Recent events in Japan have highlighted the need for emergency preparedness, whether at home, in the car, or at work / school. Do you live in an area where, given the occurrence of a natural (or man-made) disaster, you might face the possibility of being without food / water / electricity / natural gas / gov’t services / etc, for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks? Having lived in California for almost my entire life, I’ve experienced a fair share of earthquakes, yet it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I seriously considered having any type of emergency preparedness kit readily available. While some may think such considerations to be examples of paranoia, I tend to agree with the motto:  “Prepared. Not scared.”

So, should you have an emergency kit and, if you do, what should it contain? First off, I’m no expert in this field, and I’m simply relating data I’ve gathered through research and experience. That said, my answer to the question of whether one should have an emergency kit is a resounding YES! However, while commonality of survival practices will dictate the main contents of the kits (e.g., food, water, first-aid), context will dictate many of the specific contents. For example, not living in a hurricane prone area, I am not too concerned about the effects of a Category 5 storm blowing through, and since we’re not in tornado alley, I have no tornado bunker or strong-room to maintain. However, I have implemented earthquake related safety measures (e.g., bolted bookcases to the walls, have a gas / water shut-off wrench available, keep footwear near the bed).

There is a plethora of information available on how and what to stock in your emergency supply kits. To assist you, many of the sources I have used are listed at the end of this post.

With regards to setting up your own kits, remember these disaster survival categories, prioritized as follows:

  1. Medical: You want to take care of first-aid issues.
  2. Water: hydration.
  3. Food: nourishment.
  4. Shelter: protection from the environment.

As corollaries to the categories listed above, I would add a) the means to protect you and your loved ones from those who wish to do you harm, b) communication with loved ones, both near and distant, and c) being ready to travel – by foot, if necessary.

Let’s take a look at these categories and how they work their way into outfitting an emergency kit for your particular location (i.e., home, work, car).

Medical: Get a first-aid kit – a real first-aid kit. Basic, well-stocked kits are fine, but try to go beyond what they contain and make sure you have additional trauma ready items (tourniquets, clotting agents, splints, etc.). ITS sells a pricey “ETA kit”, specifically for providing immediate aid, and is equipped with items for treating trauma. A cheaper version is found here. Further info on the need for such a kit is found here. If the cost is prohibitive, then piece together the basics. Think about it – you could be facing a major disaster scenario in which you might have acquaintances with significant injuries combined with the lack of access to emergency medical technicians. The size and content of the kit should be dependent on where it’s kept. Obviously a kit in your car will be smaller than one at your home. Make sure the kit contains, at a minimum, the following:  space blanket, OTC medication such as Benadryl, Immodium, etc., rubber or latex gloves, ace bandage, iodine or anti-bacterial cream or hydrogen peroxide. And you should learn at least the basics of first-aid. Remember that food, water, and shelter will do you no good if you or a loved one succumbs to an injury.

Water: You need water to live, but water is heavy – very heavy. For the home, I’ve seen it recommended to have 1 gallon per person per day. Figure on 14 days worth. For your car, make do with a smaller amount, but also have sturdy water bottles and water purification tablets and/or filters. At home, insure you have pots available to purify water by boiling it, if necessary. Note that immediately after a disaster event, tapwater may still be potable. If so, then it is suggested that you fill spare jugs, pails, even your bathtub, for use later. For stored bottled water, note the expiration dates and/or tag the cases, and rotate the supply with a first in / first out (FIFO) methodology. You can live 1 month without food, but only 3 days without water.

Food: Nourishment, both immediate and for up to 2 weeks, is your next concern. If you are away from home (e.g., in the car, at the office / school), and you plan on returning home, keep in mind that damage to the infrastructure may dictate that you walk (more on that later). Therefore, you want the food you may have to carry to be lightweight. While there are specially formulated (read: expensive) power bars, you can find nutrition bars that provide more calories at a better price. Other high protein considerations might be nuts, or some sort of trail mix. In the home, I think you can make do with canned items, cooking oil, and rice. Note that most canned items are already cooked, and also contain water. Canned tuna or chicken is a wonderful way to provide protein in a compact container. Heck, there’s even a method to use a can of tuna as a candle, and then eat the contents when the oil has been used up! Again, rotate your supply with a FIFO mentality. I stay away from pre-packaged meals (e.g., MREs) because I think they are too expensive, although they may provide a bit of variety. To be frugal and efficient, try to stock up with food items you already use such as canned items or, if you’re a backpacker/camper, dehydrated food items. Also, remember that anything which requires boiling or re-hydration will require water, which may be in short supply. If utilities are off, you may want to have an ample supply of propane tanks for a gas grill, or some other method of heating and cooking items.

