Basic Disaster Readiness
for the Home
Simple and convenient
steps everyone should take
Power outages, fires, floods, earthquakes, wind, and storms can interrupt
utilities, phones, stores, ATMs, and travel. You can be forced to leave
your home because of flooding, sewage backflow, fire, chemical accident,
or terrorist threat. These things occur when you are least prepared. This
is an inexpensive common sense preparation document. It will help your
commute and vacations.
The large disaster relief organizations can provide basic relief for a lot
of people, but need a few days to get set up. Wise people are prepared to
handle problems on their own for at least a week.
Don't buy any survival kits or anything you are not familiar with. After
the power goes out is not the time to try something new. Don't waste your
money buying "special survival food". It will probably get old before you
need it. Just keep your regular canned goods stocked.
This is not a complete guide to preparation; it is only to give you a
starting place. Experience, training and special equipment provide better
preparation. And nothing is better than common sense (which doesn't seem
to be very common).
The most effective way to prepare is to have good friends and neighbors.
And that means being a good friend to your neighbors. The people who are
well connected socially to those nearby do the best when disaster strikes.
The only thing better is to be part of a neighborhood group that prepares
for disaster together.
Copyright 2005-2024 Ken Young
This document may be freely
redistributed for educational purposes at no charge in unaltered form.
This information is for
educational purposes only. There is no guarantee of any kind that it is
accurate, or that no harm will come to anyone who uses it.
This information is provided
on an "as is" basis with absolutely no warranty or guarantee. The
information is not necessarily correct, complete, or suitable for any
particular use. The entire risk is with you. Should harm arise from
using this information, you assume responsibility for all damages and
injuries. In no event shall the copyright holder, or any other party, be
liable for compensation or damages arising from the use, misuse, failure
to use, or inability to use this information.
Why most planning is simple
Most people do the wrong thing when
confronted with a disaster. This is their first time in the situation,
they aren't ready for it, and they need to decide what to do under stress.
Most often, they choose incorrectly, compounding the problem.
Making simple plans and preparations that
can be used for any disaster, large or small improves your situation a
prepare for trouble
- Buy appropriate insurance.
- Locate the cutoffs for the water, gas, and electricity. There may be
special tools to operate them, know where they are.
- Make a fire escape plan. House fires can spread quickly, and the smoke
is what's dangerous (it's full of carbon monoxide). Everyone should
practice jumping out of bed and running out the main route and the
backup route at least once a year. Decide on the one thing to grab on
the way out, and don't stop if it isn't where it should be (a key ring,
purse or wallet would be a good choice). Do
not look for anything, do not linger! The fire department
recommends you don't try to save anything, just get out as fast as you
can. And never go back in for anything.
- Arrange nightlights to light the way out in case of fire. It takes as
long to find a light switch as it does to get out.
- Everybody should sleep with bedroom doors shut. This makes a huge
difference during house fires.
- If you live in tornado country, make and practice a tornado escape
- If you live in earthquake country, make and practice an earthquake
- Identify a "back-road" route to use to get out of the area when the
highways are clogged. This is handy to know about on holiday weekends.
The route does not have to be fast, just less likely to be completely
- Decide on what to do about your pets if you have to evacuate.
Animal-related agencies and web sites say to bring the pets to improve
their chances, and people-related agencies say to leave them to improve
your chances. Bringing the pets
reduces the chances for your spouse & children, and keeps you from
helping other people. Little fluffy may be like part of the family, but
will you risk your children's safety to protect him? Decide your
priorities in advance.
- Educate yourself about insurance issues before a crisis occurs. If you
need insurance, you probably won't be in the right frame of mind to
carefully research how to not be taken advantage of. One web site
dedicated to this is http://www.disasterprepared.net/
(this listing is not an endorsement).
- You can download disaster readiness and notification apps for your
mobile devices. Be aware that wireless communications are brittle and
easily disrupted once trouble starts.
- Dry ice can keep your freezer cold in an extended power outage. Yet it
can be hard to find. Locate stores that sell it before
the power goes out.
- Make sure children can recite their name, address, & phone number.
In addition, the name and phone number of a nearby relative and a
relative in a distant city in case of separation. They will forget
unless drilled regularly.
- Make sure children know what emergency numbers to call and when it is
appropriate to call them.
- Agree beforehand to call a certain relative in another city in case of
separation away from home. Remind everyone before going on vacation.
- Agree beforehand on a certain neighbor's house to meet at if you can't
go into your home for any reason.
