In the midst of Coronavirus frenzy I decided to bring up a blog post I’ve been slowly writing for some time now. I am what I would consider a tentative “prepper” I like to be prepared for the threats that I think are most likely without going crazy and building a nuclear bunker in my back yard. I think there are a few things that we can all do to improve our preparedness that have little effect to your day to day life, but can significantly increase your comfort and decrease your stress in an emergency.
The best time to prepare for an emergency is two months ago, the next best time is now. This will certainly pass, when it does, use it as an opportunity to improve your plan. Don’t fall into a recency bias and only prepare for diseases, think holistically and optimize for preparations that will help you in multiple disasters.
You don’t want to be stuck grabbing the last bottle of hand sanitizer when a disease outbreak occurs, and you don’t want to be trying to look up how to escape an earthquake when it’s happening. Take a few hours to make a plan and support it so when something happens you and your loved ones know what to do and can feel safe in a location of your choosing.
In preparing for an emergency I think about the likelihood of the risk, the cost of mitigating the risk and the duration that I’ll have to deal with the threat. My philosophy is that building a bunker in my back yard or spending half a million dollars on a cabin in the woods is very much overkill, but mitigating some level of risk for your location is worthwhile.
Since I live in Seattle I think about earthquakes and city-wide outages (power, water, sewer, gas, food, etc.). I live in a place where a tsunami isn’t a concern. Disease outbreaks, as indicated by the recent spread of COVID-19 shows, is a risk anywhere and everywhere. We live in a very connected world.
The pre-planning of a disaster is what is most important. There are fast (earthquake) and slow (disease) disasters, but you never want to be rushing to make a decision or stock up on supplies.
For diseases I mostly think about cleaning supplies, self-quarantine, and plans to stay at home for extended periods of time. Having soap, water, alcohol, hand sanitizer, lysol spray and wipes, and other cleaners is a good plan. Consider having a plan to leave the city if a major infection occurs may be a good idea. Of course public transportation in such a situation is not a good choice. Stay away from airplanes, airports, large boats, and busses. Opt for driving your own car out of the city if need be. Understand that if there is a panic in a city roads will quickly clog.
In the case of a fast emergency it’s important to have a plan to get the family together from wherever they may be. For our kids it’s important that they know what to do and we know where they’ll be. A good general assumption is that if there’s an emergency the roads will be mostly impassable so you’ll be on foot. Think about the worst case of rush hour traffic that you’ve ever been stuck in and imagine that everybody in the city is trying to get home at the same time (and they’re in a frenzy to get there), sitting in your car on I-5 isn’t where you want to be.
In order to get everybody home I have built a “Get Home Bag” (GHB) for my wife and I. This includes anything that we’ll need to get us safely home. Think about the distance you’ll have to walk if bridges and some roads are out, then assume you’ll be walking only 1-2 miles per hour to figure out how long you’ll need to be out. Always assume you’ll need to stay at least one night somewhere away from your home or other safe place. These bags either stay in our car or at the office.
Once home I prepare in stages. Most likely emergency services will be able to get support relatively quickly, however it took more than a week for FEMA to respond completely to Hurricane Katrina, so it’s reasonable to “hope for the best and plan for the worst” in this case having enough food, water, and shelter for about a week.
All of the lists below are sorted in the order of consumption. For example it’s better to drink water from the Aqua-tainer before pulling out the purification tablets.
Once at home the plan is to stay there unless it is unsafe to do so. We want to have enough supplies to stay relatively comfortable for at least a week. Besides the Pets, Food, Water, Shelter, and Medical supplies listed below and the non-consumable supplies that will presumably be returned to the house in the GHB there are a number of other supplies that stay at home in Rubber storage bins for organization, preservation, and easy packing if we do need to move. I measured the interior of the back of my SUV to make sure the bins will fit side by side without any other re-shuffling. Best not to have to make too many decisions in an emergency, so I don’t want to have to think about repacking on a timeline.
- Clothes - 2-3 changes of clothes per person
- Consider that you won’t be able to predict the season, so have a range of lightweight layers for 2-3 days
- Medical supplies
- Cleaning supplies
- Generator & fuel
- Personal protection
- Safe, keys, codes, passwords
- Radios: multi-band radio for emergency radio signals, HAM radio if you are certified.
We also have two dogs, so it is important to think about the food and water that they will need. Luckily they’re pretty easy to plan for. Making sure we have an extra (sealed) bag of dog food is easy, and they can drink most water in an emergency, but it’s good to plan for an extra gallon of water each day for them. If your pets have medicines or need special care think about those things. Having a copy of their vaccination records and other registration information is good too. Finally make sure you have their collars and leashes, and potentially a longer rope to keep them close to you.
