From how to prepare for a hurricane, to prepping for a family emergency, this plan will help you get ready for the unexpected. 

By Tamara Kraus
June 29, 2018
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From what to store in your go bag to which apps can get you out of a sticky spot, this info will ready you for life’s unexpected (and, fingers crossed, rare) disasters.

Where to Begin

Know Your Risks
Research which natural disasters are likely to occur in your region (such as flooding, hurricanes, or earthquakes) and check with your insurance company to find out what kind of coverage is recommended for your area.

Sign Up for Alerts
Your local emergency management organization, news station, and municipal departments may provide text alerts or push notifications to keep you updated.

Gather Important Information
Create a list of core family members’ phone numbers, birth dates, social security numbers, and medical needs in case your mobile device fails. Note your household members’ frequent locations (work, daycare, school) and their addresses, phone numbers, and evacuation routes.

Talk to Your Neighbors
Reach out to the people around you (or use a social network like Nextdoor) to see if anyone will need an extra hand in an emergency—such as elderly neighbors or those with special needs or small children. Determine who will check on them during a disaster. If you live in an apartment building, ask your landlord or neighbors about plans to keep one another informed and safe if there’s a fire, power outage, or gas leak.

How to Make Your Plan

Write It Down
Once you’ve done your research, compile a document. Include contact information for everyone in your household, at least four neighbors, one out-of-town person (if local phone lines are congested, it may be easier to reach someone outside the area), and emergency service providers. Establish four meeting places: an indoor spot, like a windowless room, if you live in an area with tornadoes or high-wind storms; a neighborhood location, such as a big tree, in case of a fire; a community center in case you can’t get back home; and an out-of-town place, like a friend’s home, in case you have to evacuate the area.

Safeguard It
Store a hard copy of your plan in a central location in your home, like in a kitchen drawer or on the fridge. Everyone in your home should keep a copy in their everyday bag, as well as a small contact card in their wallet, because a cellphone won’t always be reliable during an emergency. Digitize your plan (plus other legal documents, such as insurance and medical records) and store them on a cloud service, like Google Docs, in case hard copies get lost. Email your plan to a few close neighbors and friends, an out-of-state family member, and anyone else who would want to locate you.

Practice It
Review your plan once a year and update it whenever information changes. Do a test run: Ensure small children know how to call 911, have every family member text your out-of-town contact, and discuss what info to send via text and how to say it concisely in a time crunch. You can reach people more quickly via text because it doesn’t clog up critical bandwidth like a call does.

What to Store

The Containers
Purchase a customizable kit (like The Earthquake Bag, from $40; or build your own using a durable backpack or duffel bag with wheels. Store food separately in a large, clear plastic container. Keep it in a cool, dry spot near an exit in your home for easy access.

Food and Water
Set aside at least three days’ worth of nonperishable food and water for the people in your household and five days’ worth for your pet. Crackers, dried fruit, and powdered milk should be replaced every six months; replace canned meat and fruit and ready-to-eat cereals within a year. Items like dry pasta and white rice can be kept virtually indefinitely. Store commercially bottled water—one gallon per person, per day—in the original sealed containers. If you’re ever unsure about the quality of tap water, bringing it to a rolling boil for one minute will kill most microorganisms. Before boiling, let particles settle to the bottom, then strain the water through layers of paper towels or a coffee filter.

Health Items
Stash medical supplies, like spare eyeglasses, contact lenses, copies of prescriptions (so you can get more at the pharmacy), and extra bottles of medicine in your bag.

Comfort Items
Have your kids’ favorite board games, stuffed animals, and blankets on hand, as well as your pet’s go-to toy and crate and an old phone loaded with games or movies.

Devices and Cash
A crank-operated radio, a solar-powered flashlight, electronics chargers, and a jump starter for your car are essential. Store some cash in your bag as well, and download an app like Venmo to transfer money quickly.

Helpful Apps

Experts suggest downloading these now so you can get info on the fly later. Some of them offer documents you can save on your phone ahead of time in case cell service isn’t available when you need it.

American Red Cross
Handle the most common medical emergencies with the virtual first aid kit.

Locate open shelters nearby, save a list of meet-up spots, and receive weather alerts.

Navigate the fastest travel route in the event of an evacuation.

Scout out the closest gas station when you’re in a rush.

Store your pet’s medical records digitally in case you need to put him in an emergency shelter.

Message groups of people with a variety of mobile devices.

Our Experts

  • Joie Acosta, PhD, Senior Behavioral Scientist at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica
  • Dick Green, EdD, Senior Director of ASPCA Disaster Response
  • Irwin Redlener, MD, Director of The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute
  • Jonathan Sury, MPH, Project Director of Communications and Field Operations at The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute