|Image from FEMA, via Wikimedia Commons|
As part of our occasional series on emergency preparedness for families, we have discussed various possible emergencies and what we can do to meet them more proactively.
First we discussed fire safety for families, and the need for storing extra water for emergencies, one of the most neglected yet most important steps for preparedness. We also discussed how to prepare for a power outage, including how to have light and how to stay warm when there's no power.
Now let's talk about preparing emergency kits for your family.
Planning an Emergency Kit
Before you do anything else, analyze the potential emergencies in your area.*
Do you live in an earthquake zone, near a dam, in Tornado Alley, or in a hurricane- or wildfire-prone area? Are you near a chemical manufacturing plant, or near a rail line or highway that's a thoroughfare for dangerous chemicals? Do you live in a flood plain? Does your area regularly get significant winter storms?
Whatever your potential disaster is dictates what needs to be in your emergency kit and where your kits need to be stored.
Emergency kits can present special challenges to families and to people of size, but there are things you can do to help prepare for this.
Mini-Escape Kit Under the Bed
Having a mini-escape kit under the bed can be a lifesaver, especially for those who live in earthquake- or tornado-prone zones.
Stepping on broken glass as you exit is a major cause of injuries in these situations. Keeping an old pair of shoes under the bed can prevent a lot of these injuries. Inside the shoes, keep a pair of warm socks (preferably wool, as they insulate even when wet, unlike cotton).
Inside the shoes, also keep a headlamp for hands-free light to help you make your way out of the building. (Check the batteries periodically.) You may need your hands for crawling along the floor, moving debris out of the way, holding a child, etc., so having hands-free light via a headlamp is really far more useful than a hand-held flashlight.
Also keep an emergency whistle inside your shoes or nearby. If debris traps you, a whistle can help your family or emergency personnel find you much more quickly, and is far more reliable (and long-lasting) than your voice.
Other good ideas include a pair of work gloves (to help move any sharp or broken objects in your way), and an extra pair of keys to your vehicles (so you can move them out of harm's way, access supplies in them, or have temporary shelter out of the weather in them).
All these things can be kept in the shoes so they don't take up much space or get lost. Keep them right underneath your bed, near its head so they are quickly within reach.
A lightweight but warm jacket, fleece, sweater or robe near the bed is also a good idea in most areas.
Car Emergency Kit
A mini-emergency kit in your car is another good idea. Floods, snowstorms, and landslides can all cause you to get stuck in your car, or you can be stranded far from home after other disasters. A car kit may be your only access to emergency supplies for a while, so it's good to have a few things stashed away there, just in case.
Always keep extra drinking water in your car, some emergency food, blankets for warmth, and light sources (flashlights, headlamps, or light sticks). Since you can't store all that much water in a vehicle, a way to filter and purify extra water for drinking is also a good idea (water filter, bleach, water purification tablets, steri-pen, etc.), or you can end up with e. coli, giardia, or other nasty bugs. My husband got giardia once; trust me, you do not want this!
A first-aid kit in your car is a must, especially with a family. Keep the usual things like band-aids, gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, gloves, alcohol wipes, hand sanitizer, and painkillers like ibuprofen/acetaminophen/aspirin, etc. but also consider things like Benadryl, sunscreen, and bug spray. You don't need a lot, just mini-versions of these items.
Jumper cables and tools for changing a tire are a must for every car. A folding shovel can be helpful if you get stuck in snow or mud. Duct tape, a pocket knife, multi-tool, rain ponchos, a warm coat, a tarp, rope or paracord, signal mirror, and extra cash are all helpful additions.
If you have young ones, consider extra diapers, a change of clothes, and plastic garbage bags. A big pack of diaper wipes is invaluable for general sanitation regardless of whether you have little ones.
Our Experience: We've always kept a first-aid kit and diaper bag in the car, but one thing we learned to add over the years was Benadryl. We've had a few incidents over the years where Benadryl would've been handy and we didn't have it (sudden cases of severe hives out in the middle of nowhere, and a bad bee-sting that caused an eye to swell shut). Now we always keep Benadryl with us, with an epi-pen as back-up, since we have children prone to allergic reactions.Bug-Out Bag, or Extra Clothing Bags Outside
There are several emergencies that might require you to leave your home suddenly without adequate preparation. These include house fires, wildfires, sudden floods, avalanches, earthquakes, tornadoes, hazardous materials accidents, etc.
A bug-out or "go" bag is another important item for families, and especially for people of size. Some emergencies mean you have to evacuate so quickly that you would not have time to pack anything. Therefore, it's helpful to have a bag for each family member (or set of family members) near the door or in the garage that you can just grab in an emergency, on your way out the door.
A bug-out bag should have a couple of changes of underwear and socks, a change of clothes, hygiene items (toilet paper, tampons, etc.), a headlamp, sunscreen/bug spray, plastic bags, prescription meds, diaper wipes, dust masks or bandannas, extra cash, some snack foods, and a mini mess kit. For warmth, include a lightweight fleece or sweater, a rain poncho, handwarmers, and hat/gloves. Paperwork should include a list of emergency contacts, a picture of your family members, and if possible, a memory stick with personal information on it (insurance information, etc.). For children, it's helpful to have a few small toys, a deck of cards, mini-notebook and crayons, or a small stuffed animal to comfort them and to keep them occupied.
