Imagine that you wake up one morning and the power is out. Some of us have recently had this experience due to winter weather. As you lay in bed you might wonder, “Will it be on in a little while if I just lay here and stay warm? What if it’s out for a couple of days… or weeks? What if something has happened and it never comes back on?” None of us like to think about these things, but, thinking about it beforehand can get you through a tough situation with much less suffering. It could possibly even save your life.
Some other possibilities we hear about on the news regularly could be; your car slides into the ditch and you are 10 miles from town with no cell phone reception, a policeman knocks on your door and tells you there’s a chemical spill in the area and you must evacuate immediately, a storm knocks out power and there is a mad scramble at the few stores that are open for everything from ice to generators, or a flood forces you to evacuate.
Emergency preparedness comes in several levels. The “grab and go”, assuming you will not be able to return home for a few days, the long term - stay in your home kind of problem, and the long term, abandon your home kind of problem. These are only generalities but you never know when some variation or combination of these may occur.
Some things to consider are: Do you want to wait, hoping someone will come along, meet your needs and take care of you? Can you count on that happening? Can you show up at a friend’s home with nothing but the clothes on your back and expect them to take care of you? What if they are affected too? Do you have enough gas in your car to get out of the area? Do you have the means to buy gas when you get to where it is available? Do you even know how to get the garage door open when the power is out?
There is more to these questions than can be addressed in a short time, but the following information may be of some help to you. The thing you really must do is to take responsibility for yourself and plan out how you will survive, at least for the most likely things that could happen. Do some research, network with friends, get some plans in place and figure out how to team up and get through. The purpose of this presentation is not to tell you how to handle everything, but rather to get you thinking about how to deal with unexpected situations.
Grab and Go
This is often called a “bug out bag”. The idea is that you need some specific essentials to be ready to go on very short notice. Only you can determine what your specific necessary essentials are, but there is a lot of good information on the internet that you can research for free. Don’t forget medicines and special needs items. Keep these things together in a backpack or shoulder bag that you can carry a long distance if you must. Remember to rotate perishables such as medicine and batteries as necessary.
The next step should be a larger backpack containing more of the items that make life easier. The absolute essentials should be on your person with less critical essentials in your bug out bags. The larger backpack can contain things that are highly desirable but not life and death. A change of clothing, more food and medical supplies and perhaps a roll of toilet paper would be some good suggestions.
The largest grab and go you can probably do is whatever you can fit into your automobile (and trailer, if you have one). This is another area you should carefully plan and prepare to execute. If you have time to pack them you will be able to take along many more items that will make life away from home easier. Organize beforehand so you can pack quickly without forgetting anything.
What Every Automobile needs:
Some things should be kept in the vehicle at all times. Even if you don’t know how to use them, they will be invaluable if someone happens along who does. Better yet, learn how to use them.
A good spare tire and tools
Jumper cables or a jumper cell
A tow rope, chain or cable (with hooks)
A basic tool set
Fuses for your model vehicle
A roll of duct tape
A small fuel can (preferably a new one that is left empty)
A siphon hose (self starting type is best)
Spare belts, hoses and light bulbs
Stick on the windshield compass (Don't forget to grab it if you have to leave the car.)
All passengers must have appropriate shoes and clothing in case you have to walk a few miles. In winter, this means boots, hats and gloves for everyone. Don’t forget to bring your small bug out bag for food, water, medicine, etc.
Do the research to determine what you need in your car and make your own kit.
Preparing Your Home
This can get expensive if you install things like a backup heating system, solar panels and/or a failover generator. On the other hand a little knowledge and a few simple preparations can make a world of difference.
Consider the best ways to mitigate the effects of a loss of power. A generator may be a good answer and a decent model can be bought for under $600. That’s enough to run your sump pump, furnace, refrigerator and a couple lights. (Gas furnaces still need electricity!) If your generator is a small model you can alternately plug in the devices one at a time to prevent overloading the generator. Run the generator only as needed if fuel is hard to find. It may not be a bad idea to learn how to siphon gas out of your vehicle in case you can’t buy any for a few days. To avoid carbon monoxide buildup, never run a generator indoors, and keep it a few feet away from any doors and windows. Even a closed window can leak fumes into the house.
Back-feeding your electric panel to connect the generator to your appliances is a dangerous practice and should only be attempted if you know what you are doing. If you have any doubt, just run the extension cord from the generator through a door or window, or even a dryer vent and plug your appliance in directly. Your furnace is probably wired directly into your fuse or breaker panel. If you need to learn how to connect your furnace to the generator, the best time to do that is not when you need it, but on some nice day when a friend or electrician can show you how to deal with it.
