By contributor
updated 3/17/2011 3:59:17 PM ET 2011-03-17T19:59:17

The twin catastrophes in Japan of the earthquake and tsunami have prompted many in United States to look at their own homes, wonder if they are prepared for a disaster — and realize they're definitely not. In fact, many aren't even sure how to start putting an emergency kit together or what they'd do if they suddenly had to flee. 

“I’ve lived in California all my life and never took this seriously before, even after the Loma Prieta earthquake,” says MiHi Ahn, a 42-year-old San Francisco resident. “It’s not like the pictures on the news from the (past) California earthquakes weren’t devastating, but this Japanese earthquake and tsunami were just so horrific. And reading the reports about how well organized they are there and how much better their building codes are — I wonder how things would be if something comparable happened here.”

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A few days ago Ahn started assembling her kit with vacuum-packed food and bottled water. But the vacuum-packed curry proved surprisingly tempting — within a few days she’d gobbled it up. (She’s renewed her resolve to be prepared and plans to replace it.)

Like many, Ahn isn’t even sure what’s supposed to be in an emergency kit besides food and water.

William Dunne, director of the office of emergency preparedness for the University of California, Los Angeles, Health System, started a program to help university staff get ready for disasters. “When we rolled out our program last year very few people had kits even though they were health care professionals,” he says.

Dunne says people should stock their emergency kits with food and water, but should also plan to use and replace the food every three months so the food will always be fresh. He recommends food and water to last at least four days — that means about a gallon of water per person per day.

Along with food and water, emergency kits should have first aid supplies, such as bandages along with an analgesic, like Tylenol or Advil, Dunne says. People who are currently taking prescription medication should stockpile a week’s worth in case they can’t immediately get a refill.

Have cash easily available
He also recommends having cash on hand — $50 to $100 per person, including small bills —since in an emergency, ATMS and banks may not be operating and if power is out, debit or credit cards won't work.

Kits should also contain a change of clothes and bedding in case you need to leave your house and settle into a shelter. If those supplies are already packed away, your departure will be speeded up. You might also want to include travel size containers of shampoo, soap, and toothpaste, along with a toothbrush, Dunne suggested.

What to put in emergency kit

Also, include some tools, such as wrenches and screwdrivers, and some plastic sheeting in case you need to make some quick repairs to your home.

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You should also have flashlights and extra batteries. Dunne suggests keeping the batteries separate from the flashlights for longer life. If you get some light sticks, they will provide enough illumination for you to be able to put the batteries into the flashlights.

People who have pets should also lay in a supply of pet food and some extra water, Dunne says.

Break up the work
If that all sounds overwhelming, you might do what Dunne suggested to UCLA staff — break up the work into monthly segments. For example, you might buy water one month, food the next, then first aid supplies and so on.

Along with the kit, Dunne suggests families draw up a communication plan so everyone knows how to connect in an emergency. Also, he says, it’s a good idea to make copies of important documents — like insurance policies and bank statements — and tuck them into the kit.

It may sound like a lot of stuff, but Dunne’s own kit — designed for a family of four — fits into one plastic tote and two buckets.

Kits can also be purchased ready-made online.

Katy Enger, 42, is currently eyeing the kits for sale on The Bellevue, Wash., stay-at-home mom was nudged to action after her concerned dad emailed her from from his Potomac, Md., home after the crisis in Japan and told her to get an emergency kit.

A fully stocked kit seems to be the simplest solution for her.

“So far, I’ve only bought water,” says Enger. “On Amazon, they have five- and 10-person kits designed for three day survival. The kits have a battery operated radio, emergency blankets and candles. Since I have six here, I’ll have to order a pretty big kit. I could do it myself, but buying a kit with everything in it seems a lot easier than driving around and buying things separately.”

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