Thursday, February 3, 2011

Be Prepared

We are lucky to live in an area that doesn't really see many natural disasters. During the summer there are wild fires, but those happen in rural and wilderness areas so those of us in the city don't really have to worry about them. We get the occasional flash flood, but again, in the city it isn't much of an issue. We don't have blizzards, or tornadoes or earthquakes. We don't have hurricanes or mass riots. In the summer it gets hot, but that happens every year and we all have swamp coolers or A/C and swimming pools and shorts. We know how to deal with heat. What we don't know how to deal with is cold...We may have a few days each year that dip below freezing, but when I say "below freezing" I mean that it may get down to 30 at 5am and then warm back up as soon as the sun comes out. What we aren't used to is the weather we've had the last few days. Last night it got down to 18 degrees (-4 after the wind chill was added), pipes burst, the water company's computers shut down in some areas and the gas company RAN OUT (at least in some areas). As of noon today it wasn't quite back up to freezing, though by 4pm it had made it all the way up to 38 before heading back down. Tonight they are estimating that it will get down to 15 degrees and as of the last report I read 1500 homes are still without water and homes in other areas are still without gas to run furnaces and water heaters. This probably sounds crazy to anyone who is from somewhere colder, after all 18 degrees is warmer than many places have been all week. However, the people here aren't used to it. Our pipes aren't insulated against it. Our plants aren't meant for it. Our infrastructure isn't designed for it. Most importantly, our citizens aren't prepared for it. Today I happened to be near the local high school as they were getting out at 2:00pm. It was maybe 35 degrees outside and windy, but most of the students were walking home in nothing more than hooded sweatshirts because that is what they had. Families with young children and babies in our neighborhood woke up with no water because their pipes had frozen or burst. They didn't have bottled water anywhere because why would they? In other areas the water company's computer went haywire because of the cold and stopped delivering water. And I don't know how many people are stuck inside with their children because they don't have warm enough clothes to go outside to play. Tonight some people in our city will have to sleep in shelters, not because they don't have homes, but because they cannot warm their homes. They don't have gas for their furnaces and there are no space heaters to be had because everywhere has sold out.

This brings me to my main point. No matter where you live you should be prepared for at least basic emergencies. Electricity can fail because a construction worker accidentally cuts a wire which causes a transformer to blow which messes up the entire power substation and causes rolling blackouts for a whole city for a while. (This happened here a few years ago.) A water or gas line can burst leaving one or more neighborhoods without the clean, hot water we have grown accustomed to. On a smaller scale, the hot water heater can die on Thanksgiving day when you have family visiting and a giant pile of dishes which may only affect your family, but makes the rest of the weekend a pain unless you can find a plumber willing to come out and fix it for you. Then there are the bigger emergencies like floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc that actually make the news...But no matter what it is that happens, some basic preparation can make life a lot easier, happier and less stressful for everyone. You don't have to be prepared for everything or run out today and buy a special prepackaged kit so you'll be "ready", but it does make sense to at least have a few basics on hand just in case. If you camp and/or spend a lot of time outdoors you may well be most of the way there already. What you need will vary based on your family, but if you think of it in terms of "food, clothing, shelter and water" you'll be pretty close.

Here are some of the things that week keep on hand:

-Water - Normally only a couple of gallons because this takes a lot of space, but if there is anything that might cause a shortage we fill up our camping jugs. If you are worried about a longer term shortage due to something easily predictable like a flood or a hurricane you can scrub and bleach the bathtub, give it a good rinse and then fill it up with water too which will get you a lot. Maybe not the tastiest water, but it will keep you hydrated and healthy.

-Food - This is a hard one because while you probably have plenty of food at a given time if you have an electrical outage your refrigerator won't work and it will spoil after a few days (if your electricity does go out don't open the refrigerator unless you absolutely have to and if it will be more than a few hours throw some ice in there to help keep it cool). The other problem that you run into is that you may or may not have a way to cook any food you have. This is where a BBQ and/or a camp stove can come in handy. Dry goods and canned goods will probably do you the most good. Also, things like instant rice will be better than normal rice because it has a much shorter cooking time which will help you conserve fuel. What kind of food you keep on hand will depend on what your family likes and how you might be able to cook it if your stove didn't work. No matter what you choose, make sure that you have enough for any foreseeable emergency in your area and that you rotate through it so that it doesn't spoil/expire/get weevils before you need it. One thing you might also consider is keeping a larger food store (3-6 months or even longer) that you rotate which can help even out high grocery prices or give you something to eat if you have to cut your spending suddenly due to job loss, unexpected medical bills, etc.

