ground source), and to just buy a 25-pound bag of rice. Totally simple, could be done in less than a day, for super-cheap.

I also wanted to recommend Freecycle... it's a great source of all kinds of preparedness gear. Seriously.

Tami said...

Excellent post! I'm a big fan of preparedness and could feed my family in my home without extra groceries for a couple of months. Came in handy when my husband was laid off for several months! But I do need to revisit my 72-hour kits. I'm in the DC area, and we figure there's a possibility of being evacuated due to terrorist attacks, so we feel like we need to be able to just grab the family and go, within minutes, no time to stop and gather supplies (because traffic is insane, so if there's an emergency you really want to get on the road sooner than later). I used to have great 72 hour kits, but it's been a while since I updated the food and clothing, and my family has grown in number in the meantime... Anyway, thanks for the helpful information!

John said...

You've covered the basics pretty well in your post. I appreciate Laureen's comments, too. May your readers take heed.