If I could encourage positive one change to my readers' lives, it would be this: prepare yourself and your family for a major disaster like those in my novels. Even if you live in a natural-disaster-free zone, there could be a chemical spill on a nearby railway line or nuclear plant meltdown that required you to either stay at home with the windows and doors closed and taped shut for several days, or that would require you to evacuate with your family.
In your home, I hope you have at least flashlights, a radio that works off batteries, candles, and a first aid kit. I hope you know where they are. Can you find them in the dark? You may need to, so shut your eyes and test to see if you can. But you can do much more than this.
The big disaster kit
Disaster preparedness will be slightly different depending on your most likely disaster. But no matter your locale, there should be a dedicated at-home disaster supply, at least three days' survival supplies for your whole family (including pets), gathered into one place for easy access and easy removal from a structurally damaged house. The home kit supplies are best put in a large wheeled garbage can near the exit of your garage, mud room, or back porch (in case your house is so damaged that you need to move to your own front yard, or into a neighbor's garage or a FEMA trailer, it's nice to be able to wheel these supplies along the road). The basics are:
- Water, one gallon of bottled water per person per day for at least three days (and seven days' supply would be better), for drinking and rehydrating dried foods, and for first-aid needs like washing debris out of eyes. Replace yearly
- Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food for all. Buy pop-top cans to avoid the need for a can opener. Never waste space with low-calorie or diet food; you need calories for survival, at least 2000 per person per day. Replace food every two to three years
- Battery-powered radio and extra batteries
- LED flashlight and extra batteries or a crank-charging flashlight
- First-aid kit and paperback first-aid guide
- Whistle to signal for help
- Dust masks for the whole family to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter in place
- Matches or firestarter
- Moist antibacterial towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal waste and food trash
- Life-saving prescription medications for a week
- Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities, and to bang on metal to signal for help
- Tent or tarp and sleeping bags or blankets
- A hundred dollars cash per family member (ATMs might not work for awhile)
- Paper, pencil, pen, photocopies of driver's licenses, insurance cards, and kids' birth certificates. Spare house and car keys.
- Spare socks/undies sealed in a zipper plastic bag, and a sweater or jacket for each family member
- A trowel, in case you need to dig "cat holes" if you can't use toilets for any length of time.
It's also good to toss last year's pair of sneakers for everyone in the bottom of the trash barrel (rather than tossing them into the trash), so that if the disaster strikes when you are in bed and barefoot, you won't find yourself walking on broken glass without shoes. (In a frequent-earthquake zone like coastal California or Japan, it's best to have a bike helmet or hard hat and sturdy boots under your bed at all times with your flashlight tucked into a boot.) If you have small children, put a small toy or game or book into your supplies for each child, too. If you have an old cell phone, charge it, turn it off, and put it in the kit. In the US, even if it's not still on a paid plan, you can call 911 from it.
The bug-out bag
Everyone in the family should also have a bug-out bag, a backpack with a day's supply of water, food, a sweater and change of socks and undies, a large plastic garbage bag if age-appropriate (which can serve as tarp to sit on or to shelter under or with three quick cuts of a knife, as a raincoat). A beach towel can function as towel, for bandages or splint if cut into strips, and even as a light blanket for small people. A bandana can be used as washcloth, to tie back hair, as a dust mask, and for other emergency uses. A set of plastic or metal camping cutlery and a metal or wooden bowl may be useful at a temporary shelter where there is a pot of soup but they're out of bowls and spoons. A roll of toilet paper. Again, children will feel better during stressful times if a familiar book or toy is in their pack--buy a duplicate of the favorite book and leave it in the pack. Adults should also carry first aid supplies, multi-tool, knife, life-saving medications for a few days, insect repellant/sunscreen, candles and matches, a metal sauce pan, a blanket or sleeping bag, a roll of duct tape, and a length of paracord. A paper map of your county is a good idea, as you may need to strike off on foot in an unknown direction and have no cell signal to look at online maps. You may need diapers and formula if you have a baby in the house. If I had children from 5-12, I'd bring a paperback copy of a book like Little House on the Prairie to read aloud for entertainment/distraction value. (You may not have the electricity to recharge your Kindle, after all, even if you think to grab it on your way out the door.)
Bug-out backpack kits can all be tossed in an instant into the trunk of the family car, which you should always keep filled at over half a tank of gas. Or they can be worn on the back for a march out of a disaster area.
For the financially secure of you with limited time to prepare, you can even buy a pre-packed bug-out pack for a few hundred dollars. Needless to say, know where your bug-out bags are and always keep them in the same place so that, in a panic situation, you can move right to them. Can you all find them in the dark? You may need to.
The Plan and final thoughts
The other thing we should all have is a plan, including a family meeting place other than home, and an out-of-town contact for the whole family to check in with (local phones may not work, local cell towers may be overwhelmed, but you might be able to call or text out of area to coordinate with that out-of-town person). Knowing your loved ones are safe in a shelter on the other side of town will keep you from leaving a safe place to hunt for them, putting yourself and rescue workers at risk while doing so, so don't neglect this important step.
And, speaking of rescue workers, follow official advice during an emergency. If they tell you to evacuate, evacuate. (You can also evacuate sooner, if you wish and can see the problem coming.) If they point to a specific route, use it. If they tell you to calm down and stay in line, do so. If your loved one is triaged and made to wait for medical care while the more severely injured are tended to, accept it with grace. Don't yell at your emergency workers; their jobs are hard enough. Don't even expect to be rescued and taken care of at all. Imagine a disaster where a hundred thousand people in your area expect the same thing--is that going to happen? It will not--so take responsibility for your own survival needs now.
Every year on your birthday, give yourself the gift of checking your survival supplies and reviewing your family's emergency plan. Practice evacuation routes from your home and procedures for your most likely local disaster. Make a game of it for your children. Studies show the most practiced will survive at the highest rates and will feel calmer and make fewer stupid mistakes during an emergency.
This is tough to think about, I know, and the human tendency is to not think about bad news that hasn't even happened yet (sufficient unto the day, and all that). Think about it, now, while you are calm and safe. You may never need your bug-out kit or garbage can filled with drinking water and food, but if the disaster comes, you'll be grateful you prepared so well for it.
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