Not to be too alarmist, but no matter where you live, there’s a natural disaster waiting to happen. In Seattle, we worry about earthquakes and even a little bit about volcanoes. (There are still people selling Mount St. Helen’s ash.)
Upheavals nationwide this year have included epic flooding in Texas, historic wildfires in the West. Tornadoes in the heartland and likely coming soon to the South, Hurricane Erika. Fact is, wherever you call home, the slightest shrug of Mother Nature’s shoulders can throw your city, neighborhood or entire region into chaos.
You can’t prevent a disaster, but you can take steps that will help you navigate the mayhem that ensues. Here are some key steps to take now, including how to assemble an emergency kit, that can make a big difference for you and your family in a crisis.
1. Gather your important records
One often overlooked item in disaster planning is financial records and other key documents such as birth certificates and the title to your car. It would make sense to have a contact list with important phone numbers — your insurance company, your bank and your doctor — for instance.
Be sure to have two copies. One copy can be stored in a watertight container that you can easily grab from your house. The other one should be kept elsewhere in the event that the house is destroyed or unsafe. You could store them in the cloud, or send them to a relative or trusted friend who lives in a different state, in case a large region is affected.
It’s hard trying to rebuild your life after major losses, but this step will at least make it simpler to get started. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides a financial preparedness checklist here to help you make sure you have the essential items stored.
2. Have a plan
What if this hypothetical disaster strikes in the middle of the day? Both spouses are at work — in different places, most likely — and the kids are at school. You need to have an idea of where to connect. The family residence is an obvious first choice, but in many disasters, that’s just not viable.
Make sure you have a backup location. Local governments have designated areas for shelters, often places like city halls, schools or community centers, these can be good choices and are the sort of place that should be on your radar screen anyway. It would not hurt to have an alternative backup location, one that everyone knows about and knows how to get to.
Don’t rely on using your cellphones to keep in touch. When disaster strikes, networks tend to be overwhelmed as everyone tries to call or text. Power outages also may disrupt the number of available cell towers. Texting uses less data than calling, so try that first. But make sure everyone knows to meet at your preset location if technology fails you.
If you have small children, make sure your caregiver, be that a long-term nanny or short-term babysitter knows the plan. Because briefing a teenage babysitter might end up scaring them off, you might just want to have instructions written down, and let them know where those written instructions are. You should also familiarize yourself with plans at your child’s school. It would be a very unusual school that would send the children out unsupervised after a disaster, but you should know what the school plans to do, and how you might communicate with them.
3. Build and maintain an emergency kit
So you’ve gone through planning for your finances and the mental exercise of knowing how your family will reconnect. Now it’s time for some of the more physical work, building a kit.
The federal government suggests you have a kit prepared that will see you through three days without assistance. Depending on where you live, that may not be enough. In rural areas, with less dense populations it may take longer for government resources to get on the scene. Or you could just live in a place with a somewhat unprepared government (looking at you, pre-Katrina New Orleans) and find yourself on your own for longer.