Go Shopping. Now.
Dr. Rick Knabb
Director, National Hurricane Center
@NHCDirector / @NWSNHC
How awful is the aftermath of a hurricane? An individual’s experience can range from a tolerable inconvenience to a life-altering disaster, but awful generally covers it. If we could teleport ourselves into that situation for just a few moments, the items we desperately need would quickly become obvious, and we’d probably have no trouble making our shopping list for hurricane supplies. It’s hard to truly feel that level of desperation when it’s just a bad daydream, but fantasize reality we must if we’re going to understand why it’s so important to stock up on critical supplies – in advance rather than waiting until a hurricane is actually out there and threatening.
Up front, I’ll stipulate that not everyone can financially afford to stock up in advance like this. So, those of us with the means to do so have an even greater responsibility to shop now and be self-sufficient in the days following the storm. If we don’t, then we are unnecessarily taking up space in the last-minute long lines at stores during a hurricane warning and at emergency distribution centers in the aftermath. Some of us could even go a step further and directly help a less fortunate neighbor that we personally know to obtain the most critical supplies, or we could donate to a nonprofit organization that might be able to make that happen.
Stocking up on hurricane supplies is, after all, mostly not about convenience. Some items really do fall into the category of essential for survival and returning life back to “normal” as soon as possible. We really need think carefully about what we’ll need to survive for days with the power out and in isolation from emergency responders because roads are blocked by debris or floodwaters and they’re applying their resources to other hard-hit areas. The list of absolutely essential hurricane supplies has to include at least the following items in my top ten:
- Bottled water. I’d shoot for at least one gallon per person, per day, for at least seven days.
- First aid kit. This is even more crucial than at first glance. Maybe, for example, you get through the storm unscathed, but what if you are injured while emergency responders cannot reach you? Even worse, what if it’s your child?
- Prescription medications. Fill these before the storm since the pharmacies might not reopen for quite a while. For some of us with serious conditions, it’s simply not a viable option to miss a dose.
- Over-the-counter medications. Think beyond basic pain relievers to include all kinds of remedies for ailments that might not be a big deal when the drug stores are open but that could worsen without any treatment.
- Non-perishable foods. You’ll need enough for your entire family for a minimum of one week. Get as many of those convenient pop-top opening cans as you can find, but always have a manual can opener. It’s really embarrassing during a power outage to push the lever on an electric can opener over and over and wonder why it’s not working.
- Formula, diapers, and other baby supplies. This obviously does not apply to everyone, but it wasn’t that long ago that my wife and I had an infant in our home during an actual hurricane – so trust me, these are not the kinds of supplies you want to be racing to scoop up at the last minute. There are too many other parents that will be faster than you in getting to the stores and clearing out the shelves.
- Battery-powered AM/FM/NOAA Weather Radio. If possible, get one that also receives the audio from local television stations. Don’t cut yourself off from potentially life-saving information.
- Batteries. This is for everything with an on/off switch that can operate without a cord, and not all of these are just for fun. Start with noting what size batteries your flashlights take.
- Toiletries. ‘Nuff said, except I’ll say that an often-overlooked item is moist towelettes.
- A waterproof and fireproof container. Store in here your priceless photos and important papers, including insurance policies and documentation of your home’s contents that you’d need for an insurance claim.
Elaborating on non-perishable foods, I’m always on the hunt for out-of-the-box thinking on what to eat in the aftermath of a hurricane. I love having an excuse to eat nothing but potato chips and peanut butter sandwiches as much as the next guy, but things don’t have to be so elementary school. If you have a gas grill in the backyard, get an extra tank and fill it up this weekend. You’ll thank yourself later, with or without a hurricane this year. Your summer holiday weekend cookout will hit a major snag if you run out of propane, without a spare, before you’ve flipped the burgers over. If a hurricane does strike and your electric stove goes out of commission, your gas grill – especially if it has one of those side burners – will be a valued friend. If you’ve stocked up on water, you can cook non-perishable foods like pasta. A simple hot meal will be an exquisite luxury in the days after a hurricane.
Our society’s increased reliance on technology has forced us to expand our list of emergency supplies as compared to years past. Have you thought about all of the modern conveniences that are not going to be functioning when the power is out – possibly for days or even weeks – after a hurricane? Here are my top five technology-driven hurricane supplies:
- Cash. It will quite literally be king when the ATM screens are dark and swiping a credit card accomplishes nothing during an outage. And put some under the proverbial mattress way in advance if you can, so that you can avoid ultra-long lines in an actual hurricane event.
- Gas for the car. Fill up as far in advance as reasonably possible. In past hurricane approaches, I’ve filled up in the middle of the night just before the storm. I wasn’t the only one with the idea, so there was some safety in numbers, but I avoided the longest lines and it saved a lot of time the next day to focus on other preparations.
- Offsite data backups. This is no longer just a problem for computer geeks like me. How many important records, family photos, and other irreplaceable files are stored on your laptop, desktop, or mobile device? Not only can a hurricane (or other weather disaster) take out both your computer and your backup disk in one fell swoop if they’re both stored at home, so can a fire, a robbery, or disk drive failures. You could store a backup disk at some other location in town, such as a safety deposit box. Another option is online backup services to which you upload your data.
- Solar-powered USB chargers. The first person in my household to not only find out about but also own one of these was my 11-year-old son. When I asked him, “why do you need one of those?”, he said, “Daddy, it’s really cool. Plus, it’ll be really good for our hurricane supplies.” He’s already saved the day with that thing when my phone was out of power one day at the beach. Many of these chargers can also be powered up via an electrical outlet before the storm. Variations on the same theme include cell phone and USB chargers powered by conventional batteries.
- This is not in everyone’s budget, but this article would be incomplete without mentioning generators, whether they be portable or permanently installed. I can’t emphasize enough, however, that you must NEVER operate a generator indoors. Carbon monoxide poisoning has wiped out entire families.
Patience can be in short supply after a hurricane, but a little advance planning can help you and your family – especially the kids – to endure the potentially lengthy aftermath. Assemble their favorite pillows and blankets, sleeping bags, books, and board or card games (especially if evacuating). Reading to your younger kids might be one of the most enjoyable ways to help them pass the time.
I’ve referred in this article to hurricane supplies, but they’re important to have on hand for any natural or man-made disaster that might force you to survive on your own for many days.
Here are a couple of supplies to NOT put on your hurricane season shopping list:
- People have died in fires during power outages after leaving candles unattended. See batteries and flashlights above.
- Tape for windows. In all seriousness, Go Tapeless. Tape does not keep your windows from breaking, so you’d be wasting your time and money. Even worse, tape serves to make the broken pieces larger and deadlier. People have died standing behind windows or glass doors with a false sense of security.
If your season ends up being hurricane free, have a party in December, and eat and drink your hurricane supplies so they don’t eventually expire and go to waste. You can restock your supplies once per year. Search online to see if your state offers sales tax exemptions for a few days each year on hurricane preparedness items, sometimes on big-ticket purchases like generators.
I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, but hopefully this has created in you a severe brainstorm that will ultimately leave you better prepared for not only the storm itself but the awful aftermath. For more details on what you might need in your supply kit, visit www.ready.gov/kit.