Preparing for disaster: Is your home ready for the next winter storm?

November 13, 2011 by Brian Cameron

Before you read any further, try an exercise. Find a piece of paper and something to write with. Go to your kitchen or pantry and write down a complete list of every single edible thing you have in the house. Everything! Animal crackers to zwieback. Include Uncle Charlie's infamous fruitcake from three years ago, the two cans of chicken broth in the back of the cabinet, and the freezer-burned pork chops in the bottom of the deep-freeze. (While you're at it, take this chance to throw away that fruitcake and the freezer-burned chops.)

Done? Now, take that list and cross off everything that requires refrigeration. Copy what's left onto a second sheet of paper. On this second (shorter) list, cross off anything that's in the freezer.

What's left? If you're like many of us, you're looking at a few cans of soup, a couple pounds of dry pasta, maybe some canned tuna, dry rice, a box or two of cereal, and some dry ingredients -- flour, sugar, coffee, etc. Hang on to those lists for a moment.

Cayuga Heights Fire Department helps clear a downed tree. Cayuga Heights Fire Department helps clear a downed tree.

Now, imagine we have just had a natural disaster. The particular disaster doesn't matter, but here in 14850, it's likely to be a blizzard or ice storm. Trees are down everywhere, the power is out, roads are closed or impassable, and you're essentially stuck in your house or as far as you're able to walk on foot. The first list you made is the food you have to feed yourself and your family for an indefinite period of time. After removing the immediately perishable items, the remaining list is food you'll have available after 24 to 48 hours of no power. The final list with frozen items crossed off is what you may have to eat after three to five days without power. Appetizing? Probably not. Will it keep you alive? Maybe.

First priority: Water

The human body is remarkably resilient; we can generally survive several weeks without food as long as clean drinking water is available. It may be a very unpleasant month, but most of us would survive. However, there is no reason whatsoever to suffer needlessly. Anyone in any living situation can and should put away enough food and water to survive for at least a week without leaving the home. Even in a studio apartment, the bare necessities can take up no more space than a laundry basket.

Buy a case of water bottles once in a while when the brand you like is on sale, or grab the store brand. Buy a case of water bottles once in a while when the brand you like is on sale, or grab the store brand. The first priority is water. Clean, drinkable (potable) water. A good rule of thumb is one gallon of water per person per day to cover drinking and cleaning needs. Please understand that this is a bare minimum -- most people drink 2-3 quarts of water in a day, and one quart doesn't provide much cleaning. We'll get to cleaning in a bit, though. For now, put away some water. Store-brand bottled water is convenient and can be tucked into almost any empty space -- under beds, in closets, basements, or cabinets. A 24-bottle flat of water is 12 liters, or about 3 gallons, and costs $3-$5. Buy at least one for each person in your house. This is drinking water -- only for drinking. Water does go "stale" eventually, so rotate this water through on a case-a-month basis: drink one or two case(s) each month and replace it with fresh from the store. Refill and save the empty bottles -- we'll discuss why shortly.

If you prefer not to purchase water (which is understandable), you can store water on a short-term basis in washed and sterilized two-liter soda bottles. Wash them in hot soapy water and rinse well, then rinse with a dilute bleach solution (1T:1gal), a final rinse with potable water, then fill and cap tightly. Replace the water in these bottles every two to three months. Old milk jugs, while tempting, are a poor option -- the plastic degrades relatively quickly, and the stale-milk smell is almost impossible to eliminate. Bulk water jugs are also available from many stores, typically in the three- to five-gallon size, and are an excellent option. Add a teaspoon of bleach when filling to make sure the water stays pure.

A final option is the "WaterBOB." This is a one-time-use storage bladder designed to fit in a standard bathtub. The concept is good, and if you have time to prepare before the water supply becomes unusable, an extra hundred gallons of fresh water is worth its weight in gold.

Do not rely on your tap! If you have a well, as soon as your power is out, the well is gone. If you have municipal water, electric pumps are constantly filling large storage tanks uphill from you. When those tanks are empty, there's no more water until the power is back.

Stocking the pantry

After your thirst is quenched, it's time to take care of that growling stomach. Ideally, much of your emergency food will be duplicates of things you already eat and use: canned goods, pastas, etc. Again, rotate stock on a regular basis. Look for bulk sales at the supermarket. Dry beans and white rice can keep almost indefinitely and store very well in quart mason jars -- no need to can them, just keep the lids on tight. Keep in mind that cooking dried foods will require more water than canned goods. Make sure you have some variety -- everyone will get tired of Spaghetti-O's and Chef Boyardee very quickly if that's the only thing on the menu for a week. Strive for a balanced diet. Include fruits and vegetables. Have a box of dry powdered milk on hand to complete the dairy requirement. Last but not least, include some sweet treats -- a bag of hard candies will keep well and greatly improve morale.