If you live in an apartment, you may not have a good place to set up a generator. In any case you will want to have on hand a couple good flashlights and a battery powered (or self powered) radio. A spare cell phone battery and a way to charge it may also be wise. There are flashlights available now that use no batteries, but instead rely on a hand crank to generate power. Some of these even have a cell phone charging port. Whatever you do, never allow yourself to run low on spare batteries.
If you keep your refrigerator closed it will stay cool for quite a while. Once you open it to make a meal you can plug it in (if you have a generator) for a while to cool it back down. Defrosting frozen items that you will be preparing to eat by placing them in the refrigerator can have the effect of keeping it cooler. Also, if ice is available, a tub of ice (or a crisper drawer full) will do a lot to keep your food cool. After all, your refrigerator is insulated. It is, in effect, a large cooler. If your refrigerator is allowed to be without power or other means of cooling too long you will need to be very picky about what foods may still be eaten. If it’s cold outside, just throw your perishables in a cooler and set them on the porch or in the garage. Note: Dry ice evaporates into carbon dioxide. It is unwise to use dry ice in your refrigerator, cooler or other airtight space. Dry ice can also damage the coils in your refrigerator by over chilling them. Dry ice will keep your frozen items colder but be sure to use proper precautions. An insulated box or a cooler (propped slightly open) out in the garage would be a good way to keep your frozen food in dry ice.
Drinking water can be a problem if you have no access to water. If the water pressure fails, or if you have any reason to believe that the water system has been contaminated, turn off your water at the main shutoff valve. (You don’t want contaminated water getting into your pipes and you don’t want a broken water main siphoning the water back out of your pipes that you were planning on drinking.) You can get by for a long time drinking the water in your pipes and water heater tank. Simply turn off the gas (or power) to the water heater so that you will not be trying to heat a less than full tank, then collect water from the water heater’s drain outlet. To collect the water in the pipes, open the highest faucet in the house to let air enter the system (collect any water you get at this faucet) and then go to the lowest faucet in the house and open it to collect the amount of water you need. The open faucet upstairs will let air into the system, draining water to the lower faucet. You may also collect water from the toilet tank, but never drink water from the toilet bowl. (DUH!) There are techniques that will help you collect drinking water from the environment or devise a makeshift still to distil drinking water. Do a little research and see what you can do.
A good water filter will be a useful investment. You may already have a small one in your bug out bag, or you may wish to get a larger one for home use.
Never throw any water out. Use it to flush the toilet. Even contaminated water can be used for this. Just pour a bucket of water directly into the bowl (not the tank - and be careful not to slop…) to flush down whatever is in there. Water from your sump pit, used wash water or water from the puddle in the street is preferable to what could be in your toilet bowl. You can disassemble the drain trap under the kitchen sink and put a bucket under there to collect water that goes down the drain to save for flushing.
Speaking of water, don’t forget to keep an eye on the sump pit. A wise home-owner may already have a battery backup sump pump installed. If not, you will want to connect the generator to the sump pump often enough to keep the pit drained down. Otherwise, you may have to perform a bucket brigade to keep the water from rising above the level of your basement floor and flooding you out. A sump pit is a good place to draw water for flushing the toilet, washing some things or other chores but be sure to boil or filter (with a high grade filter!) any water you use for drinking or washing dishes.
If the weather is cold and your heat is off you will want to have plenty of warm clothes and spare blankets. You can get by very well by just dressing for the cold. After all, the house will keep you dry and out of the wind. You will want a thermometer so that you can keep an eye on the temperature. If the temperature inside the house gets below freezing you run the risk of pipes freezing and breaking. This is not life threatening, but can be very expensive in repairs and water damage. Even when your house is not too cold yet, a pipe in an unheated place (like in an enclosed cupboard next to an outside wall) can freeze. It’s a good idea to open any cupboard doors in those areas. If your pipes are metal you can use a propane torch to periodically warm areas that are at risk of freezing, but be careful to not set the surrounding wood on fire. (And make sure that’s a water pipe you are heating, not a gas pipe!) If the water is still working, let a small trickle flow from the faucet on that particular pipe. That will keep water moving in the pipe and help to prevent freezing. If you are really concerned about the pipes freezing you can minimize the damage by shutting off the water and opening all the faucets. At the lowest faucet run a hose to a drain, or use a bucket to keep from running water all over the floor.) This will drain much of the system, allowing expansion of any water left in the pipes and hopefully you will have fewer, if any, breaks. You may also wish to turn off the power or gas to the water heater and drain it.