Don't forget that if you have small children, you need to store things specific to their needs. Cloth diapers can be washed and reused for a long emergency, but disposables can be very handy in a short-term situation. Have a few of both. Breastfeeding is best, especially in an emergency ─ but it is good to keep a small supply of ready-made formula (no water needed) on hand in case the mother is unavailable or incapacitated. Be sure to review your children's items every year so the clothing can be updated as your children grow.
Don't forget your own special needs if you are a person of size. People of larger sizes can't just borrow clothes from others, and many stores don't carry our sizes, especially those open in an emergency. If your clothes get ripped, dirty, bloody, or thrown up on, you may not have anything else to wear in an emergency. Keeping a backpack of extra clothes and a coat in your size in your cars or in an outbuilding might make a huge difference in your quality of life during an emergency.
Overcoming the Barriers
Many people mean to prepare, but get overwhelmed and give up.
The doom and gloom tone of many preparedness websites doesn't help; many people get turned off by the extreme politics of some sites, or intimidated by the sheer volume of tasks and supplies listed on other sites. Some feel they have to prepare for every possible emergency scenario all at once, which is too overwhelming and simply not feasible. Or they never start because they feel their finances are too tight or their space too limited.
But really, ANY preparation is better than none. Start small and take baby steps as your time and budget allow.
Sadly, most families have very little emergency preparation in place. I lived in California for a number of years, near earthquake country, and I was appalled at how few people there have emergency supplies. One study showed that even after a major earthquake, less than half the people in the high-impact area most affected by the quake made any preparations for further quakes.
Clearly, there is a lot more emergency preparedness needed in our society. Often this is because of denial, apathy, fatalism, or procrastination.
"That will never happen to me" is living in denial, because there's very few places in the world where NO natural disaster ever happens. Sooner or later, something happens just about everywhere. And even in the safest place, power outages happen. For a few hours, that's an inconvenience, but for days, weeks, or months, it becomes a lot more serious as food distribution networks go belly-up, transportation systems break down, and bad weather makes life miserable.
Sooner or later in your life, some type of emergency will happen. Being prepared can help your family be more likely to survive it, or at least get through it more comfortably.
"The government will take care of me" is a poor attitude to have because the government will have thousands of people to take care of in a big emergency and may not be able to help you in a timely manner. Emergency personnel will be stretched to the limit in a crisis, so it will be important that people be able to care for themselves and their loved ones until help can arrive.
Don't depend on other people to take care of you; do what you can to prepare so you won't be so dependent on others.
"There's not point in preparing because we'll probably all be dead anyhow" is another excuse people use sometimes, but it's such a cop-out. Sure, certain types of severe emergencies are likely to have a high body count, but even very severe emergencies usually DO have survivors. Best to have supplies in place to give you or your loved ones the best chance of being one of those survivors.
And remember, chances are that most emergencies would be the more modest, survivable type. Not preparing because you are fatalistic about worst-case scenarios is short-sighted and unrealistic. Prepare for the most likely emergency in your area, not the worst-case scenario. If a worst-case scenario happens, even minimal preps will give you a leg up on survival compared to those who have no preps.
"I'm just too busy to prepare"is a more understandable excuse. There are so many other things that are important in life that preparing for an emergency can really slip down the priority list. And often other things DO need to take priority. But do a little bit of prep at a time here and there and you'd be surprised how it will add up over time. Start chipping away at that emergency to-do list a little at a time and you're better off than you were before.
This is not to say that my own emergency prep is all that fabulous. Nope, mine's still very much a work in progress because I'm always so busy and because I have a limited budget for it. But the point is that we're working on it, and we're making progress. That should be your goal too. And what better time to start than right now?
Start with Baby Steps
The key is to pick something and get started, and then continue a little bit at a time.
Identify the most pressing needs and start there. It doesn't all have to be done at once. Set a goal of doing task "x" or "y" and then work from there. The important thing is to just get something ready, and then you can add to it or edit it as needed with time.
Look at what you already have before you go out and spend money. You may just need to gather and organize what you already have. Many people have some supplies but they are scattered all over the house, or they are not sure what they do and don't have. Consolidating them in one place helps you find them more quickly when needed, and taking stock of what you already have helps avoid duplication and identifies future needs more clearly.
If your finances are limited, remember that a lot of basic preparation stuff can be bought at Dollar Tree, Goodwill, or on eBay. Although some things are worth buying new, many things can be bought second-hand just fine. Start with a few items, then get more in a few months, then a few more later on. Write a little bit into your budget as often as you can.
What if you live in an apartment and don't have a lot of storage? There plenty of apartment dwellers who manage a respectable level of preparation. You just have to get creative and prioritize your space.
Denial, procrastination, and feeling overwhelmed are big barriers to emergency preparation, but baby steps go a long way to getting past these. Again, ANYTHING is better than nothing in an emergency.
Start with developing an emergency water supply and a way to purify other water for drinking. Then develop a car emergency kit like the one described above. Then stick an old pair of wool socks, some work gloves, and a headlamp in a pair of old shoes under your bed. In time, you can develop a bug-out bag or keep a backpack of extra clothes in your car or garage for quick access.
Hopefully, you'll never need these supplies, but isn't it better to prepare and never need them than to need them and have to go without?
Do it for your family. They are depending on you.
*For further information on emergency preparedness in your area, google your county name, state name, and "emergency preparedness." Your local government will have more information on local preparedness efforts and suggestions for preparing for disasters unique to your geographical area.
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