"'Tis the Season!! Are you prepared for a natural disaster?"
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
As I’m writing this, what was supposed to only be 2”-4” of snow today is turning into quite a bit more! These last few years the real winter weather – the precipitation and storms – seems to be occurring much later in the season than I remember as a little kid in Massachusetts in the ‘70’s. As I’m aging, and as my friends and patients are aging, the snow and the storms aren’t as much fun as they used to be and they’re actually filled with quite a bit of angst over just how bad and how dangerous they might get.
Since I’ve moved out of the Bronx and now there’s literally tens of thousands of trees that could come down in a storm and indefinitely prevent me from getting to either Route 9 on one side or the Taconic on the other, I’ve wanted to review what a proper Emergency Kit should look like if we were ever either stranded in our home or had to leave in a hurry. What I’ve learned is that:
(1) Whatever’s in the Emergency Kit should be based on what’s most likely to happen where you live;
(2) The size of the Emergency Kit is proportional to the number of people you’re trying to look out for;
(3) That there’s different Emergency Kits for different scales of possible disasters;
(4) That having a good plan in place beforehand is at least as good as an Emergency Kit; and
(5) that it really doesn’t take much time or money to put something together that’s really good – a good hour on Amazon and you can have the whole thing done and in place in just a few days!
None of that surprised me or seemed to be rocket science. What did surprise me however was that AGE seemed to be the biggest factor determining who did well in an emergency and who didn’t.
The financial magazine ‘Forbes’ has published that statistically seniors suffer disproportionately more than other populations during natural disasters. In 2005 the Gerontological Society of America reported that 75% of those who died as a result of Hurricane Katrina were over the age of 60 and in 2014 the University of Iowa College of Public Health found less than 25% of older adults have a plan for how they’ll handle a natural disaster. Age alone does not make someone more susceptible to natural disaster—it’s the complications that come along with aging, such as frailness, memory impairment, and mobility limitations that make the elderly especially vulnerable. It’s important to remember that when ANYONE is separated from their support systems they are at a higher risk of adverse outcome and ANY POTENTIAL COMPROMISE will exacerbate that in ways that we can only guess before it actually happens.
Sitting down with all your loved ones to hammer out a plan for how you’ll all handle a natural disaster gives you and your family peace of mind and everyone reassurance that they are not alone or at least will not be without recourse when a genuine emergency does occur.
The lists for what should be in Emergency Kits like these range from 10 items to over 500 items and most seem to be made with very specific types of disasters in mind. The best lists overall come from the Red Cross and the US Federal Government but seem to be compiled AFTER something like Hurricane Katrina, meaning that they’re certainly comprehensive but not entirely realistic to store in the average home/apartment or for any single person – let alone a more senior or physically impaired person – to handle themselves during an actual emergency.
While I was researching the items I wanted to include on my lists I realized each individual piece created a potential vulnerability for the person who might need it whether I included it in their bag or not. If a specific tool or article required for a given emergency isn’t in the bag when your folks need it then they trusted your bag and now they’re in trouble. If you did include something in the bag but scaled it back due to size, power, maintenance, etc., and it’s not sufficient for the emergency they’re in at that moment then they’re in just as much trouble. If you lugged one thing around unnecessarily when you should have given that space and effort to something else then you dropped the ball there too. I found the more specific events I tried to prepare for with a single collection the less I was prepared for any general disaster.
A lot things I read were truly insightful and sounded great but were not realistic or even worthwhile across the entire range of bad things that might happen or when consideration was given to how large and heavy these collections of ‘essential items’ were becoming. The lists from FEMA and the Red Cross tend to have that problem – their contents change in reaction to criticisms they received during their last response – which makes them less useful overall for any individual person trying to be generally prepared for whatever might happen next. While I certainly agree that an inflatable life boat with a 5-15HP outboard motor deserves its place in the penultimate Emergency Kit I’m not sure it justifies the weight and space in my folks Emergency Kit in Central Massachusetts.
Along with my lists for what I would want my family to have in an Emergency Kit I had few other few other things occur to me that seem worth mentioning here:
1. Have a REALISTIC PLAN – & then STICK TO IT!
- Don’t leave anything to figure out for last minute or depending on how the storm or whatever progresses, decisions made in that environment rarely go well;
If your plan is activated when your favorite Weatherman or the NOAA predicts a critical number or scenario then the instant you hear it you have to be prepared to DO IT! Modify your plans when there’s no crisis and time to critically exam each issue as a team, not when the police have closed the parkways and the Aunt Tilly doesn’t know how to text;
If your plan involves moving someone who typically doesn’t move without professional assistance or equipment that you don’t have then plan accordingly and prepare for them to shelter-in-place. Successful plans do not depend on anyone to demonstrate heroic feats of strength or endurance, conscientiously and conservatively consider what each person is capable of before assigning responsibilities to anyone;
-Walk through the plan as a group more than once. Drive to get Grandma over the exact roads you’ve chosen before there’s a real emergency; try to actually carry that ridiculous FEMA Emergency Kit down all 8 stories by yourself at least once; actually try to fit that wheelchair into the back of your car or safely secure it to the roof on a sunny afternoon before attempting to drive away with it in a driving snowstorm and high winds in the middle of the night.
2. Be GENERALLY prepared for SPECIFIC disasters:
- What’s most probable considering the location? There are many items that are fundamental to any kind of Emergency Kit or GoBag but many more that are specific for each given type of disaster, make sure what you chose to include is more likely to be of assistance in situations that you are more likely to be in. If you’re near water? – be prepared for flooding! If you’re in the mountains? – be prepared for snow! If you’re anywhere populated by old trees and well-meaning people who shout down the Licensed Arborists at your Town Meetings? – be ready for power outages and potentially long stretches without food, water, or pharmacies while the roads get cleared!