- Set up an ICE entry on everyone's mobile phones. It stands for "In
Case of Emergency". Emergency responders check the person's phone for
this. Make sure it can be accessed when the phone is locked. It can be
as simple as listing a person's name as ICE in the address book, though
some phones have a dedicated feature.
- Put an ICE card in everyone's wallet. It should list emergency
numbers, medications, conditions, and so forth. Emergency responders
check the wallet for insurance information, and will know what to do
when they find this. ICE stands for "In Case of Emergency". Do an
Internet search for "ICE card" for example cards and keyfobs you can
order or print yourself.
- Designate godparents for the children.
- Some city & county emergency management offices keep lists of
people with functional needs. Make sure they know about your loved ones
- If someone has mobility impairments, keep some heavy gloves in
strategic locations. Many disasters put broken glass all over the place.
The gloves can help them negotiate this hazard.
- People with mobility impairments can't get out of the house quick in a
fire, so get the flammable stuff out of the house. Ask the fire
department to tell you what to get rid of.
- Talk to the entire family about freezing up (http://www.familyready.org/disaster_during_after.html).
up an X-plan for the kids
is in a situation he doesn't feel comfortable with, or feels wrong
somehow. The X-plan lets them get out of it gracefully.
The kid texts a parent with an "X". The
parent waits a few minutes, then calls the kid back. The parent orders
the kid to come home now or comes to get him. The kid can even pretend
he doesn't want to. Kid gets out of the situation gracefully.
Kid is immune to punishment when texting "X". They might be somewhere
they aren't supposed to be, out past curfew, and smell like cigarettes,
but there is no punishment and they don't have to explain themselves.
the house ready
- Get appropriate insurance, and get good advice on what type to get.
Basic homeowners insurance just covers fire, not floods. Renter's
insurance just covers loss of personal possessions.
- Take pictures of everything you might want to use insurance to replace
if there is no other record that you own it. Photograph every room, all
possessions. Repeat every year. Make sure the pictures are up to date
annually. Record the make, model and serial numbers. Store this with
your insurance information. If you lost a high-end TV, your insurance
company could try to write "TV" on a form and base compensation on the
cheapest TV available.
- Install a smoke detector and
a carbon monoxide detector. Make sure your smoke detectors have good
batteries. Most houses have smoke detectors; the ones that don't have
most of the fires. Inspections find that 1/3 of all smoke detectors have
- Test your smoke alarms regularly to ensure they make a loud beep when
needed. Fire departments recommend doing this monthly.
- Keep an escape ladder in every upper-story bedroom. Make sure they are
stored for easy access and everyone knows how to use them.
- Clean your gutters annually.
- Install a sump pump and flood alarm in the basement. All basements
flood sooner or later. Make sure the battery backup can run for at least
- Don't put anything electrical on the floor or the basement,
particularly power plug strips. Don't put anything on the basement floor
that can be ruined by water.
- Anchor water heaters, fuel oil tanks, bookcases & cabinets to the
wall to prevent toppling.
- Put foam sleeves over exposed exterior pipes.
- Install a sewage back-flow valve.
- Earthquake-proof your home, earthquakes can happen anywhere. No heavy
things that can fall from high places onto your head. No heavy things on
the wall over headboards. Secure tall furniture to the wall so it won't
fall on you. Bolt your house to the foundation. Install water-heater
straps. These precautions also protect your house against
- A lot of disasters rip stuff off the wall. A moderate earthquake can
hit anywhere on the planet and make an entire city want wallboard
fasteners, and the first one to the hardware store wins. Keep a supply
of wallboard fasteners on hand, in several kinds. A ripped-out fastener
leaves a hole bigger than a pencil, so keep fasteners that can re-use
those holes. Also keep fasteners for virgin wallboard.
- Many modern gas-powered appliances will not work without electricity.
Most have a simpler and less expensive equivalent that does. Take this
into consideration when selecting an appliance.
- Maintain a 7 day reserve of medicine, supplies for babies, and
everyone's special needs. Don't wait until you are running out to buy
more. Some areas should use a bigger reserve. Stock up extra during
- Own sunscreen.
- Keep good raingear on hand for everyone. For some reason disasters are
usually followed by drenching rain, deep mud, and freezing cold. If it
doesn't rain, the firemen will drench everything.
- Own a hat for everyone.
- Everyone needs boots that are already broken in.
Food & water
- Keep canned food on hand, 10 cans per person. Maintain this reserve.
Keep a manual can opener. Stocking up on your usual canned food when it
is on sale saves money and builds your reserve.
