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Creating an Emergency Plan

How will you take care of yourself and your family if disaster strikes?


The weather report was calling for high winds and rain, but you had no idea the situation would get so bad. Suddenly the power goes out, and the backup generator kicks on. It’s clear, however, that this is no ordinary passing storm.

What should you do? By devising a strategy for you and your loved ones before an emergency like this happens, you will gain more confidence in your ability to handle a crisis.

Why Advance Planning Is Key

In any emergency—whether it’s a hurricane, a tornado, a fire or a terrorist
attack—one thing holds true: mental preparedness is often the key to surviving, says Brian Brawdy, a former New York police officer and military weapons specialist and a certified personal trainer.

“In an emergency, you might be totally responsible for your own safety and survival,” comments Brawdy. “There may be no paramedics, police, drugstores or gas stations. You may not be able to get information from cable or satellite TV. How you react may be critical to your well-being.”

Your reaction will depend on how prepared you are and how much prior planning, thought and practice you put into it.

When confronted with stressful situations, our bodies go through powerful emotional and physiological changes. “It’s the fight-or-flee mode,” says Brawdy. “Multiple parts of our brain activate stimulating chemicals and hormones. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, our breath quickens, and our pupils dilate.”

In emergencies, when we go into this state of high physiological arousal, we tend to default to well-rehearsed reactions, explains Kelly McGonigal, PhD, researcher in the department of psychology at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “If you have a well-planned response, you will automatically respond well,” she says. “Calming down won’t be necessary; you’ll be on effective autopilot. If you don’t have a plan, however, that’s when you need to calm down and think. It’s good to do the thinking before the fight-or-flight response kicks in!”

McGonigal suggests practicing disaster scenarios from a hypothetical slant, rather than preparing for a likely threat—especially if children are involved. “This keeps fear out of things, and you can focus on the game of ‘What would you do if . . . ?’ The last thing you want to do for your mental health and the well-being of kids is to overestimate the actual threat of various disasters.”

Make a Plan

Here are important steps to keep in mind when planning what you’d need, what you’d want to keep safe and what you should do if a disaster were to occur.

Back Up Important Computer Documents and Data. What type of information would it be devastating for you and your loved ones to lose? Backup is essential . . . and therefore, so are portable hard drives on which to store the information. You’ll find them in all sorts of sizes–from small box-sized drives to key-sized ones that literally snap onto your key chain.

Keep Important Documents Safe. Of course, not everything of value will be on your computer (believe it or not!). Other important documents, such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports and family photos, will need to stay clean and dry. Waterproof containers, such as those available through Pelican Products (see “Resources” on page 105), are necessities. Either store the documents in the containers at all times (the handier option) or have them readily available in case of emergency. Whichever option you choose, you must know where these items are kept, and you must rehearse grabbing them as you’d need to in a crisis.

Switch to Direct Deposit. If you receive federal benefits payments (i.e., social security) via paper check, the U.S. Department of the Treasury recommends you switch to direct deposit, citing through its Go Direct® campaign that direct deposit can significantly reduce your vulnerability
to financial disruption during emergencies. For more information, log on to www.GoDirect.org or call (800) 333-1795.

Assign Tasks. Many experts recommend that tasks to be carried out in the event of emergency be delegated to specific people. However, everyone should know how to do each task, since it’s very possible that not everyone involved will be present, which brings us to our next topic: communication.

Set Up a Communication Tree. While it’s beyond the scope of this article to cover every scenario you might face, it’s critical to have a communication “tree” set up so that everyone involved knows how to get in touch with each other and what to do in the event that normal communication is knocked out.

Fire Drills for Your Mind

Brawdy recommends the following “fire drills for your mind,” which he says are important to run through on a regular basis to ensure your preparedness, should disaster strike.

Have the Latest Helmet Lighting System on Hand. “On average, 12 hours of each day are dark,” he says. “The technology gives you hours of bright, effective emergency lighting to protect your family without tying up your hands.” (See Pelican products in “Resources.”)

Buy Transportable Water Filtration/Purification Products. “After shelter, water is the most important aspect of any survival situation,” he says. “We can go a month without food, but we can’t last a week without water.”

Be Prepared to Administer Emergency First Aid. Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Update your first-aid kit, and know how to use each item it contains. Paramedics may not be available when you need them.

Keep on Hand Sufficient Amounts of Medications. The pharmacist or drugstore may be out of reach or damaged.

Create a Communications Plan. Make sure you’ll be able to stay in touch with loved ones in an emergency situation. Have a written list of all important numbers. Don’t rely on your cell phone for this information, in case the battery dies.

Stockpile Extra Food for You and Your Pets. Choose foods that require little preparation. “This is about surviving,” says Brawdy. “Leave the gourmet stuff for after the emergency.”

Store Season-Specific Clothing. Store rain slickers and other protective gear somewhere easily accessible. You may have to pack and leave your area in a hurry. Don’t forget spare toiletries.

Invest in a Weather Radio. “This is a great way to learn what is going on if your Internet and TV access are knocked out,” says Brawdy.

Carry Cash and an Emergency Credit Card. Make sure the card has a zero balance.

Making a Disaster Kit

Organizing the essentials into a disaster supply kit is smart and will save you time and unnecessary stress in the long run. Elaine Bloom—a professional
organizer and owner of A Place for Everything, in Maplewood, New Jersey
—recommends including the following items in your kit:

  • waterproof flashlights
  • batteries (in waterproof container)
  • first-aid kit
  • extra prescription drugs (swap them out frequently to make sure they don’t expire)
  • canned and nonperishable food
  • bottled water
  • candles
  • matches (in waterproof container)
  • thermal blanket
  • manual can opener
  • battery-operated radio (with extra batteries)
  • extra eyeglasses
  • paper goods (including toiletries)
  • antibacterial soap/hand cleaner
  • money
  • phone that plugs into wall jack
  • water purification tablets

Be Prepared, but Not Overly Preoccupied

While it’s important to be primed for a possible emergency, you don’t want to dwell on disaster. “Focus on what is controllable,” says McGonigal. “When we focus on what is not controllable—like predicting emergencies or absolute worst-case scenarios—most people are too overwhelmed to take any preventive action.”

Author and presenter Carrie Myers Smith is an ACSM-certified personal trainer and the wellness expert at the Mt. Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.


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