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Getting Ready for an Emergency

From natural hazards to threats of terrorism, these troubling times have many parents trying to determine the smartest ways to brace for another national disaster. Should we stock our homes with canned food and bottled water? What kind of emergency plan should be in place?

In times of uncertainty, it's essential to stay calm, says Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., director of the Center for Children's Health and the Environment in New York City. "The best way to protect our children is to stay as close as we can to our normal routines," says Dr. Landrigan. "Stability and a firm sense of framework are extremely important in these circumstances."

Here's what else you can do to protect your family, according to the American Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):

1.Find out your community's risks. Ask your local emergency management office or your American Red Cross chapter which disasters could strike your area. Are hazardous materials produced, stored, or transported near your town? Ask officials how to prepare for and respond to possible emergencies, as well as for any information that might reduce your risks.

2.Create an emergency communications plan. Choose a relative or friend for you and your family to contact in the event that a crisis occurs and it's difficult to reach one another by phone. That person should then contact anyone else who needs to know your whereabouts. (And she should live far away enough from you that she'll be less likely to be involved in the same event.) All family members should have several ways to get in touch with her -- including via cell phone, fax, and e-mail -- and let her know they're safe. It's smart to give your child's school this information, too.

3.Know your school's emergency plan. Will the school keep your children there until a parent or designated adult picks them up, or will they be sent home on the bus? What kind of authorization does the school need to release your child to an adult you've chosen? Does the school have updated contact information for you?

4.Have spare cash. This way you're covered should the ATMs stop working.

5.Keep your gas tank full. If the power is out, gas pumps cannot work.

6.Assemble a disaster supply kit. More than two-thirds of families don't have such a kit, according to a 2003 Harris poll. You'll feel more at ease knowing that all these items are in one place:

  • three-day (or more) supply of water (one gallon per person per day) and nonperishable food
  • can opener
  • tools and supplies (like paper cups, plastic utensils, and a compass)
  • first-aid supplies
  • prescription and non-prescription medication (make sure it hasn't expired)
  • sanitation products (like toilet paper)
  • items for baby (formula, diapers)
  • change of clothing and sleeping bag for each person in your home
  • batteries
  • flashlights
  • battery-powered radio or television
  • a cell phone charger that's powered by a car battery
  • a phone that doesn't require electricity
  • important family documents (like phone numbers, copies of social security cards, and immunization records)
  • items for pets (leash, identification tags)
  • entertainment (games and books)

Keep individual items in airtight plastic bags and store everything in a duffel bag or an unused trash can. FEMA advises preparing three such kits: one for your home, one for your office, and one for your car. The car kit should also contain flares, jumper cables, and seasonal supplies like a shovel, ice scraper, and antifreeze.

Because of the latest chemical weapon threats, FEMA now also recommends keeping duct tape and plastic sheeting (available at hardware and home supply stores) on hand. How useful will these items be in the event of a chemical attack? No one knows. But they may be very helpful during emergencies such as floods and hurricanes, points out American Red Cross President Marsha J. Evans.

What you don't need to do: Buy gas masks and hoard antibiotics in anticipation of a possible attack. Despite recent events, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta does not recommend this. If an emergency occurs, local and state health departments will inform you of the appropriate steps to take to stay safe.

Starting in March 2003, the Red Cross is offering free preparedness courses. During these 1 1/2-hour presentations, families learn, among other things, basic first aid techniques and how to create an emergency communications plan and evacuation plan. To find out if there's a course near you, call 800-RED-CROSS or visit www.redcross.org. If none are being offered in your area, ask for a free guidebook on preparing for emergencies and for specific ways to tailor your disaster supply kit to meet your family's needs.

Preparing for a specific disaster? Select a hazard below for more information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):