- Keep bottled water on hand, 5 gallons per person. Maintain this
reserve. It only keeps 6 months, so date or number the jugs and use them
for cooking or drinking (oldest ones first).
- Identify an auxiliary source of water, such as a pool, hot tub, or
creek ahead of time. If you don't you may have to use a day's supply of
drinking water to flush a stinking toilet.
- Maintain enough paper plates, plastic forks, and foam cups to serve 10
meals without washing dishes. Figure out how many packages this is. Buy
more before you run low.
- Own a grill, barbecue, or camping stove. Keep enough fuel to cook at
least 10 times. Maintain this reserve.
- Keep toilet paper on hand, at least three rolls per person (6 is
better). Maintain this reserve. Stock up extra during sales.
- Keep a supply of soap on hand, at least 3 times what you need. This
means every kind of soap: hand soap, dish soap, laundry soap, etc.
- Keep some liquid antibacterial soap. Buy more before opening your last
- Hand sanitizer comes in handy pumper bottles, and also pocket-size
bottles. Ironically, the pocket bottles are more expensive than the
pumpers. They are easy to refill from a pumper, though. You need a
pumper for every sink and a pocket bottle for every car and purse. Keep
enough reserve to refill everything.
- Keep at least one unopened jug of unscented bleach on hand at all
times. Bleach is best stored low and only with laundry supplies.
- Own a bucket or two.
- Own a shovel and a garden trowel, or at least a garden trowel. These
are for sanitation.
- Keep candles on hand, three candles per room. Maintain this reserve.
Train the children not to touch the matches or candles. Candles are not a good idea for households with
small children, keep extra flashlight batteries instead.
- Keep flashlights on hand, 1 in every room. "Headlamps" that strap to
your forehead are invaluable. So are high-candlepower flashlights that
can recharge from a car's cigarette lighter. So are lanterns and
lantern-type flashlights. Avoid oil lamps.
- Keep a flashlight by the bed, one per person. Put it where it can be
found without fumbling around in the dark. Glow-in-the-dark flashlights
are good for this, but must be stored where light can reach them.
- Keep batteries on hand, one refill per flashlight, one refill per
radio. Maintain this reserve.
- Rechargeable flashlights have limited utility because they are
difficult to recharge in an emergency.
- If you have a fireplace, keep wood on hand to keep warm for seven cold
winter nights. Maintain this reserve.
- Own enough blankets for a cold night with no heat.
- Own some basic tools, like a claw hammer & nails, screwdrivers,
big pliers, and an adjustable wrench.
- Own an ax, saw, or other way to cut wood. It can cut 2x4s for repairs,
make firewood, and remove fallen limbs.
- Own a big pry bar to move heavy things.
- Keep a fire extinguisher rated for grease in the kitchen.
- Own petroleum jelly. It is a lip balm, a lubricant, and can seal out
- Keep 10 gallons of gasoline in non-sparking cans, or never let your
vehicles get below 1/2 tank. You choose. Maintain this reserve. Put
stored gasoline in your tank and buy new gasoline every year.
- Own one or two multi-purpose fire extinguishers. Maintain them. Shake
them every 6 months to keep the powder from caking.
- Keep at least one unopened box of plastic garbage bags on hand. Don't
let the supplies run low. You can put things in them, cover things with
them to keep the rain off, or cut them up into small temporary tarps.
You can make rain ponchos and skirts. You can use them for sanitation if
you cannot dig.
the electronics ready
- Do you have any important information on your computer? Back it up
regularly, because your computer and its hard drive will
fail. They all do, its only a matter of time. Put every other backup in
a different building (your drawer at work, your safe deposit box, your
relative's house, upload it somewhere, etc). Fires and thieves take both
the computers and the backups. Accidentally yanking a USB cable during a
backup can ruin the format on both the computer and backup drive (this
happened to me, and my redundant backup saved me).
- Protect expensive electronics with a UPS (Uninterruptible Power
Supply). Power line problems can fry your expensive possessions. A surge
protector is inadequate, use a UPS. You only need it to power your
stuff for 5-10 minutes so you can safely power it down. For many
families this means one UPS for the computer and another for the
- Own a cell phone and keep the batteries charged.
- Maintain a list of emergency phone numbers - police, fire, and rescue
agencies; power companies; insurance providers; family, friends and
co-workers; etc. - and program them into your phone. Other good places
are a USB key-fob or a fireproof box. Fireproof boxes are good because
you can include more details like account numbers, but don't include
details like passwords because thieves take these (it looks like it
- You may be able to get locator service for your family's cell phones.
