People often wonder whether or not emergency officials in their locality are adequately prepared for a disaster. With tornados, floods, hurricanes, and even an earthquake in the news, a better question to ask yourself might be, "Is my family ready?" Emergency officials can't be everywhere, helping everyone at the same time when disaster strikes. Families need to take practical steps to ensure that they can care for themselves during a disaster until help is available. To test your readiness level, ask yourself the following questions:
If the power, phone lines, and cell phones were out, could you receive information from emergency officials? You would need to have a battery powered radio and extra batteries available to hear reports through the Emergency Broadcast System.
If a large-scale disaster required you to provide for your family at home for a week or two, would you be prepared to provide for your basic necessities? You would need a gallon of water per person per day. That amounts to 56 gallons for a family of four in order to have a two-week supply. You would also need enough non-perishable food on hand for basic nourishment.
If the local phone circuits were unavailable because of a disaster, would you and your family have an alternate way to contact each other? Having an out-of-state check-in contact might allow you to get messages to one another, since it is often easier to call long distance than within a disaster-stricken area. (You should avoid clogging the cell phone circuits with non-emergency calls and instead text your family and friends to say that you are OK.)
If you were instructed by emergency officials to evacuate, would you have a disaster supply kit ready to take with you? Your kit should contain a battery powered radio and flashlight with extra batteries, a three-day supply of water and non-perishable food, a first aid kit, tools and supplies, clothing and bedding, and special items.
What would you do with your pets if you had to evacuate? Service animals are the only pets allowed at disaster shelters. Prepare now by making a list of potential places that could shelter your pet, such as family, friends, boarding facilities, or "pet friendly" hotels. Include items for your pet in your disaster supplies kit, such as additional water, pet food, identification and veterinarian records for your pet, a pet carrier and a leash.
If a hazardous materials spill near your neighborhood prevented you from returning home, would you and your family know how to find each other? Identify a meeting place outside your neighborhood, so that the members of your family will know what to do if for some reason they cannot get home.
What would happen if a disaster struck when you were at work or in your car? Have a smaller disaster kit for your workplace and one in each vehicle to provide for your needs until help is available.
If you heard emergency officials request that everyone turn off their electricity or water or natural gas, would you be prepared to follow those instructions? Every family member who spends time at home alone should know where the switches and shut-off valves are located. And any tools that might be needed to do the job should be stored nearby.
If you were trapped under debris after a disaster, would you know how to signal for help? Tapping on a pipe or wall would let rescuers know where to find you. You might also be able to use the whistle from your disaster supply kit to alert emergency workers. Shouting should be a last resort because you might inhale dangerous amounts of dust.
If you needed to evacuate for an extended period of time, would you have copies of important documents to help you establish yourself in your new location? Having copies of identification, insurance papers, health history, and other important documents can make it easier to cope with the effects of a disaster. These documents should be in a secure location such as a locked box or password protected electronic files.
There are many more scenarios I could name that could affect your family. But fortunately, the same steps will help you cope with whatever disaster might occur. First, get informed. Learn about the hazards that are common in your community and ask about the emergency response plans of the places where your family spends time. Second, make a plan. Meet with your family members to choose an out of town contact and complete a family communications plan. Determine escape routes for your home and a meeting place right outside your home. Also, select a meeting place outside your neighborhood in case you can't return home. Third, assemble a kit. You need a three-day supply of water and food, a first aid kit, clothing and bedding, tools and supplies, and special items in a portable kit ready to go. When you get your portable kit together, you should also check to be sure that you have at least a two-week supply of water and food in your home. Fourth, maintain your plan. Practice at least every six months so that everyone in your family will know what to do. Check the expiration dates on the items in your kit and rotate water and food supplies regularly. Also, check to see that clothing still fits and is appropriate for the season. By following these steps, your family will be prepared to successfully cope with any disaster that might occur.
For many people, step three appears to be the most difficult task. But preparing a disaster supply kit doesn't have to be overwhelming or expensive. Start today by finding a simple cardboard box and putting a flashlight with extra batteries inside. Tomorrow, add a battery powered radio with extra batteries. The next time you go to the store, buy an extra package of bottled water along with a non-perishable food item and add it to the box. When you decide to buy a new throw for your couch, add the old one to the box. Little by little, you will become more and more prepared to provide for yourself and your family in the event of a disaster. And as you learn more about disaster preparedness, your disaster supplies kit will become better and more complete. Even if you are able to add only a few things to your box, you will be more prepared tomorrow than you were before you began. The key is to start today!
For more information about family disaster preparedness, check out these Extension resources:
In Case of Disaster
Emergencies: Are You Prepared?
Video and Audio Files on Preparedness and Recovery
Extension Disaster Education Network