Are you prepared for a disaster?

Tim Engle / The Kansas City Star /

Published Dec 1, 2012 at 04:00AM

I was surprised to learn that a perfectly sensible neighbor owns a blow-up raft and oars, not because she’s planning a whitewater adventure but because the raft might come in handy in a flood.

I was less surprised when a friend who has never planted a thing besides grass mentioned stockpiling seeds for subsistence farming. Crazy, yes, but then again, he has mentioned fear of a zombie apocalypse.

I was not even a little surprised to hear of the reality TV show “Doomsday Preppers,” which offers extreme examples of people getting ready for whichever awful way they think the world is going to end one of these days. Their goal, of course, is survival.

Most of the time, those of us not on reality TV don’t give much thought to trying to manage without electricity or heat or cell phone or Internet. But the recent “superstorm” Sandy in the Northeast has people talking about whole-house generators and the advantages of buried power lines, says Mike Baughman, operations coordinator in the Emergency Management Department of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.

The good news for most Americans is that we probably won’t get a hurricane. And probably no apocalypses, zombie or otherwise. The Internet, however, claims that the end will come Dec. 21, because supposedly that’s when the Mayan calendar ends.

But for some there are the deadly threats of ice storms and tornadoes. Other possibilities include a hazardous material incident or a pandemic flu.

Any or all of which is why you ought to consider putting together a kit of emergency supplies. Some authorities think you should actually have three or more kits: for home, for the car(s), for work.

Digging an underground bunker in your backyard? That’s up to you.

Don’t count on rescuers

People expect that when something as devastating as Sandy goes down, FEMA and the American Red Cross will show up the next day. But that’s not always realistic. If you can sustain yourself through “the first 72 hours (of a crisis), then we as the government can start to help resolve the issue,” says Jennifer Fales, coordinator of training and outreach in Kansas City’s emergency management department.

Estimates vary on how many of us are prepared for a disaster. One survey, from 2007, found that 31 percent of families had a complete emergency supply kit. (The next step: having an emergency communication plan.)

Even with several days of warning, some folks along the East Coast were obviously caught off guard by the storm, Shepherd says, mentioning TV images of people scouring trash bins for something to eat.

Granted, you probably have most of the stuff you’d need around your house. But putting it all in one spot means (a) you’ll know where it is when the lights go out and (b) if your kit is in a bag or backpack, you can easily take it with you if you’re forced to leave your home.

Motivated by my zombie friend (I mean the guy who’s into zombies), I decided I’d look for a weather radio, something we hear about every spring at the start of tornado season.

After browsing online, I ended up buying one at a Dick’s Sporting Goods for about $60. Two features sold me on it: Besides running on batteries, it also has a hand crank (and a solar panel). But best of all, it will charge a cellphone (I’m not sure how well that works, however).

The funny thing about shopping for an emergency kit — known in some circles as a “bug-out bag” — is that you’re likely to find yourself in the camping aisle of a place like Dick’s or Wal-Mart. Are you there because you’re planning a fun vacation or because you’re expecting hell on Earth?

Or something in between.

Dick’s had an emergency preparedness kit on sale for $29.97, marked down $20. It contains such things as first aid supplies, light sticks, hand warmers, plastic ponchos and an emergency blanket.

The Red Cross’s online store sells a one-person, three-day basic kit in a backpack for $50. In addition to the stuff you’d expect, it contains food packets and water pouches with five-year shelf lives.

In the same aisle as the weather radio at Dick’s was an “emergency water filter,” $39.99. The product claimed to make “virtually any water drinkable.”

A whistle was on my list — emergency authorities recommend one — but try to find just a whistle. A “5-in-1 survival tool” at Dick’s combined a whistle with a compass, flint for starting fires, waterproof matchbox and nylon lanyard, to hang around your neck.

Costco sells emergency food kits, providing 216 servings of four add-water-and-cook “entrees” with such mouth-watering names as Spaghetti Marinara With Freeze Dried Beef and Freeze Dried Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo. They come in sealed cans with a shelf life of 25 years. The whole shebang sells for about $240.

Rule of Three

In the emergency preparedness world, there’s the Rule of Three, which can vary according to the source. Fales recommends these threes:

You can live three hours without shelter. In extreme conditions like a blizzard, anyway. Could you always keep yourself warm and/or dry? That’s why, for example, you should keep a coat or blanket in your car.

