Been thinking a lot about the crazy winter storm and statewide power outage we went through in Texas last year, because we’re getting close to the one-year anniversary of that event while having just experienced the first winter storm in my city for 2022. Were we (meaning my husband and I) any more prepared this year than in 2021, when we had to leave our house (with dogs and Grandma in tow) and go stay with relatives? We definitely started dripping our faucets earlier this time and kept them going ’round the clock to prevent the pipes from freezing (like some of them did last year), and we do have a few more flashlights now, but that’s about it. Not very good emergency preparedness, especially when, in my day job writing for a municipal government, I write about emergency preparedness a lot.
And so, I’ve decided that I’m finally going to start assembling for us what’s called a Disaster Supply Kit, what emergency officials practically beg folks to have on hand at all times in their homes, to prevent the types of unnecessary shortfalls that can make “bad” situations worse. Utilizing unused “stuff” you already have or duplicates of items found around the house that can be repurposed for emergency use is a good place to start. Before I get into that, though, I just want to write a few more lines about why it’s so important to make a “kit”, in case you need more motivation to get started.
If you’re like me, you may have heard public service announcements about disaster supply kits and blown them off, thinking, ‘It’s not that big of a deal–if you at least keep food on the shelves, your phone charged, gas in your car and have friends and family elsewhere, you should be able to handle an emergency where you have to shelter in place or leave your house…right?’ Or, again like me, you may have considered making one but “don’t have time”. Or you don’t want to think about the uncomfortable topic of disasters at all (specifically, disasters that could realistically affect us), kind of like how our society doesn’t like to think or talk about or plan ahead for death (and then leave grieving relatives in a mess after). Or maybe it’s that, when we hear all that talk about “make a kit”, it’s up to us to answer the question, “Why, exactly?” The government folks putting out information, at least in my experience, don’t usually provide many specific real-life scenarios, if at all, where that list of kit items might actually come in handy– they just say, “do it, be prepared.” And leave us to take time out of our busy day to think about the possibilities (which, remember, we don’t want to think about in the first place!!) But here are just a few:
- A gas leak has been detected in/around your home and you have to get out. NOW. (Just happened to a neighbor of mine less than a month ago.) Also falling into this category (no pun intended) might be a tanker truck spill of a harmful chemical on a street or highway near your home, requiring anyone in the area to leave quickly and not come back until further notice. Or a wildfire or flood bears down upon your neighborhood quicker than expected.
- The power suddenly goes out due to temperature extremes, a storm, a nearby vehicle accident involving power lines/equipment, or anything else that affects power unexpectedly– it’s not coming back on anytime soon, and you have to leave or shelter in place without power. And it’s dark outside. And without heat or air conditioning, it may also be getting very uncomfortable inside depending on the weather.
- The water system is suddenly compromised due to a storm event, water main break, system breakdown or other reason, and you’re without running water for several days. And so is everyone else in the area, so good luck finding water at a store.
- A natural disaster has hit your neighborhood, and though your car may be working just fine and your dwelling is habitable, you can’t leave because the roads are blocked, there’s too much large debris in the way (and it’s going to take days before it’s all removed), or some roads are flooded. You have to shelter in place, possibly without water and/or power.
These are just a fraction of the many other varied reasons to “Be Prepared,” but are the kind where you don’t have much, if any, prior notice (with last week’s winter storm, we knew it was coming for at least a week and a half, so we had lots of time to prepare, even though there was a rush on grocery stores within 24 hours of the storm hitting!).
And so, at the very least, the kits would come in especially helpful with being able to, more comfortably and safely, unexpectedly shelter in place, or quickly get out and shelter elsewhere, or make an unexpected road trip. Even if you have to stay with a friend, you don’t want to rely on them for everything you need, and they might be sheltering in place as well, with resources stretched.
Comprehensive lists for everything to pack away for disaster preparedness can be found here and here (these are from the federal government and the TDSHS/Texas Department of State Health Services but there are many others that can be found online). The lists are are long and daunting, and because of that, probably another reason people put off making kits. But, I think even a few items are better than no items, and so I’m going to start small, and am inviting you to come along with me and try it, too, if you haven’t already. Maybe by September, which is National Preparedness Month, my kit(s) will be even better, as I collect things throughout the year. For now, let’s start by gathering just a few things that could come in handy if you have to quickly evacuate your home at any time of day or night. (And, early in the year is a great time to start prepping, before spring cleaning, in case there’s anything you can reuse and put “into service”.)
I.e., what the kit will be housed in. Think portable: Got any empty plastic storage bins taking up space, or can you combine two and free up one? Or any old, empty suitcases or duffel bags in the attic or closet that you don’t use any more? Or any old unused school backpacks? Or how about one of those reusable shopping bags that I think we all have amassed a lot of ? (At least in my life, they seem to be given away at some point each year at almost every store, outdoor event, etc.) Repurpose any one of those items as your “new” emergency “grab and go” tote.
- One change of clothes for each person. Got any clothes destined for charity clothing donation? Look through them. Pick something that would work in a variety of weather conditions, like jeans and both a long sleeved shirt or sweatshirt and short-sleeved T-shirt. If you need a jacket, hopefully you can grab that as you’re headed out, so it doesn’t need to be in the kit, but if you’ve got space, and an old jacket that’s just taking up space in your closet, put it in. And if you’ve got room, something to sleep in as well. Underwear and socks, too, and shoes, such as rubber-soled athletic shoes.
