All of us have had to deal with outages of power and other utilities during and after major weather events. Here in Tidewater, we can struggle with everything that mother nature can throw at us. Recent years have regularly provided us with hurricanes, tropical storms, and their associated flooding. Tornado watches are common in the summer. We’ve also seen some more exotic things, like minor earthquakes and severe microbursts. In years past, we’ve experienced heavy snowfall and ice storms. Short of volcanic activity, we’ve got it all.
My job keeps me on the front lines of repair response during severe weather, so my plans may be different than yours. As a carpenter, the tools I will have and the things I might do after damage to my home would be very different from what your grandmother would find herself doing. My plans changed significantly when we moved out of our old apartment and into our house.
I grew up in Suffolk when it was still very rural. The closest grocery store was at least 10 minutes away, and involved crossing a bridge. This meant Mom keeping the cabinets stocked. When most of us are less than a mile away from a grocery store now, keeping things on hand seems trivial…until the grocery store is sold out, isn’t being restocked, or isn’t even open.
Financial considerations satisfied, I know we would all be better prepared, but all of this is manageable when spread out over time and cycled into part of your regular way of life. Ultimately you’ll have to customize things to what fits your home, life, and budget. The real trick is to have most of everything on hand already so that when a major weather event is on the way, you only need to buy bread, milk, and a half tank of gas.
While I have mocked our state’s annual tax holiday before, now I want to present a more serious side. A variety of sources harp on us to be prepared to be self-sufficient for a minimum of 72 hours. Thinking of all the things you could possibly need for 3 days is completely overwhelming. The process I want you to use is to start not with what you could need, but with what you know you need.
Covering the basics well is far more important than covering every last obscurity. The list of basics is short, and you probably already have most of what you need. What do I consider the basics?
- Toiletries and First-aid
We’ll start with the easy stuff first.
Cash – Cash is at the top of the list because, even if you don’t have anything else, cash can probably get you whatever you need. Cash is necessary in many emergencies as electronic transactions like credit cards and Paypal require both electricity and some aspect of communications infrastructure – either of which may be unavailable during or after severe weather.
Toiletries and First-aid – You don’t have to be ready to scrub in for an appendectomy. You do need to be stocked with the essentials like Band-Aids, Neosporin, gauze, tape, and super glue. You’ll also want extra toilet paper, paper towels, and soap. These items should be present in both your home and vehicle for the most basic cleaning and first-aid. Most of the time it’s much cheaper to buy these items individually, rather than in a commercial first-aid kit, but suit yourself. And most family first-aid kits should also include a few other items:
- Ibuprofen for muscle and joint pain
- Tylenol for fevers
- Aspirin for possible heart issues
- Benadryl for allergic reactions or for use as a sleep aid
- Nail clippers for a variety of trimming tasks
- Rubber gloves for handling bloody or dirty stuff
- Q-Tips for gentle cleaning of most anything
- Baby wipes for waterless cleaning
- Alcohol wipes for disinfecting
- Tums and Immodium for stomach issues
- Waterless hand sanitizer
- Tampons / Pads
Water – Realistically, water is the most important thing on this list. Most information suggests storing 1 gallon per person per day. In reality, two to three times that much wouldn’t be unreasonable as the lower number factors in only drinking water. As we typically use water for cooking as well as cleaning, I believe the minimum number to be 2 gallons per person per day. Don’t forget to include water for the pets!
One common tip is to fill your bathtub with water. That’s a good practice in theory, but how many days can you go without using your bathtub? Is your tub clean enough to drink out of? What about after your curious cat falls in it? Water stored in a bathtub should be used for cleaning or flushing the toilet. If you have to drink it, it should probably be filtered or boiled first. You can also use 6-8 drops of bleach to disinfect drinking water.
Common cases of bottled water are 24-packs of 20 oz bottles, working out to 3.75 gallons. I like bottled water because you can stash a few here and there throughout your home instead of having one massive container of water. They’re also portable, reusable and easily moved around by most anyone. You want to keep the bottles in a cool, dark place like the bottom of a closet, or a kitchen cabinet.
Food – This is probably the most difficult section to make any suggestions on because no two people like all the same food. The most important things to remember are to only store what you’ll eat and to have a way to prepare it. In other words, have cans of what you eat and HAVE A CAN OPENER! Or just watch my video. Haha!
From the standpoint of morale and gastrointestinal regularity, a post-emergency scenario is not the time to change your diet. Eat what you store and store what you eat. Cans are good, but even plastic is okay. Such items typically have an expiration date of 2-4 years out, but will actually keep much, much longer. I recommend some traditional staples like tuna, beanie weenies, Spam and Chef Boyardee offerings. These are still tasty right out of the can.
If water and heat are abundant, Ramen noodles and other pastas and grains are a welcome addition. Canned fruits and vegetables are a given. What about your sweet tooth? Hard candy like Life Savers and Jolly Ranchers last almost indefinitely. Things like granola bars keep for a year. Snack Pack pudding keeps for two years.
