As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is threatening much of the U.S. But even if it doesn't affect you, another disaster might threaten your health and your life some day.
If an emergency causes your home to lose its electrical power, phone service, and safe tap water, what can you do? What if the emergency has also rendered your local roads impassable due to downed power lines and trees?
One key is preparing for a disaster in advance. Your survival may depend on it. One step in this preparation is assembling an emergency kit.
What to Include in Your Emergency Kit
Keeping a supply of essential items on hand in an easily accessible place is important.
For reasons I detail in the next section, I recommend keeping at least a three week supply of basic necessities. Two key things to include are water and food.
Water: I normally keep about seven 24 packs of ½ liter containers of bottled water on hand and replace it about every two years (the recommended shelf life on the bottles). That water could last me three weeks if I use about one gallon per day. I am single and live alone. Add additional quantities if your household contains more than one person.
Do you think you lack adequate space for this? If so, you are probably wrong. If I can fit it in my studio efficiency apartment of less than 300 square feet, I think most other residents (in the United States at least) can, too.
Food: unless you have alternative means to cook food (and wash utensils) when your electrical power and natural gas and water are off, I urge you to stock only prepared food and disposable eating utensils. This means foods like canned vegetables, canned and dried fruits, nuts, dry cereals that are ready to eat, crackers, etc.
Others items to include in your survival kits are flashlights, a battery-powered radio, batteries, a First Aid Kit, any medications you need, and suitable clothing. For a more complete list, I recommend consulting a U.S. government website, Ready.gov1, which provides a list of items to keep on hand in a “basic disaster supplies kit.” You may desire additional items not on their list, too, for your personal situation. Ready.gov and the FEMA 2 website both provide many additional resources related to disaster preparedness.
Keep at Least a Three Week Supply of Essentials
Both federal government websites above recommend keeping at least three days’ supply of water, food, and other items. However, I recommend a three week supply (or more) of food, water, medicine, and all the other essentials mentioned on the government websites that apply to your particular situation.
Why so much? If a major disaster occurs, it may take a few weeks for help to arrive. Even after a winter storm hits in a city in the United States, it frequently takes a week or more to restore electrical power to everyone. For example, in Lexington, Kentucky where I live, a February 2003 ice storm left about 2/3 of the city without electrical power, many for days, some for more than a week.
And in response to that 2003 Lexington winter storm, numerous utility-line repair people from states far away from Kentucky assisted because their states were not affected. Also, the stores, homes, and other businesses in about 1/3 of Lexington were not affected much. What if the outages had been more widespread?
If a major winter storm, earthquake, flood, or other disaster knocked out electrical power to much of the United States, there are not enough electrical line repair people to repair all those downed lines in a few days – or even a few weeks in a very severe case. Depending on the type of disaster, roads may be damaged, trees may be down, hazardous chemicals may be in the area, and all utilities (water, electricity, gas, phone service, etc.) may be cut off. Please prepare to shelter in your home for at least three weeks in case of an emergency. Board up windows if high winds are expected, such as from a hurricane.
If you haven’t read the lists on the government websites above, I urge you to do so. Even if you’ve read a list before, do you remember it, and do you have it stocked? Most of the items on the lists are good for a wide variety of emergencies, not just common ones like a winter storm, flood, hurricane, or earthquake.
Carbon Monoxide Detectors and Generators
Buy a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector. Several have died from carbon monoxide poisoning due to improper use of alternative heating sources such as generators, charcoal grills, kerosene heaters, gas heaters, etc.
Remember diesel-powered and gas-powered generators (as well as charcoal grills) must operate outside your residence. If you are fortunate enough to have a generator and fuel for it, please place it outside and ventilate it away from all dwellings. The U.S. Fire Administration website3 is one of many sources that provide more details on the safe use of generators.
