Emergency preparedness tends to get creepily paranoid. Here's some basic advice for everyone. It won't protect you from zombies, but it will keep you comfortable, warm and safe.
California sure has been shaking a lot recently. Meanwhile, back east, Hurricane Sandy wiped out the Jersey Shore and an outbreak of tornadoes plowed through the Midwest this weekend. It doesn't take a Katrina-level disaster for basic utilities to breakdown and emergency service response times to grind to a halt. Taking some basic precautions against these scenarios can be an easy and cheap way to save you and your family some discomfort or even their lives. The theory here is to prepare for the worst, so the worst doesn't happen.
We'll focus this time on basic, in-home preparations you can make to keep you and your family comfortable and safe there. We'll tackle getting there or somewhere else and other skills in the future. Hopefully what we've got here is a practical, easy guide for everyone. This isn't the place to scare you with tales of riots or Soviet psy-ops, just some stuff everyone should have around the house for the next big blizzard, earthquake, flood or even just a power outage.
The Shelter, Water, Fire, Food survival priorities remain just as relevant in a home with no power as they do out in the wilderness. Let's address each one and show you how you can square it away effectively, without spending a ton of money.
Storage: Before you click over to Amazon and start one-click purchasing, think about where and how you're going to securely store all this stuff. When I lived in Brooklyn, I managed to fit it all into a broom closet in our one-bedroom, much to the chagrin of my then girlfriend. Now, I keep it on shelves in the back of my garage, largely forgotten behind cans of paint, a hard top for my roommate's car and all my motorcycles. That garage is separate from the house and, because it's a fairly small, strongly built wooden structure, it's unlikely to be significantly damaged in an earthquake — our most-likely disaster scenario. I've seen other people pack this stuff under a big bed or even into a big, secure tool locker in their back yard. The important thing is that your stuff needs to remain accessible post-disaster and should be sheltered from the weather, sun and secured against both theft and animals. You want it to be there and be in good condition if you need it.
Communication: We've all seen how quickly cell networks can be overwhelmed. How fast was your phone data the last time you were at a big sports event or any other place with a few thousand people packed close together, all trying to Tinder? Even if an emergency situation doesn't damage communications infrastructure, a simple spike in call volume could prevent you from being able to contact your loved ones.
So, the best communication in an emergency is communication that's taken place before. Create a basic action plan with your family ahead of time: come home, we'll come get you. Whatever it is, keep it simple and memorable. My girlfriend knows that, if there's an earthquake, she's to make her way to my house as quickly as possible. That means I have the same job. My roommates know the same thing. Back in New York, I figured the best course of action was for me to go get that girlfriend from her mid-town office. We had a pre-arranged meeting point.
This is also a great case for keeping a landline in your house. Sometimes they'll work even after power's gone out.
Shelter: Hopefully your house will be fine, but prepare for it not to be. This is very location-dependent. I live in Los Angeles, so even if my house is made uninhabitable by an earthquake, I could easily sleep in my yard. But, it does get hot, so shade would be nice. I have a big blue tarp that'll provide good shade and a few hundred feet of paracord enabling me to hang it in virtually any circumstance. It could also patch a hole in a roof, as one did when a tornado hit my childhood home in Georgia.
Shelter is also clothing. If you live somewhere with cold winters, you'll know how important it is to keep warm and likely already have the clothing to handle that. An easy solution is just to rotate old jackets or whatever into a Tupperware container stored alongside your other stuff as you buy new things. A 10-year old pair of boots may no longer look good enough for everyday wear, but they could protect your feet in an emergency. Make sure you have full, head-to-toe outfits for the whole family that include good footwear. Keeping this setup separate and dedicated means it'll be there if you need it, not at the office or school or in the trunk of your car that's now 10 feet under water. You don't want to be stuck wearing high heels.
One note about cold conditions: being comfortable during a quick dog walk or while sledding for half an hour is very, very different from remaining comfortable in real cold for prolonged periods. Inexperienced people that come camping with me in even mild conditions are often caught off guard by how cold 40 degrees can feel when you have to spend an entire night in it.
If you live somewhere cold, you'll also want a post-disaster heat source. That may be as simple as your fireplace, just make sure you keep extra wood on-hand just in case, then don't be tempted to dip into that cache for other uses. Kerosene and propane heaters also work just fine when the power goes out.
If your home is damaged by a disaster or you suspect it may have been, immediately turn off the gas and electrical supplies. You'll need a wrench for the gas (righty, tighty) and just throw the main circuit breaker for the house.