- Don't get rid of your old-fashioned landline. Landlines are much more
likely to work in emergencies. A rotary phone is even more likely to
work (but modern phone lines don't always have the power to
operate the ringer). Be aware that many salespeople don't know
the difference between a VOIP line and an old-fashioned landline, and
will promise a landline and deliver VOIP. An old fashioned landline does
not need a modem to operate. A rotary cannot dial over VOIP.
- Your cell phone provider may offer a free backup service to preserve
your contact list.
- Make sure you can receive local alerts. Do an Internet search on
"emergency alerts" and your city name to see what's available and how to
- Use a USB thumb drive as a key fob. Load it with emergency
information, your contact list, photos of your loved ones,
prescriptions, insurance information, automobile information, medical
equipment information, and so forth. It has lots of room, load it with
everything you can think of. It should not
have your car description, license plate number, or home address if it
is a key fob.
- Buy a portable battery charger. A solar battery charger may or may not
be good for you.
everything else ready
- Own and maintain a good household first aid kit. Don't let the
supplies run low.
- Put a family zip-kit
in every car. If some people get around without cars, put a personal
zip-kit in their backpack or bike-bag.
- Own a safe deposit box. Store deeds, birth certificates, documents,
insurance information, photos documenting the house, and computer
backups in it. Leaving copies of these items with a relative in a
distant city works. They can be zip-locked and put into the freezer for
fire-safety, but this is not quite as good. Open safe deposit boxes
annually or some states will gleefully seize the contents. Keep the
information up to date.
- Put a 72-hour
kit in the trunk of you car. It is just enough to get by for a few
- Collar, tag, and/or chip your pets. This way you can be re-united with
your pet if someone rescues it.
- Keep slip-on shoes by your bed. The most common injury from fire,
earthquake, and other sudden emergencies is running on broken glass.
Without shoes you are likely to be injured, and this is a bad time to
not be able to walk.
- Losing a purse or wallet while traveling can have serious
consequences. You and your spouse should each have a credit card that
nobody else has. That way you always have a working credit card.
- Maintain an account in two banks. If something happens to one bank,
the other may be OK.
- Only have one account per bank. Banks can and do put your deposits
into the wrong account, causing problems for you.
- Make a secret web page that nobody can reach unless they know how. It
should have scans of drivers licenses, passports, and health insurance.
Without your ID you can't rent a motel room or a car, use your airplane
tickets, etc. For extra security, the page should not
have birth certificates. If you don't have a web page, put it on a
relatives web page. Be sure to encode or obscure ID codes like drivers
license numbers, social security, and passport numbers. And put a
"norobots" tag on it.
- Bleach can react with other household cleaners, producing chlorine
gas. They used it to kill people in world war I. Do not store bleach in
the same cabinet with other chemicals or cleaners (other than laundry
- Ammonia based cleaners can react with other household cleaners,
producing dangerous ammonia gas. Do not store ammonia in the same
cabinet with other chemicals or cleaners.
- Women should always have a scarf handy. Most people on the planet
always have some sort of scarf or bandana, except for urban/suburbanites
in safe industrialized countries. Scarves have hundreds of practical and
fashion uses. See the separate pictorial scarf research document.
- Establish good relations with your neighbors. They are priceless in
emergencies. Good neighbors can make your life easier in the best of
- Having friends or relatives out of the area who will take you in due
to evacuation can be the difference between life and death. Most people
never have to evacuate. But the people who suffered and died in
evacuation situations usually stayed because they had nowhere to go. If
you have no friends out of the area, make some. Set up evac exchanges
with people you know; you will take them in if they will take you in
(short term sheltering only).
- When you interact with a contractor, plumber, or hardware store
manager, maintain a simple long-term relationship. They are good to know
when problems occur.
- The most important thing to have after a disaster is help from others.
The way you get it is to help others as much as you can when they have
- If your local disaster happens often enough, invest in a satellite
messenger or satellite phone (the messenger is cheaper).
- Don't be out of shape. Exercise daily.
- You can prepare if the disaster is coming, but hasn't arrived yet.
Weather, fire, & flood related disasters can provide several days
notice. The problem is that the hardware store will be sold out of what
you need. You can order anything on the Internet and have it shipped
- You can't always hire someone with money, but you can usually get
someone to help for a case of beer. Bottled beer keeps for a year in a
cool and dark place. If possible, keep a reserve on hand and cycle
through it. Keeping beer isn't practical for everyone.
Your preparation needs will differ. Go over this list once a year to make
sure you are still prepared.