Remember that most auxiliary heat sources can add dangerous fumes to the house. Kerosene or propane heaters, or burning charcoal will create carbon monoxide. A carbon monoxide detector could be a lifesaver. Kerosene heaters will generate odor as well. (If you put an auxiliary heat source in the basement and open a window or two a little bit it should do a good job of keeping the pipes safely warm, add enough heat to the house to keep it from getting too uncomfortable and the fumes will be more confined to the basement.) Whatever you do, be careful with heat sources. You can be overcome by fumes or burn your house down if you do not use them wisely. If you can afford it, consider having a wood burning fireplace, stove or furnace installed. They are messier than gas, but can generate adequate heat and are not affected by disruption of utilities. Gas fireplaces are usually designed to look pretty but not add much heat to the house. You will definitely want to do some homework before selecting an alternate heat source.
The colder the weather and the stronger the wind, the more quickly your house will cool off. Well insulated houses in northern climates may take days to get cold enough to freeze pipes as long as the outside temperatures do not drop too far below freezing.
Working as a community is probably your most effective response to emergency preparedness. If you get together with a couple other families to plan some of this you can allow people to choose areas of research. Let the handyman figure out the heating, electrical and water issues. Let the cooks figure out what to store for survival meals. Let the kids work on things like putting together their own bug out bags or rotating perishables and batteries. Older kids can help with the research and may even enjoy the learning and preparations involved. Make it a family game!
Apartment dwellers especially can benefit from teaming, either with the other tenants in their building or with friends who live in a house. Many of the suggestions put forth in this presentation will not work well for an individual apartment, but with everyone in the building pitching in, you can turn that apartment building into a safe haven.
Organizing Your Bug Out Bags:
Some of this is redundant with information given earlier, but is important enough to stress in closing. When preparing your bug out bags, carefully consider what each person will carry and organize it all in advance. Distribute a small amount of each item to each person. That way if a bag gets left home or lost you will not lose all your batteries, or all your food or all your medical items because that is what was in that particular bag. Also if you become separated everyone will have what they need on them. (Be sure to plan a designated meeting place that everyone can find.)
Once all items are divided out to each person, have each person divide their pile into three piles; the absolute essentials, the stuff you need but could live without or find elsewhere, and the stuff that makes life easier. Next, have each person consider what is in their pile, whether it will fit in the available pockets and bags, and whether it may weigh too much for that person to carry for a long walk. You may have to throw some things out and reprioritize the rest.
The absolute essentials should go into a garment with pockets, like a hunting vest, fanny pack or web gear. This is the stuff you never want to be without so you must keep it on your person at all times, like money, medications, minor first aid, water filtration, flashlight, pocket knife, etc. The next group should go into a small bag, preferably one that is wearable like a backpack or shoulder bag. The ideal bag would be one that can be worn by itself or can be attached to your large backpack. Here you would want to keep a pair of underwear and socks, toilet paper, a little food, better first aid kit, a minimum number of spare batteries, etc. The rest of your stuff should go into your large bag. This would include a couple changes of clothes, more food, batteries, toilet paper, candles, or whatever else you deem necessary.
Some General Tips
Buy good equipment, not the cheapest thing you can find. An item is no use to you if it breaks or otherwise fails to fulfill its purpose. Take the time to use and become familiar with your equipment.
A good knife is essential. At the very least include a good pocket knife. Better yet, keep a pocket knife and a sheath knife in your emergency kit.
Bottled water must be rotated more often than you may think. Also most commercial bottles that come with the water are not good for long term re-use. They can leach chemicals from the plastic into the water. A better plan is to go to a sporting goods store and pick up a small water filter. Look for the best you can get and remember to keep it small if it is to be part of your bug out bag. A good filter and a good water bottle will be a lot lighter than a two day supply of water.
Freeze dried and dehydrated foods will store longer and are lighter to carry in a bug out bag.
Buy a few extra groceries and rotate the older stuff out as you consume it. You should have a minimum of two weeks groceries on hand at all times. Some experts say you should have a year’s worth. Make sure you own a manual can opener. The electric ones don’t work when the power is out.