Shelter: I’m still amazed at how many people take off for a daytrip without paying any heed to the weather forecast. Granted, living on the west coast we don’t really have to deal with the extreme weather events that other places of the country experience. If you are away from home when a major disaster strikes, are you prepared to deal with being exposed to the environment for many hours up to several days? In the car or at the office, carry a lightweight rain poncho, a polartec type sweatshirt, a space blanket, some sort of head covering, work gloves, and even a change of underwear and socks (especially socks – if your feet go bad, you’re sunk). Also, a sturdy pair of walking shoes, and a walking stick, for that potential long walk home. At home, if your house is uninhabitable, use a tent. Have several large tarps available, along with lots of duct tape, and paracord – these items are very versatile. Again, make sure you have access to raingear, cold weather gear, change of clothing, footwear, hand protection, etc.

Protection: People are amazed that, since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, there is little to no looting. Why this is so remains open to debate but, suffice it so say, you’re probably not blessed to live in a similar no-looting locale. Looting after a disaster remains a reality for many of us. There are many methods of self-defense available, ranging in capability from that of mere deterrence to that of lethal force. Depending on the state of residence, the average civilian has the means to acquire pepper spray, tasers, batons, knives (edged weapons), handguns, rifles, and shotguns.

If you choose to use one or several of these types of tools to defend yourself and your family, then by all means get as much training as you can afford! The mere ownership of a weapon does not equate with the state of being prepared to use it. Again: Train, train, train, and then train some more. After training, your next priority should be to know the laws in your state and locality regarding the possession of weapons. In Arizona, if you’re legal to own a handgun you can conceal it on your person, while in California, good luck even getting a permit to carry concealed. In New Mexico you cannot carry a knife, while in Los Angeles you can, provided it’s less than 3 inches in length. Now consider this: Are my references to these laws up to date? Maybe, or maybe not. It is ultimately up to you to know. And during an emergency, it’s also up to you to decide what you will carry with you in the car, at the office, and at home.

Regarding your home situation keep in mind that at least one neighborhood, in the wake of Katrina, was left alone by looters once the looters discovered that the neighborhood was armed. And in the famous 1993 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, looters thought twice about ransacking Korean-owned shops after the armed shop owners banded together to stand guard over their property. If you’re still wavering on whether or not you should have some weapons for self defense consider that, in a disaster, local law enforcement is stretched thin and will be unable to provide even the barest of support (in the southern California area some have calculated there would be 1 law enforcement officer for every couple thousand people). If the disaster is large enough the National Guard will eventually show up, but what will you do until they arrive and, after they arrive, how stretched will even they be?

Communication: If you’re lucky, cell towers will still be functioning… but don’t expect to be lucky. For immediate communication needs, you may want to invest in a relatively inexpensive set of family handheld 2-way radios. Current technology gives quite remarkable ranges to these devices. However, keep in mind that battery packs must be charged or the batteries replaced. If you do go this route, have an agreement on which channels you will be attempting to communicate on… and expect traffic. For telephone communications, have a previously agreed upon out-of-state relative or friend with whom you and your family members will attempt to contact. It will be easier to relay messages through this contact. Whether at or away from home, you should have a portable radio, capable of receiving weather updates. Get a battery-powered model – better yet – get the hand-crank variety. This may be your only link to what the authorities are doing, for some time. You may need access to personal and private information, such as medical prescriptions, ID numbers, financial data, etc. Have this important information written down somewhere secure. While you shouldn’t rely solely on smartphones or tablets, you can either scan or take photos of your important documents, ID cards, credit cards, etc., and upload them to the devices. Even if cell service is out, you can still access photo albums on your smartphone or tablet (provided the battery is charged!).