-Stove or BBQ - If you were to lose electricity or gas how would you cook your food. We used to camp a lot (and still do occasionally) so we have camp stoves and propane to run them. If you don't camp do you have a gas BBQ? You can put pots and pans on your grill or grill meat normally. It is especially good to cook up any meat you had in the fridge that is starting to get too warm.

-Warm Clothes and Cool ones - Do you have clothing for yourself and your family that will keep you warm if you have to go outside on a cold day? In most places the answer would be yes, but in those places with a warmer climate the answer may be no. Many people may only own a sweatshirt if it almost never gets below freezing. If that is the case I would strongly suggest at least adding a hat, mittens/gloves, warm socks and a windbreaker for each person. A sweatshirt doesn't do much if it is windy, the wind cuts straight through you and you get cold really fast. By adding a windbreaker you will keep the wind at bay. A hat will help keep heat from escaping from your head and mittens and socks will help keep your hands and feet warm when there isn't enough warmth to go around. My favorite material for warm clothing is wool because it stays warm even when it is wet, but there are a lot of other good options out there. The big thing is to have some set of layers so that you can go outside if you have to. Murphy's law says that the kids will all get sick on the coldest day of the year and the only appointments open will be first thing in the morning when it's freezing. As for cool clothes, on a hot day if you loose your A/C or even your fans you will be much happier if you can walk around in shorts and flip flops. Be sure you have cool, cotton or linen clothing for those hot days. Don't wear man made fibers when it's hot because they will just make you hotter.

This brings us to shelter. This sounds like a silly thing to have because after all, if you are reading this I bet you have a house or an apartment. Shelter should be covered, but what you really need is to make sure that your shelter can keep you comfortable if the lights/heater/air conditioner goes out. Do you have flashlights? Do those flashlights have working batteries? What about candles or lanterns? Some sort of light will make life a lot easier. If you don't have electricity it is generally better to just go to bed early, but if it goes out after dark you may still need light to check on children, prepare dinner or get everyone calmed down and in bed. Do you have an alternate heat source? Today, in my city, a lot of people's furnaces stopped working due to a gas shortage (I'm told the gas company bought plenty of gas, but the distribution computer failed or some such). There was a run on space heaters and now all the stores are out. If you live some place cold a space heater or some other sort of back-up heat source is not a bad idea. If you live some place like here and have plenty of warm clothes you may be fine with lots of blankets. Whatever you decide, make sure that you have a plan in place if you have young children. Young babies can suffocate with thick blankets and toddlers and space heaters can be a bad combination. In both cases you might be better off with warm clothes or use one solution in one part of the house and another elsewhere. The key is to think ahead and have some option in place. We have plenty of warm clothes because we visit colder climates so we just go the blanket route. We also have dogs and cats that will curl up in bed with us if it gets too cold and they keep the place pretty warm too...

There are a ton of other things that may or may not be appropriate for your family. If you have some sort of medical device that requires electricity or live in an area where the electricity goes out frequently you may want to consider a generator. If you have pets you should always make sure that you have enough food and water for them as well. Whatever you need will depend on what is most likely to happen where you live. The key is to think about it. Even if no major disaster happens it is nice to know that when lightning knocks down your power lines for a few hours you can still feed your family or if the lights go out during story time you can simply light a lantern or some candles and continue reading to your family. The best part about being prepared is that when you start hearing about rolling blackouts or water or gas shortages in your hometown you have the peace of mind to know that you and your family will be okay. You can relax and enjoy the adventure instead of worrying.

Which reminds me, the most important thing to have in any emergency situation is a calm demeanor, a sense of humor and the knowledge that this will make for a great story later. (And with that I should return to knitting more stuff for my family, hopefully I can get stuff done before it warms up too much to wear it.)

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