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Home emergency preparedness: How to get ready vs. overreact

Paoli Hospital March 25, 2020 General Wellness

Whether you’re the type of person to have scooped up every last roll of toilet paper three weeks before anyone was even thinking about home emergency preparedness, or you’re the kind of person who thinks “stocking up” means getting a box of assorted bandages, the idea of having a few things on hand is on people’s minds a lot more these days. 

Just how much to have and how long it would need to last is another question. While this is very much a personal and family choice based on your own comfort level, the world has certainly changed with COVID-19 and people are re-evaluating how they might handle emergency situations. Whereas before you might have thought a “three-day supply” of just about anything was something you could round up in your house if you really needed to, because—let’s face it—you never really thought you’d need to, now at least a separate storage bin full of home emergency supplies sounds like a good idea.

For purposes of this article, we’re going with the Red Cross emergency preparedness guidelines, which include a two-week supply of nonperishable food as well as water. Keep in mind, this is a “reserve” to be kept aside, for example, in a basement or closet, separate from your everyday access. For some families, this may be an expense and a space constraint. So again, take the information that is doable and feels right for you and your family and your living situation at this time.

What you should have in your home emergency preparedness kit

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with “what-ifs” so start with your basic needs. If you have kids, get them involved in making a list and gathering things up or doing some shopping—whether online or at the store. 

Here are the fundamentals:

  • A bin to contain everything—A large clear plastic storage bin allows you to readily see what’s inside and where everything is. Be sure to place like items with like items so all food and pantry items are together, all first aid items are together and so forth. If you have to have more than one bin, that’s okay, but also think in terms of what you’d have to carry if you had to evacuate in a hurry. Most importantly, everything is contained all in one place where it’s easily accessible to everyone in the household.
  • Nonperishable food—This means anything that doesn’t need to go in the refrigerator. While three dozen cans of beans for your family of four might seem the most obvious choice, you might want to venture out with other types of protein options like jerky (meat or vegan), protein powder (just add water), protein bars, nuts and trail mix snacks, granola and tuna packs. “In addition to nonperishables, have a few meals that are frozen,” advises Lisa Eckenrode, trauma injury prevention and outreach coordinator at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health, who also recommends ready.gov/food for additional food suggestions in times of crisis. Hot beverages like hot chocolate packs and instant coffee and tea are essentials as are dried beans, rice and oatmeal, as well as dried fruit for those with a sweet tooth. (And be sure to purchase an extra manual can opener exclusively for the emergency kit.)

    Now—if you’re just coming up with a two-week plan for the first time, you’re going to need to do the math. Think about how much each person in the household might consume (conservatively) on a daily basis, including snacks, now multiply that times 14 days. Then multiply that number by however many people you’ll need to account for. For those who are doing this exercise for the first time, it might be a bit overwhelming—especially when you think about the hefty grocery bill—in which case, you may want to start small and grow your home emergency preparedness kit little by little.
  • Water—There is plenty of water coming of your tap right now and it is highly unlikely that you will lose access to fresh clean drinking water, whether from the tap or at your local store. In the event, however, that utilities are somehow affected, or your own home’s access to utilities are affected, the Red Cross recommends a two-week home supply of bottled water in the amount of one gallon per person, per day. For both food and water supplies, be sure to consider any pet needs as well. 
  • Medications—In times of crisis, you won’t be able to run to the medicine cabinet and peruse all those half-empty bottles and think clearly about what someone might need for headache, body ache, fever and so on. If you haven’t already done so, it’s time to get yourself and your family a good first aid kit. This would also be the place to stash a three-day supply of your prescription medications. Think of having some essentials along these lines:

    -  Adhesive bandages                                             -  Antacids

    -  Anti-diarrhea medication                                     -  Antiseptic spray

    -   Aspirin and non-aspirin pain relievers                 Cold packs

    -  Emetic (to induce vomiting)                                -  Gauze pads

    -  Hydrogen peroxide                                             -  Hypoallergenic adhesive tape

    -  Latex gloves                                                       -  Laxatives

    -  Petroleum jelly or lubricant                                 -  Rubbing Alcohol

    -  Scissors, tweezers                                             -  Thermometer

  • Cleaning supplies—Although having cleaning items in stock might not have been on the list in the past, you can see why they’re considered a “necessity” according to Eckenrode, who encourages people to be prepared for 14 days in the event of quarantine. Included on her list of recommendations are one gallon of bleach, one household-size cleaning solution, a 10-pack of paper towels, one box of trash bags, and one to two containers of laundry detergent. 
  • Battery-powered radio—Like the good old days of transistor radios, these have an antenna that folds up and down and the radio gets lousy reception, except for the NOAA Weather Radio channel –which is the only one you’re going to need. NOAA not only alerts you to continuous weather information throughout your area but it’s also your source for any kind of emergency information at federal, state and local levels. If you had no internet and no access to the “outside world,” the NOAA channel could keep you connected to what’s happening, what to do, where to go, and so forth. And nowadays, these radios can be pretty fancy. You can get them with solar- and crank-powered, and with USB ports and reading lights. 
  • Flashlight(s) with batteries—The most obvious item might be one of the most challenging for some. Ask many a household to go grab a flashlight that actually works or has strong enough batteries to put out a good beam. And besides, for your home emergency preparedness kit, you’ll be setting aside a flashlight (or two) that is separate from other flashlights you would use in your home. Most importantly, make sure to have fresh batteries in the flashlight and swap them out from time to time to avoid corrosion. 
  • Toilet paper—This is one thing Americans are pretty well stocked up on in 2020! Maybe the run for the rolls was a bit much, but it’s not a bad idea to have some “forgotten” inventory stored away with your home emergency preparedness kit. As for personal hygiene products in general, adds Eckenrode, “You just need to have two weeks’ worth – not two years’!”
  • Feminine hygiene products—Among things you might not think of in a panic, tampons, pads, wipes and anything else you care to set aside.
  • A warm change of clothing—You may not ever need it but somehow it just makes good sense to have a set of clean, dry clothing, some socks, boots, and a good rain poncho available. All of this is completely optional, of course, depending on where you live, what you’re comfortable with, and what’s most important to you. 

A note to families with babies and small children, be sure to set aside formula, diapers, ointments and medications. Gather up extras of any other items your family might need in an emergency situation.

Once you’ve gathered up some primary items for your kit, it’s also a good idea to take a look at what’s in your kit from time to time. Have any food items expired or are they due to expire? Have any medication needs changed? Is there anything else in your home life that needs to be considered? If you have kids, be sure to get them thinking as well. They may want to add some playing cards, or a favorite puzzle book and pencils. And of course, they always have a lot of ideas for snacks!

For additional emergency preparedness guidance, you’ll find great information on Ready PA  as well as Ready.gov.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.