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Don't Get Caught Unprepared

How To Plan for Emergencies Now

You never know when disaster will strike and what form it will take. Of course, there's earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados, but who would have envisioned a massive power outage across the country or the horrible events of September 11, 2001?

As many of the people who suffered through such events can tell you, if you're not prepared to handle the unexpected, even a few hours without power can be more than an inconvenience – especially if you have children and pets to consider.

Put a Plan in Place
Whether or not you live in an area prone to natural disasters, every household should have a plan for emergencies, not to mention a disaster kit with essential items. "Extreme events are rare, but they do occur and at all locations," says Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "It is tempting to focus on the low frequency of these events and just assume that 'it can't happen here.'"

Jan Maddox, 54, of Lexington, Ky., was caught by surprise when an ice storm hit the city. She lost electricity for seven days, meaning no heat, hot water or ability to cook, and she had no phone service for more than a month. While she had plenty of candles and a cell phone which came in handy, she did not have any working flashlights and also could not get her fireplace to work. To better prepare in case it happens again, she's purchased gas logs for her fireplace and keeps several flashlights on hand. "[Having a plan] won't cure the problem," she says. "It helps you get through it with the least amount of scars possible," says Maddox.

"When creating your disaster plans, you should be aware of the most likely hazards in your area," Harrald says. For instance, in California, the top hazards are earthquakes in most places, wildfires and floods in others. "Read the publicly provided material describing the risk and resources in your area," he says.

You can find national information on Web sites created by the American Red Cross and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to deal with scenarios from terrorist attacks to power outages.

Leaving Your Home
The next step is to map out a plan for either evacuating your home or staying where you are. "This includes pre-determining a place to go and how to best get there under differing conditions," Harrald says.

Both plans require you to consider the members of your household: their ages, medical conditions and locations at various times of day. "Since you and your family may not be together when an emergency strikes, it's prudent to be prepared for a variety of situations," says Debra Holtzman, a nationally recognized safety and health expert and the author of the safety book, The Panic-Proof Parent: Creating a Safe Lifestyle for Your Family (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

For example, does your child go to daycare, attend elementary school or go to after-school care? If that facility has a disaster plan, make sure you are familiar with it: Where do the teachers take the children in the event of an emergency? What supplies does the school provide? Do they have your contact information on file – and is it current?

Talk to your spouse about his or her workplace evacuation plan, as well. Decide which parent might most easily pick up the children if necessary and establish a meeting place where all family members can eventually hook up.

While you're at it, designate an out-of-town family member or friend who will serve as the call center for your family. If you can't reach your husband at work, for example, you can contact the "call center" to see if your spouse has checked in to give his whereabouts. "A caller is more likely to connect with a long-distance number outside the emergency area than with a local number within it," says Holtzman.

Lastly, when considering family members, don't forget those with four legs. If you have pets, be aware that some emergency shelters do not allow animals to stay with their owners. You may need to find a hotel outside your area where you can stay with your pet, so write down the numbers of a few chains that have pet policies in your favor. Keep copies of your pet's current health record to prove your dog or cat has received the necessary vaccinations if you must board him in a kennel.

Creating a Kit
Armed with a disaster plan, your next step is to assemble emergency supplies to keep on hand in your home. "The need for having a disaster kit is not new," says Holtzman. "People have kept them for centuries in preparation for storms of various kinds and other natural disasters."

So why doesn't every family have a disaster kit in their closet? For some, the idea of preparing for disaster is too daunting or even depressing. "The most important thing is to just get started," says Sarah Hallford, a mother in Provo, Utah, who educates families about being prepared for disasters. "Even if you can only buy one extra can of soup and bottle of water a week, the sooner you start, the sooner you'll have what you need."

But before you stockpile 30 bags of rice and some mega-sized vats of refried beans, think about what your family enjoys and what you'll actually use in the event of an emergency. "It's really important to store what you will eat and cook," Hallford says. "Four thousand pounds of wheat is useless if you don't know what to do with it."

If you're still having trouble getting motivated, remember that having a disaster kit for your family can be the difference between living through adverse conditions in relative comfort and facing serious consequences of living without food, water or important supplies like prescription medications.

Harrald, for example, recently weathered Hurricane Isabel and was glad to have his disaster kit containing water, flashlights, candles and a portable radio available to his family.

Putting It Into Action
Once you've planned for an emergency and secured your disaster supplies, your work isn't done. Talking to your family periodically about potential disasters is key to being prepared. "Your children are aware, on some level, that we live in a dangerous world," says Holtzman. "You can use the assembling of a disaster kit as a way of talking about the ... possibility of disaster and giving assurances that the family is taking steps to ensure safety no matter what happens."

She also suggests you conduct "disaster drills" during which your family gathers in a designated safe room and stays for an hour or so, eating some of the stored food and drinking some of the water, but replacing everything consumed.

Rotating your supplies is also as important as assembling them. Canned goods, for example, should be discarded after one year, along with bottled water. Designate a time of year when you check your disaster kit and replace any expired goods. Hallford's family, who keeps a disaster kit for each family member in its own backpack, rotates their supplies every October.

Keeping your head in the sand, thinking disasters won't hit close to home, can only put your family at risk. Preparing for the worst "requires us to admit it could happen and to recognize that there are ways of minimizing [a disaster's] impact on us," says Harrald. Start with just one step today, take another step tomorrow, and before you know it, you'll be ready to weather any unexpected storm as safely as possible.

Emergency Kit Essentials
According to Debra Holtzman, author of The Panic-Proof Parent: Creating a Safe Lifestyle for Your Family (McGraw-Hill), your kit should contain a three-day supply of the following items:

  • Supplies for the baby or child's needs such as formula, jars of baby food, bottles, powdered milk, diapers, medications, moist towelettes, diaper rash ointment toys and activities for the children.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Battery-powered radio and extra batteries.
  • Duct tape face masks or handkerchiefs (made from densely-woven cotton material).
  • Blankets and/or a sleeping bag for each person.
  • Canned food, dried food and can opener.
  • Bottled water (1 gallon per day for each person).
  • Paper cups, plates and plastic utensils.
  • Cash or traveler's checks, change.
  • Plastic garbage bags, ties and toilet paper for personal sanitation.
  • Prescription medicines.
  • Pet needs like food, cat litter and medications.

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