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By Molly Blake

Hurricane season is winding down with fewer damaging storms than average, but with a strong El Niño forecast and the usual winter mayhem just around the corner, experts recommend checking your household storm kit to make sure you’re ready for the worst.

El Niño, a warming of waters far out in the Pacific Ocean that impacts weather patterns in the U.S., is among the strongest on record this year and is expected to produce a wetter-than-average winter across much of the southern U.S., according to forecasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And with the official hurricane season running through Nov. 30, it’s still possible that the East Coast or Gulf Coast could still see another powerful storm or two before it’s over.

Regardless of whether that happens, this is a good time to review your household disaster preparedness kit, or put one together if you don’t have one, experts say.

According to David Burke, the director of field operations for Team Rubicon, a nonprofit disaster response organization made up of largely military veterans, families should have food, water and supplies to last a minimum of 72 hours.

“In the off chance of a major event like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, a week is the safest bet,” he said.

Burke recommends that families start with the basics and organize a kit that includes what’s needed to survive with no services (power and water), then add in any extraneous comfort items that will help ease the stress of the experience. Here are some do's and don'ts to keep in mind as you assemble yours:

BUY: A plastic storage tub.

During your next visit to a hardware store, purchase a large plastic storage bin with a lid that tightly secures. Choose a size that suits your family and one with wheels for easy transporting.

BUY: Non-perishable food.

Canned goods (don’t forget the can opener), power bars, nuts and granola bars are great for the short term. If you have very young or elderly family members, remember to include food items such as baby formula, non-perishable baby food or soft food that doesn’t require much chewing.

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Think about how much space you have. A big jar of peanut butter is worth considering but stockpiling 400 cans of carrots is not the best use of resources or space.

BUY: Several heavy duty flashlights and long-lasting batteries.

Each member of the family should have their own light source. Be sure and include enough backup batteries to power the lights for 72 hours. Wrist and neck lanyards or headbands are handy to allow activities that require both hands.

BUY: Bottled water.

You can rinse out a few old gallon milk jugs or liter bottles and fill them with clean water if you prefer. As a general rule, set aside one gallon of water per person per day.

“Water, food and a light source are the easiest things that will provide the most comfort in any major event,” said Burke, a former Marine who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

DON’T BUY: Anything you aren’t comfortable using.

Running out and spending several hundred dollars on a generator, for example, is not the best use of financial resources unless “you are willing to put in the time and effort to learn and practice using it to run your refrigerator or appliances,” he said.

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DON’T BUY: Pre-packaged disaster kits with advanced medical supplies.

A first-aid kit is essential, but be sure that it’s stocked with the basics like adhesive bandages, latex gloves, antibiotic cream, gauze and medical tape. Just as with the generator, splurging on a pack with unfamiliar and complicated equipment isn’t going to help an untrained person, particularly during a stressful situation.

DON’T BUY: Candles.

When you are already in a tense and precarious situation, having open flames is not recommended. Stick to battery-powered light sources like an electric lantern. Again, be sure and stock enough appropriate sized batteries.

DON’T BUY: Special shoes or outerwear or other gimmicky gear.

“After any event, making sure your feet are covered and you stay warm and dry is really important, but that doesn’t mean you need to buy anything special,” said Burke. Grab an old pair of running shoes, scuffed boots, or sweatshirts that were headed for the trash and toss them in the bin just in case.

A few other items that should be included:

  • Extra blankets
  • Cash
  • Essential medications

Before and during any natural disaster, be sure and heed any evacuation warnings and emergency management messages.

Finally, and perhaps most important, “Make sure your home is safe to be in and, if it’s possible and safe, go out and check on your neighbors,” said Burke.

“Walk across the street and make sure people around you have enough water and food. If everyone does that down every block in their neighborhood, then far fewer people will be put in a bad situation.”