Please don’t underestimate the danger of generators. Here in Lexington, Kentucky radio station WVLK reported some years ago about one family that was smart enough to put their generator outside and vent it away from their home -- but they vented it toward a neighbor’s house. Fortunately, the neighbors felt ill effects and got medical attention. They lived. But, a spokesperson for the Lexington Fire Department stated that the carbon monoxide level in their home was several times the fatal limit, according to the WVLK news report.
Alternative Heating Source and Alternative Communications Methods
Try to have an alternative heating source that requires neither electricity nor natural gas, especially if you live in an isolated, rural area where a shelter is not available in case of a winter emergency. A wood stove, coal stove, oil stove, kerosene heater, fireplace, etc., can work.
If all else fails, putting everyone in one small room that is isolated from other areas and lighting a couple of oil lamps and candles will generate some heat. But, please be careful with fire. Provide at least a little ventilation to avoid either carbon monoxide poisoning or lack of oxygen due to the oil lamps and candles. And take steps to prevent a fire hazard. Standard safety procedures – but does anyone always follow all safety procedures? If we did, many accidents would be prevented. Bundle up in several layers of clothing to hold in warmth, too. Use blankets, sleeping bags, etc.
Try to plan in advance for some way to communicate with others without using a land-line phone, cell phone, Internet, car, etc. Perhaps a satellite phone will be available nearby in an emergency center. An amateur radio operator may also be nearby. But, even if such resources exist, you must be able to contact them. Downed power lines, felled trees, flooded streams, chemical fumes, and newly opened holes in the Earth (in the case of an earthquake), may all impede your movement. The types of problems depend on the specific disasters.
In addition to being prepared to shelter in your own home, be prepared to evacuate if necessary. Keep the most essential items of your emergency supply handy in backpacks, the trunk of your car, or ready to put on your bicycle rack with short notice. Pack appropriate clothes. A three day supply (or less) may be all you can manage under these circumstances, especially if you must walk carrying the load.
If authorities urge you to evacuate due to imminent flooding or some other disaster, be ready and willing to do so when necessary. Keep your emergency kit packed and ready to go. If you wait, you may face enormous traffic jams and gas stations out of fuel – as New Orleans residents did with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Your evacuation plans need to consider various transportation methods. If airports, trains, and roads are so damaged (or overcrowded) that you can’t use them to evacuate, you may need to carry your emergency kit a long distance on a bicycle rack while bicycling -- or in a backpack while walking.
Be willing to bicycle or walk if necessary, as long as your physical condition allows it. If those who are physically fit leave on their own, it will free up emergency response personnel and equipment for the truly needy, such as the elderly and disabled living alone.
I own a bicycle with a metal rack on the back and a few backpacks. I keep two backpacks stocked with emergency supplies that I try to rotate once or twice a year. I hope I never encounter a major disaster, but if I ever do these resources may be very useful.
I hope what I’ve written helps you prepare for a winter storm or other emergency if you face one. Please consider doing further research on this topic, too. For example, additional advance planning is especially necessary for disasters like chemical spills and biological disasters that may require you to seal yourself in an airtight room.
You can find lots of helpful emergency preparedness resources online, in bookstores, at the library, via phone, etc. -- if you plan in advance. Just the two websites I cited earlier in this article, Ready.gov and FEMA, contain a wealth of additional disaster preparedness information.
Lots of helpful information is available -- if you plan in advance. Please do plan ahead for a possible disaster!
1 Ready.gov; “Basic Disaster Supplies Kit;” Ready.gov; (Website accessed October 28, 2012)
2FEMA; FEMA.gov; Federal Emergency Management Agency (Website accessed October 28, 2012)
3U.S. Fire Administration; “Portable Generator Hazards: Portable Generator Safety”; U.S. Fire Administration, FEMA.gov; (Last reviewed October 25, 2012 (Website accessed October 28, 2012)
NOTE: This article is very similar to an article the author published on another website last year. That article was adapted from an article titled "Preparing to Survive a Winter Storm (or Other Emergency)" that the author posted on Newsvine on February 4, 2009.