Store your batteries outside the item that they are to be used in. It only takes a minute to stick the batteries in, and old batteries can leak and corrode the inner workings of flashlight or radio to useless junk. Getting some rechargeable batteries and a solar charger may not be a bad idea.
Beyond batteries, pick up a battery free flash light. The crank types are generally better than the shaker types. The good ones even have a cell phone charging port. Battery free radios are now available too.
Try to select flashlights that have a spare bulb stored inside them somewhere. Keep at least two flashlights. Replacing a bulb in the dark can be difficult. One flashlight could be very small, one should be more powerful. LED flashlights use less power, so the batteries will last much longer.
Put lanyards (wrist strap cords) on all your gear when you prepare your kit. It won’t do to lose your only pocket knife because you dropped it into the river. Do this with your keys as well. Use those lanyards. Whenever you use an item slip the cord over your wrist. (Safety note: A lanyard on a large knife, hatchet or axe can cause the tool to swing around and nail you if you lose your grip. Lanyards on such items should be attached ahead of your hand, more toward the middle of the tool.)
When selecting the bags to use for emergencies, look for a system that will allow a small backpack that could attach to a larger backpack. Something wearable with lots of pockets works well for those things (medications, money , maps, keys, knife, flashlight) that you do not want to be parted with under any circumstances. A hunting vest works really well for this and can be bought at almost any store with a sporting goods department. Other options would be a military load bearing vest or web gear.
If your car stays in a garage it may be acceptable to keep your bug out bags in the car. Keep in mind that extremes of temperature will shorten the life of some items such as food, medical supplies and batteries. If you can’t keep your gear in the car, then keep it near the door and get in the habit of taking at least the small bag with you whenever you leave home.
Try to stay ahead on medications, especially any that your life is at risk without. Be sure to remember to grab them out of the refrigerator if you have to bug out. Better yet, keep a bug out bag near the refrigerator for tossing in medications and any food worth taking to get you through the first day.
Don’t count on your bags and pockets being waterproof. Pack everything in zip lock bags. Get the good bags, not the cheap ones. They may be very handy if you can’t get any for a while. Pack so that you will open the minimum number of bags at any one time. For example, one pair of socks and one pair of underwear in a bag instead of a bag with all socks and another bag with all underwear. Press or suction all the air out of the bags that you can so that you can pack more compactly.
Cord is an essential item. You may need to hang your food from a tree to keep animals out of it, (NEVER keep it in your tent!) rig a temporary shelter out of ponchos or tarps, make a lifeline to get across a river or through a blinding storm, or just make a clothesline. Parachute cord is the best for this. Get the 7 strand stuff. It is rated for 550 lbs. You can use it for bootlaces, tent tie downs or many other things. You can remove the internal strands and use them for fishing line, thread for sewing or even sutures.
A Bic lighter is an essential item. You may need to light a fire, a candle, sterilize a pocket knife for medical use or just light the cut end of your parachute cord to melt it so it does not fray or unravel. Get the good lighters, not the cheapies and get a couple spares for everybody.
Cotton balls or rags soaked with candle wax or paraffin is very helpful in starting a fire without dry tinder. Drip a little wax into them and then twist them into a small wick-like cord. Stick them in a zip lock bag or old film container and add them to your bug out bag. (They also make great earplugs if someone snores…)
Ponchos or capes are better than jackets. Get the good ones from military surplus or sporting goods suppliers. They should be made of a light, waterproof material such as nysil. Avoid cotton liners. Even if you have to make your own liners out of blankets, a good poncho or cape with a wool or synthetic liner can serve as both a tent and a blanket at
need. They also have applications in self defense.
Cotton clothing can kill you. It readily soaks up water and perspiration, causing you to lose body heat. Wool is better. It will wick moisture away from your body and retain its insulating properties even when wet. A drawback to wool is that when wet it is heavier and takes longer to dry. Synthetics such as polyester, Caproline and polypropylene are the best choices. They do not soak up water and will help to wick perspiration away from you.
This may not be a survival essential, but if you have kids, you will appreciate a little entertainment. A couple board games stashed away in the house and a Yahtzee set or a deck of cards along with a rule book for popular card games in your bug out bag can help keep the kids entertained. Avoid video games. They eat up batteries.
Possibly most important - keep a low profile. If you tell everybody in the neighborhood you have a house full of food they will all be knocking at your door in an emergency. You may have some neighbors who won’t bother knocking. Teaming can help here. If there are people in your home that are perceived to be capable of putting up a fight the bad people may pass you by and go looking elsewhere.
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