January 1, 2011

DISASTER-PREPAREDNESS LESSONS FROM THE BLIZZARD:

The recent blizzard has shown once again the importance of having at least a basic short-term food store. Intentional slowdown or otherwise, people found themselves trapped in their home or apartment unable to go out for sustenance. Even if not technically trapped, many were in a position where they did not want to be forced out to face the elements or on to the dangerous roads.

The importance of having enough to eat and drink for a few days is matched by the ease of preparation. On your next trip to the supermarket, buy a few bags of beef-jerky, a jar of honey, and a mini-keg of beer and/or a few gallons of water. When you get home, put them away together in a cool dark place. That’s it.

Add some canned goods (with a mechanical can opener, and/or easy-open cans), a flashlight, a battery-powered radio and lantern, and a few extra blankets. (I don’t think the mini-keg of beer will really keep for a year, though.) You can do a lot more to prepare, but if you do this much you’ll be prepared for most reasonably-probable eventualities.

UPDATE: Reader Robert Rafton emails: “Never been much interested in your disaster-preparedness blogging until you mention this morning that one should stock a small keg of beer. You’ve now won me over.”

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Richard Dean writes: “Excellent advice on the storing essentials in case of a disaster, even a minor one. One word of caution: beware of the thin plastic gallon jugs of water sold at most grocery stores. They will keep for maybe a year before the plastic breaks down and they spring leaks. I found this out the hard way one time when I checked my emergency kit and found that my water had leaked and I had lost several cans of food, 100 rounds of premium handgun ammunition, a roll of duct tape, and a hand-crank emergency radio into a soupy mess. Luckily, it wasn’t during an emergency that I found this out.” Yeah, and if you store plastic containers directly on a concrete floor they break down faster. Canned goods shouldn’t be hurt by wetting, though, except for the labels.

MORE: Reader Paul Carlson writes: “For metal cans of food, write down the contents on the lid with a magic marker. Thus, if the labels do come off, you still know what you have before you open it.”

Meanwhile, Rick Lee emails:

After 9/11 I stored a bunch of emergency materials and had the nasty experience of plastic water jugs going bad and ruining a bunch of stuff in the garage.’ve never replaced those things… How SHOULD one store water?

And the response comes from reader Kevin Menard:

We buy the five gallon carboys that you normally stick in a water cooler. It’s a bit more expensive but the plastic holds up for years and we haven’t had a break or leak yet. I date them and use the oldest first. We opened a three year old one last year and the water was okay. Needed aeration but other wise fine. Since most of our emergency food is freeze dried, our expected emergency water usage will be higher. A forty pound propane tank and a propane stove help too. If you lived up north, you could run a camping heater off that too.

Yes, my sister-in-law — no prepper, but a poet — keeps those because her water comes from a well and she has to be ready for when the power goes off. Seems to work, er, well. And reader Marica Bernstein writes:

One thought about food preps. Canned goods, etc. are just common sense. But if you’re used to “real” food, I imagine it would be something of a shock to the system to switch abruptly to several days of the canned stuff. Making a weekly menu, and shopping for what you need on a designated grocery day (as opposed to stopping in at the store after work each day), wouldn’t solve all your problems, but at least you’d have on hand the items you’d need to carry on as usual– meal-wise (well, unless the disaster hits the day before grocery day).

We woke this morning after serious storm threats last night to discover we have no running water! No problem. We’re prepared.

Well, that’s always a comfort. And note that none of this requires Omega-Man style apocalypse planning — just maintaining a bit of a reserve. And when people do that, it helps things upstream, as everyone who does so is one less person trying to navigate jammed grocery stores, or calling 911 or whatever.

MORE: Bill Quick emails:

1. Crystal Geyser sells one gallon jugs of water made of the same long-lasting plastic as their smaller bottles.

2. Free: Rinse and reuse the two-liter bottles you get your soda pop in. They last forever, too, and have the added bonus that the water inside can be disinfected by letting them rest in direct sunlight. According to the medical doc posting here, the heat will kill all living organisms inside.

3. Those 2.5 gallon jugs with handles available at most drug and grocery stores will last forever, too.

All this and more, for those who read the “Water Storage at Home” thread at Survival-Preps.com!

I’ll just note that if you want to go a step farther, you might want a Katadyn (or similar) water filter, too. That lets you turn iffy water into drinkable water without having to store mass quantities. Also note that your hot water heater will contain many gallons of clean water, and your toilet tanks will, too — though you might want to treat or filter the latter, as much for your own peace of mind as anything else.

