Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Importance of Emergency Preparedness

I have been meaning to a do a post on this topic for some time now, but reading this article yesterday made for an ideal tie-in with the subject.

For those of you who might not know, the states that straddle the line between North and South were hit by an ice storm that knocked out power for days. And, as the article notes, "it could take until mid-February for some to come back online in the hardest-hit areas of Kentucky and Arkansas."

Below are some excerpts from the article:

At Murray University in southwestern Kentucky, brothers Jim McClung, 42, and Dale Earnest, 38, were among those resting in every corner of a university theater. Some sprawled in aisles, propped in chairs or curled up on the stage. They, like many others, ran out of food and water at their frigid, powerless home.

"I've been sitting 'round for two days, eating cold hot dogs and bologna," said 70-year-old John Grimes, describing what he ate at home before coming to the shelter. He uses a wheelchair, is blind in one eye, and a diabetic.

Jimmy Eason was among those who decided to tough it out anyway in Velvet Ridge, Ark., gingerly stepping across his yard, watching for icicles falling from electrical wires. He was headed to his Ford F-150 pickup truck, which was warmer than his one-story house.

"I'm sleeping in a car, which is just fine," Eason, 74, said. "There's nothing wrong with a car. Every couple of hours I turn it on, I let it run for 10 minutes and that keeps it pretty warm."

Eason was trying to avoid boredom, and drove to Burger King to get a meal because he was tired of eating cold soup.

The common thread in these and other vignettes from the article is that these people were absolutely unprepared to cope with a situation that would leave them without power for a few days. Some had no food to tide them through the crisis. Others who did have food had no means to heat it. And many had no means to heat their homes without power.

Last year, I started giving serious consideration to how my family and I would cope in a disaster situation. At the time, when the price of gasoline was on a seemingly unstoppable upward march, I was reading some Peak Oil sites. While some of these people struck me as going a bit off the deep end, ready to give up on civilization and living on farms or in isolated rural places with years of food and supplies stocked up to survive what they viewed as the impending collapse of society, it did get me to thinking. How would my family manage in a short term emergency situation that lasted anywhere from a day to several weeks?

The worst winter I remember is the winter of 1977/1978, when we got tons of snow dumped on us and everything was coated in ice. We were without power for several days, if memory serves, and we had to heat our food using Sterno® cans. Then there was the blackout of the entire northeastern United States in August of 2003. While the outage lasted less than 24 hours in my neighborhood, during its duration people couldn't, for example, withdraw money from ATM's or purchase gasoline because the pumps were inoperative.

So I had examples from personal experience, in addition to stories I read about or saw on the news, to provide me with some guidance as to what kind of situations my family might face and how we could cope with them.

It was clear to me that I needed to stock up on enough food and water to last us several weeks in the event of a prolonged storm, power outage or other emergency situation that would keep us confined to our home. Throughout the latter half of last year, I gradually accumulated assorted canned foods and bottled water. Being mindful of expiration dates, I didn't want to buy the canned goods all at once. It is a lot easier to maintain an emergency food supply if you only have to replace a few items at a time rather than replacing everything at the same time.

Besides having an emergency food supply, one must also have the means to heat it in the event of a prolonged power failure. I had previously purchased a mini gas stove that uses butane canisters. I then bought additional butane canisters to reach a total of 10. As a backup, just in case, I also purchased ten Sterno® cans, as I do not know how long the butane canisters will last in the event we have to rely on them. These are very important items to have at hand in an emergency situation. Not only will they come in handy at home, but they are portable and can be taken with you in the event that the situation requires that you leave your home. As the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, being evacuated to an emergency shelter is no guarantee that food will be provided for you. Portable gas stoves can be purchased at just about any store that sells camping supplies. The one I have cost me about $35, and the butane canisters cost about $3.00 each. Sterno® cans be found almost anywhere, including the local supermarket, though I had to order the stove for it online.

Among other useful items I got were glow sticks. While flashlights are indispensable, you don't want to leave them on all night during a power failure, otherwise the batteries will drain rather quickly. Many people in such situations will light a candle, but a lit candle is also a fire hazard. A glow stick, on the other hand, is a safe alternative that will give off light throughout the night so that you don't have to fumble about in the dark. I have about a dozen of them.

One important item I am lacking, the need for which is only underscored by the article I referred to above, is a kerosene heater. While I am well prepared to feed my family if Long Island experiences a winter storm like the one we did when I was 8 years old, we do not have the means of heating our home in the event of a power outage. I do have several electric heaters for times when our boiler craps out on us. Ironically enough, I am putting them to use as I write this, because, as happens occasionally, whenever we get an oil drop like we got today, the sediment in the oil tank gets stirred up and clogs up the fuel line. But the electric heaters would be quite useless during a power failure. Unlike a portable gas stove though, a decent kerosene heater, along with a week's supply of kerosene and accessories, can cost up to several hundred dollars. I came close to buying one at Lowe's last month, but balked at the expense. However, I might decide to take the plunge, as we are experiencing a rather cold winter this year.

Perhaps the most expensive item one might like to have at home during a prolonged power outage is a generator. A generator would particularly come in handy during a blackout in the summer heat, when perishable items can spoil in the refrigerator and freezer. Having a generator and a sufficient supply of gasoline would make it possible to keep the refrigerator running as well as the ability to operate at least some fans to help cope with the heat. A generator, as you can see from this web page on Home Depot, can cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. That's a big expense for most people, especially in these difficult times when many are losing their jobs or sense the Damoclean sword of a layoff hanging over their heads. A somewhat less expensive option is a large battery such as this or this, which cost around several hundred dollars and can be used to provide power for charging cell phones, plugging in lamps, or possibly even the refrigerator for a day. However, based on the reviews for these items on, which you can read by clicking on the links I provided, these batteries do not seem all that reliable.

I don't think I will go so far as to purchase a generator, though it might be worthwhile having something that can charge a cell phone and power small electrical items. If lived in a rural area that was prone to ice storms or other weather events that frequently knocked out the power, a generator would be a wise investment. For the most part, the emergency preparedness items I mention above are affordable and do not take up much space. If you haven't already, I would urge you to think about what you would do in an emergency situation where you might not be able to get to the store to buy food for your family or to keep yourselves warm during a winter storm that knocks out the power for a prolonged period of time. Having at the very least a week's worth of food and water, a portable gas stove, and a dozen glow sticks, will cost you less than a hundred dollars and can make the difference between a desperate situation or an inconvenience.


tina FCD said...

And books, lots of books. If you can read by oil lamp. :)
I'm glad you posted this, it has got me thinking....

Tommykey said...

Thanks, Tina. Hopefully it will inspire some readers to evaluate their level of preparation in the event of an emergency.

bullet said...

Being in Louisiana, I don't really have any need for a kerosene heater, but I'm with you on the rest.

One thing you failed to mention is a radio. A small, battery powered transistor radio is essential. You'd be amazed at how many people don't have one. And I'm not talking about a boom box, the batteries go too quickly on those. PLus, how many of us just happen to have D batteries lying around?

A gun doesn't hurt, either. Keep it locked in a safe all the time if you want to, but having it when there is no chance for protection from the police is a great comfort.

Tommykey said...

Hey Bullet!

Yes, a radio is important too, and that's another item I need to get.

A gun is another one of those things I am ambivalent about. It would sure be useful to have in a situation where law and order is absent. Owning a firearm is a real big responsibility, though.

The Super Sweet Atheist said...

This past summer, after Hurricane Ike, we were glad we had invested in a generator. In the Houston area, if one can afford it, it's a nice luxury to have.