Events in recent years such as Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 attacks remind us that disasters can strike home at any time. The dizzying list of potential catastrophes is scary: storms, floods, landslides, earthquakes, tornadoes, and terrorism.

It’s depressing to think about, but the thought of disaster happening at any time may actually benefit those wise enough to prepare for calamity.

“Be prepared,” advises Ruth Frechman, MARD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “You never know what could happen. Just a few [steps] can make your life easier in an emergency.”

There are many tips available online for making a disaster plan and for assembling an emergency kit. WebMD has culled information provided by government, health and reputable nonprofit organizations. We offer their most common suggestions for survival, for putting together a disaster kit, and for keeping kits fresh.

Take note, though, that the experts offer a lot of advice and suggest many supplies for the emergency kit. It can all be overwhelming. However, taking the time to read through all the information can make emergency planning easier. And it could save your life.

“Individuals think that they have to do everything [advised by the experts],” says Michelle Hudgins, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross. “Everything is not necessarily right for you or your family. Individuals need to figure out what aspects [of the information] are relevant to their lifestyle.”

Preparing for the unknown does take some time, but it’s hard to argue the price of peace of mind during troubled times.

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Making a Disaster Plan

Finding out what bad things could occur in your community is a step toward preparedness.

“Look at your area. Do you live in a hurricane area? Do you live in a flood zone? Do you live in an area where earthquakes happen? Learn about what you would do in those different disasters,” recommends Kristin Gossel, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s READYAmerica campaign.

There are also man-made disasters to think about, such as explosions, chemical attacks, or biological assaults. In its web site (www.ready.gov), READYAmerica has listed a number of natural and man-made hazards and gives tips on how to deal with them.

Your local government and local Red Cross chapter should also have a list of possible catastrophes and evacuation plans. Learn the emergency signals in your area. Find out the emergency evacuation routes, and discuss them with your family. Determine the best ways to leave your home and the best ways to escape disaster in your neighborhood or town.

If you cannot meet loved ones inside your home, determine a meeting place in the neighborhood (such as by the neighbor’s tree). If that’s not possible, plan another meeting place in the area (such as the local coffee shop or the library). If that’s still not possible, look at evacuation plans outside of the neighborhood or community.

It’s not a bad idea to have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C. Whatever your plans are, make sure everyone in the family knows about it and knows what to do in different scenarios.

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Emergency Phone Contact

Circumstances may prevent meeting, so it’s a good idea to have an out-of-town emergency contact. During disasters, it may be easier to call long distance, since cell phone lines and local telephone networks may be down or overwhelmed.

If the family contact is Grandma in Iowa, for instance, then have everyone call Grandma to check in. “Grandma can take roll. OK, Dad called and he’s at the office, and Mom called and she’s on the way to school to pick up Debbie,” explains Gossel. She says the ability to relay information to a live person can make a big difference in easing worries and calming nerves in time of confusion.

To further ease confusion, check out disaster plans at school, daycare, work, and places where you and your family tend to spend time in the community. Try to coordinate the evacuation procedures at each place to ensure everyone will be able to reach each other, or will end up on the same side of town.

Emergency plans for children, the elderly, and the disabled may require more attention to detail. For example, parents may have to tell their kids to obey the school’s evacuation orders while they are on campus, instead of following the family’s home plan.

Also, don’t forget to think about how to care for pets during an emergency. Many shelters may not allow them inside because of health laws. The American Red Cross web site has information on animal safety.

This is all a lot to remember, so make sure to write down your family’s plans and emergency contact numbers, and give everyone copies.

“You can’t plan for every eventuality of life. But by planning and thinking of some of these things ahead of time, people tend to make themselves calmer and more able to deal with the situation,” says Gossel.

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Assemble an Emergency Kit

There’s no telling what could happen in a disaster, but essential utilities such as running water, electricity, and phone lines could become unavailable. Services or aid might not arrive for days. You might have to flee your home. Or you might not be able to get to your house. In such cases, it will help to have a few things handy.

The Red Cross recommends storing disaster kits in the home, the office, at school, and/or in a vehicle. It’s a good idea to have a more comprehensive kit at home and then have a portable bag of essentials. Wherever your disaster kits are, make sure they are good for at least three days of survival.

At home, the Red Cross suggests stocking up on six basics:

Water. Have one gallon per person per day. For each individual per day, designate at least two quarts of the water for drinking, and the other two quarts for food preparation and sanitation.

Food. Choose items that are compact, lightweight, nonperishable, and require no refrigeration, preparation, or cooking. Suggestions include ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits, and vegetables; canned juices; staples (salt, sugar, pepper, spices); high-energy foods; vitamins; food for infants; and comfort/stress foods.

