Organizing for Emergencies

Readying your family for whatever comes

[Editor's note: Cathe originally wrote this article with Y2K in mind; I have retooled it for more general emergency preparedness. Four years after Y2K it's still a good idea.--Lynn]

Wherever you live, you should be prepared for a disaster. For most people, a plan for a one to two month supply of everything to make your family's life livable should be sufficient. The way I started was to list what our family did and ate for a week. Don't change anything. The last thing you'll want to do during an emergency is learn what to do with the 50 lbs of soy beans "someone on the web" told you to stock up on. I certainly don't want to be experimenting with new foods and supplies in the dark, so to speak.

Write down everywhere you go, everything you buy, everything you do. Now pretend the power is out (in the middle of winter) for a day or more; what things do you need to make meals? Will you want to just go to sleep at sundown or will you need to power up the night? This exercise will give you a realistic idea of how complicated your life is or isn't. It seems troublesome but when you're done you'll be glad you did it for many reasons.

Let's start with food. Fortunately, an article was just published here on food storage. Let me just add a few comments to complement that article.

  1. Buy only what you normally buy and use. For our family, my husband would rather go without fresh milk than drink "powdered milk mixed up pretending to be whole fat milk." So, I will only have enough powdered milk for some recipes he's not aware contain powdered milk.
  2. Always have some ice in your freezer. Filling water bottles with water and placing them in the freezer is a good plan, especially during tornado season and winter. This way, you will have frozen bottles to use as freeze packs in cooling perishable items and when the bottles of ice melt, you'll have bottles of usable water.
  3. Babies can survive on cold jars of baby food and easily stored items like dry baby cereal. This is much easier and practical than starting up a propane stove just to warm baby's pureed carrots. Of course, if you're not breastfeeding you'll want to make sure you have a safe way of storing and preparing formula. Even for the strictest breastfeeding mother, it is always wise to have a few cans of formula in case of an unforeseen emergency. (Read: you somehow get separated from your baby.)

Next is water, something we all use more of than we realize.

  1. Store water at a rate of at least 2 gallons per person per day. You'll need enough for drinking, cooking, bathing, and cleaning. Increase your storage as appropriate for your needs.
  2. Store water for no more than six months at a time and then rotate a new batch in. Better yet, as you use the water, rotate fresh water into storage to replace what you used.
  3. Store water in non-toxic and durable plastic (or glass) rather than old milk gallon containers (believe it or not, they are made to start degrading after about a year and are better used as a backup source for watering gardens, if needed). Cleaned 2-liter soda bottles are good for storing small amounts of water, as are empty bleach containers (the residue will act as a purifier, so don't rinse them out). However, it may be easier to purchase safe and sealed water bottles in the small sport type bottles (16 oz) and in the large 5- or 10-gallon containers which water services provide. Remember there are many places to store water in a pinch, like your bathtub or new trash cans.
  4. When you are faced with using stored water in an emergency situation, be sure to purify it properly if it isn't a sealed and safe source. Purification methods include chlorination (15 drops of bleach to each gallon of water--be sure to keep an eyedropper taped to your emergency bleach container), boiling (boil for 10 minutes for drinking purposes), purification tablets (normal use is one tablet per quart of water for drinking purposes), and filtration devices.
  5. Stored water may taste pretty bad. Aerating it (shaking it up) right before use should do the trick.

Powering down and up during an emergency is usually the first thing we think of but, with the exception of staying warm, in most cases it's one of the easiest to learn to live without. Be sure to have the tools that go with each of these energy sources, such as a gas shutoff wrench for natural gas emergencies.

Other Stuff to Have on Hand
Gasoline -- Keep your vehicles gassed up, with perhaps a spare 5-gallon container at home for each vehicle, should the pumping stations go down or have shortages during an emergency. If you have a boat, it's always best to keep the tank filled when in storage. In an emergency, this stored gas becomes an easily accessible source. If there are gas shortages, expect prices to skyrocket.

Batteries, Flashlights, Candles, and Lighters/Wooden Matches -- Have enough flashlights for each person in your home, with at least one large one in both your home and vehicle. Store batteries in an air-tight container in the fridge. Candles are great so long as you use them safely. Be sure to have many long lasting large candles with sturdy heat resistant bases.

Telephones -- Be sure to have at least one phone that isn't electrical. Most that have answering machines these days will not work when the power goes out. A cell phone is always handy if you can afford such an investment.

Water -- If you have your own well, you should know whether it's electricity-dependent or not. A hand-pump is a good investment. If you're on city water service, call them to find out if you can safely use toilets and the water service during outages. Find out at the same time what they're doing about Y2K and how it will effect your home.

Natural Gas -- Many energy-conserving homes are now built to run primarily on natural gas. Only problem is most of the ignitions are electrical. That means you need to learn how to manually light any gas device you wish to use. Be sure to check with your gas company to learn how to do this safely.

Wood -- Stock up on plenty of wood for your fireplace. Learn how to start the fire without the gas.