Water: At a minimum, you need one gallon of water per person, per day. FEMA recommends having enough on-hand for 72 hours, but I figured I'd lay in a month's supply. In Hollywood, we're never going to need to last that long before the National Guard shows up, but having extra means I can share with neighbors and friends without compromising the comfort of my own family.
You can buy 24-packs of 16.9oz water bottles on Amazon for $4 with free delivery. Each totals a little over three gallons, or enough for a single person for three days. Our UPS guy hates me.
You can also get a ton of water out of your hot water heater. Know how to drain it and have appropriate containers ahead of time.
You'll also want to store a gallon or so of plain ol' bleach. A quarter teaspoon per gallon of water will kill any bugs, but it will taste a little like a swimming pool.
Fire: Bic lighters are the best lighters, just make sure they're the real deal and not cheap knockoffs. I like to keep a few different methods of starting a fire to hand, like matches, a pack of lighters and a flint and steel. Old dryer lint makes great tinder, just keep a container in your laundry room and add too it every time you clean the trap, then move that container to your storage area when it's full.
You want fire for warmth, but also to cook food and boil water. Those last two things are better performed by a camp stove. This Coleman one is $24 and will last forever (I've had mine since I was a Boy Scout). Pickup a few canisters of propane from your local hardware store too and you're all set. If you have an outdoor grill, that'll work too. Again, just sock away some extra fuel to be safe.
Food: Freeze dried backpacking food or MREs are pricey and…not great eating. You'll likely have enough food around the house already to comfortably pass that government-suggested 72-hour period and, if the power's out, you may even need to throw a barbecue to use it all.
It's also a good idea to keep ice packs or just a big bowl of frozen water in your freezer. Those will help it stay cooler for longer after the power goes out, turning it into a cooler. If the power goes out, stick perishables in the freezer, then minimize the amount of time the freezer door is open.
But, the more food you have on hand, the greater peace of mind. I have a few cases of Ensure locked away, just in case. That stuff has a very long shelf life and some semblance of complete nutrition in a compact, transportable package and doesn't require any preparation. I figure it's a good fallback in case we have to get mobile. You may want to buy a case of canned pork and beans or similar. Just check expiry dates and rotate your food supply so it stays fresh.
If you or a family member have special dietary requirements (or medical needs!), you have kids that need baby food or pets that need kibble, figure out what foodstuffs capable of long-term storage will work for them, and store some of that too.
You won't starve to death for a few weeks, so food isn't a huge priority. You'll be way more comfortable with it though and, if you have to put in some labor fixing your house or walking somewhere far away, you'll need the calories.
Gadgets: There's all manner of bullshit gadgetry sold around survival. Most of it is absolute garbage. Here's a few things that actually will be useful:
Flashlight: Forget the hand-operated ones or those things that double as radios. Just pick up a quality, LED flashlight that runs on common batteries. This one is extraordinarily bright, its bulb will never burn out and it costs $3. Buy a few and keep them around the house, in your car and at the office.
AM/FM Radio: You'll want to be able to get information from the authorities and keep abreast of developments. A simple, battery operated am/fm radio will achieve that easily, but most people don't have those around anymore; I bought one for $13 and it's stored with the other stuff in its original, weather-proof blister packaging.
Batteries: Whatever gadgets you buy, make sure they operate on the same type of battery. I'd suggest AA, just because it's so common. Then, buy a few packs of lithium batteries of that type. Their shelf-life is 10 years and your electronics will work better for longer with lithium.
Sanitation: This is the least discussed, but one of the most critical elements of preparing for an emergency. If the plumbing is out, where are you going to poop? A family of four is going to produce quite a bit of that over a three day period and, if you don't have anywhere to put it, it'll spread disease, attract bugs and make you sick. The solution is to make a basic toilet out of a five-gallon bucket and contractor bags. Make sure the bucket has a top which seals good, then keep that lid on when it's not in use. When the bag is full, double it up and tie it off before carefully disposing of it somewhere. A big ol' jar of alcohol hand sanitizer is going to be a big help here too. I have a gallon.
And that's about it. Lock your doors, pretend you're not home if any zombies show up and play some cards. You did pack away a deck of cards, right?
Want to read more about survival? We recommend Cody Lundin's book, When All Hell Breaks Loose. Again, it's full of practical advice for everyone, not advanced combat techniques intended to tackle invading Canadians.
Lead Image: Hurricane Sandy knocks out the power in downtown Manhattan, by Shankbone.