- An extra amount of any medications, either OTC or prescription, that you take on a regular basis, as well as extras of anything health-related you need– such as copies of prescriptions, glucose monitoring strips, an insulated bag with instant cold packs for certain medications, etc. An old pair of glasses and an extra pair of contact lenses would also fall into this category. Also, any medications a pet takes, plus a stash of food for your pet. The TDSHS recommends three days’ worth. (Also, if you have dogs, they recommend leashes for the kit).
- Toiletries/hygiene items- disaster supply kits are a great use for any hotel samples of shampoo, lotion, etc. you may have collected. Or those flat, one-use samples that sometimes arrive in the mail with a coupon or are given out at stores. And if you’ve collected extra toothbrushes and mini toothpaste tubes given out by your dentist, this is a good use for those as well. Other ideas: a comb/brush, disposable face/body wipes.
- A collection of document copies (suggested list is found at the links above) that emergency personnel have been saying for years that people need to have on hand in a waterproof bag, even today when much can be found online. From their experience, it takes so much longer for many important things to happen after a disaster if you don’t have legible, undamaged copies of documents, such as if your home is destroyed by a storm and you’ve lost all forms of identification. For this small starter kit, you can choose to put all the suggested documents in it or just some. Some people rent a safe deposit box at a bank for these kinds of things or use a small fireproof safe. Of course if you choose to go the documents-in-a-bag route, I highly recommend reusable zippered food storage bags. (Check out Target’s Up and Up brand; they make a gallon size that would be good for holding documents).
- Energy bars, dried fruit/nut packs, cracker packs, juice boxes, a few small water bottles– i.e. nonperishable food/beverage items that don’t take up a lot of space and aren’t too heavy. I’m starting out low-key here because, as this first attempt at making a kit is on the smaller scale, you don’t need a pantry’s worth of food. Just a few packs of peanut butter crackers, etc. to help you get by if you have to wait awhile before getting to a friend’s or to a shelter, and you/your family needs strength and hydration to get by/stay on top of things. (See below for safety tips on storing water.)
- Extra charging cord for a cell phone
- Pocket-sized, folded up rain poncho for each person (check Camping/Outdoor or Travel sections of stores) or fold up some you already have on hand, if you’ve got extra
- A working flashlight. This is the most basic emergency item everyone should have on hand (and not only in a kit or stored in the garage)– get several and put them in bedrooms as well as other places throughout your home. Make sure any children and elderly relatives have them on hand as well, and that they know how to use them. (There are so many fun games to play with them, anyway, besides having them around for power outages.) We always got our kids hand-crank or “shake” rechargeable flashlights for camp as well as for having at home, since they’re fun to work and the flashlights can still be used even if continually left on.
For a shelter-in-place kit, here are 10 (ish) things I’m going to eventually add (I put my grab-and-go kit in an old suitcase; the shelter-in-place items are destined for an unused plastic storage tub):
9. A battery-powered NOAA weather radio or hand crank radio (we got something like this for one of our daughters when she was about to make a solo road trip, as it’s also a great item to have if a car breaks down and a cell phone loses power. It’s both hand crank and battery powered, and has a port where a phone can be charged.)
10. A three-day supply of water– one gallon for each person and pet, per day (if you’ve got advance warning, fill up all your bathtubs, if you have any, to help provide even more water). While I’d love to fill and store all those unused water bottles that I wrote about in my last post, storing water like that is usually not safe or healthy, as bacteria and mold can grow, although Hydro Cell says you can store water in stainless steel bottles, if sealed properly, for up to six months. Commercially bottled water is probably the safest bet for long-term storage; many bottled water manufacturers recommend that you store it for no more than two years for best drinking quality. (Keep in mind that if your kit is stored in the garage or the trunk of a car, that plastic bottles are not your best bet for storing water; if the bottles are exposed to sun/heat/hot weather, chemicals from the plastic may leach into the water and cause health problems.
11. Matches or other flame starter and spare batteries, in a sealed, plastic bag. (Got any candles you don’t see yourself using? I had a bunch of plain white pillar candles I’d purchased once at a garage sale and never used, and they came in very handy when the power went out during the afore-mentioned Winter Storm Uri and we were about to leave, after sundown– I set up chairs, bar stools, etc. topped with lit, pillar candles all along our hallways, so I could gather things, pack, and move about easier than if holding a small flashlight, and so my 97-year-old mom could find her way safely to the bathroom while I packed! It’s amazing how much good light they provided.)
12. Disposable plates, cups, utensils, garbage bags
13. A 3-day supply of non-perishable food, such as canned or pouched
14. A manual can opener
15. Blankets, instant hand warmers, warm socks, hats, gloves
16. A Duraflame, Pine Mountain or other packaged log (if you have a fireplace but don’t use it or don’t keep an ongoing supply of firewood) for winter power outages; battery-powered fans for summer power outages (planning to keep the fans in the garage)
17. Toilet paper and paper towels
18. Hand sanitizer
If possible, store the kit(s) indoors to avoid weather extremes or moisture compromising anything inside. Make a note to check them once a year (maybe on a Daylight Saving Time day?) to refresh anything that needs it (expired food, clothes that no longer fit, dead batteries, etc.) or to add something “new”.
Have you ever made a Disaster Supply Kit? Or gone through an evacuation or shelter-at-home situation where a supply kit has or would have come in handy? Anything essential you would add for someone just starting to make one? Please comment below!