3 Steps to Prepare Your Family for a Disaster

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Home destroyed by hurricane
Mishella / Shutterstock.com

No matter where you live, there’s a natural disaster waiting to happen. Tragically, residents of the Texas Gulf Coast region are learning that lesson all over again this week.

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 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 can 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 easier to get started. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides a financial preparedness checklist to help you identify essential items that should be 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. However, 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 baby sitter — knows the plan. Have instructions written down, and let the caregiver know where those written instructions are located. Familiarize yourself with plans at your child’s school. In the event of a disaster, know what the school plans to do, and how you might communicate with staff there.

3. Build and maintain an emergency 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.Before you put the kit together, remember, it will need to be refreshed. Water and food can go stale, and batteries can die even if they’re not used. Every few months, refresh the kit. No need to waste the food. Just pull it out of the kit and put it in the cupboard as you restock with fresh supplies.

One system for making sure the task isn’t forgotten is to restock whenever we spring forward or fall back for daylight saving time. Here are the bare essentials for your kit:

  • Water: Disasters can foul public water supplies, and power outages can mean private wells may not work. Guidelines call for 1 gallon of drinking water per day per person. Volume-wise, this can add up quickly. A family of four would need 12 gallons for three days.
  • Food: Again, you’ll want a three-day supply for everyone in the family. It might be obvious, but you want nonperishable items. Canned goods (don’t forget a can opener), dried meats, dried fruit, etc. Try to avoid salty foods or things that might make you thirsty. Make sure the foods you store don’t require water — you’ll want that for drinking. Bear in mind you may not have electricity or gas, so these should be things you don’t need to cook.
  • Medications: If you take medications, make sure to have an extra supply. Just like food, these can go stale. So, be sure to rotate them out.
  • Pet food: Your pet will be in this with you, and will need food and water, too.
  • Battery-powered or hand-crank radio: Your local government probably has an emergency broadcast channel. Find out what it is and tune in on this radio so you can listen for news and instructions. If you have a battery-operated radio, make sure you have spare batteries. Hand-crank radios will have power as long as your arm is working.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries: Know how many batteries you’re going to need.
  • First-aid kit: Make sure you have at least the basics, such as bandages and some disinfectant. There are many first-aid kits you can buy.
  • Whistle: This simple item can be a life-saver if you need to signal for help.
  • Dust mask, etc.: You may need to filter contaminated air. You may also need plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place. These supplies can make the difference if there’s some kind of chemical or biological spill, or even an attack.
  • Personal sanitation supplies: This should include moist towelettes, toilet paper, garbage bags and plastic ties.
  • Wrench or pliers: Use these to turn off utilities. In addition to having the tools on hand, make sure you know how and where to turn off your utilities. If there’s a gas leak, it can start a fire, and the fire department will already have its hands full. If there’s a water leak, that water damage will make cleanup that much harder.
  • Manual can opener: Don’t be the person holding a can of beans that you can’t open.
  • Local maps: Remember, your smartphone may not be working. A map can help you find alternatives if roads are blocked.
  • Cellphone with chargers, inverter or solar charger: I’ve been saying you won’t be able to count on your phone, and you won’t. But it might work — or it will eventually.

Your personal circumstance may also dictate additional items you will need, such as baby food and diapers, or climate-appropriate gear such as heavy sleeping bags if you live someplace that gets cold.

Check out the federal government’s Ready.gov website for more details and suggestions.

What are you doing to prepare for a disaster like Harvey? Let us know by commenting below or on our Facebook page.

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