Emergencies are often unpredictable. But you can still plan for them.
Hurricane Ida left millions of Louisiana residents without power or without access to food and water. Flash floods in New Jersey and New York caught many people off guard. Near Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California-Nevada border, some residents evacuated in less than an hour after an evacuation order as fires threatened their homes. In August, flash floods ravaged central Tennessee, and in February, millions of people in Texas were left without electricity and water after a winter storm.
Unfortunately, climate scientists warn that weather emergencies such as these may be the new normal, as climate change leads to heavier rains, stronger hurricanes, more tornadoes and bigger wildfires. The average number of climate- and weather-related disasters per decade has increased nearly 35% since the 1990s, according to the World Disasters Report.
No matter where you live, every home should have a ‘go bag’ and a ‘stay bin.’ The go bag is what you grab when you have to leave the house in a hurry, whether it’s to get to the emergency room or to evacuate. The stay bin is a two-week stash in the event you have to hunker down at home without power, water or heat.
Creating a go bag and a stay bin does not make you an alarmist or someone who lives in fear of the apocalypse. It just means you’re prepared. Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that emergencies can happen. One night while living in London, I came home to a wrecked apartment because an upstairs neighbor had left his water running. (I was able to rescue my passport and my cats, but I lost everything I owned.) Years later, I had to evacuate my Pennsylvania home three times — twice because of Delaware River flooding and once because of Hurricane Sandy.
The first time my house flooded, I was completely unprepared as the floodwater was just feet from my driveway. I had to grab my four small dogs, some clothes and whatever else seemed important and get out of there quickly. I couldn’t get home for two weeks. It was then that I realized I needed a real home-evacuation plan, not just for me and my daughter, but also for my pets. (I was better prepared when I evacuated before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast a few years later.)
The Go Bag
The hardest part about creating a go bag is getting started. You don’t need to do it all at once. I started with a Ziploc bag and placed my passport, birth certificates and other important documents inside. Then I added an extra pair of reading glasses. Last year, I added a phone charger to my go bag because an ER doctor told me it’s the most requested item in the ER.
I also added some masks, which we all need now because of COVID-19, but you might also need a mask if you’re fleeing a fire or a chemical spill. I remember on 9/11, after the first tower fell, a New York City bakery distributed hundreds of masks to those of us stranded in the area to protect us from breathing in the ash and fumes.
Recently, I upgraded my go bag to a more sturdy Stasher reusable silicone bag and added some emergency cash (small bills are best). I also added a list of phone numbers to reach family members and friends in the event that I end up in the ER. The list is useful if your phone battery dies, too. On 9/11, I used a pay phone to reach my mom in Dallas, because it was the only phone number I could remember.
Some people treat their go bags like a survival kit and add lots of extras such as multipurpose tools, duct tape, fire starters, portable cooking stoves and a compass, among other things. But I prefer to keep it simple. I assume that if I need my go bag, it’s because I have a short-term emergency, not because it’s the end of civilization as we know it.
Once you’ve collected the basics, consider using a backpack or duffel bag to hold a few more items that could help in certain types of evacuations. Add a flashlight and batteries and a small first-aid kit that includes dental-care items. You should also have a few days’ supply of your essential medications. Pack a few water bottles and granola bars for the traffic jam on the evacuation route or the long wait in the ER. An extra set of car keys is a great addition, but extra car keys are expensive, so if you don’t have them, just make it a habit to leave your keys in the same place so you can find them in an emergency.
If you have a baby, add diapers, wipes, bottles, formula and baby food to your go bag. If you have pets, add leashes, portable bowls, some food and copies of veterinary records, in case you have to take your pets to a kennel while you stay in a shelter or hotel. Some people add a change of clothes to their go bag, but I prefer to keep my go bag small and light. Once you’ve created your family’s primary go bag with documents and other essentials, you may want to pack personal go bags for children.
I recently ordered one more item: a $3 whistle. “No one wants to think about being trapped during a natural disaster, but it does happen,” wrote Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The New York Times Co. “Screaming for help might get a rescuer’s attention, but the high-pitch shrill of a whistle is far more likely to cut through the din of a wildfire, windstorm or sirens.”
The Stay Bin
If you need to hunker down, you probably already have a lot of the essentials for a stay bin. It’s a good idea to gather these items and put them in one place — such as a large plastic bin or two — so they don’t get used. If you’ve created a go bag, you’ve got a head start, because many go-bag items could be needed in a stay-at-home emergency. The stay bins should also have a two-week supply of bottled water and nonperishable food, pet food, toilet paper and personal hygiene supplies. Flashlights, lanterns, candles, lighters and firewood are important. (Wirecutter recommends a head lamp.) A battery-powered or crank weather radio as well as a solar phone charger will help you cope with power outages. Extra blankets are a good idea. Other items that are often recommended are duct tape, a multipurpose tool, trash bags for sanitation, and hand wipes and sanitizer. If your prescription plan allows it, order an extra supply of your medications or ask your doctor for free samples.
The city of Milwaukee has a helpful checklist for your go bag. The website ready.gov has a checklist to help you build your stay bin, and the American Red Cross has more advice on emergency preparedness.
My go bag and stay bin are still works in progress, but I feel better knowing that I’m more prepared than I used to be. I’ve also created a crisis notebook in the event of a health emergency. My advice is to just get started today with what you have handy and work on acquiring more items over time. A little planning and preparation go a long way in any emergency.