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Plan for the worst: Your disaster preparation kit

About the author

Kate Ashford is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and health. She has written for Money, Real Simple and Redbook magazines.

A woman surveys damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

(Getty)

No matter where you live, the potential for natural disaster is right around the corner.

The United States is in the middle of hurricane season, even as parts of the country are still recovering from last year’s devastating superstorm, Sandy, which did billions of dollars in damage — much of it not covered by insurance — and left millions without power for a week or more.

South America will soon face its own hurricane season, which stretches from December to March. In Australia, summer carries a heightened risk of bushfire in some regions, and cyclones in others. In the northwestern Pacific, the water is so warm that typhoons are possible year-round. Other areas are susceptible to an array of dangers including earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, even terrorist attacks. On a smaller scale, even a small fire can be a disaster if it occurs in your home. 

While you cannot control the weather, you can plan for the worst. “Being prepared for a disaster can help people get back on their feet more quickly,” said Andrew Coghlan, national manager of the Australian Red Cross Emergency Services.

Some 44 percent of US adults do not have first-aid kits, and nearly half have no emergency supplies, according to a poll by the Adelphi University Center for Health Innovation. On the other hand, the Philippines is one of the most-prepared countries, according to a report from the World Bank — along with Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, and Malaysia — perhaps because it is one of the most affected by frequent weather disasters.

Basic emergency preparedness can protect not just your home and belongings, but also your wallet. Here is your action plan:

What it will take: Organisation, insurance, and a little bit of shopping. Talk with your family about disaster preparation, double check your insurance coverage and purchase enough supplies (non-perishable food, candles and medical supplies) to see you through an emergency. Those supplies will vary depending on whether you have an elderly person, a child or a pet in your home.

In general, you will want to make sure that your home, car and any big toys (boat, motorcycle) are covered with enough insurance to replace them if an event destroys them completely. Some homeowners' policies do not provide replacement coverage, so give yours a call to see where you stand. You may also want to ask your home insurer if your policy covers a hotel stay if you are displaced — and for how long. If you live in a low-lying area prone to flooding or exposed to severe storm weather, consider flood insurance.

How long you need to prepare: In a pinch, you could prepare most of your provisions in only a few days. Gather supplies such as non-perishable food and water, make a family plan, update insurance policies and have a bag or box of items you would need to grab if you have to evacuate.

Do it now: Discuss your disaster plan with your family. Remember that phones and internet are often the first thing to go in a catastrophe, either from weather or because too many people are jamming the networks. Have a conversation about what to do if that happens.

“If you are cut off from your communications, what is your family’s initial point of rendezvous?” said Darryl Madden, director of the Ready campaign for the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The obvious choice would be your home — but what if you cannot get to it? “Pick an area 20 or even 30 miles outside of where you live, maybe a friend’s house” Madden said. “Sometimes it is easier to communicate outside of an impact area.”

Make a basic disaster kit. According to US FEMA’s website, Ready.gov, basic supplies should include:

-          Water — one gallon per person per day for at least three days

-          Food — at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food

-          Battery-powered or hand-crank radio with extra batteries

-          Flashlights and extra batteries

-          Medical kit

-          Whistle to signal for help

-          Dust masks to filter contaminated air, plus plastic sheeting and duct tape

-          Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation

-          Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities

-          Manual can opener

-          Local maps

-          Solar charger for electronics

-          Anything necessary for a member of your family or a pet, including medication, diapers, formula, eyeglasses, etc.

More information about disaster kits can be found at Ready.gov or the British Red Cross.

Take a first aid course. In the event of a widespread disaster, it could take days — or longer — for first responders to get to you. “Chances are, you may be the first responder,” Madden said. If you are versed in first aid, you are in a position to save a life. At the very least, consider downloading a first aid app to your smartphone, such as the one from the British Red Cross.

Put your documents in the cloud. If you have to evacuate your home, you might have time to grab a binder of your important documents. Then again, you might not. “We encourage people to take critical papers and put them on a junk drive, or have them on secure storage on the cloud,” Madden said. One option: Scan your important documents, save them as PDF files, and upload them to Dropbox.com, which is available in most countries. The first two gigabytes are free.

Document your belongings. Use a smartphone or digital camera and take a sweeping video of every room in your home, opening drawers and closets to capture everything you won. Email the file to yourself or upload it to a cloud program so you have it on hand when needed. If your home or possessions are destroyed, the video can serve as a record for your insurance company.

Do it later: Maintain your disaster kit. Every six months, check the expiration dates on your emergency food. As you replace items, put newer supplies in the back and older ones in the front. Ask yourself whether your family’s needs have changed since you put your kit together. (Have you had a baby, for instance? Adopted a dog?) If so, consider changes to your kit.

Revisit insurance policies. At the same time as you update your disaster kit, think about your insurance. Have you moved to a new house? Purchased anything new or expensive that might not be covered on your current homeowners’ policy? Do you have flood insurance, and if not, do you need it?

“In the US, your traditional homeowners’ policy will not cover flood damage,” Madden said. “Now is the time to find out: How vulnerable are you?”

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