How to build a natural disaster survival kit

Climate change is making extreme weather unpredictable. Here's what to stock to be prepared for an emergency like Hurricane Dorian, an earthquake, tornado or any other natural disaster.
Image: Flood Waters From Hurricane Florence Begin To Flood Parts Of South Carolina
Richard Brown and Janet Hardee walk down a flooded street caused by Hurricane Florence at Aberdeen Country Club on Sept. 20, 2018 in Longs, South Carolina.Sean Rayford / Getty Images file
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By Kim Fitzsimons

Not long ago, a tornado tore through our Connecticut town. Although thunderstorms had been forecast, which wasn’t unusual for a hot day, a tornado was, and was exponentially worse. In less than 10 minutes, hundreds of trees had crashed through hundreds of roofs, downed power lines, blocked roads, and knocked out cell service.

Tropical storms and hurricanes like Dorian, which is expected to make landfall in Florida, are common at this time of the year and often come with a warning. But since a tornado was so unexpected, at least in the Northeast, few of us were prepared. But now, many more are. Not just in our area, but everywhere, as these kinds of scenarios become more common.

“No matter where you live, climate change is affecting your weather,” says Peter Howe, associate professor of geography at Utah State University. “In many cases, it magnifies existing types of weather hazards, depending on where you are. It also makes some types of extreme weather much more likely in places that haven’t experienced it, so individual preparedness is critical.”

Although weather events are the most likely reason you’d want to be prepared, there are also other things that require readiness too, like earthquakes and volcanic activity. While needs might be somewhat different for these, the preparation process is pretty much the same.

And what exactly does this involve? Coming up with a plan, for starters, based on what could potentially happen where you live. If you could be hit by a hurricane like Dorian, for instance, what would you need in a prolonged power outage? How would you find out what’s going on, and connect with family and friends? What if someone was injured? Would you have the right medical supplies?

Unless you’ve been through something like this, you may not have thought much about it, but now’s a good time to start. Once you’ve assessed the possibilities — and there are many — your next step is putting together a kit. This will include whatever you’d need to survive at home and/or to evacuate, and to keep as comfortable, safe, and secure as possible. It can also include things to help make the ordeal a little more bearable, like extra beverages and munchies for a lights-out or hurricane party.

The list below can be a starting point, although you most likely wouldn’t need everything; this will depend on whether you have small children, pets, and/or family members with special needs.

Also, keep in mind that this doesn’t have to break the bank. “If cost is an issue, many supplies may already be around the house so you just need to gather them,” says Red Cross spokesman Jim Judge. “You can start collecting other items you need little by little as your budget allows. Thrift and second-hand stores are excellent places to pick up items.”

Survival kit basics

One gallon of drinking water per day per person, for a minimum of three days

To kill two birds with one stone, consider storing some of this in the freezer. This way, if there’s no power, it will also help keep food cold.

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Portable water purifiers

These are especially handy if you ever need to evacuate, since you won’t have to carry as much water with you.

Nonperishable foods

Anything that doesn’t need refrigeration (canned, boxed, dried, etc.) is the obvious choice; you can also include long-lasting produce like winter squash, potatoes, apples, etc.

Tea, coffee, and other beverages

Tea bags, alcohol, and bottled or packaged juice are easy enough to keep on hand, but coffee requires forethought. Unless you don’t mind instant, your best bet here is ground coffee (stored in an airtight container) and a French press or a pour-over cone and filters.

Baby supplies

These include:

  • Baby food and formula
  • Diapers, wipes, and baby cream
  • Portable crib and baby blankets
  • Infant carrier
  • Bottles, pacifiers, etc.
  • Toys

Pet supplies

In addition to enough water and pet food for at least three days, you’ll also need a few other things. According to FEMA, these are:

  • A first aid kit (and pet first aid book) and medicines
  • Medical records (which would be needed by kennels, animal shelters, and vets to be sure all vaccinations are current)
  • A leash and a collar or harness with both an ID and rabies tag
  • A crate or pet carrier
  • A photo of you and your pet together (in case you get separated)
  • Toys or other familiar items
  • Sanitation items like pet litter, etc.

Personal Care

This category consists of anything you and your family would need to stay well and keep clean. They include:

  • Toiletries and personal hygiene items
  • Sunscreen
  • Over-the-counter and prescription medications
  • Hand sanitizer, towlettes, toilet paper, and garbage bags
  • Extra eyeglasses and/or contacts (and contact lens solution)
  • Supplies for those with special needs and disabilities (for example, spare hearing aid batteries, extra insulin and cold packs, epinephrine pen, etc.)

Health, Safety, and Misc.

Although this category might seem extensive, many of these are small items and/or things you’ll already have on hand:

  • First aid kit. According to the Red Cross, this should include gauze tape, bandages and sterile pads, antibiotic ointment, aspirin, a blanket, nonlatex gloves, scissors, hydrocortisone, thermometer, tweezers, and an instant cold compress
  • Battery operated or crank radio and NOAA weather radio
  • Solar powered or crank cell charger (or a combo) and/or a car cell phone charger or external battery pack
  • Flashlights and extra batteries, and a battery-powered book light for reading at night
  • Candles and matches or lighters
  • Tool kit with a wrench and other basic tools (especially important if utilities need to be shut off)
  • Misc. supplies. Plastic sheeting or a box of contractor garbage bags for covering broken windows and other sources of leaks, a tarp, rope, duct tape, work and latex gloves, dust mask, and goggles
  • A fire extinguisher
  • Extra keys for your car and house
  • A whistle to signal for help
  • Paper map of your area
  • Manual can opener and corkscrew
  • Paper towels, plates, cups, and mess kits
  • Bleach for disinfecting water and other things, plus a dropper
  • A water bag (this is a light collapsible carrier, often used by campers, that lets you tote water from one spot to another)
  • Cards, puzzles, and non-electronic books and games
  • Rain ponchos, extra footwear for each person, and hats for sun protection
  • Extra blankets and towels
  • Cash in small bills
  • Hard copies of important papers and a list of phone numbers
  • Firewood, charcoal, and/or a gas grill – for indoor and outdoor cooking
  • Backpacks or duffel bags in case you have to evacuate (Note: since evacuation orders can come quickly, you may also want to pack a bug-out-bag ahead of time with food, water, and other necessities)
  • A survival guide, because it never hurts to be extra prepared

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