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Since life can change in an instant, it makes sense to be prepared. "The best thing you can do is be ready for an emergency," says Mary Margaret Walker, a spokesperson for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Here's what you need to know to keep your family safe.
How can I prepare for an emergency, like a natural disaster?
Learn about the types of natural disasters that are most likely to occur in your area (hurricanes, floods, etc.) and how best to prepare for each. Consider taking an emergency preparation class. Local governments, healthcare centers, and the American Red Cross offer courses on first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and disaster response that can help you prepare for an emergency close to home.
To find your local Red Cross chapter, visit the American Red Cross website and enter your zip code after clicking "Find Your Local Red Cross" on the home page. With luck, you'll never have to use what you learn, but it may give you peace of mind to know that you're ready for a natural disaster or other emergency.
How do I get my family ready for an emergency?
Rather than shield your child or family members, it’s best to educate and involve everyone in emergency preparations.
Plan for a few contingencies based on your usual schedule (what to do if you're at work and your child is at daycare, for instance). The last thing you want is to have to search for each other in the chaos, or find out your child stayed inside during a fire because he didn't know where to go.
Also include contact information for neighbors, family doctors, ambulance services, nearby hospitals, the gas company, and local police, fire, and health departments. Make sure your partner and your child's caregivers have copies of your email address because email might work when phones don't.
(You might even want to program the lock screen on your phone with your emergency contact information, in case someone needs to help you. Search online for apps or DIY tools.)
If you shut off the gas, only a qualified professional should turn it back on. And if you don't know where your shut-offs are, ask your utility company.
Teach your child what to do. Teach your child when and how to call 911, and where to meet outside the house if there's a fire or another reason to evacuate quickly. Your child can also help you assemble an emergency supply kit (see below). It's a good idea to review emergency procedures with your child a couple of times a year too.
Develop an emergency plan. Figure out how your family can get out of the house or apartment quickly (especially if a fire blocks normal exits), and practice this escape route regularly. Also, designate a nearby meeting place – the tree across the street or the corner mailbox, for example – if a fire, flood, earthquake, or other event forces you out of your home.
Create a list of emergency numbers. When you're in the middle of a crisis, it's not always easy to find or remember important phone numbers. So program your phone with emergency numbers, including work, school, and daycare.
Choose an out-of-area emergency contact person. During a disaster, local phone lines and cell towers may go down or become so overloaded with calls that it's difficult to get in touch with anyone in your area. That's why you might want to consider choosing an out-of-area relative or friend to be your family's backup contact person.
Be sure that you and your child's caregivers have that person's personal phone, work phone, and email address with you so that you can exchange messages about how you're doing, where you are, and other vital information.
Be prepared at home. Install and regularly check smoke detectors. Know how to shut off your water, gas, and electric service if local officials instruct you to.
What emergency supplies do I need to have at home?
Store the following items in large, unused, covered garbage cans or in duffel bags. Because many emergencies tend to disrupt power, food, and water supplies, these items will serve you well in most circumstances (See FEMA's complete list of emergency supplies):
Bottled water. Keep at least a three-day supply of water for each family member. Allow for 1 gallon per person per day (2 quarts for drinking and 2 quarts for sanitation).
Nursing mothers, children, and the elderly or sick need slightly more, and you may need to include more water in hot weather or for disinfecting. You’ll also need more if you have pets (see below).
Nonperishable food and eating supplies. Pack a manual (not electric) can opener, paper cups, plates, and utensils. Pack a three-day supply of food for each family member, including items like powdered milk or formula and canned fruit, meat, soup, vegetables, and juice.
Don't forget food for babies or those with special dietary needs. Baby formula can get damaged by heat or cold, so protect it from temperature extremes. Check expiration dates every six months and replace items accordingly.
Medicine and first-aid supplies. Key items include sterile adhesive bandages and pads, antiseptic lotion, a thermometer, tweezers, scissors, latex gloves, and an over-the-counter pain reliever.
