Surviving Disaster | Now is the Time to Gather Your Emergency Essentials

In the past if I heard advice that we should keep emergency preparedness supplies on hand, I’d yawn and go back to doing something important—like listening to my iPod. I’m a survivor. Besides being a Navy vet, I’ve camped, hitchhiked, or driven more than half the U.S.—alone. I’ve looked death in the eye more than once and simply took it for granted that in a disaster I’d not be in an astrodome waiting for help but on the rescue side—as happened the year I was actually hit by a tornado that killed three people. Certainly, it never occurred to me that putting together a plan and a disaster kit could change my life.

It started when, seeing our shaky economy, I researched how to become more self-sufficient and encountered the terms “go bag” and “bug out bag”—slang for emergency preparedness kit. Then—duh!—understanding began to dawn: no matter how tough one is, it’s smart to prepare for potential crises.

Building an Emergency Preparedness Kit

My first lesson was this one: the time to prepare for an emergency is not in the middle of one. Even with a calm mind, I took an astonishing two weeks to buy supplies, get cash, find and copy insurance papers, list credit card numbers,  medicines, and contacts for relatives, and consider a myriad of other needs that couldn’t possibly be gathered in a real emergency when time is short and the mind is rattled.

My second gain was a vivid awareness of what’s important. Consider: if you had to reduce your valuables and necessities to fit a container small enough to carry, what emergency essentials would go in your bug out bag? Feeling a mix of gratitude and grief, I walked around my home seeing what would be left behind in an emergency. But then came an empowering sense of objectivity, realizing that around the world others have had to let go of beloved possessions with no notice, while I’d already made peace with potential losses, already lessening the emotional intensity. At the very least, it made me more grateful for what I have.

The third lesson was a heightened recognition of how dependent we are on the power grid and other local and national  systems that support our way of life. To be suddenly bereft of the Internet, phone service, ATMs, and grocery stores would be radical culture shock. We’d have to scramble for alternatives to almost everything we presently take utterly for granted, including something as simple as how to entertain ourselves without electronics. Facing these realities ahead of time can make the difference between surviving disaster or crumpling, overwhelmed.

Be Mentally Prepared

Amanda Ripley, author of The Unthinkable, reports more people are killed by mental freeze than panic. For instance, with her house on fire, one distraught woman couldn’t even remember to call 911. Red Cross, police, and other emergency services know the importance of drills so that one can act automatically in times when fear and confusion abound. Having done my homework, I’ll be much less likely to panic or freeze.

Who among us would not be frantic if we couldn’t find loved ones? Red Cross has a family contact system (1-866-GETINFO), but do your children or parents know about it? Do you have an agreed-upon meeting place if contact is lost? Have you taken time to do a home safety drill? One woman I know bought disaster kits with five-year expiration dates for her children to keep in their cars, along with phone numbers, maps, and other necessities to help them get home. They laughed at her for spending the money, but even if the car emergency kits are only used while waiting for a tow truck, this mother knows what I also experienced—that the security of having a plan is priceless.

Could It Happen to Me?

Disaster victims commonly say, “I didn’t think it would happen to me.” Yet what are the chances that you will face some kind of disaster during your lifetime? If we consider ordinary personal disasters such as flooded plumbing, auto breakdowns, or unexpected illness, probably 100 percent.
Who has not, at the very least, been seriously inconvenienced by power outages during storms? Only a winter ago, my 80-year-old mother and a population of 40,000 had to survive several days with no heat or water following an ice storm. We spend hundreds of dollars every year for insurance to take care of us after a disaster yet fail to stock so much as a container of water to preserve us during a disaster.

Facing Your Fears

The last benefit I’d have expected to get from assembling a three-day emergency preparedness kit was a sense of greater maturity. In the past I’ve overcome disasters by luck, determination, and problem-solving ability. But consciously facing loss—even the possibility of death—left me feeling not only less fear of the future but a larger capacity to live life. I had considered the worst and now have better skills to handle it. I no longer think that emergency preparedness is for wimps, but for the wise. It’s like having karmic money in the bank to buy precious time, improve chances of survival, add some degree of comfort, and enhance my emotional resilience.

I’m not the only one to find unexpected benefits. In his book Emergency, author Neil Stauss tells how the path of preparation changed him from wimp to hero. Could it work for you? Whether you follow Red Cross and’s advice to have a three-day survival kit, adopt the financial rule of having at least three months’ worth of emergency food supplies, or become a “survivalist” and put in three years’ worth of emergency food supplies, preparation can change your life in ways you can’t predict.

Sharalyn Pliler is the author of The Reluctant Vegetarian Cookbook.

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