You can live three days without water. Or thereabouts. A healthy adult might survive for a week with no or limited water, but do you really want to test it? Have at least three days’ worth of water on hand.

You can live three weeks without food. Doesn’t sound like the kind of diet I’d want to try. Lay in some extra food for peace of mind if nothing else.

Also, once you stock your disaster supply kit, go through it a couple of times a year to switch out water and make sure non-perishables haven’t expired.

Some people become disaster experts by joining a Community Emergency Response Team, or CERT, a Citizen Corps program that trains, yes, ordinary citizens to respond to crises. (Find out more at citizen corps.gov/cert.)

Baughman at Wyandotte County said about 80 percent who take the classes do it for themselves and their families. The others sign on to assist neighbors or co-workers. The idea is that they’re already on the scene; first responders might take a while to get there.

Walter Davis, a CERT member who lives in Brookside, Kan., is also in the Medical Reserve Corps and is a Red Cross disaster action team member and Kansas City Health Department ambassador. The 62-year-old retired Army colonel was used to serving, he explained, so he decided to serve in a different way.

When disaster strikes, CERT members first make sure their own home is squared away and everyone safe. Then they check on neighbors and assist the broader community, Davis says. CERT members are trained in simplified search and rescue.

He maintains three emergency kits, the largest in a big plastic storage container. His “go bag,” to be grabbed if he had to leave his house, is a small suitcase. He keeps copies of important documents in it; many Hurricane Katrina evacuees, he says, didn’t have identification on them, which complicated efforts to help them. Finally, Davis keeps an emergency backpack in his car.

He sounds like the kind of person you want next door. My own plan, other than stocking a disaster kit, is hoping I can catch a ride in my neighbor’s rubber raft.

3 things everyone should have on hand

Be prepared to get by on your own for at least three days. (The American Red Cross suggests having enough food and water for two weeks in case you’re stranded at home.) So make sure you have:

• Water: At least 1 gallon per person per day, to be used for drinking as well as hygiene and food preparation. You can buy bottled water, but storing tap water in clean 2-liter soda bottles works, too.

• Food: You need a three-day supply of nonperishable foods that don’t require cooking. Examples: peanut butter, jerky, nuts, protein bars; canned meat, vegetables, fruits, soup. Comfort food is a good idea, too, such as cookies, candy bars, instant coffee, tea bags. If you have kids, pick foods familiar to them. If you have a baby, make sure you have formula, diapers, etc.

• Life-sustaining medications: Have an extra seven-day supply on hand.

And don’t forget your pets. Have food and water for them. Also: leashes, collars, carriers, toys.

Other items that might come in handy

• A complete change of weather-appropriate clothing and footwear per person

• A first aid kit

• Battery-operated or hand-crank radio, plus extra batteries. Upgrade: a NOAA weather radio that broadcasts storm warnings.

• Flashlights and extra batteries. AA lithium batteries are said to have a 10-year shelf life.

• Cash (there’s no guarantee ATMs or credit card machines will work in an emergency) and an extra credit card

• Cellphone with charger. Even old cellphones can be used to call 911; just keep them charged.

• Whistle

• Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, baby wipes, etc.

• Spare eyeglasses, hearing aids, etc.

• Rain gear

• Blankets or sleeping bag

• Manual can opener

• Cooking utensils, paper plates, plastic forks, etc.

• Multipurpose tool with pliers, knife, etc.

• Duct tape

• Heavy-duty trash bags

• Games and activities for the kids

• Maps of the area. You might have to find a nearby shelter.

CONSIDER THESE IF YOU’RE EXTRA-CAUTIOUS

• Dust or surgical masks

• Compass

• Matches in a waterproof container

• Unscented household chlorine bleach (a drop or two can purify a jug of water)

• Shut-off wrench for turning off household water and gas

• Important documents (insurance policies, birth certificates, credit card numbers, proof of address, etc.) kept in a waterproof container. Or scan such documents and store them on a USB thumb drive.

• Plastic bucket with a tight lid (or buy a toilet-lid bucket top online). Also garbage bags and ties.

• A generator to keep at least the furnace and refrigerator running, or to provide power for someone with medical needs. Gas- or diesel-powered generators should be used only outdoors where there’s adequate ventilation.

Sources for lists included: preparemetrokc.org; redcross.org; Mike Baughman, Wyandotte County Emergency Management; Gene Shepherd and Jennifer Fales, Kansas City Emergency Management