Preparing for Emergencies

This past Saturday night, a massive storm ripped through New England, creating what can generously be described as total havoc. We never get storms like this in October. Yet where my wife Zoe and I live in a rural part of Western Massachusetts, we received over a foot of wet, heavy snow in one night.

The result? Tens of thousands of trees came crashing down, power lines fell, telephone lines were severed, roads became wastelands of hopping wires and broken limbs, and three million of us were left without power or phone service. My wife and I were also left without running water.

Fortunately, we have a wood-burning stove, lots of wood ready to burn, and a mountain of snow to melt in pans on the stove. I have been able to make tea, and we warm ourselves by the fire as the evening cools and the frosty night sets in. No matter what, we are far better off than people who live on the streets, and for us this is an inconvenience, not a true disaster. But I have watched the thousands of people cruising for a cup of coffee, have seen the endlessly long gas lines in neighboring towns that have power, and have observed the power crews, some from as far away as the state of Kansas, wrestling with the results of our freak October storm. All of this has gotten me thinking about basic health and safety and preparedness for emergencies.

Any time I hear that a storm is on the way, I fill the tank of my car to the top. Who knows what may happen? Here where there is no power, the gas pumps don’t work. If you need to get someplace and have no gas, you are just plain out of luck. So in the event of a coming storm, fill up. At least then you can be mobile if you need to.

We keep several flashlights handy, and this has proven highly valuable. I can’t recommend LED flashlights highly enough. They typically have very bright beams, they last for longer than we will, and they sip battery power. A decent LED flashlight and a couple of AA batteries can carry you through a multi-day power outage.

But flashlights aren’t the only lights to keep around. We also make a point of stocking a large number of candles, candle holders, and matches. Woe be to the person who has candles but no way to light them! Votive candles will last for a few hours, and larger candles in glass holders may burn for as long as fifteen hours. When the night is pitch black, you’ll be thankful for candles, no doubt.

If you wish to be connected to the rest of the world during a total power outage, few things are as handy as a hand-crank radio. These require no power source of any kind. Just crank them by hand, and you’re good to go. Keep up with weather, important news and the latest on storm recovery with a hand-crank radio, typically costing about twenty dollars. Otherwise, you may wind up sitting around without a clue about what is happening.

Having a source of heat that does not require electricity is important, unless you live in a warm climate. In our house, the wood stove has proven to be a life-saver. It literally heats most of the house. Most oil or gas furnaces have electric starters, so they won’t work. But a separate heater run by propane, or a wood stove, can mean the difference between staying in your own home or going off to Skokie to visit Aunt Margaret for a week.

What about food? Canned goods are very handy in emergencies. Some soup, beans, and canned veggies can satisfy, long after the food in the fridge has completely rotted and needs to be thrown away. In the cold, bread will keep nicely, and you can toast it on top of a wood stove. Like a good cup of coffee? Keep some ground beans around. We can heat water on our stove just fine, but rely on a grinder to make coffee fresh each morning. As a result, we have to drive for a cup of Joe.

A great thing to have in a situation like this is a generator. We don’t have one, and I will correct that very soon. A visit to Home Depot was revealing. The waiting list for generators was dozens of names long. It often takes an emergency for people to think about better preparedness. In the event of a power outage, a generator can keep your lights on, your water pump going, and your refrigerator running. Generators take gas, so be sure to stock up on twenty gallons or so, stored safely away from your house.

Those who make out well in the type of emergency we are facing are the ones who have solar or wind power. While we are figuring out clever ways to get by, our friends with solar power are enjoying their time off at home, and have barely been inconvenienced at all. When you consider that the sun blasts our fair planet with more energy in one hour than we can ever dig or suck out of the ground in our entire lives, solar is clearly the way of the future. We will surely install some solar panels, as it’s just silly to miss out on massive amounts of free energy. One easy way to benefit from solar power is to get a few solar garden lights. Keep them outside in the sun during the day, and bring them inside to illuminate your home at night. The sun is free.

If you are on medications, be sure to keep enough on hand, as you never know when you may be involuntarily stuck at home and in great need. Bandages and first aid supplies can make a difference between fixing a cut or bleeding all over the place.

Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. We have had a wake-up call here. When do we ever get a foot of snow in October that rips down all the power lines? We have experienced that, and who knows what else may occur. As the Boy Scout motto says, be prepared!

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at