Fuel – Most of the time I never let what I drive get below a half tank. Besides the sticker shock of filling an empty tank, it keeps a vehicle ready for at least 100 miles or more of immediate travel.
Top off the tank on your vehicle. Fill your gas cans if you have them. Keep the cans outside, or in a detached garage away from heat sources and out of the sun. If you’re storing your fuel for more than a month, definitely add some fuel stabilizer. The modern ethanol mixtures make gas quality degrade much more quickly. If your gas can has a built-in spout, make sure your it works with the vehicles and equipment you own. If not, be sure to have a funnel as well.
If you own a gas grill, top off your propane tank. Maybe even fill a spare. Electricity or gas service can be interrupted in an emergency, leaving you no way to cook food or boil water. Morale is everything when you find yourself in a disaster scenario. A warm washcloth, a hot meal, or just a steaming cup of coffee can go a long way toward helping you feel human again in such a situation.
Water and downed trees can make many of our roads impassable. Snow and ice can make them incredibly dangerous. Don’t expect to have to depart, but be prepared to do so if required. Take advantage of heavy summer rains to find out what water levels are like on your local streets. Wade out in your boots to see what the depth is generally like. Many cities are even adding easily-visible depth meters in problem areas.
See what your vehicle is capable of and find out what conditions you are able to drive in – before it’s a must. Short of telling you to go do donuts in the Walmart parking lot at midnight the next time it snows or to pay a visit to any given downtown area when it rains hard this summer, you’re going to have to draw your own conclusions here.
Light – Some things it pays to have in redundancy. How many times have you grabbed a flashlight that needed batteries, had a bad switch, had a blown bulb, etc? In the “preps” crowd, there’s a common saying: “Two is one and one is none.” Keep that in mind with all of this, but especially flashlights.
I like flashlights a lot – probably more than I should. If you bump into me at any given time, I will have a single AAA Mini-Maglight, as well as an app for my phone that activates only it’s “camera flash” LED. If you find me in my vehicle, I will several more portable light sources. Is this overkill? Maybe, but I use all of them on a regular basis. As with all of this planning, it’s a matter of customizing your balance of “gear” with your level of activity.
Once more expensive, LEDs have become quite affordable while giving much longer battery and lamp life and having a smaller package. Decent choices start around $5. Of course, flashlights can eat through batteries quickly. Batteries, batteries, batteries! There, I said it. You need them. A variety of sizes. They keep for 5 years now. Buy some. Also consider having a battery tester. Then when your flashlight doesn’t work, you know whether it’s the bulb or the Duracells. We use something like this for storage, and it comes with an easy-to-use battery tester. I’ve used the same one for the last 25 years.
Candles are cheap, and for some things there’s no replacing open flame, but there’s no denying they can be dangerous, especially if you have kids. For the young’ns, look into glow sticks. Not only are they fun for them, they are safe, cheap and you can buy them in different colors to identify who’s who in the dark. That said, have candles as well and multiple things to light them with. There’s no replacing the usefulness of fire. Heat, light, debris removal, cooking, etc. It’s a great tool. But be careful. Own and know how to use a fire extinguisher.
Indoors, replace the 9v batteries in your smoke alarms at least once a year. Smoke alarms are cheap and portable. If you’re doing something unusual with hot stuff inside, snatch your smoke alarm off the wall and keep it where you find yourself now working or sleeping. In your house, you should have one near the kitchen, outside of any utility and in range for any bedroom. Arrange appropriately for your own home.
Tools – I’m grouping a lot of things together here from rain gear to work gloves, which are a must. You don’t have to be ready to nail down a new roof but I want you to have what you need to shut off your water or gas, change a fuse, or turn on a popped breaker. Most of you probably have these but at a minimum, have a hammer, a utility knife, a #2 philips screwdriver, and maybe a saw.
When I say rain gear, I mean a hat, a raincoat or some sort of water-shedding outer garment and pair of wading boots, or something you aren’t afraid to get wet in. Again, this is going to depend on your activity. Your sister might wear a bikini when she takes the dogs out in the rain. Your mom will probably want a good umbrella instead.
Conclusions – What else might you need? Try to keep all of what you do need portable. Be able to take it with you if you have to leave your home. Be able to live comfortably on the road. Do you have a radio to keep track of updates? What would sleeping in your car be like? Do you have car chargers or a power inverter for important devices? Do you have games to keep kids entertained? How about off-site or digital copies of your most important documents should the worst happen and everything you own be destroyed?
Don’t consider this all the information you need for an emergency. What I’ve written here is just the Cliff’s Notes for the Cliff’s Notes. If I can answer any questions you might have, feel free to ask. If you want to just bounce some ideas off me, feel free. I’m no expert, but I’ve worked outside nearly every day for the last 15 years, and I’ve been thinking about situations like this since Hurricane Isabel. Good luck!