3 Shortcuts to Preparing for a Natural Disaster

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Do you floss every night? The American Dental Association says you should. Do you check your tire pressure every month? The federal government recommends you do.

If you didn’t answer “yes” to those questions, it’s also possible you haven’t followed all the rules for preparing for a natural disaster. (You can find them at Ready.gov, a helpful website from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

And, with the lack of hurricane activity off the U.S. coast so far this year, you’ve probably let down your guard — despite the fact that Mexico has been clobbered and that the Atlantic hurricane season doesn’t end until Nov. 30.

I’ve neglected proper preparation too. With that in mind, here are some shortcuts I take to prepare for disasters. I’m not suggesting you listen to me instead of FEMA, but I am recommending you listen to me over doing nothing at all.

1. Don’t buy bottled water – save bottles instead

What you’re supposed to do: I’ve survived storms that resulted in no drinkable water for a week. The experts advise stocking up on bottled water and also filling up your bathtub, which can be used not only for drinking but also washing and even flushing the toilets.

My shortcut: In my garage, tossed in a corner, are empty plastic juice bottles. Mott’s. Ocean Spray. Juicy Juice. Oh, and I have bottled water from three years ago. I’m certainly not going to drink that, but the bottles are still good. If they don’t leak, I know they’re good enough for me to lather up and rinse out whenever a storm threatens. So why rush out to buy water when I can simply fill up old bottles I already have?

What you shouldn’t do: Don’t drink water from your tap if a storm knocks the power out and floods your area – even if your neighborhood is fine. What really matters is your city or county’s pumping stations. If they get flooded, your water can be contaminated. If possible, check with your local government’s website or recorded message (many of them do this after a disaster). Also listen to local radio and TV stations for updates.

2. Think outside the box

What you’re supposed to do: FEMA suggests keeping “important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container.” Money Talks News also suggests using online backup services.

My shortcut: All of my important papers reside in two places: a folder in a file cabinet in my home office, and as pictures I shot on my iPhone and keep on a flash drive stashed in that same folder. If a storm approaches, I’m uploading those images to my free SkyDrive account and keeping that drive in my pocket.

What you shouldn’t do: Some insurance companies suggest keeping important documents in a safe deposit box. But that can hurt you in three different ways. First, the bank might not be open after the storm, when you need to grab those documents for insurance or other reasons. Second, banks can flood just like other buildings. And third, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. warns, “The contents of a safe deposit box are not insured by the FDIC.”

3. Embrace high and low tech

What you’re supposed to do: Who doesn’t know you’re supposed to keep a flashlight and extra batteries handy? But who knows where their flashlight is, if they even have one? Ready.gov also suggests you have a “battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio [receiver].”

My shortcut: I started using rechargeable batteries not just for the savings but also as disaster preparedness – because I don’t feel like rushing out at the last minute and waiting in long lines to buy the other kind. I also gave up on buying flashlights, which always get lost. Instead, I bought tap lights, which are cheaper, light a bigger space, and are easier to locate because they’re bigger. My wife and I also own cheap AM-FM Walkman knockoffs. They’re perfect for gym workouts when you don’t want to sweat on your smartphone, and they last forever.

What you shouldn’t do: Forget to check the flashlight along with the batteries. Don’t just buy new batteries. Put them in the flashlight and make sure the thing works.

Bonus tip: Keep a pen and paper handy

As a reporter covering natural disasters, sometimes I was asked questions. The most common was, “Can I borrow your pen and a piece of paper?” You’d be surprised how valuable those two items are, especially when you’re trying to save your smartphone battery and don’t want to turn it on just to take down a number or jot down a note.

So remember to pack them in your emergency kit – because even the ones for sale, like this $120 disaster backpack, have forgotten to do it.