An alternative to the stockpile, albeit much more expensive, is the "MRE" -- Meal Ready to Eat. Originally developed for the military, these are plastic bags which contain an entrée, crackers, side dish, dessert, coffee, seasonings, silverware, and a small heater to warm it all up. Theoretically, one MRE per day will sustain life -- they contain 1,200-1,500 Calories each. A case of twelve is compact -- about the size of two large shoe boxes. As a true emergency ration they are quite acceptable, but can be expensive, generally in the $70-80/case range. Several sources exist and a quick Google search will provide far more information. MREs have a long shelf life -- usually two to four years, longer if stored properly (cool, dark, dry environment) -- but should also be rotated out occasionally.

Food in your refrigerator and freezer should be used -- quickly -- with common sense. If the temperature in your refrigerator has risen past 40°F, it's time to throw out milk, meat, and soft cheeses. Butter, eggs, hard cheeses, and many condiments (anything vinegar-based) will be fine at higher temperatures for a relatively long time. Frozen foods should be left in the freezer until they are used, and the freezer should never be opened "just to look;" know what you need, get it out, and close the freezer. Again, 40°F should be the tipping point for frozen items. If the weather is below freezing outside, consider moving your perishables and frozen goods outside. Keep in mind rodents and other scavengers; dogs, cats, raccoons, possums, and other animals would love a snack of your edibles. If an animal-resistant outdoor container is available, make use of it. Coolers, cars, sheds -- any of these can and should be used to protect food from pests.

Grilling in the snow. Grilling in the snow. OK, you've got food, you've got water. Now, how are you going to cook it all? If you have a gas stove in your home, you're golden -- just make sure you've got a box of matches to light the burners. Your oven probably won't work, though, as they use electronic igniters and thermostats. If you have an electric stove, it's time to think of a Plan B. Do you have a woodstove? Barbecue grill? Camp stove? A propane camp stove is an excellent option; they can often be found at yard sales for a few dollars, or brand new from many stores for $40-60. Bulk propane adapters will allow you to use a 20lb grill tank instead of investing in a couple dozen disposable cylinders, and are well worth the investment.

After your meal, it's time to clean up. Clean water is a vital commodity, so don't use your drinking water. Remember those empty bottles you were saving before? As they were emptied, you should have rinsed and refilled them, and tucked them away also. These are your cleaning water. Go easy on cleaning as much as possible: use paper plates and cups and dispose of them after a meal. Cook as many meals in one pot as possible. For example, if you're cooking pasta, after you've drained it, pour the sauce over the pasta in the same pan to warm up. When cleaning, use snow, a paper towel, or even crumpled up newsprint to wipe out the pan as well as possible -- this makes your cleanup even easier. Go light on the soap and make your rinse water as hot as possible. Add a tablespoon of bleach to your rinse water to help keep things sterile.

You're fed, dishes are done, now it's time to get yourself clean. You can use one quart of precious water to clean yourself if you like. An easier alternative is to use baby wipes for the critical spots and a bottle of hand sanitizer to keep your hands relatively sterile. This of course, leads us to a tougher question: sanitation. With no running water, flushing becomes difficult at best. If you have a nearby pond, stream, or lake, buckets of water can be poured into the tank to allow flushing. If you don't, it is possible to melt snow or ice to fill the tank. A bucket or barrel under your gutters' downspouts will catch lots of water that is effective for flushing and hygiene.

Staying warm

The last two major considerations are heat and light. Heat is difficult -- unless you have a woodstove or fireplace, you will have to improvise. Do not use a grill or stove for heat: you will be placing yourself at significant risk of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning. The best option will be to move everyone in your family into one interior room of the house, hang heavy blankets over the doors (and windows as soon as they are in shade) to that room, and wear multiple layers of clothing. If at all possible, a large group bed on the floor will provide the most warmth for everyone. Kerosene space heaters may work, but make sure you know how yours operates and please do so safely.

Light is easy -- for about ten to twelve hours of every day. After dusk, you should be conserving energy as much as possible. When it's dark, it's bedtime. Obviously, this is not always possible. LED flashlights and lanterns will make the best use of batteries; some offer as much as 50 hours of light on a single set of batteries. Have extra batteries -- several sets. Candles are not a good option -- the risk of fire is high and the light given is dim. Kerosene lanterns are an OK option -- Dietz brand lanterns in particular are designed to self-extinguish if tipped, but care must always be used with any fuel-burning light.