In addition, ask your doctor or pharmacist about getting a second set of crucial prescription medications to store in your disaster kit – bearing in mind that they can be damaged by heat and cold. Don't pack them unless you plan to store your kit in a temperate location. If you do decide to stock crucial medications, check the expiration dates every few months and replace as needed.
An extra set of car keys.
A hand-cranked or battery-powered radio. You'll want to tune in for regular updates on the situation and evacuation instructions.
A flashlight. Power outages are almost a given, no matter what the nature of the disaster.
Cash or traveler's checks. Don't count on being able to access an ATM. A credit card should do for expenses like gas, food, and lodging, but it won't work if the power is out. It never hurts to have some money tucked away for unexpected expenses.
Important documents. At some point you'll need access to important documents like wills, deeds, passports, birth and marriage certificates, and insurance papers – especially if you have to abandon your house or leave the area.
You may not want to keep these in an emergency kit, but it might be helpful to have copies. (Store the real documents in a waterproof, fireproof container.)
Sanitation supplies. Keep a stash of toilet paper, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, tampons, sanitary pads, diapers, and wipes in your kit.
Clothes and bedding. Pack a change of clothes and a sturdy pair of shoes for each family member, along with a sleeping bag.
Games and books. If the power goes out, you won't have a computer or other device to help pass the time. A stash of books, games, and toys will help keep everyone in good spirits.
What about the emergency plan at my child’s daycare, school, or camp?
Be familiar with the emergency plan at your child’s daycare, school, or camp. If you can't get to daycare, school, or camp right away during an emergency, for instance, the caregiver will need to know who will pick up your child – such as a designated grandparent or a neighbor – and how to contact them. If the building has to be evacuated because of a fire, chemical contamination, or other problems, you'll need to know where children will be taken and how long they'll be kept there.
Ask whether there's a backup evacuation spot, if the adults responsible for your child have phones, and how you can reach them. Many centers and schools ask parents to supply emergency items for their child, such as extra clothes, diapers, medications, snacks, family photos, and toys or other comforting objects.
If you discover there's no emergency plan, urge the person in charge to develop and implement one as soon as possible. FEMA offers emergency planning courses for educators and administrators. For more information see FEMA's emergency resources for teachers and kids.
What do I do about my pet in an emergency?
The American Veterinary Medical Association provides these guidelines for pet care in the event of an emergency:
- Be sure to have a leash, collar, and harness for each pet in your emergency supply kit.
- Don't forget to include food and water for your pet in your stash of emergency supplies. For an animal or pet, the Humane Society of the United States recommends that you store enough water for him to drink, plus an extra gallon in case he needs to be rinsed off after being exposed to flood waters or chemicals. Also, your pet will need a little extra water if he eats only dry food.
- You'll also want a collapsible cage or airline-approved carrier for each pet, with proper bedding, for transportation and housing. Owning enough carriers to accommodate your pets will help you evacuate them quickly and could mean the difference between life and death for your animals. Familiarize your animals with evacuation procedures and cages or carriers.
- Ask your veterinarian about stickers that you can put on doors to notify rescue personnel that animals are on your property. (You can also order these stickers through the ASPCA.)
- Make sure your animals wear current rabies and identification tags.
- Carry photos of your pet in your wallet or on your phone – preferably ones that include you. Photos can help you find your pet if you become separated from him, and help prove that he belongs to you once he's found.
- If your pet isn't microchipped, consider getting one for your pet from the vet. A microchip can help locate a lost pet in a national recovery database.
What do I do if I have to evacuate?
If you have to evacuate your home or city, don't hesitate. Wear sturdy shoes and protective clothing (layers and water-resistant fabrics are a good idea).
Stick to the roads that are safe, and don't take short cuts. Make sure everyone in your family knows to stay away from downed power lines.
Take your animals with you. You might also want to arrange with a willing neighbor to care for your pet if you're not home in the event of a disaster.