Disaster Preparedness: How To Prepare Your Family for Emergencies

By Jackie Beck   Updated 07/21/2019 at 2:14 pm

How to prepare your family for emergencies of all kinds.Emergencies may not be high on the list of things we love to think about, but emergency preparedness is critical.

Before we get started with things you can do to create an emergency preparedness plan, here’s a quick emergency definition:

Simply put, an emergency is a sudden (and often unexpected) event that needs immediate action. This could be anything from sudden money problems to an earthquake, and everything in between.

Why plan now?

While no one wants to think they could lose their health, home, or job, ignoring the possibility doesn’t help. It only makes you wish you had prepared if something does happen.

To help with that, this article will cover many kinds of emergencies, broken down by types of emergency. It’ll provide examples of emergency situations, things you can do to prepare, and ideas for an emergency kit bag too. (It’s chock full of information, so pin it now so you can come back to it again later too!)

You’re already ahead of the game by looking into emergency preparedness. Give yourself a pat on the back for that — then read on to take the next steps.

Where to start when preparing for emergencies

Keep in mind that you don’t have to prepare fully for every possible emergency situation right away. Or at all, if there are some types of emergencies that would be extremely unlikely in your case.

Prepare a little bit at a time, starting with the most likely types of emergencies that might happen.

But do start now, even if that just means buying a little extra food that won’t spoil the next time you go to the grocery store.

How to know what types of emergencies to prepare for

Think about what types of emergencies you want to prepare for. Emergency types can be broken down into the following major categories:

  • Common
  • Fairly likely
  • Unlikely

I’ll go over each of the categories next, and then go into what you can actually do about each of them later. To help with that, I’ve included links to useful sites and products. (A few are affiliate links. Here’s what that means if you’re curious.) Finally, I’ll end with an emergency kit list that’s broken down into two parts (basic and additional items.)

Common emergencies

Common emergencies are things that are likely to happen to most people at one time or another. (And sometimes multiple times.)

Examples of common emergencies include unemployment, underemployment, being furloughed, medical issues, unexpected household repairs, and car accidents.

Chances are everyone will experience one or more of these. Since that is the case, you’ll definitely want to be ready for them.

Fairly likely emergencies

Fairly likely emergencies include natural or man-made local disasters. The likelihood of each one happening will vary depending on where you live. You’ll want to prepare for the kinds of emergencies that are most likely to happen in your specific area.

The American Red Cross has a handy map to help you find common types of disasters in your area. Click here to check out the map. Make a note now of the ones you need to prepare for, so you can make suitable preparations.

Here are some examples of emergencies that could happen in certain areas:

  • wildfires
  • heat waves
  • extreme cold
  • floods
  • hurricanes
  • tornadoes
  • earthquakes
  • volcanic eruptions
  • mudslides
  • tsunamis
  • nuclear reactor accidents
  • industrial explosions
  • etc.

How likely they are to happen for you depends mainly on where you live.

Plus of course there are fairly likely emergencies that could happen anywhere. Those include things like:

  • house fires
  • shootings
  • power outages
  • medical

While no one wants any of those things to happen, sadly they do all take place fairly often.

Don’t get stuck wishing you’d made even the most basic effort to prepare for them. Some of the things you can do are free, or just take some time. So it’s worth at least a little bit of getting ready no matter what.

Unlikely emergencies

Unlikely emergencies are just what they sound like: SHTF / zombie apocalypse level stuff. That can include war, major terrorism, and domestic unrest. Basically, all of the disaster survival stuff you can’t even get insurance for. Serious preppers will be concerned about these types of things as well, and take action.

I’m not going to go into that here because I don’t know anywhere near enough about it. But these two articles seem like good starting points if you’re interested in that:

Now, onto some more basic emergency preparedness.

How to prepare for common emergencies: Basic things everyone should do

How much prepping you want to do for potential emergencies is up to you, but everyone should do at least SOME. Remember too that some of the emergency preparation you can do is absolutely free. It just takes some time and thought.

Hope for the best and prepare for the worst is very good advice. It doesn’t hurt at all to make some simple preparations. You’ll be very glad you did if you ever experience one.

