For the last several weeks, many of us have been following the news of hurricanes and the devastation they have caused in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico. It is so hard to watch people in such grave circumstances, and our hearts go out to the families living through those disasters.
Many of us react to situations like this by donating to organizations working in the disaster area or by giving blood. Both of these are wonderful impulses, and all those who can give definitely should. We should also think about how we would cope in a similar situation and take steps now to prepare.
While the situations in Texas and Florida are extreme, similar disasters can and do happen here. Many of us remember Hurricane Irene, which hit in August 2011. The storm caused widespread damage. Many were evacuated from their neighborhoods. Some lost homes. When hurricane season ends in late November, winter storm season begins. Really, strong storms and other disasters can occur at any time.
While the preparations you make are partially dependent on the type of disaster, they relate most to our physical needs as humans, which remain more or less the same. That’s good news, because the preparations that you make for one type of disaster will help in lots of other situations as well.
Here is a list of basic disaster preparation. More detailed information can be found at ready.gov.
Pay attention to the weather and heed warnings. If you hear about an upcoming storm, consider getting prescriptions you need filled to last well beyond the storm’s passing, if possible. Purchase or confirm the location of your flashlight and transistor radio, and plenty of batteries in corresponding sizes. Check your first aid kit to be sure it is complete. Charge your cell phone and battery backup.
If you think you may lose power, fill a few gallon containers with water and place them in the freezer. The freezer will act like a cooler if the power goes out. If you use electricity to power medical equipment, make plans to install a backup or go to a shelter. Also, if you have an electric garage door opener, locate the manual release lever and learn how to operate it.
Stow a 3-day supply of non-perishable food and water. Governmental organizations, like Ready.gov, recommend between 1 and 3 gallons per person per day. So if you have a family of four, you may want up to 36 gallons. Peanut butter and crackers, dry cereal, and dried fruit are good food options. If you choose canned food, be sure to have a manual can opener available.
The preparations above will go a long way to preparing you for any type of disaster, but those that occur in winter do require some special consideration. And the time to think about them is now.
One of the most challenging aspects of winter storms is keeping warm. Wood stoves are particularly useful in this case. Ensure that you have wood on hand and that your chimney is cleaned and inspected yearly. If you need a space heater, be sure to keep it at least three feet away from furniture and drapes. Have a fire extinguisher, and ensure that everyone knows where it is and how to use it. Test your fire and carbon monoxide detector batteries regularly.
One of the biggest hazards in winter is travel. You can become stranded regardless of whether there is a storm or not. And being stranded in very cold weather can become a personal emergency. Prevent disaster by winterizing your vehicle. Check (or have a mechanic check) the antifreeze, brakes, heater and defroster, tires, windshield wipers, and wiper fluid. Keep your gas tank at least half full. These steps alone will prevent many emergencies.
Just in case, keep an emergency kit especially for your car. It should include a first aid kit, a flashlight and batteries, and a cell phone charger year round. For winter, add an ice scraper, warm blankets, a shovel, sand for traction, and jumper cables.
When you are ready for a disaster to hit, call your family and neighbors to ensure that they are ready too. Help those who may have difficulty preparing for themselves. And in the midst of a storm, check on elderly and disabled relatives and neighbors, if it is safe to do so.
By banding together and preparing in advance, we will all weather the disasters that do happen in our community much more successfully than we would have otherwise.
Daniel Perregaux, MD, is a specialist in Emergency Medicine at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, the medical advisor of Vermont Emergency Medical Services District 12, and the paramedic medical director and an instructor in the Vermont Technical College paramedic program. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more articles like this one, visit svhealthcare.org/wellnessconnection.