Propane -- Many stoves, outdoor grills and heaters use propane. This will be an investment worth making, especially if you will use the items year round for camping or outdoor cooking. Propane is very easily and safely stored long-term and relatively cheap. We cook year-round on our propane grill getting eight meals from one small propane canister (about $2).

Heating oil, kerosene, and other fuels -- Contact your energy provider to find out what is best during an emergency. They may have already sent you flyers on the topic or have websites you can check out. I don't recommend using Coleman fuel (white gas) because it is so easily misused and is quite dangerous even if used properly. Sterno fuel and stoves (very small and relatively cheap) are something that you may want to consider for your portable emergency kit.

Electricity -- Prepare for sporadic outages of a few hours to a week or so.If you have a generator and know how to use it, store up enough fuel to power it for a few days.

Basic Supplies will include:

  • Warm clothing and shoes (preferably including waterproof items)
  • Blankets and down comforters
  • Battery operated or hand-crank lanterns, radio, and watch or clock
  • Cleaning supplies (bleach, dish soap, scrubber, towels, and washcloths)
  • Clothesline and pins
  • Buckets with tight fitting lids
  • Kitchen supplies (plastic ZiplocTM baggies, rags, trash bags, heavy-duty aluminum foil, paper towels, cups, plates, plastic utensils and containers, can openers, outdoor-safe cooking pans, pots, and utensils, etc.)
  • Backpacks and baby carrier
  • Fishing and hunting gear
  • Heavy work gloves, shovel, tools and toolbox, duct tape, pocket knife and/or LeathermanTM tool
  • Sunglasses
  • Porta potty
  • Garden hoses (siphoning or firefighting)
  • Camping gear (tent, sleeping bags, etc.)
  • Baby supplies (disposable bottle liners would be better if your child is bottle fed)
  • Local map
  • Writing supplies
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Critical pet supplies
  • Duffel bags or storage devices for your supplies

In addition, try to have alternative methods of transportation. Bicycles should be kept in good condition, horses well-fed if you have them, and hiking and rain boots ready for wear.

Medical emergencies may be the least-thought-about issue in preparation for an emergency, and may be the most important. The following are some potential needs your family may have:

Health and Body Care Items

First Aid Kits and Emergency Handbook

Prescriptions--ask your doctor for refills

Extra pair of prescription eyeglasses, if you need them

Syrup of Ipecac (in case of poison)

Life-Support devices (contact your doctor)

Non-prescription drugs such as aspirin, non-aspirin pain reliever, anti-diarrhea medication and antacids, cold and flu medications, vitamins, and herbal remedies.

Birth Control Items

Feminine Hygiene Products

Diapers and wipes

Childbirth, if you're expecting

Toothbrush and toothpaste


Soap and Deodorant

Hand sanitizer solution


Toilet paper and tissues

Denture cleanser

General Emergency Tips

  1. Create an emergency plan and go over it with your family. Create a list of emergency information (waterproof it) to include family social security numbers and the names, addresses, and phone numbers of friends, relatives, employers, home security company, doctors, and health facilities.
  2. Store supplies in both portable (Emergency Car Kit) and permanent locations. Color code (those sticky circles) supplies meant for an emergency, being sure to replace anything "color dotted" with fresh supplies.
  3. Plan for the kids: keep decks of cards and portable games handy. A few hours of battery power and music tapes may save everyone's sanity.

Skills That It Wouldn't Hurt To Have

  • Gardening: Now's the time to try your hand at growing your first garden or, for the seasoned gardener, try collecting and saving seeds for next year's open-pollinated non-hybrid garden. Add a few fruit trees and berry bushes and move towards a more edible landscape.
  • Cooking outdoors: For many women, our men are the outdoor cookers. Now's the time to learn how it's done using charcoal, wood, propane, or whatever energy source is most practical for your family.
  • Raising Chickens and Rabbits, Hunting, and Fishing: Handy for fresh eggs (and meat, if necessary). Check your city zoning; you may not be allowed to raise animals because of health or noise issues. Hunting and fishing are very valuable skills but check your local Fish and Wildlife for regulations in your area.
  • Making Meals Without Energy: Now's a good time to start seeing how many nutritious meals you can make without electricity or other energy. Tuna on crackers with mayo packets and canned pickles, with homegrown tomatoes and cucumber, might just satisfy your family.
  • Safety Lessons: Take a CPR or advanced first aid class.
  • Storing and Canning Food: If you've successfully harvested from your garden, you'll want to learn how to store your excesses without the use of a fridge or freezer. I know I don't want to survive a disaster without my jars of herbed zucchini and tomato! Did you know that if you store onions and potatoes near each other, they will rot faster?
  • Making candles: Why not make your own light for an emergency? Check out's great section on candlemaking.
  • Organize and Clean Your Home: Try some of the tips in the articles here in Clean and Organized to get your home ready for anything, including a late night power outage! Ever stepped on a Lego barefoot in the dark?

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