Basic emergency kit list

At a bare minimum, it’s a good idea to have the following in your emergency kit:

  • A two week supply of water (one gallon per person per day, plus extra for pets)
  • A two week supply of non-perishable food (for both humans and pets)
  • At least a week’s supply of any prescription medicine (for both humans and pets; a bigger stockpile is better if doing without would mean you might die)
  • A first aid kit
  • Some cash on hand in small bills
  • Money you can access online or out of the area
  • At least a half-full tank of gas if you have a car, and a plan for leaving the area if you don’t
  • An in-case-of-emergency binder or file
  • Medical ID information
  • Good insurance

If you have pets, in addition to the food, water, and medication mentioned above, you’ll want:

  • A leash, carrier, and crate for each pet
  • A way to for others to find if your pet gets lost. (Get them microchipped and also include contact info on a physical id tag on their collar.)
  • Kitty litter & a disposable litter box
  • Bedding or a familiar blanket
  • A plan for evacuation that includes a list of multiple pet-friendly hotels and emergency shelters.

Why include the items above in your basic emergency kit?

Let’s talk about why it’s important to include each of those items in your basic emergency kit. (I’m using emergency kit in a broader sense here, since these items won’t all literally fit in a bag.) There’s some additional information for each one too.

Water and food

Water and food are pretty self-explanatory, since we all need them to live. You don’t want to be the one rushing to the store right before the big storm, not able to cook because the power is out, or worst of all, stuck without the basics if it takes weeks for help to arrive. And it can take weeks in some cases, and even longer to restore electricity, roads, etc.

For water, you can simply buy lots of water bottles at Costco, get a water barrel, use a WaterBOB if you normally have advance notice, etc. I personally have a LifeStraw too, because I like to travel places where the water isn’t always safe, but it’s a backup for emergencies as well.

For food, you can stock up a little bit at a time on things you normally eat each time you go to the grocery store, buy pre-packaged emergency food at places like Costco, or do a combination of the two. It’s important to be sure you can prepare the food without power, and that it’s something you (and your kids) will actually eat.

We store our extra food in the cupboards and just rotate through it since it’s normal food for us, but Amy of Early Morning Money has a different suggestion. She notes that “Sometimes having a separate stash of food that won’t spoil in a plastic tote or duffel bag in a closet or basement is better – you can quickly grab and go. Plus, then when you have a ‘clean out the cupboard’ week, you don’t accidentally eat your emergency food stash.”

(Do the same for pet food as well.) Be sure you have a manual can opener too, if you might need to open canned goods without power.

Medicine and home medical equipment

Medicine is important, because you probably can’t get more right away if there’s an area-wide emergency. (This article has good information on preparing, medicine-wise.)

Rotate through medication so it doesn’t go bad. If you take medication that needs to be kept cold, consider a Frio cooling case.

If you use critical home medical equipment (like ventilators, heart pumps, oxygen concentrators, etc) get on your utility’s medical priority list and any state or local registries, but don’t rely on them. Request advance notice of planned power outages. Keep backup oxygen tanks and backup batteries on hand, test things often and make sure they are installed and used correctly, and evacuate early if it looks like that might be needed. The FDA offers tips about medical devices and disasters here. If you’re traveling, keep at least a small supply of your critical medication with you at all times, since you could be locked out of hotel rooms with electronic locks during a blackout.

A first aid kit

A first aid kit is always good to have on hand in case you get hurt at home. It becomes even more important if you can’t get medical care right away.

Here are a couple of highly-recommended first aid kits:

They’re nice because you can easily store them in your house and car, or carry them with you if need be. They also don’t weight much and are pretty small.

Money

Having cash on hand is a good idea in case there’s no way to pay for goods with debit or credit. (Keep small bills so you don’t end up paying $20 for a $5 item because someone can’t make change.)

Speaking of money, it’s also a good idea to have an account that you can take money out of from anywhere. (Here’s info on how to start an emergency fund if you don’t have one already. Digit is a great way to painlessly save up money faster than you might think.)

When it comes to how much to have saved up, remember that ANY amount is better than nothing. I like to have at least a year’s worth of expenses set aside. But don’t let that put you off if it sounds like a lot. Just choose an amount that feels right to you. (Many people do anywhere from 3 months salary to a year’s worth of expenses.) Again, ANY amount is better than nothing.

It matters because you could:

  • lose your job
  • get furloughed or get paid late
  • become temporarily disabled
  • need to pay for expensive last minute travel due to death or illness
  • have issues with your business income
  • need to pay for hotel stays during evacuation
  • need to pay for other sudden, large expenses, etc.

Having money you can use makes things a little easier.

Gas & a way out

If you have a car, keeping your tank at least half full at all times is a good idea. It’ll be easier to get out of the area in a hurry if need be. While a full tank of gas is even better if you need to evacuate, half a tank means you don’t have to stop at the very first gas station before you can do anything else. And if nearby stations are out of gas, you’ll have a chance of making it to a more distant one.

Sure, it can be annoying to have to get gas more often, but it’s better than running out. Plus, if you need to drive somewhere quickly for a smaller emergency, you’ll be ready to go without delay. (For example, a trip to the hospital if a loved one breaks their arm.)