Plus, try-before-you-buy advice from reader Joseph Dorsett:

When deciding whether we wanted to go with freeze dried we got a “free sample” from e-foods direct. It actually cost the $14.95 shipping and handling. It was really pretty good though we decided to stick with canned goods and true individual meals for our boogie bags. We have friends who went with freeze dried because of the longer shelf life and variety of food. Readers may want to do this before investing in large lots. It will certainly give you a good idea of what the options are.

Yes, “large lots” go beyond the advice above, but if you’re storing food you should be sure it’s stuff people will want to eat. Even lousy food will keep you from starving, of course, but if you’re stuck at home for days because of an ice storm, food will be one of the few things that alleviates the boredom and it’s better if it’s good.

And reader Ken Lightcap writes:

Having been through several ice storms in Kansas City, once without power for four days and only partial power for another five, I was greatful beyond words for a gas hot water heater and a gas range and oven. It was forty-seven degrees in the house but we had hot water for showers (feeling clean is a huge morale boost) and always fire to cook and bake. Also, don’t over-look the old K-1 kerosene heaters popular in the 70s and 80s. I was glad I never threw mine away. It kept pipes from freezing for nine days.

I keep one of those kerosene heaters, and an indoor-rated propane heater. When I was a little kid, we got through the Great Northeastern Blackout fairly well because we had a gas stove. It would have been much worse if we’d had all-electric.

And reader Peter Gookins offers this advice for canned goods: “Don’t forget to write the purchase date on the tops of canned goods so you can use the oldest first.”

EVEN MORE: Reader Tom Anderson writes:

One easy thing to do to prepare for an emergency is to keep an extra full tank of propane for your gas grill. Not only will you never run out of propane in the middle of a barbecue, but if you lose electric power for your stove/range you will be able to cook for days using your grill.

In addition, troll Craigslist for a lightly used generator; people buy them after a storm or hurricane, then sell them after they sit for a few years. I bought one in excellent condition for $50 that would not run because an oil pressure sensor went bad from sitting too long. $20 in repairs plus a siphon line so I can use the 25 gallon gas tank in my SUV as a gas reserve of fresh gasoline and I’m good to go.

Combine the generator, the mini-keg of beer, and the gas grill, and I’m almost looking forward to an ice storm.

Heh. Meanwhile, reader Drew Kelley wonders why I’m not talking about MREs. Well, no reason — you can keep a case handy for fairly cheap, with heaters even. But they kind of go beyond the sort of incidental-effort preparedness that was the theme of this post.

FINALLY: Reader Alan Colon writes:

I am the Emergency Manager for my city, and you hit almost all of the high points in your posts on preparedness.
The most important things are the simple things. Have food and water, have medications and essential supplies (baby food, diapers, etc) for 96 hours.

That said, here’s a couple of things people should know about their homes:

Heat:
– Modern homes are very tightly insulated and wrapped with vapor barrier. Using any kind of fuel based heater (propane, etc) inside the house is an invitation to carbon monoxide poisoning.
– If your house has a gas fireplace, find the instructions and learn how to light it without the electrical igniter (wall switch) normally used.
– If your house has gas heat, it usually takes relatively few amps to run the fan the the electronic controls. With a power connector wired in and a small generator, you can keep your furnace running for a long period of time.

Phone:
– Make sure you have an old-fashioned plug-in phone in the house (less than $10 at your local big box). If power goes out your cordless phones are dead. A cheapie analog phone is powered from the phone line and will continue to function of the power is out.
– If you have gone all cellphone or VOIP, consider keeping a landline phone line on the cheapest plan your phone company will give you. With power outages, cell sites are quickly overloaded with calls, then they go offline after their backup batteries quit. Without power, DSL and cable lines will fail, then knocking out your VOIP service.

Backup Power: This is not cheap, but it provides definitive standby capacity:
– If your home or business has gas service, companies make relatively inexpensive natural-gas-powered standby generators which will auto-start and run off gas pressure (which is not dependent on the electrical grid being up).
– These will provide power for critical circuits such as heat, hot water, cooking, basic lighting, etc.
– Installed prices can be under $3000

Thanks for helping get the word out!

Happy to. I should note that you can get tri-fuel generators that will run on natural gas, propane, or gasoline, though they’re pricier. That’s kind of beyond the scope of this post.

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