Are You Prepared for an Emergency?

Don't feel bad if the answer's no -- most Americans aren't. But the process isn't as daunting as you might think. A pediatrician mom walks you through it.
emergency kit

Lucas Zarebinksi

I've finally done it. I've made a disaster kit and created a communication plan for my family in case of an emergency. Until recently, every time I started to prepare for a disaster, I got so rattled just by the thought of one that I gave up. But as a pediatrician who has cared for children after tragedies and as a mom of two young sons, I should know better. So I faced my fears and forged ahead, and I'm here to help you do the same.

Less than half of us have prepared our family for a catastrophe, according to a 2010 study in Clinical Pediatrics. Since September is National Preparedness Month and marks the tenth anniversary of September 11 -- and with the recent disasters in Japan and the American Midwest and Southeast states still fresh in our mind -- it's time for all of us to take this task seriously. "Although disasters are rare, prepping for them is one of those crucial 'just in case' precautions, like having smoke detectors," explains Parents advisor Irwin Redlener, M.D., director of the Center for National Preparedness at Columbia University. Planning for a catastrophe also makes you ready for a less severe event like a fire or a local power outage.

So don't freak out. You can do this. As you start this journey, expect that it's going to cost you some cash. I spent roughly $350 getting my home and family prepared. (Ouch, I know. Consider saving up for a few months.) I also devoted about 15 hours to this project; try taking a day off to make some real progress. You might make your kit with a friend -- I did, and we encouraged each other along the way.

Trust me: You'll always be glad you took the time to improve your family's safety. You'll feel more secure and better able to function in any unexpected event.

Step One: Create a Communication Plan

  • Teach your child one parent's cell-phone number or a good contact number. Starting at around age 5, kids are developmentally ready to memorize a 7- or 10-digit number. Practice with your child and
    turn the phone number into a song, like a modified version of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
  • Designate an out-of-state contact. This will be a resource and point person for your family to call.
  • Choose a location other than your home where your family can meet. You'll need to go there in case of a fire or an earthquake, for example. Your meeting place might be a local park, school, or shelter. Walk to the site with your child so he knows exactly how to get there.
  • Designate a trusted friend or family member who can pick up your kid at child care or school if you are unable to get there in a disaster situation. Be sure that you give official permission to release your child to that person.
  • Make a card with your plan for each adult's wallet. Include contact names, your emergency location, and the out-of-state contact number. Put a copy in your school-age child's backpack, and discuss the plan with your kids.
  • Inform caregivers and nearby relatives of your plan. Be sure to give a copy of your plan to your child's teacher too.
  • Write a letter for your child to have in case of an emergency and leave it with child care or school.
    I found this to be especially difficult, but I did it and you can too. If you're ever separated from your child, you'll both be comforted. (See "A Letter to Our Son," on page 3.)
  • If you're not good at texting, improve your skills. When cell- phone signal strength goes down, texting often still works because it uses less bandwidth and network capacity.

Step Two: Assemble a Kit

  • If you can afford a premade three-day emergency kit, buy it. Order online from the American Red Cross (from $50; Kits have food, water, light sticks, a poncho, a breathing mask, and other supplies. It's only enough for one person, and it won't contain everything I suggest below, but it's a good start.
  • Gather the rest of your supplies. See "What Goes in Your Emergency Kit," on Page 2.
  • Purchase 20-gallon plastic containers with lids to store all your emergency gear. If you have limited space, consider buying containers that fit under your bed.
  • Make some "refresh" cards. That is, keep a list taped to the top of each box in your emergency kit that details which items need to be replenished, or which info needs updating, and when. For example, some of the food I bought expires in 2012. It's all on my refresh card. Put a reminder in your phone or on your family calendar that tells you to check your refresh card and revise your kit as needed.
  • Stash some cash. I suggest you have $150 or more ready in case of emergency (but any amount is better than nothing). And no "borrowing" from the emergency kit when you're short of cash! Leave it alone so it's available if you ever need it.
  • Determine where to keep the kit. A garage or a lower level near a door is ideal. If you live in an apartment, maybe there's a common area with storage that you can use.

Step Three: Know Your Neighborhood

Look into how at-risk your own area may be, suggests Jeffrey Upperman, M.D., a pediatric surgeon who heads the trauma center at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Contact your local fire department and school to inquire about specific threats to your neighborhood such as unstable trees, streets prone to flooding, or transportation challenges.

After gathering that info, it's essential to figure out how your neighbors can work together in the event of an emergency, says Dr. Upperman. For example, if you're a nurse or a teacher, you may have a comprehensive first-aid kit available, and if a carpenter lives on your street, he might have tools or equipment that would be useful in an emergency. Pool your expertise and resources! It will ultimately save lives. This is one part of my plan that I still need to improve; we recently moved and I don't know many of my neighbors yet. So I'm right there with you working on it.

Two Ways to Protect Your Home Right Now

1. If you have natural gas, learn how to turn off the gas where it enters your home. If there's any disruption or damage to the gas line due to an earthquake or severe damage to your home, this will reduce the risk of fire. It's easier than I ever imagined, and so necessary. Purchase a 12-inch adjustable wrench or pliers that allow you to turn the valve. Then leave the tool at the site of the gas valve on the outside of your house, and add another to your emergency kit.

2. Familiarize yourself with the main water shut-off valve in your home. Practice turning it off so that if your water safety cannot be assured or if there's a leak in your pipes, you'll be able to quickly turn off all the water flowing into your home.

Baby Care Basics: Baby First Aid
Baby Care Basics: Baby First Aid

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