By: Wendy Paris
Preparing a home emergency preparedness kit you hope never to use may seem like a waste of time and money. But when disasters happen that are beyond your control, you can take charge of how you respond. “What became clear in Hurricane Katrina is that in big events, the government isn’t going to come to your aid right away. You have to be prepared to take care of yourself,” says Rick Bissell, PhD, a professor of emergency health services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. According to a 2008 FEMA survey, more than half of all U.S. households have some sort of disaster preparation in place. If yours isn’t one of them, here’s what you need to do.
First, make sure important papers are in order
If a flood destroys your home, you could spend weeks or even months just trying to re-create the essential documents you’ll need to get back on track. That’s why it’s critical to have backups of important papers, including the deed to your house, proof of insurance, medical records, passports, social security cards, and a list of personal contacts. Keep one copy at home in a portable case and another offsite in a safe place. And while you’re at it, use the opportunity to check whether your insurance is up to date. “People often don’t know what their homeowners’ insurance policy covers, and most don’t cover flooding,” points out Bissell. Find out what hazards your area faces, and make sure you’re protected against them.
Tailor a preparedness kit to your personal needs
Humanitarian organizations and government aid agencies offer guidelines for creating an emergency preparedness kit. But along with the basics like food and water, it’s important to have what you need for your particular situation. You may not need extra blankets in southern California, but you do need escape ladders in case of wildfire. And you’ll want extra extra blankets to survive a winter power outage in Maine.
Think about what you need for the safety of your house, too. Knowing where to find the main electrical and water shutoffs—and having the right wrench to turn them—can make the difference between a house that weathers the storm and one that experiences catastrophic flooding or fire.
A basic emergency preparedness kit
FEMA recommends you keep a “grab and go” bag with these items in case you need to evacuate:
Water: One gallon per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation; double if you live in a very hot climate, have young kids, or are nursing. Bottled water is best, but you can also store tap water in food-grade containers or two-liter soda bottles that have been sanitized. Factor in your pet’s water needs, too.
Food: At least a three-day supply of nonperishables and a can opener. Pack protein, fruit, and vegetables, but make sure they’re in a form you actually like—it’s bad enough not to have access to fresh food without also having to subsist on nothing but canned tuna. Include treats like cereal bars, trail mix, and Tootsie Rolls. Store food in pest-proof plastic or metal tubs and keep it in a cool, dry place.
Flashlights and extra batteries: “Candles are not recommended because there are many house fires caused by candles left unattended,” says David Riedman, a public affairs officer with FEMA.
First-aid supplies: Two pairs of sterile gloves, adhesive bandages and sterile dressings, soap or other cleanser, antibiotic towelettes and ointment, burn ointment, eye wash, thermometer, scissors, tweezers, petroleum jelly, aspirin or non-aspirin pain reliever, and stomach analgesics such as Tums, Pepto-Bismol, and a laxative. (All those Tootsie Rolls can be hard to digest.)
Sanitation and hygiene supplies: Moist towelettes, paper towels, toilet paper, garbage bags, and plastic ties. You might also want travel-size shampoo, toothpaste/toothbrush, and deodorant.
Radio or TV: Keep a portable, battery- or crank-operated radio or television and extra batteries to remain connected in case the power goes out, as well as an extra cell phone charger. You can buy a good emergency radio online from the Red Cross.
Plastic sheeting, duct tape, and dust masks: In case you need to seal your home or shelter from airborne contaminants.
Extra items: A whistle to signal for help, a favorite toy or other comfort items for kids.
Update your kit as your needs change, and replace food and water approaching its expiration date. You might pick a specific time each year to check, such as before hurricane season in the south or after Thanksgiving if you live in the north.