Make sure to store food that you normally like to eat. Familiar foods can lift spirits in tough times. If you must heat up food, store a can of Sterno.

First aid kit. Make sure there is a kit at home and for each car. It’s a good idea to have nonprescription drugs for pain, diarrhea, upset stomach, vomiting, and constipation.

Clothing and bedding. Have at least one complete change of clothing and footwear per person, including sturdy work shoes or boots, and rain gear. Don’t forget seasonal items such as hats, gloves, thermal underwear, jackets, coats, and sunglasses. Also have blankets or sleeping bags for snoozing.

Tools and emergency supplies. Stock up on kitchen necessities such as can openers, utility knives, and disposable cups, plates, and utensils. Don’t forget sanitation musts such as toilet paper, towelettes, soap, liquid detergent, feminine products, and other personal hygiene items.

Have an emergency preparedness manual handy.

Include a battery-operated radio and flashlight in your kit. Make sure there are extra batteries for both items.

Money. Stash some cash or traveler’s checks. Have coins handy.

Other recommended materials include matches in a waterproof container, a compass, pliers, aluminum foil, plastic storage containers, a signal flare, paper, pencil, needles, thread, medicine dropper, a shut-off wrench, a whistle, duct tape, plastic sheeting, and a map of the area to locate shelters. Special items for medical conditions.

For babies, this may mean formula, diapers, bottles, powdered milk, or medications.

Adults need to remember needed insulin or medications, denture products, contact lenses, and extra eyeglasses.

Portable Bag of Essentials

If you have to leave your home or if access to home isn’t possible, it’s a good idea to have a portable bag of essentials. The San Francisco Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security calls this a “go-bag” and suggests the following contents:

—Some water, food, and manual can opener


—Battery-operated radio



—Personal medications and prescriptions

—Extra keys to your house and vehicle

—Basic First Aid kit and instructions

—Walking shoes, warm clothes, a hat, and rain gear

—Extra prescription eyeglasses, hearing aid, or other vital personal items

—Toilet paper, plastic bags, and other hygiene supplies

—Dust mask

—Pocket knife

—Paper, pens, and tape for leaving messages

—Cash in small denominations

—Copies of insurance and identification cards. (Also, don’t forget your will, contracts, deeds, stocks and bonds, passports, social security cards, immunization records, bank account numbers, credit card account numbers, important telephone numbers, and family records.)

—A recent picture of your family members and pets

—In your child’s go-bag, include a favorite toy, game, or book as well as his or her emergency card with reunification location and out-of-area contact information

Keep Kits Fresh

Make sure you store your kits in airtight, easy-to-carry containers, and in places that are accessible and that will not likely be affected by disasters. For instance, if you live in a tornado zone, it would be inconvenient for your emergency kit to be on the second floor of your home while you and your family are in the basement.

To keep the items in the kits in good condition, store them in cool, dry places that are not exposed to varied conditions. Also, update your kit every six months. The needs of your family change, and items such as food, water, and batteries can become stale. It’s a good idea to write the date of storage on each item.

“The reason to keep your kit fresh is it enables your family to survive longer,” explains Hudgins. “Foods that you just refreshed six months ago have a longer shelf life.”

The Red Cross offers the following guidelines for food storage:

Use within six months:

Water; powdered milk (boxed); dried fruit (in metal container); dry, crisp crackers (in metal container); potatoes

Use within one year:

Canned, condensed meat and vegetable soups; canned fruits, fruit juices and vegetables; ready-to-eat cereals and uncooked instant cereals (in metal containers); peanut butter; jelly; hard candy and canned nuts; vitamin C

May be stored indefinitely (in proper containers and conditions):

Wheat; vegetable oils; dried corn; baking powder; soybeans; instant coffee, tea, and cocoa; salt; non-carbonated soft drinks; white rice; bouillon products; dry pasta; powdered milk (in nitrogen-packed cans).

For more information about disaster plans and emergency kits, check the web sites of the Red Cross, the Department of Homeland Security, and your local government. Some of the web sites also have suggestions on purifying water in an emergency, and on alternate water sources inside and outside your home.

“The information (about disaster preparedness) is always changing in terms of more suggestions and more access to information, so they should check back to all the web sites regularly,” says Hudgins.

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By Dulce Zamora, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Ruth Frechman, MARD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. Michelle Hudgins, spokeswoman, American Red Cross. Kristin Gossel, director, Department of Homeland Security’s READYAmerica campaign. READYAmerica Web site. American Red Cross web site. FEMA web site. San Francisco Office of Emergency Services and Homeland Security. CDC web site. American College of Emergency Physicians.