How to Prepare for a Natural Disaster

Don't wait till it's too late

There's no need to just hope for the best when you can plan for the worst. Don't wait until disaster strikes to figure out how to respond. Here's how to prep today so your family will be ready for tomorrow.

Come Up with Your Emergency Plan
"The first thing to do is to plan how you'll meet and contact each other in case of an emergency," says Keith Robertory, a preparedness expert with the American Red Cross. Start by setting a meeting place right outside your home; that way, in a fire, for example, you won't have one family member rush to the backyard and one to the front and then wonder if the other's still trapped inside.

You should also ask your office, day care center and school what their emergency plan is and figure out how it fits in with yours, since disasters don't always occur when everyone's home. "My son's school asked all the parents to bring in an earthquake kit," says Dawn Hollier of Los Angeles. "It includes food, water, a blanket, emergency numbers and a note from Mom and Dad saying, 'There's been an earthquake, but don't worry, you're safe with your teachers. We love you and we'll be there as soon as we can.'"

Pick someone out of state to be your family's emergency contact, and give everyone a copy of the number to carry with them at all times.

Talk to Your Kids
Next, explain potential disasters to kids in age-appropriate terms. For example, if a hurricane watch is issued where you live, says Robertory, "you might say something as simple as 'We're going to get a lot of rain and wind.'"

Then assign responsibilities to each member of the household. For example, if you're preparing for a tropical storm, you could ask an older child to bring in trash cans and ask a younger child to count the number of soup cans you have on hand. "If you give everyone something to do, it helps them feel important and gives them some sense of control," Robertory explains, "which makes them better able to deal with recovery after the disaster is over."

Assemble Your Disaster Kit
Put the following items in a large duffle bag in an easily accessible place:

  • Flashlight
  • Battery-powered radio
  • Extra batteries for flashlight and radio
  • First-aid kit
  • Prescription medications
  • Copies of the prescriptions
  • Eyeglasses
  • Copy of eyeglasses prescription
  • At least one gallon of water per person in the household
  • Enough food that doesn't require refrigeration or cooking (such as nuts, granola bars, canned foods, etc.) to last each family member for three days
  • Special items needed for infants (for example, diapers, bottle, bottle warmer, etc.), disabled and elderly members of the household
  • Sleeping bag and bedroll or pillow for each member of the household
  • Checkbook
  • Cash
  • Map of the area
  • Recent photos of each family member

Photocopies of: Both sides of credit cards, driver's licenses, Social Security card, deed or lease, insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates, stocks and bond certificates, wills, recent tax returns

Replace water supplies every three months and food every six months. "We make sure to keep our ice bin in the freezer filled -- that way, it'll help keep everything in the freezer from going bad, and we can also drink the water once it melts," says Stacy Lu of Allendale, New Jersey.

"We also have a family policy to keep at least $500 in the house and at least half a tank of gas in the car at all times," says Lu. "You just never know when you might have to leave town in a hurry." Speaking of which, you should assemble smaller kits, including food, water, a blanket and a flashlight for the car, school and office in addition to the one you have at home.

If all this seems a bit overwhelming and you find yourself preparation-procrastinating, remember Robertory's advice: "It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Even a flashlight and some water in your car would be a great start."

Elizabeth Hurchalla is a freelance writer from Venice, California.

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