Emergency preparedness on a shoestring

Images of devastation emerged after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. We watched water sweep away vehicles and houses; we saw stunned men and weeping women in the ruins. But we also heard about survivors whose homes weren’t flattened or inundated, people who subsisted on stockpiled food and water while waiting for help. Living on the “Ring of Fire” means temblors and tidal waves are a fact of life — and so is disaster preparedness.

We need to be prepared, too. The Department of Homeland Security’s Ready America program says we should be able to sustain ourselves for at least three days after an emergency, whether that’s a hundred-year storm or a civil insurrection.
How ready are you?

Right now, before anything bad happens, is the time to build your emergency kit — and you can do it on a budget. In fact, you probably already have some (or a lot) of what you need.

The (Sometimes Icky) Basics

During those three days you need to be fed, hydrated and sheltered. You also need a place to poop.

Yeah, that’s gross. You know what else is gross? The idea of everyone in your apartment building or subdivision yelling “Gardyloo!” and flinging slops out the window. Cholera epidemic, anyone?

When I was a kid, predictions of bad weather had us filling bathtub and buckets. That’s because if we lost power we lost our well pump, i.e., no way to flush the toilets. That’s still the first line of short-term defense; if you have any warning, stash yourself some water.

When that’s gone you’ll need at least one large container into which everyone can evacuate. Maybe a repurposed five-gallon detergent, paint or pet-litter bucket? If you don’t have one:

It’s possible to buy a toilet seat that snaps onto a bucket, which makes things easier. Or buy a prefab one (search online for “bucket toilet”) for $20 or less.
Decide now where you’ll put your temporary toilet. The garage? The back porch? Maybe even in the actual bathroom? Anywhere but the place where you plan to eat and sleep. Trust me on this.

Ready for an overshare? Here’s how I’d handle disposal if the you-know-what hits the fan here in Seattle:

  • Use the bucket (in a former life, it held detergent)
  • Put soiled paper into a garbage bag (and tie it really tightly between uses)
  • Flush the contents of each, little by little, once the emergency has abated

Please do not do your business in the condo-complex yard, no matter how much fun it is to pee outdoors.

Important: You’ll want a bottle of hand sanitizer close to the bucket. Really close. E. coli is nothing to fool with.

Food and Drink

Ready America recommends one gallon of water per person per day. It’s easy to buy bottled water but much cheaper to fill up two-liter soda bottles, or inexpensive pitchers or jugs. (Don’t drink soda? Surely someone you know does.)

Refill the containers every few months; mark it on the calendar so you don’t forget. Don’t just dump the old water, though. Use it in some way, such as:

  • Watering houseplants or your garden
  • Bathing (add hot water unless you like your tub-time tepid)
  • Cooking
  • Filling pet dishes
  • Doing hand laundry
  • Washing vegetables or fruit

When it comes to emergency rations, you can go as stripped-down or as fancy as you like. But it must be something you’d eat anyway, because you’ll need to rotate and replace your stock. If an earthquake happens six years from now, do you want to be eating 2011 ramen?

Some obvious choices:

  • Canned beans, stews, soups, fruits, vegetables, meats and/or fish
  • Protein bars, granola bars, dried fruit
  • Powdered milk and cereal
  • Peanut butter or other nut butters
  • Crackers or pilot bread; I recommend the latter, because it lasts for-freakin’-ever

Note: For more on pilot bread, see this funny video from The Anchorage Daily News.

Then watch a second, even funnier video from the same source.

If you’ll have a way to heat water, consider a few instant soups or other dehydrated foods such as hummus or bean dip. Flavored noodle cups/bowls do go on sale; check Asian markets for the best selection. Hot drinks are both warming and soothing, so stock up on bouillon cubes, teabags, instant coffee and hot chocolate mix.

Survival Shopping at Bargain Prices

The camping section of your local sporting-goods stores has quite a selection of dehydrated meals. So do online stores that sell survival/disaster preparedness supplies. But I’m focusing on inexpensive ways to prepare.

So watch for sales and use coupons and/or rebates when possible. A few of my better supermarket deals: envelopes of pre-drained tuna for free, granola bars for a penny each, cocoa mix for 5 cents per serving, a large bag of M&Ms for 50 cents, 12 ounces of peanuts for 69 cents.

Olives, marinated veggies, sun-dried tomatoes and other fancy foodstuffs from the dollar store will liven up your basic grub. After two days of PBJs and canned beans, a few pickled vegetable will taste like manna.

The dollar store has cheap bandages and rubbing alcohol, too. So do places like CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid; I’ve obtained baby wipes (aka “shower in a pouch”), hand sanitizer, analgesics, energy bars, crackers and batteries free or nearly free thanks to rebate programs at those stores.

About those batteries: Aim for at least one flashlight per room. Hand-cranked flashlights (and radios) don’t need batteries. If you can’t afford one right now, put it on your wish list; maybe Great-Aunt Irene will give you that instead of a cheese log next Christmas.

If you must use candles, select votive-type ones and set them inside wide-mouthed jars, placed in areas where no one can accidentally knock them down. Buy the votives for pennies at post-holiday clearance sales. Those sales are also good for cheap paper plates and bowls — not eco-friendly but really useful if you can’t do dishes for days.

Layering is essential in cool or cold temperatures. Watch for thermal underwear, wool pants and other useful items on Craigslist/Freecycle or at yard sales. I bought polypropylene longhandles and a down vest at a thrift store. Make sure everyone has a stocking cap, too.

Look around your house to see how much of this stuff you already own. Most of us at least have sweaters or sweatshirts. If you’re not in a super-cold area, a comforter might double as a sleeping bag. A hibachi could substitute for a bottled-gas camp stove — but remember you can use these things outdoors only, because carbon monoxide is deadly.

Miscellaneous Tips

You can’t truly be ready for a disaster. It’s always stressful and often terrifying. However, you can at least be prepared. Here are a few more items to keep in mind:

  • Learn the location of your local/regional emergency shelter, just in case.
  • Keep a cache of cash — smalls bills and coins — on hand. No power means no debit or credit if you do find a store that’s open.
  • Put supplies where you can get at them easily, not down in the crawlspace or up in the rafters.
  • Wheeled garbage cans make great storage: Your items will be protected and movable. Label each one so you can find what you need, fast.
  • Water left over after making tea? Don’t let it get cold again — pour it into a thermos.
  • You’ll want basic first-aid supplies, including an anti-diarrheal medication. Many of these items can also be bought cheaply or free with those drugstore rebates.
  • On maintenance meds? Get in the habit of refilling as soon as you’re allowed, i.e., don’t wait until you take your last pill to call it in.
  • Choose no-salt canned vegetables. Not only are they healthier, you can use the drained-off liquid to dilute canned soup. Save the syrup from canned fruits, too, to sip for quick energy, settle an upset stomach or sweeten a cup of tea.
  • Don’t forget pet food and litter. Factor in extra water for Fido and Fluffy, too.
  • Have some playing cards or small games that everyone can play. I suggest Mad Libs.
  • Make sure you have a manual can opener. You’ll feel darned stupid asking to borrow a neighbor’s.

How about it, readers: Any ideas for getting ready without breaking the bank?

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