We live in a very strange society in many ways. Think about how weird it is that almost any kind of personal preparation for the future that doesn’t involve putting money in the stock market is viewed as survivalism, and as the territory of crazy people with guns. How strange is it that the language of personal responsibility has been claimed for political purposes by the right to imply that one is personally responsible to be financially secure (and a moral and personal failure if you aren’t) but not personally responsible to be able to meet basic needs in difficult times? It is regarded as perfectly normal that people in blizzard country, tornado country, earthquake country and hurricane country (which is pretty much all the country) have no food, water or ability to take care of themselves during the kind of natural disaster that regularly befalls people in their region and must rely on rescue services.
Perhaps the very oddest thing about us is simply that even in places where natural disasters occur on a regular basis most people think that it would be too much bother to prepare for them adequately. We have been conditioned to simply wait in misery for the power company to get the lights back on, and then to assume that such things won’t happen again. And yet, they always do. Moreover, while no one who needs it, who experiences the worst of a disaster, or who because of age, poverty or illness cannot provide for their own needs should be ashamed of asking for help, those of us who can get out of the way so that rescue workers and social support can concentrate on the vulnerable and needy have an obligation to do so. This is personal responsibility in a legitimate sense – in which the burdens are highest on those best able to alter their circumstances.
In that spirt, I offer 10 resolutions, simple things to do to increase your basic preparedness in the new year.
1. Take some recycled bottles out of your or your neighbor’s bin and fill them with tap water. What could be simpler? Old soda bottles, milk jugs, juice bottles, even wine bottles with screw tops will do. Wash them out thoroughly, and fill them with tap water. Find a corner of your house and stick them there – it is absolutely free (we get rid of a nearly infinite number of beverage bottles in this country), and they’ll fit under a bed, in your freezer (if you have extra space), in a closet or anywhere. Thus, when/if the water goes out – either because you are on a well and the power goes out or because of flooding and contamination or a disruption in service or a water main break, you won’t be dehydrated, thirsty and dirty. The recommendations are 1 gallon per person, with 1 liter per 2 cats or 1/2 gallon per dog per day, although if you can do two gallons, that will give you washing water. Rotate the water every 3 months – use it to flush or water the plants and refill the containers.
Water is necessary for life and good health – it is simple common sense to have some available for an emergency, and it costs virtually no money and very little time.
2. Get a tetanus booster. Besides the fact that many of us garden and work in the dirt that way, the kinds of disasters that befall us often come with penetrating injuries – wood from fallen trees or nails from fallen buildings we are repairing. Anyone who regularly spends time in the garden, shop, works with wood or might endure a disaster (ie, everyone) should keep their tetanus shots up to date – tetanus is endemic and nasty and no one wants it!
3. Purchase long life batteries for your smoke and CO detectors, or test and change regularly, and appropriate fire extinguishers. I think these are better than changing your batteries annually, because they provide long term protection if you screw it up. If the power goes out, most of us are likely to use methods of lighting, cooking and heating that have fire risks – more so because we aren’t accustomed to using the woodstove, the sterno can, the candles, the lanterns all the time. So make sure your fire safety skills are good. Your local fire department probably offers some support services here, but regardless make sure you know what you are doing, have the ability to use things safely, and have appropriate materials to reduce your risk. That means smoke and CO detectors and fire extinguishers you know how to use. It also means getting your chimneys cleaned, your backup heat sources properly installed and using good common sense. Even being cold or sitting in the dark is better than dying in a fire. Make sure you also teach your children good fire skills.
4. Dress appropriately to the environment. Recently a school bus in my region broke down bringing kids back late from afternoon activities. Stuck on the highway on a bitterly cold night, after dark with temperatures dropping rapidly, many of the kids had only flimsy jackets, wore light sneakers rather than boots and were miserable and badly chilled by the time they were picked up. Had rescue not arrived fairly quickly, many of the children might have had to be hospitalized for hypothermia. Their parents had dressed them not for the environment, but for the indoors, assuming that they wouldn’t have to go outside much between home and bus. I’ve known other people caught in snowstorms in the same circumstances. So recognize that things can happen at any time, and as much as possible, prepare. Dress for the weather, even if that means unlayering at work. Anyone who had to walk out of New York City after 9/11 or the 2004 power outage, for example, learned to make sure they brought appropriate walking shoes with them to work. It takes only a little extra thought to be able to handle most environments appropriately.
5. Know your neighbors. They will be your first line of defense if anything bad happens – it is the neighbors who will come to your aid, or you to them. This works both ways – this both prevents all of us from enduring the pain of realizing that your neighbor was suffering alone during a crisis and you didn’t help, and also gives you the support you will need. Tough times make us rely on one another – think how important neighbors are when the trees are down across the road and you have to work together to make access, or when one of you has a generator and everyone else is sitting in the dark. Sure, you can introduce yourself when the building is freezing and the pipes have burst, but a little friendly interaction in advance of that is worth a lot.
The thing about disasters is that after the running-around-and-screaming part, there’s usually a lot of sitting around and waiting. If for no other reason than to have someone to pass the time with while you are standing in line for your water ration or waiting for the trucks to get in, or sitting around in the dark saving flashlight batteries from 5pm on, you should know your neighbors.
6. Keep extra food around. I’m big on food storage as a day-to-day thing – it cuts down on trips to the store, saves money and adds to one’s comfort. I even wrote a book about it. But perhaps that’s too far for you to go – still, it makes sense for you to at least have the makings of a week’s worth of simple, easy to prepare meals that can be kept on the shelf and *that your family will eat* – that means don’t waste your money on all instant stuff or MREs both of which are generally salty, unpleasant and constipating. Instead, how about some potatoes kept in a cool spot for baked potatoes and a good canned (or home canned) chili to go over them? Even some cans of soup, some crackers and dried fruit will make your life considerably better if you can’t get out. Don’t forget coffee, tea or whatever you customarily drink – you’ll be cranky without it, and cranky people are rarely at their best. None of this need cost you much – in _Independence Days_ I describe a plan, made up by an anonymous friend, for spending an additional $5 per week to provide adequate emergency food. Just do a little at a time.
7. Know how to keep warm and cool without supplemental heat or cooling. A lot of hardship, as well as injury and death is caused by temperature extremes that often accompany power outages. I’ve got more detailed information on not freezing here and not frying here.
8. Know how to get your family together quickly in an emergency. Which of you will pick up the kids? Where will you meet if you have to evacuate quickly? Is there a relative or friend who can be the central phone resource, with everyone checking in with them? Do you have directions, including back roads if you have to get out of town quickly? Remember the evacuations for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, where trips that normally are very brief took many hours. What will you do if the gas stations can’t pump? It is worth settling on a plan “I’ll go pick up the kids, you meet me at Aunt Esther’s house.”
Make sure the kids know too!
9. Take a basic first aid course. People get injured and burned in emergencies, because they are doing things they aren’t accustomed to – shovelling three feet of snow, cooking on top of the wood stove, operating chain saws, sleeping in a cold house, unless these are your daily fare (and sometimes even if they are), people get hurt, and sometimes you can’t get them rapidly to medical care, or the medical facilities are so overwhelmed that you don’t want to bring someone in for something trivial. Make sure you know enough to be able to evaluate injuries and illnesses, establish what requires an ambulance and what can be dealt with at home. Make sure you have a good first aid kit as well.
10. Recognize that stuff happens, and every time it does, learn from the experience – assume that it will happen again, if not this year, next or the next. Find ways of making sure you are safe, comfortable, can provide aid to your loved ones and your community, and most of all, that you only turn to limited safety nets when you have to, so that they can meet the needs of the most vulnerable.