If an evacuation seems likely (such as if a hurricane is headed your way) fill up your tank right away. Don’t wait for the possible evacuation to become a reality.

If you don’t have a car, make a plan now for ways you could get out of the area. For example, taking advantage of any possible government services, arranging that you can ride with neighbors, etc.

An in-case-of-emergency binder or file

ICE binder exampleThis is a record of everything you need to know to run your household. Having an in-case-of-emergency binder or file (plus a copy stored off site) can make life so much easier.

For example, if something happens to the person who usually pays bills, someone else can take over, because they’ll be able to find what needs to be paid, know how to access passwords, etc. If your house burns down in a fire, you’ll still have your important information saved, including a list of assets. If you have to evacuate, you’ll have phone numbers and addresses available so you can can reach out to others. (To check on them, let them know you’re ok, get help, file claims, etc.)

Don’t forget to include the location of your estate planning documents & healthcare directives.

In short, the binder can save you time, money, and stress.

If you’d like a great binder that can be filled out on a computer and printed too, check out this In Case of Emergency Binder.

It has a place for everything you need to make tough times just a little easier for your family — even some stuff you may not think of! Just make sure your family knows where to find the binder.

Medical ID information

This is medical info that can be viewed by EMTs, emergency room workers, etc in case you are hurt and can’t speak or think straight. This is important because it can help them treat you and avoid problems.

You can go the traditional route of wearing medical id jewelry, which is good because it’s more likely to stick with you in an accident.

Or you can use your smart phone’s Medical ID feature if it has one. (Or both.) For iPhone, it’s easy to take care of. You just type your medical information into the built-in Health app. Then emergency workers can access it even if your phone is locked.

It varies on how to do the same on Android and other kinds of phones. This article has good info on ways to do that for many types of phones.

Good insurance

It’s up to you what risks you want to insure against, and how much insurance you want. But it’s a great idea to have good health insurance if you can get it, and property insurance that includes replacement value. You can often insure for everything under the sun — but it does depend on where you live and how much you’re willing to pay. Read your policies carefully (especially the exclusions section) to make sure you know what is and isn’t covered.

Make a recurring note in your calendar to update all insurance policies once a year to make sure there’s still enough coverage. For example, the cost to rebuild your home and the value of your house may increase. If that happens, you might need more insurance.

Be sure to take photos of every room in your house (open drawers & cupboards too) so you have a record of what you own. Here’s how to do a home inventory for insurance. That way things will go easier if you do need to use the insurance.

Pet supplies & a pet evacuation plan

Pets are prone to running away when frightened, and emergencies often cause chaos, so being able to have your pet returned to you if it’s found is critical. Of course, your pets will need to eat, drink, and stay healthy when sheltering in place or during evacuations. The supplies listed above will help you do that.

Let’s talk about evacuating with pets a little more real quick. A leash & carrier can help you keep your pets under control. Having a print out of pet friendly places to possibly evacuate to outside the area (including friends and family) can save you critical time and reduce stress. (Because despite what you may read on Facebook, although some hotels do suspend no pet policies, they’re not required to accept pets during emergencies. Not all emergency shelters are able to accept them either.)

You can read more about evacuating with animals here. One more note about pets: do not leave them behind or outside, let them loose, or leave them tied up. If for some terrible reason you are forced by authorities to evacuate without them, PETA has some recommendations.

Additional items to consider for your emergency kit

The items listed above in the basic emergency kit list are a great start, but there are some additional items and preparations you might want to consider too.

Neighbors

Consider giving a trusted neighbor a key to your house. If you’re out of the area during an emergency but they aren’t, they may be able to check on things for you. Also consider exchanging contact information with your neighbors. It’s good to look out for each other, or at least to have someone nearby know who belongs there.

Photos, mementos, & important documents

Storing copies of mementos, family photos, and important documents somewhere out of the area and/or online can be a smart idea. Don’t count on having time to grab them from your home.

A weather radio

A weather radio with S.A.M.E. technology is used to receive alerts of warnings, watches, and non-weather emergencies from NOAA and the emergency alert system. You can read more about the SAME program here.

Flashlights

While most of us are used to using the flashlight on our phone, don’t count on that for an emergency. Consider a battery operated LED flashlight, and/or a crank flashlight.

Batteries

Power outages are common, both with many types of emergencies and just at various times of year for some locations. Having batteries on hand to power things like flashlights, emergency radios, and cell phones help. Be sure you have enough of each type, and periodically check them to make sure they’re still good. For cell phones, I personally always use Anker portable chargers.

