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Disasters are inevitable — at some point in our lives, almost all of us will have a brush with an earthquake, flood, tornado, blizzard, or storm. But there’s no use in worrying yourself sick; the best way to defend yourself against any emergency is to be prepared.
Disaster preparedness comes in many forms, from knowing what type of emergency to expect and packing a “go bag” to prepping your home and knowing how to return to it when the coast is clear. Follow these steps to ensure you have a foolproof plan in place.
1: Know what type of disaster to expect.
Each crisis requires somewhat different prep, supplies, and know-how. Find out which disasters your town, state and region are most at risk for and plan accordingly.
- Earthquakes: They can happen in all states at any time of year.
- Wildfires: High risk in forested areas with little rain, such as Southern California.
- Floods: The most common natural disaster can hit anywhere, but especially in low-lying areas.
- Tornadoes: “Tornado Ally” includes TX, OK, IA, KS, NE, and OH and is on alert from March to August.
- Blizzards: They can occur wherever the temperature drops below freezing
- Storms and Hurricanes: The East and Gulf coasts are at high risk from June to November.
2: Sign up for emergency alerts.
Get notifications sent to your phone from your service provider or via a free app from FEMA or the Red Cross. Some employers use a service such as LiveSafe to blast emergency info to their teams — see if your company or school uses it, and if so, download the free app.
3: Pack a “go bag.”
If you have to leave your home in a hurry, you’ll want to have some essentials packed and ready to go. Keep the following supplies, recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a portable container in the area of your house where you’ll take shelter:
- Three days’ worth of food and water (at least a gallon per family member)
- Battery powered (or hand crank) flashlights and radio
- Extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Whistle to signal for help
- Trash bags and duct tape, along with a dust mask
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
- Manual can opener for food
- Regional maps
- Cell phone with chargers, inverter, or solar charger
- Moist towelettes and any personal sanitation or specific family needs, like pet supplies
(For additional recommendations, be sure to check out ready.gov.)
We also suggest having smaller versions of your kit stocked with a few necessities like walking shoes, non-perishable snacks, and a flashlight at work. In general, you’ll also need enough cash on hand for five days of basic needs (gas and food), but any amount of ready money will help if ATMs are down.
Once you have your supplies together, it pays to go through them at least once a year too, to weed out expired food and batteries.
4: Make an action plan.
When things get chaotic, you want to make sure that every family member knows what to do. We suggest designating two meeting places (one close by and one a little further away in your neighborhood) and hang a map with the spots marked near your emergency kit.
It also pays to have important contacts written down if the power goes out and there’s nowhere to charge your cell phone. Make a mini contact list — ready.gov has templates you can print out — with important numbers that everyone can stow in their wallets. Leave a copy in your emergency kit, too. Establish a plan for checking in with relatives in case local lines get jammed. Text messages will often go through, even when phone lines are clogged.
5: Prep your home.
If the power goes out and you have time, unplug appliances and electronics and turn off air conditioners, whether you stay or go. This will prevent damage when the electricity surges back on. Leave one lamp on so you’ll know when the power’s back.
If water lines could be affected, you’ll also want to fill your tub and turn off the line. Use this H2O for sanitation, like hand-washing and pouring down the toilet to flush it.
6: Prep your pantry.
If you’ll be inside for a while, weather the storm with high-protein, plant-based shelf-stable items recommended by Good Housekeeping Nutrition Director and registered dietitian Jaclyn London.
Food Shopping List:
Canned tuna/salmon canned black beans, olives, mixed nuts, dry-roasted edamame, dry-roasted chickpeas, whole-grain instant rice, boxed grains like quinoa, buckwheat, or sorghum, dry pasta, olive oil/canola oil, low-salt veggie broth, canned tomatoes, canned veggies, and other healthy canned foods, garlic powder, onion powder, chili seasoning, salt, pepper, soy sauce, tomato sauce, ketchup, and mustard.
7: Store everything properly.
How you store food can make a difference when it comes to salvaging items afterwards, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Information Service (FSIS). If there’s a chance of flooding, be sure to store dry goods in waterproof containers high enough that they will be safely out of the way of contaminated water.
Grouping food together in the freezer can help it stay colder longer in the case of a power outage. If you have advanced warning, freeze any items you don’t need right away, like leftovers, milk, and fresh meat and poultry to keep them at a safe temperature longer and stock your freezer with as much ice as you can fit. Coolers stocked with ice can also be helpful if the power is out for more than four hours.
Though you’ll want to minimize the amount you open and close your refrigerator door once the power goes out, FSIS recommends keeping an appliance thermometer in your fridge and freezer to help you determine if food is safe to eat. The refrigerator temperature should be lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the freezer temperature should be below zero degrees Fahrenheit.
8: Return safely.
Coming home after a major disaster can be daunting. Don’t let your family rush back into your home without taking these precautions.
- Look for damage outside. Walk around the exterior and check for issues like loose or fallen power cables, damaged gas lines and cracks in the foundation or in beams. If you have trees nearby, carefully assess their stability.
- Note sounds and odors. If you smell gas or hear a hissing noise, call the fire department and have them come by and inspect the situation before you reenter.
- Then check inside. If the power is still out, use a flashlight (not a candle — open flames can burn items or cause gases to ignite) to assess damage.
- Inspect appliances. For small appliances like coffee makers and toasters, look closely at the cords for fraying or exposed wires before using them again. Fridges, ranges and washers can be more complicated; call a service company to check the safety of connections and components, then replace anything that’s severely damaged.
- Document the damage. It may be hard emotionally, but if you want to file an insurance claim, you’ll need a visual record of all the damage with clear pictures and thorough notes before you clean up.