Going Mobile: No, not as in cellular, but as in evacuation. There may be instances where, despite the habitability of your dwelling, you may be forced to evacuate the premises. It is possible, in California, for wildfires to get out of control, so much so that authorities will first recommend and then mandate resident evacuation. If one lives near a chemical plant there is the potential for chemical leaks, and the resulting evacuation. Or you may face the prospect of having to leave an uninhabitable dwelling and relocating to a relief center. Regardless of the reasons why, you should prepare “bug-out bags”. Bug-out bags are simply backpacks or duffel bags which contain the bare essentials of the critical items listed above. And because authorities or circumstances may dictate only a few minutes notice (think approaching fire or tsunami), it’s best to have these bags prepared ahead of time. How big and how heavy the bags are will be determined by various factors such as whether or not you’ll be evacuating on foot, how much you’re allowed to carry if evacuated by the authorities, how much you’re comfortable carrying, etc. If you are into mountain biking, then you might consider how you would bug out via mountain bike.

Incidentals: Here are some basic, yet essential items, that may not have been covered in the paragraphs above. Consider keeping these available.

Flashlights – get a few good ones (or at least one) and keep them near you at all times. Have a lot of cheap ones littered about.
Batteries – have lots of ’em.
Utility knives & multi-tools – skip the Rambo style “survival” knife and have at least one good knife (fixed blade) and one folding knife… more than one is better.
Visqueen – or polyethylene sheeting – get the thickest you can. Along with duct tape, will help set up temporary shelters.
Plastic trash bags – the garden size variety, will have many uses.
Freezer bags – variety of sizes, variety of uses.
Duct tape – a wonderful invention.
Toilet paper – you don’t really want to use leaves, do you?
Money – Cash, figure on a few hundred dollars.
Eyewear – plus extras.
Prescriptions – if they need to be refilled, and don’t forget eyeglass/contacts prescriptions.
Medicine – OTC as well as prescribed.
Iodine – water purifier – do it right, though.
ID cards.
Duct tape – listed twice… can’t have enough.
Water purification tablets.
Small mirror.
5 gallon buckets.
Candy or sweet treats – as stress relievers.
Copies of important documents.
Lighters or means to start a fire – you may have to build a campfire.
Local maps – no satellite service means no GPS.
Compass – for use with your local maps.
Cell phones – the cell towers will eventually get back online.
Games, books, etc. – recreation during a time of stress.
Signal whistles – pea-less, especially for women and children.
Pry bar – a helpful tool to have around the home.
Sani-wipes – a helpful way to disinfect without wasting water.
Plywood – well this really isn’t a “kit” item, but it’s probably a good idea to have few sheets of 4′ x 8′ plywood in case broken windows need to be covered.

Maintenance: Stocking up on perishable items does you no good if the items perish before you realize it (whether it be food, water, batteries, etc.). Devise a method to check your stock and cycle through (FIFO) your supplies. If you use an electronic calendar of some sort, then add half-yearly reminders to check your emergency kits. Or if you want to get really OCD, keep a spreadsheet of the main contents of your kits as well as expiration and replacement dates (or pay your tech-savvy kids to maintain the spreadsheets). You don’t want to have a disaster strike, open up your kits, and then find your food and batteries expired several years prior.

Resources: Here’s a list of some of the various resources I’ve accessed on this topic.

Emergency Management Gov’t Agency
Cabelas Sporting Goods
Sportsman Guide
Emergency DIsaster Systems
ITS – Blow-out Kit
My Survival 101
Nutrition Bars
Battery Junction
Surefire Flashlights
When All Hell Breaks Loose

Lastly, don’t despair. While the task of preparing emergency kits may seem daunting, it’s really just a matter of having the right mindset and preparing the best you can. Despite what it may look like from my post, I have yet to complete our kits to the level of degree as I’ve just described. Remember, while you should strive to be well prepared, some preparation is better than no preparation. And remember that, ultimately, it’s all in God’s hands.

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