A generator

If you just want to power key items during a short power outage, or are looking for something to power tools when working outside (such as when cutting up downed trees) a portable inverter generator will do the trick. As a bonus, you can use it when camping.

On the other hand, if you want something that can run your house when the power is out for longer periods, you’ll need a whole house standby generator. These are often wired into the house by an electrician.

Note that deadly carbon monoxide poisoning can happen with improperly used or installed generators, so be sure to watch out for that. The CDC has a generator safety fact sheet here.

How to prepare for fairly likely emergencies

Once you have your basic emergency kit done (or sooner if need be) get ready for more specific emergencies that could happen in your area.

For example, we live in a desert. Deserts are very dry of course, but when it does rain there can be flash floods. The water has come up to our doorstep more than once. Since we know that can happen, we have sandbags and flood insurance. (Here’s an article with detailed info on the ins & outs of flood insurance and filing a claim.)

We also live in a major city, so there could be shootings or road rage. So while I feel a little silly doing it, I carry a CELOX traumatic wound first aid packet in my purse to be able to stop bleeding quickly.

Medical problems are fairly likely too, so maybe you want to learn CPR. (Courses are probably offered where you live. Or here’s a free online CPR course.)

Maybe hurricanes hit where you live, or tornados, or extreme cold. Once you find out what might happen, put them in order from most likely to happen to least. Then you can start getting any supplies together in that order.

How do you find out what’s common in your area? You can use the Red Cross natural disasters map linked to earlier, search your city & state websites for emergency plans, ask neighbors that have lived in the area for years, etc.

How to prepare for some of the most likely disasters

This is one area where the government has put a lot of time and research into. So rather than trying to reinvent the wheel I’ll leave you these helpful links.

  • Are You Ready? – This 204 page guide has a family communication plan, disaster supplies checklists, and guidelines on handling pretty much every type of disaster you can think of.
  • Ready.gov – Kind of a choose-your-own-disaster site with info on preparing for multiple disasters
  • RedCross – Lots of info on ways to prepare for emergencies
  • FEMA – There’s a huge amount of info here, but it can be a little hard to navigate. Your best bet is their search feature.
  • National Hurricane Survival Initiative – Includes checklists, advice, and tips on dealing with insurance.
  • Stormaware – Has info from the State of Missouri on preparing for tornados
  • How to Prepare for an Earthquake – This page from the California Academy of Sciences has specific tips on what to do before and after an earthquake

There are many other sites with specific tips out there — I’ve just listed some of the more useful ones here.

Several of those sites mention checklists. Jim of Wallet Hacks stresses the importance of personalized and accessible checklists that you update periodically. (Be sure you can access them both on and offline.) He adds, “Lastly, if you do experience an emergency (that you had a plan for or not), use the actual steps to update your plan so you’re better prepared next time. We had a pipe burst that we never even considered and now we know exactly what do to if we have a similar problem.”

This just goes to show that checklists aren’t only useful for huge emergencies.

More tips on emergency preparedness from folks who’ve been there

Thankfully, my own major emergencies have been (mostly) limited to the financial kind: losing a job, unexpected medical expenses, etc. Because of that, I wanted to talk with folks who’ve lived through a wider variety of emergencies. Learning from the direct experiences of others is always good!

So I asked fellow bloggers this: “If you’ve lived through an emergency, what are some things you wish you’d known or done ahead of time?” Here’s what they had to say.

On house fires:

“I experienced a house fire, and I wish I had known how important it would be to know all of my items in my house. I also wish I had known the cost of everything we owned. Or how critical it could have been to have a fire escape plan for my children’s upstairs bedroom.” –Lacy Estelle, Michigan, of LacyEstelle.com.

“We had our house burn down while we were on vacation. Having documents and photos backed up online or outside of the home is a must. We backed up our photos on a external hard drive next to my computer. I always thought that in case of an emergency, I could just grab the hard drive and go. Who would have thought I wouldn’t be home to do that?” –Julie Gropp, Colorado, of Our Provident Homestead.

On being in an active shooter situation:

“I was in a mall shooting. I was in a movie theater when an active shooter began killing people in another store at the mall. Later they discovered he had planned to shoot the theater up but someone had moved the cell phone he had used to prop open the emergency door to the theater. I wish I had more situational awareness training. I recall immediately after the shooting that I wished I had a pistol and concealed carry license. Also I wanted to know what actionable steps I should have taken in the situation I was in.” –Barb Hudson, Washington, of Making It Home.

On hurricanes and tropical storms:

“Had more backup phone chargers. A phone’s power goes out quickly when you’re using it a lot, and it charges very slowly in an idling car. Plus, if the wi-fi goes out and you need to use your phone has a hot spot, it uses power even faster.” –Teresa Mears, Florida, publisher of Living on the Cheap.