Rechargeable batteries are something many of us have in various locations, and they do serve a purpose. For a situation where you may be relying on batteries for some time, though, I can't recommend them. They are too often left uncharged in a kitchen drawer. Alkaline batteries have a shelf life of several years and aren't terribly expensive -- I purchased a 24-pack of AA batteries for $12 at a local home improvement store today. Lithium batteries have an even longer shelf life -- up to ten years -- but cost significantly more. Buy extra batteries in the sizes you use most, and rotate them through. When one package is half empty, pick up another at the store.

How's the situation looking so far? You're fed, relatively warm, have meltwater to flush the toilet, and lots of time on your hands every day. Now it's time to entertain yourself and your family. Books, board games, and card games are all essential to keep morale up -- especially for children. The first day or two of an extended outage may be an "adventure," but by day three the novelty will wear thin and tempers may begin to flare. Time out of doors, when safe and practical, will help.

What else do you need?

A battery- or hand-powered radio is another essential item. Being able to listen to the news will let you know when and where shelters are available or supply distributions may take place. If you have covered the necessary resources at home, the shelter is a poor option -- take what supplies you need from a distribution site, but minimize your reliance on others. If there is power and/or heat at a school, church, or fire station, take your family there for an hour or two daily to warm up and enjoy the company of others.

If your situation allows, check on your neighbors and help where possible -- very few people are able to get through an extended disaster on their own, and a strong community will help everyone. If possible, organize a potluck meal -- some variety in the diet helps everyone's mood.

If possible, store a couple cans of gasoline for your vehicle in a shed or other outbuilding. Gasoline should never be stored in the house or attached garage due to risk of fire from vapors. This gas should be stabilized (StaBil or SeaFoam) and rotated through every month or two, and used only as a last resort -- try to keep your vehicles above a half tank as a regular practice.

Keep some cash on hand -- as much as you think you may use in a seven day period. No power means no ATMs, no credit cards, and not many stores open -- but those that are will only take cash, as will neighbors who you may need to barter with.

If you have a landline phone at home, make sure you have a traditional non-cordless phone to use when the power is out. If you only use cell phones, have a car adapter so you can recharge it from your vehicle.

Your "bug-out bag" or "go bag" should have a few days' worth of essentials and be ready to go at all times. Your "bug-out bag" or "go bag" should have a few days' worth of essentials and be ready to go at all times.

If you can't stay put during a disaster, you should have a "72 hour kit" or "bug-out bag" available. This bag should always be packed and ready, and contain clothes, food, medications, ID, cash, and other sundries for three days. In a true disaster, you may have only minutes to leave your home; being able to grab this bag means you can spend a few minutes collecting other items you deem critical.

Above all, remember that things are just that -- things. Don't place yourself or your family in danger to save "stuff" -- stuff can be replaced. Don't allow pride to put you in danger: know when you need help, and don't be ashamed to ask for it. If you have special needs in your household (invalid with an elevator, home oxygen, powered bed, etc), make sure your local utilities and emergency services are aware of it -- they often have special programs to provide power or other necessities to those who urgently need it.

Getting ready

If you're reading this article, you probably have some interest in being ready for the next emergency. One of the best things you can do to help yourself and others is to learn First Aid and CPR. Both are available through your local chapter of the American Red Cross, many fire departments, or even some workplaces, often for free.

One area of preparedness I've left out is self defense, and I'll leave further research on that topic to you. Looting and rioting are possible in an extended outage, and you should know in advance how you'll react or protect your family and property. Keep in mind that if the roads are not passable, the police may not be able to get to you to help, and they may be overextended in any event. There is lots of good (and lots of not-so-good) information on self defense available both online and in book stores. Books by Massad Ayoob are a good starting point for those interested. I will not provide advice on this topic; I am not an officer or a lawyer and have no desire to give incorrect information.

The vast majority of items mentioned in this article can be purchased at any department or home improvement store. A budget of a couple hundred dollars and an hour in your local Wal-Mart would find you well-equipped to handle most problems we're likely to encounter. Don't let the idea of the budget scare you, however -- this is a list that will never stop growing, and you will quickly add your own items and preferences. You can add to your preparedness stockpile as funds allow.

Our area has been remarkably fortunate in regards to natural disasters. An occasional light ice storm, a blizzard, a small tornado, minor flooding -- but so far we have not had an ice storm like those recently seen in New England or the Southeast. This is not to say we can't or won't; being prepared for any disaster means you are in a better position than many other people.

Preparedness Resource Links

Brian is a lifetime resident of the Ithaca area. He is active in a volunteer fire department, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, and a firm believer in self-reliance and preparedness. Questions or comments are welcome via email at

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