- When would it be best to shelter-in-place and when would it be better to evacuate completely? Don’t be in the position where you might have to make this decision under duress. The Emergency Kit for sheltering-in-place is stocked quite a bit differently than the one you take with you for a few days and both are packed much heavier than your GoBag. Decide beforehand who makes the decision of which plan is going to be followed, which resources are going to be used, and how that’s going to be communicated from one person to another.
-Complete Emergency Contact Cards with the contact and health information for each family member in the plan and keep copies of them handy in the GoBag and the Emergency Kit. After all the basics they should include information about medications, adaptive equipment, blood type, allergies, immunizations, and communication difficulties, etc., plus anything relevant or unique to that person. This isn’t hard, it’s a 5”x7” card per person or a single envelope with a couple of pages inside that you add to or update once in a while.
3. In a perfect world you would have 3 different Emergency Kits/Bags – 3 different collections of gear – for 3 different needs:
- The Home Emergency Kit is for when you can’t leave and need to Shelter-in-Place. This might be contained in a large suitcase or travel trunk. Within or on top of it there’s a smaller separate duffel bag or knapsack with all your daily essentials but inside it also contains several days of clothes; it’s probably resting on top of several cases of water; and inside if not right nearby there’s weeks of dried meals. These also might include anything from water filters, to small sterno hotplates, and even books and other things to keep those of all ages amused and distracted from the situation at hand. If you or a loved one were to be stranded indefinitely or could get out at all you want to be confident that you can go to wherever this stuff might be located in the house or the apartment and be perfectly safe from everything except boredom and fear.
- The Mobile Emergency Kit is for when you have to LEAVE and it might be for a few days and it’s packed a lot different than your Home Emergency Kit. This starts with the smaller separate duffel bag or knapsack with all your daily essentials mentioned above and then it also includes a couple of changes of clothes but it’s more about being able to go anywhere for a couple of days and be able to rough it at your in-laws, a public shelter, or some high school gym floor until there’s a real solution or the crisis has past.
- There are shelters literally everywhere! If someone in your plan is far away the best thing your plan might be able to do for them is make sure that their Emergency Kit or GoBag is enough to get them to the nearest shelter. If you can’t find the information quickly online call the Municipality and ask, there’s someone there who knows or knows how to find out. In some instances and for some people simply Bugging-Out QUICK might be the best plan of all.
-A GoBag is for when you have to LEAVE with either (1) very little warning and you need to you need to grab as much of the essentials as you can as quickly as possible or (2) when it’s likely only going to be for a short time but you want to be ready just in case it runs longer or there’s bigger problems. This might even be a smaller bag within your Emergency Kit! In the first instance you can see the hot lava rolling down the street from your kitchen window or hear the sirens from the local nuclear facility, in either case you’ve got to just GRAB THE ESSENTIALS & RUN! In the second instance ConEd might be knocking on the door warning about a gas leak or the water from your faucets is brown, it reeks, and a Verizon truck just disappeared into a pothole in the street. Chances are you’ll be back home and none the worse for wear in couple of hours – but with a good GoBag you’re not in trouble if you aren’t!
- Don’t think of these as three entirely different and independent collections of materials, we’re only compiling one set of materials here. The GoBag has the essentials and a few extra pieces that could be handy and keep everyone going for a day or so, subsequently the Mobile Emergency Kit is simply the GoBag PLUS everything else you’ll need to manage 3-5 more days or until you get to a safe place. The Home Emergency Kit, the Shelter-in-Place Kit, is simply the Mobile Emergency Kit PLUS everything else you’ll need to go for a few weeks or more in the event that your forced to stay home and wait for assistance.
An example for a family of two adults and two toddlers:
Safely packed and out of the way;
The Home Emergency Kit, the Shelter-in-Place Kit. We were able to repurpose and old Christmas Tree bag to hold the extra clothes, blankets, food, appliances, etc.
The Mobile Emergency Kit. While the gyms are still closed my wife’s pink World Natural Bodybuilding Federation bag and her Stella McCartney gym bag combine to form the family’s Mobile Emergency Kit;
The GoBag. The Stella bag is the family GoBag when traveling fast and light is of the essence.
4. DON’T FORGET THE PETS and any material items that might have great sentimental value and pose a problem when it’s time to go. The best plan is worthless if it doesn’t include the pets or consider that Nana’s not going to leave the piano that Liberace played on. Be as understanding as possible, don’t be judgmental, and make every accommodation – don’t risk the human or yourself going to get the human with a plan that’s not going to work. Accept the realities that you’re given and do everything possible to have a willing participant when the Biblical floods finally come – even if it’s a sub-optimal plan that wiser/younger heads might not prefer. It’s not your call how someone prioritizes the things in their life – it’s theirs and these are their decisions. Even it it’s your immediate family, don’t forget that we can only help as much as those we are trying to assist allow. We can only expect so much from pushing and you should never risk pushing someone in the heat of the moment or when time might be crucial. It’s usually best to accept their wishes and help them make the most of what that situation might allow.
I listed the items that I’ve selected for my Kits in two ways: by (I) the individual categories of items that I included on my lists. I found it was easier to make personal selections and then purchase what I wanted when I had it all listed by category; and then (II) I listed exactly what I thought made the most sense to be in each of the Home Emergency Kit, the Mobile Emergency Kit; and the GoBag for my family. Anything colored RED is for the GoBag – it should always be with you; anything colored BLUE is for the Mobile Emergency Kit; anything colored GREEN should be considered for the Home Emergency Kit when you have to Shelter-in-Place; and anything in PURPLE are my comments.
I also threw in a little list (III) of what we should all have in our bags or wallets at all times and at any age.