“One thing I wished I had but didn’t was a battery-operated weather radio. In a power outage, that can be invaluable.” –Gerri Detweiler, Florida.

“We’ve been prepping for hurricanes for nearly 30 years. (Hurricane Iniki in 1992, Hurricane Flossie in 2007, and Hurricane Lane in 2018.) The only thing we’ve really improved in the last decade has been doing a thorough review of our plan at the start of hurricane season (June on Oahu)— and then starting my hurricane checklist at the 96-hour point instead of the 48-hour point.” –Doug Nordman, Hawaii, of The-Military-Guide.com.

“We learned first hand how devastating a hurricane can be and how being prepared can make a huge difference both before, during and after the storm. Having money set aside allowed us to evacuate before the category 4 storm, Hurricane Michael, hit and stay away until it was safe to return. It also allowed us to buy a SIM card and month of service on a new cell phone network that was still working after the storm knocked out Verizon and Sprint service completely, and to stock up on supplies out of town before we returned.

I can’t stress how important not worrying about money was after the storm. Some family members were without power and under a boil water notice for over two weeks, so having access to clean water and food you could eat without cooking it was key. If you’re ever in a major disaster area, finding gas can be extremely difficult. Be prepared to leave the immediate area and drive a couple hours to find an area with supplies where you can easily stock up. And remember, during these major disasters, your employer probably isn’t going to be up and running. If they can’t afford to pay you, you may go weeks or months without pay waiting for your employer to rebuild their business.” –Lance Cothern, Florida, of Money Manifesto.

On the aftermath of a suicide in the family:

“When my brother committed suicide, it was the most emotionally draining thing I had ever (and have ever) experienced. Managing the aftermath fell to me. Since I was in a different state and my sister was a mess, I decided to outsource everything I could including paying a family friend to sort through his stuff and another friend to move it to a storage unit until I had the energy to look through it (it took many years for that to happen). Outsourcing was something that had never occurred to me but it was the best thing I could have done and worth every penny.” –Jenny from Good Life. Better.

On blizzards and extreme cold:

“If you have older parents, you NEED to get them a power generator, especially if they live in a place where power goes out during the winter storms. Check it works every time you go visit them. This is so important that they have access to electricity at all times for medical equipment as well as heat in colder regions.” –Gabriel Kaplan, New York, of Wealth Habits.

“Extreme cold…we were renovating a 160 year old farmhouse…no windows (being removed to re-hang), no walls (stripped to clapboard so we could have electricity and insulation) and the next morning temps were 35 degrees F *below* zero. No wind chill so it was just cold. I told Dave (now deceased husband), ‘We need to heat and eat. A wood stove for heat, a gas stove for cooking and a well. If I have those three things I can take care of us.’ At the time we were living in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia. It’s easier to prepare for emergencies than be caught without a plan.” –Sandra Bennett, Virginia, of Thistle Cove Farm.

On flooding and tornadoes:

“I wish I had known to keep important documents and keepsakes in a water and fire proof safe. It saves tons of time, money, and worry to restore and recover your most important items. It would even be smart to stash a bit of cash to help you start your recovery, in case the worst happens.” –Lauren, Texas, of ThePracticalPenny.com.

“I wish I’d had flood insurance, and moved my two cars to the top of the driveway to higher ground so they wouldn’t be flooded and totaled.” –Maria Sibilla, New Jersey, of MariaSibilla.com.

What do these experiences with living through emergencies have in common?

If these stories all show one thing, it’s that emergency preparedness is SO important. Life’s disasters can happen to anyone. Remember that no matter what, the priority is taking care of yourself and your family. That always starts with a plan, communication, and emergency supplies.

Items mentioned in this article

In addition to many links to government and other resources, this article mentions a number of products and items that could be helpful. Since some of them are mixed in with the explanations, here’s a list of everything in case it’s easier to have them all in one place. Of course, you need to decide which you might need and whether there are additional items you might need.

For people:

For pets:

  • Water
  • Non-perishable food
  • Extra medication
  • Leash, carrier, and crate for pets
  • Kitty litter and disposable litter box for cats
  • Microchipping plus a Pet ID tag
  • Bedding or familiar blanket
  • Evacuation plan

Get started on preparing for emergencies today! You’ll be glad you did.

One thought on “Disaster Preparedness: How To Prepare Your Family for Emergencies

  1. My wife and I are trying to keep our family more prepared for if a disaster were to occur. We’ll be looking further into our options for emergency food and water storage in the future.

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