September 10, 2005
Some Ways to Prepare for the Absolute Worst
By DAMON DARLIN Pam Stegner knows a lot about preparing for an emergency. After all, Mrs. Stegner, a former emergency medical technician in Collins, Mo., has been stockpiling for years now.
To take care of her family of five during a catastrophe, she has a gravity-fed water purifier able to process 30 gallons of water a day, as well as 600 pounds of rice and beans, 18,000 dried eggs and 16 tons of organically grown hard winter wheat stored in a semi-tractor trailer and a temperature-controlled storehouse.
Mrs. Stegner is the first to admit that she may take preparedness to an extreme, but her reasons for doing it may not sound so odd after watching victims of Hurricane Katrina languish for days without aid. "You can't wait for the government to get there," she said. "You will die before they get there."
Indeed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency advises that Americans prepare a two-week supply cache because it could take that long for help to arrive. FEMA says on its Web site, "A two-week supply can relieve a great deal of inconvenience and uncertainty until services are restored."
Getting ready for the next disaster doesn't seem so crazy anymore. Mrs. Stegner, who is the host of a radio show on preparedness and sells survival products from a store in nearby Humansville, says it has been easy to "get labeled a nutcase" for worrying about catastrophes. But she and other survivalist outfitters are noticing how, at least right now, the general public is a bit more receptive.
John Maniatty, who runs the FrugalSquirrels.com Web site out of Morrisville, Vt., says he is getting six times the traffic he had in early August and considerably more than after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "So many more normal people - I use that term because I get wackos, too - are taking a look," he said.
You don't have to go as far as a survivalist, but you can certainly learn from them. Here is a distillation of advice from emergency preparedness experts from across the spectrum:
WATER. If you take nothing else away from this article, at least heed this advice: stock up on water. It is cheap, it has a long shelf-life, and, most important, you cannot live without it. Most of us can do without food - not to mention e-mail and "Desperate Housewives" - for several weeks.
But dehydration is a very real and life-threatening danger after a calamity. Though you drink half a gallon of water a day, you should store one gallon of water per person per day. Assume you will be cut off for at least three days and store as much extra as you have room for in a cool, dark space. The International Bottled Water Association says jugs of water can be kept indefinitely, though they may pick up an off-flavor from the plastic after a year or so. But it is pretty easy to rotate the stock every couple of months since many people drink bottled water.
If you have the room, store some of the water in the freezer. When the electricity goes, you'll have more ice to preserve the food in the refrigerator for a day or two longer.
If worse comes to worse and you run out of water while your community's water supply is contaminated, turn off the water supply to your house and drain water from your water heater or scoop it from the toilet tank. It must be purified by boiling it for several minutes or by mixing in two drops of old-fashioned bleach - not the "mountain fresh" scented varieties - to each quart of water.
FOOD. The odds of anything calamitous happening are slim, so you don't want to spend several thousand dollars buying and storing food. You have better things to do with your money than investing in creamed corn and sardines. If you have a pantry or basement with a decent supply of canned foods and bottled juices, you should do just fine for several weeks. "You could survive for two weeks just on Tang," said Eric Zaltas, nutritionist with PowerBar Inc., a maker of nutrition bars.
Given that in most emergencies - floods, earthquake or fire - you may have to flee, it is smart to keep a 72-hour bug-out kit. That's a three-day supply that you can easily carry out to the car at a moment's notice. The crucial concept here is high nutrition in a small amount of space. Freeze-dried foods would be perfect, except you'll need clean and heated water to reconstitute those products.
Some people buy the military's Meals Ready to Eat. A case of 12 meals costs about $73 and they are currently in short supply. Nutrition bars are another good choice. The rap against them - loads of fat, carbohydrates and calories - is actually a plus during a disaster. Something like the PowerBar Performance Bar also contains electrolytes, which when taken with water, will help keep your body chemistry in order. Avoid the chocolate-coated varieties because they will just get messy when it gets hot and water for cleanup is at a premium.
High-protein diet shakes are a bit expensive, but have the added advantage of supplying you with liquid, as would high-fiber potassium-packed vegetable juice. Throw in some dried fruit and you have enough calories to get by for three days.
Don't forget ready-to-feed baby formula if you have an infant. People with medical conditions like diabetes or kidney disease will have to pay more attention to what they store and what they eat. As for pets, buy the dried pet food your pets don't really like and they won't eat as much.
For the truly serious food hoarder, FrugalSquirrels.com, the survivalist outfitter, sells an $18 software package called Food Storage Planner that will compute exactly how much you need and alert you when to replace it.
CASH. If you get a warning, head to the nearest cash machine ASAP. (You'll already have all the food and water you need, right?) The time to raid the A.T.M. is before the disaster because when the electricity fails, you won't find one that works. Take out as much as you can because you may need it to buy supplies at post-disaster inflated prices and credit cards won't work if there is no electricity or computer networks are down. When the disaster has passed put the money back in the bank.
COMMUNICATIONS. In almost every disaster, cellphones have proved remarkably useless. (Old-fashioned landline phones hold up much better.) Without electricity, desktop computers become expensive paperweights and laptops follow in short order as their batteries drain. Short of a $1,000 satellite phone, there is precious little you can do to reach out to the world in an emergency. Face it. When a disaster strikes, you can't think like Steven P. Jobs. Abraham Lincoln must be your role model because when the electricity goes, all you have at your disposal are the things people of the 19th century got by on.
Two things that might help: get an e-mail account from Google or Yahoo that allows you access to e-mail from any computer you happen to find and buy a hand-crank cellphone charger.
EXTRAS. You cannot do without a first-aid kit, a radio and lots of batteries. The new flashlights that use light-emitting diodes will help you conserve juice. Camping gear - butane stoves, coolers and lightweight tents - easily doubles as survival gear. What else? An adapter that turns your car's cigarette lighter into an electrical outlet for any appliance could be a lifesaver. Consider sticking a can of fluorescent spray paint among your other supplies and then stash all this stuff in a plastic box that can serve to float things out to safety.
MEDICINES. Thanks to health insurance companies' rules, it is often not easy to get extra medicine without paying full price. But with a little planning it can be done. Ask your doctor for help. Or for several months in a row, start refilling prescriptions a week or so before they run out until you have accumulated several weeks' supply.
DOCUMENTS. Pulling together documents you need on the run may be the hardest thing to do. Financial planners have been after people for years to make a "beneficiary book" to help their heirs or executors more easily sort through affairs. It should hold copies of birth and marriage certificates, adoption papers, key identification numbers, copies of bank statements, deeds, titles, credit cards and insurance policies as well as passwords to online accounts. The same information would be useful to you in case you lose access to your primary records in a disaster. Just keep it in a secure place and grab it on the way out of the house.
GUNS. Some survivalists recommend a gun for protection. But if you haven't used one regularly, don't know how to store it safely and haven't made the moral decision that you could kill a person, forget it. Someone is just going to get hurt and it will probably be you. Your best protection is banding together with neighbors - and sharing that food all of you stashed.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company