Years ago when I lived in New York, a hurricane nearly shut down the entire city — there was flooding and blackouts and gas shortages. But in all the chaos, I felt secure. Having lived there through countless other emergency scenarios, my then-boyfriend had us covered. We had a "go-bag" filled with first-aid essentials tucked away under the bed in our studio apartment, and we even had a meetup location in the event of an evacuation.
Since then, we moved to the Midwest — where the threat of natural disasters felt decidedly less imminent — and started a family.
Two kids later, we'd gotten complacent. We no longer had a go-bag. We didn't have a meetup location. We hadn't even discussed how we'd get out of our apartment in the event of a fire. And it clearly wasn't for a lack of understanding. We knew firsthand how devastating emergency scenarios can feel, and yet because of our busy lives, this to-do-list item kept getting buried under more pressing tasks. How easily we'd fallen into the "it won't happen to us" mindset.
Then, of course, we found ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic. Sure, we were lucky that the public health imperative was to simply stay home, but it was a stark reminder that if the circumstances were even slightly different, we wouldn't have been prepared at all.
We were lucky that the imperative during this pandemic was to simply stay home, but it was a reminder that if the circumstances were even slightly different, we wouldn't have been prepared at all.
Turns out, we aren't alone. More than 310 million Americans have been affected by natural disasters in the past 10 years, yet according to a survey by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 60 percent of American adults are underprepared for an emergency — they haven't "practiced what to do in a disaster by participating in a drill at work, school, or home in the past year." Further, only 39 percent have developed an emergency plan that they discussed with their household. This is all despite the fact that 80 percent of Americans live in counties that have been hit in recent years with a weather-related disaster, whether it be hurricanes, tornados, or the wildfires that ravaged the West Coast this past year.
Simon Huck, the creator of a new line of "ready-kits" called Judy, spent months talking to people across the nation who'd lost their homes or experienced post-traumatic stress and anxiety following such disasters.
"The common denominator in all of these stories was just a fundamental lack of preparedness," Huck told POPSUGAR. "Not only did they not have the physical product, whether it was an emergency kit or tools to help them, but they also had no plan. They had never spoken to their kids about evacuating. A lot of them didn't have their insurance information or passports or house keys or anything you'd need in a large-scale emergency."
That's what prompted Huck to enlist the help of experts to create an emergency kit that wasn't just a Bandaid-type "fix" to a bigger problem. He didn't want to give people a false sense of security that they could simply buy a bag of curated survival gear to toss in the trunk of their car or the basement of their home without so much as a second thought.
"Yes, it's great to have emergency kits," he said. "Whether you buy one or assemble your own, it's the first step, but it's arguably not the most important one. What's even more important is to have the information, education, and awareness on how to be prepared for all emergencies, which of course we're seeing right now with COVID-19."
That message is certainly an optimistic one, considering most comprehensive kits for a family of four cost upwards of $250. I could splurge on such a fully loaded go-bag, or I could DIY my own by piecing together items that are unique to my location and individual needs, whether that's medication or supplies for a baby or pet. However, the message is also daunting: arming oneself with information is a virtually no-cost endeavor, considering how many free resources are available online, but it requires a great deal of legwork to put all those pieces together.
It hasn't been easy, but here's what I'm doing to be prepared:
Buying an Emergency Kit and Reviewing Its Contents
Especially now, in the midst of a pandemic, I don't have the time or resources to cobble together a custom kit, so I ordered a premade one. I felt a wave of calm when it arrived, but the difference this time, versus when our New York go-bag collected dust, is that I immediately opened it up and took it apart. My husband and I reviewed all the items and made sure we understood how each one worked. A hand-crank radio or single-use phone charger might seem simple enough to operate, but better to spend the time now troubleshooting any kinks than when I actually need them.
Stockpiling Enough Food and Water Provisions For 3 Days
Because FEMA recommends that Americans have at least a three-day supply of nonperishable food in the event of an emergency, I'm now more careful to keep foods I wouldn't ordinarily buy — pop-top canned foods (like fruits, vegetables, tuna, and beans) and dried foods (powdered milk, crackers, nuts, and cereal) — in my pantry. The agency also advised keeping an additional gallon of water per day per person. For three days for my family, that's 12 total gallons — a lot to store. We're doing our best by having a few gallon water jugs in our car and near our emergency kit.
Creating a Hard-Copy List of Important Information
I'm filling out an emergency checklist of important phone numbers, from doctors and veterinarians to a reliable out-of-state contact who, in the event of power loss, can "serve as a family switchboard operator," Simon said. I've had important documents, like my will and insurance policies, filed away in a Google Docs drive, but I'm now printing important paperwork and keeping them stored alongside my family's passports and birth certificates and some extra cash. The location of these items, as well as the location of our fire extinguisher and emergency kit, will also be listed on my checklist so everyone in my family can rely on it as a guide. My husband and I have also designated a family meetup location, which I'm writing out on this checklist as well.
Talking to My Kids About Potential Emergencies
All members of the family should know about their designated meeting place and the location of essential items. That means parents should start a conversation about potential emergencies now. Huck noted adults might be surprised with how receptive children are. "There is a blind spot around emergencies, and a lot of times, kids know more than parents do," Huck said. "Most children know more about earthquake preparedness — or what to do in a fire or tornado — than their parents because it's mandated in schools."
Talking to Friends and Neighbors About Potential Emergencies
I didn't realize that when I exchanged house keys with my downstairs neighbor — a safety measure in case one of us ever got locked out — how invaluable that would be during this pandemic. They left town in advance of our city's shelter-in-place mandate, and having access to their home meant I could get them necessary information they'd forgotten to write down, and she let me raid her pantry for any Lysol wipes or other provisions we couldn't get in the store. Research shows that people who share the responsibility of being prepared with neighbors, friends, and relatives are better suited in a disaster, so I plan to make more connections to figure out how the other residents in my building can help one another when surprises hit.
Practicing Drills Once Every 3 Months
I added a recurring reminder in my phone to practice safety drills with my family, and although I'm sure I'll have the urge to shrug it off once life goes back to normal and we feel that sense of complacency again, I'm hopeful that a three-month check-in is infrequent enough to not feel overwhelming but often enough to keep us sharp. Even the simple act of reviewing our family's checklist with my husband will be a good way to remain confident that, in a crisis, we have a plan.
It's not a matter of if a disaster will happen, but when.
It's true that hardly any of these precautions would have made a difference with the coronavirus and our current shelter-in-place mandate. There's no "stop, drop, and roll" technique to learn, there's no radio to crank, and there's no shortage of the electricity or internet access necessary to contact loved ones or Google best practices for social distancing.
But my lack of preparations up until this moment have inspired me to make sure my family is ready for the next emergency. Because if recent history has proven anything about natural disasters, it's that it's not a matter of if one will happen, but when.