28 August 2012

The first question in emergency preparedness

As there's a large storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast this week, we should be aware that the Atlantic hurricane season is well upon us. As Andrew, Katrina, and other hurricanes have taught us, we have to be prepared for power outages (sometimes long-term), property damage, and even evacuations. Of course this is particularly the case if we live in areas at risk for hurricanes, but even if you don't live in a part of the country prone to hurricanes, you're almost certainly at risk of other emergencies: winter ice storms that take down power lines, spring floods, or earthquakes at any time of year.

How prepared does a household need to be? There are so many factors that go into that decision that it's impossible to formulate a hard-and-fast rule for all people, everywhere. But here is the very first question to ask as you formulate a plan for your household:

What are the typical emergencies you see in your part of the country and your specific location? In other words, do you have a high risk of severe weather (tornadoes, blizzards)? Or is your area more likely to see environmental disasters (wildfires, landslides, earthquakes)?

Note that some emergencies are more predictable, or at least more regular, than others. For example, here in Philadelphia we can generally predict that every winter we'll get at least one snowstorm that shuts down our streets and closes our schools for a day or two. Some winters we get more storms, or we'll get an actual blizzard; and some winters we get fewer. But a good rule of thumb is to be prepared to keep the kids home from school and have some food and household essentials stored away for at least one event each winter. That said, here in town, our streets get cleared and our stores re-open very quickly, so we never have to anticipate being snowed in for longer than a few days at a time.

In other areas of the country, you may have a problem quite the opposite of being stuck in the house: you may be ordered to evacuate. So maybe instead of -- or in addition to -- being prepared to stay in for a few days, you should be prepared to leave for a few days, or permanently, on very little notice. And you should consider the likelihood that your risk of disasters includes losing your home. So maybe one focus for your own preparedness is to bulk up financially: insurance and cash or easily liquidable assets.

Tomorrow: Thoughts on evacuations.

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