We have multiple stages of food in increasing shelf stableness, and decreasing tastiness.
- Refrigerator - if you’ve lost power, keep your freezer doors closed to extend the time you have before things thaw and eat the food in your refrigerator.
- Fridge Freezer - Second eat the food in the freezer attached to your refrigerator
- Chest Freezer - If you have a chest freezer, that’s next.
- Canned and Dried foods - Canned foods are all good to eat without cooking, Dried foods like pasta, rice and beans can be difficult to cook in an emergency (think of the water and heat needed), but if you have a way of cooking them, that’s next.
- Dehydrated foods - dehydrated food like backpacking camp food is lighter and lasts longer, so you’ll want to reserve that in case you have to travel. You’ll appreciate carrying dehydrated foods over a bunch of canned green beans any day.
- MREs - MREs are designed to be long term shelf stable, they are supposed to be inspected every 5 years, but can last much, much longer than that. These are good to have in your GHB, and in an emergency you can get by on just one per day for a few days.
- Emergency SOS food bar rations - the US Coast Guard has designed an emergency food ration bar, which is a good last resort. They’re essentially just sugar, flour, vegetable oil, and wheat with some very basic nutrients to keep you alive.
The CDC recommends that you have at least one gallon of water per person per day of an emergency. I think it’s good to plan for a bit more, but that’s the minimum. Like the food I have different stages for water.
- 7 gallon “Aqua-tainer” - this is a stackable rigid water container. It’s easy to keep it full and cycle the water ever 6 months or so.
- Gallon jugs of water - Just like you’d pick up at the grocery store. They’re more portable than the larger size.
- 16 oz water bottles - I have two cases of water bottles this size.
- Single walled steel water bottles - in each GHB I have a single walled steel water bottle with water. Single walled allows you to boil water in the bottle if need be
- Water filters - I have a water filter pump at the house and a Sawyer MINI water filtration system in each GHB
- Water purification tablets - each GHB has a jar of water purification tablets and the house has two more jars of tablets. Each jar has 50 tabs and two tablets will purify one liter. In an emergency that’ll give us an additional 25 or so gallons of water that is “biologically suitable to drink”
We do a fair bit of camping, so our tent, sleeping bags, and other things are available for shelter.
The plan would be to stay in the house if possible and only move outside if necessary.
In our GHBs we have light weight “Life Bivys” they’re essentially a water proof mylar emergency blanket in bivy sack form. These plus some warm clothes would make for a survivable night.
Each GHB has a light weight first aid kit which includes everything needed for basic emergencies. I add to that trauma compression bandages.
The house has a much more thorough emergency medical kit.
Getting training to the First Responder level is a good idea. I opted for the “Wilderness First Responder” Course as it focuses on medical training in limited resource situations. Include epi-pens, benedryl, etc. if you have any allergies, even if you don’t have allergies it’s good to have these in an emergency. Of course if you or your loved ones have any prescriptions make sure you have those.
Get Home Bag Supplies
Each Get Home Bag (GHB) has supplies for surviving three days away from the house or office. Assume you’ll be sleeping on the ground, with only the resources in the pack. The pack includes supplies to help get access to other supplies along the way though. For example it’d be very heavy to carry 3 gallons of water, instead cary a bit of water and a water filter. It’s not reasonable to carry a bike on your back, but having a pair of bolt cutters to acquire a bike is a better choice. We’re not talking about looting here, only about making sure you get home safely and quickly. All of these resources are assumed to be used when we get home as well.
- MREs - three per bag
- 40 oz steel single walled water bottle - single walled allows you to boil water in it, which is important
- Sawyer MINI water filtration system
- Water purification tablets
- Flameless double arc electric lighters
- Zippo Typhoon matches
- Easy spark tinders and flint
- Zippo emergency fire kit
- Clothes/weather protection
- Rain jacket
- Wool/fleece sweater, pants
- Wool socks
- Good shoes
- Life bivy
- Seattle and Washington paper maps
- Wilderness navigation guide books
- Emergency whistle
- Tactical pen (writing and defense)
- Pepper spray
- Emergency first aid kit
- Hand sanitizer wipes (better than gel because it is more stable and can wipe surfaces)
- Solar charger 25000mAh power bank + cables and chargers (check charge every 6 months)
- LED tactical flashlights (uses AAA batteries, not specialized batteries)
- Bolt cutters
- 100 ft 550 paracord
- Safety goggles
- Zip ties
- Gerber multi-tool
- Particulate respirator (face mask)
- Fixed blade knife
- Gorilla tape
- Work gloves
- Ear protection
Photo Credit: Adli Wahid