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When a hurricane the size of Sandy or Michael slams into the coast, it leaves turmoil in its wake. Families stranded in its aftermath may wait days or even weeks for relief to come while government resources focus on rescuing those trapped or injured by the storm.

That’s why the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) asks families to take emergency preparedness seriously before an event.

“Nationally speaking, the benchmark we want to aim for is three or four days of supplies, but then it really makes sense to look at hazards that effect your community, and what kind of resources are there locally,” says Matt Lyttle, Acting Deputy Director in FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Division.

According to Lyttle, if you live in an area subject to catastrophic events like hurricanes, earthquakes, and other large-scale disasters, you should adjust your plan for up to two weeks or more.

That means many North Americans need more than one set of emergency supplies: a survival kit packed for 72 hours (which you can use at home or take along if you need to evacuate), and a larger stash filled with supplies for the longer term.

Then there’s work to think about, and if you own a car, you’ll need supplies there as well. In fact, sometimes this whole emergency survival thing can feel a little overwhelming.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Being prepared really means taking small, manageable steps—one at a time. Here’s how.

1. Pack a 72-Hour Emergency Survival Kit

An emergency survival kit outfitted to last you and your family 72 hours is the perfect place to start getting ready for whatever might come your way. Packing this kit is as simple as buying something ready-made or taking a trip to your local hardware and grocery stores.

Once you’ve packed your kit, be sure every family member knows where it’s located. Your kit should include:

Water: at least three gallons per person to cover drinking and sanitation for all 72 hours.

Food: enough non-perishable items to feed everyone in your family for three days. If you’re packing cans, be sure to pack a can opener. Your food choices shouldn’t require water or cooking to prepare.

Radio: one that’s powered by solar, battery, or hand-crank, since access to electricity may be unavailable. If using battery power, pack extra batteries.

Flashlight: powered by battery- or solar. As above, pack extra batteries if needed.

First aid kit: include a variety of bandage sizes, antiseptic, and scissors.

Whistle: to signal for help.

Dust mask: one for every family member is ideal, to help filter out contaminated air.

Garbage bags, ties, and wet wipes: for personal sanitation. You can also use a toilet-in-a-box kit.

Tarp: for emergency shelter.

Wrench or pliers: if you have utilities that might need turning off.

Maps: if you live in a city and may need to find your way to emergency shelter or services when cell phone networks are down.

Documents: waterproof copies of any important documents, such as bank account statements, insurance policies, and identification.

Cash or traveller’s checks: to pay for unexpected expenses.

Consider adding the following items to your emergency survival kit, depending on who lives in your home and where you’re located:

  • Prescription medications
  • Non-prescription medications (pain relievers, antacids, etc.)
  • Extra pairs of glasses
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Infant formula and diapers
  • Pet food and water
  • Sleeping bags or blankets for each family member
  • Change of clothes for each family member
  • Extra warm clothing
  • Matches stored in a waterproof container.
  • Multi-tool
  • Fire extinguisher

A 72-hour emergency kit should include food, water, first aid, and other supplies.

2. Assemble a Two-Week Supply for Major Disasters

If you live in an area subject to large-scale natural disasters, packing extra supplies is also important. Families weathering the aftermath of a hurricane or earthquake may find themselves needing things they didn’t anticipate during a short-term emergency.

Here’s a longer-term packing checklist, assuming you already have your 72-hour emergency survival kit ready:

Enough water for two weeks or more. The official guidelines for water are one gallon per person per day purchased in sealed containers. You could also extend your water supply by packing a reliable water filter such as a Lifestraw Family. For more details about water treatment and storage, read How to Survive a Week Without Running Water.

Enough food for two weeks or more. Purchasing a ready-made emergency food supply can streamline the work of putting this together, since the measuring and weighing has already been done. Just remember to pack extra water if the food you choose needs rehydrating. You can also use stackable food containers if you prefer to measure and pack your own food but space is tight.

Lightweight dishes and cutlery for eating.

A heat source for cooking. This could include an ultralight stove or rocket stove if you live in an area where twig fuel is accessible. Other options include a solar stove —that will cook without electricity or fuel—and gas-powered camp stoves.

Bleach for disinfecting water. FEMA recommends regular household liquid bleach containing 5.25 to 6.0 percent sodium hypochlorite. Avoid scented and colorsafe bleaches.

Soap and other cleaning supplies.

An extra change of clothing for everyone in your house.

Extra feminine products, infant formula, diapers, and pet products if needed.

Bug spray if you live in an area where insects are prolific. For those allergic to bug spray, citronella candles are an alternative.

Tent or other portable shelter that’s large enough for all family members.

Portable biffy for personal sanitation. You can make this from a 5-gallon bucket and a portable seat, or pack a pre-made foldable toilet.

3. Prepare an Emergency Survival Kit at Work

Given that many of us go to work every day, it only makes sense to store some supplies in this location. After all, disaster can strike anywhere, and could leave you stuck at the office for 24 hours or more.

“In a workplace where you have a similar number of people coming in every day, I personally think it makes sense to pool resources,” says Lyttle, who recommends considering items like medical needs, food, water, and comfort items, and then purchasing as a group.

“You could even link it in to an annual food drive…where you take the supplies that have been in your emergency kit that are still good, [where] the expiration date hasn’t passed, and donate those as an office, and then replenish your emergency kit with new supplies.”

How much you store at the office depends on where you work—both geographically and in what type of building. If you work in a high rise, you’ll have different storage limitations than if you work in a warehouse. “People need to be talking to their colleagues, to their supervisors, and thinking about what they need to stay safe in the workplace,” says Lyttle.

So what are FEMA’s official recommendations for work?

Store enough supplies for 24 hours, and be sure to include comfortable walking shoes in a ‘grab and go’ case.

4. Outfit Your Car

If you own a vehicle, you might find yourself having to live there temporarily. In an emergency situation, access to supplies and even fuel could be limited. Keeping your fuel tank full, along with other fluid levels, is a good habit to get into. Having a 72-hour emergency survival kit stashed in your trunk is another safe measure.

Since you’ll have less storage area available, consider purchasing a space-saving kit to reduce the area needed to store your supplies.

Along with the 72 hour survival kit supplies listed above, your car kit should also include:

You can also store an extra quart of motor oil or coolant, if you have the space and you’re vehicle isn’t serviced regularly.

A car kit should store conveniently in your trunk and provide security when traveling.

Being Prepared

Knowing the hazards that affect the places where you live, study, and work will help you determine how you need to prepare for emergencies. And taking action to get ready for what might come will ultimately diffuse that overwhelming feeling that stops some of us from acting.

“One of the things we see is that people don’t expect to rely on the federal government, or even their state or local government in a disaster,” says Lyttle. “They’re counting on their friends, their family, their neighbors, and their co-workers. So we have this responsibility to each other to make sure that we’re preparing ahead.”

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