The goal of an emergency kit is to ensure you have what you need in the event of a disaster before it strikes. You don't want to add extra stress to an already stressful and upsetting event by running around to pack a bag. Unless you're willing to do the full doomsday prep routine, it’s a lot more feasible to prepare a kit tailored to what you might expect in your area instead of something that encompasses all possible hazards, says Jonathan Sury, MPH, senior staff associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Climate School.
Some regions of the country are more likely to experience certain natural disasters than others (like tornadoes in the Great Plains region and hurricanes in the Gulf states and East Coast). But having even more specific information is helpful. The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Climate School, where Sury works, has a tool called the Hazards Index that provides census-level data for fourteen different natural disasters. In using this tool, you can go micro (by entering your address) or more macro (by entering your zip code) to research which hazards you should watch out for. Check out information available through your state and local government, too.
Both Sury and Ramin Asgary, MD, MPH, FASTMH and associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, say these needs may change based on your region and season—consider the surprise East Coasters got earlier this year when the skies unexpectedly turned orange with wildfire smoke—so it’s best to do some research beforehand to figure out what makes the most sense for you to stock in your emergency kit and periodically adjust.
Your emergency kit will likely include some personal and specific items (for example, a beloved framed photo or piece of jewelry, maybe), but there are some items each kit should have. Your needs will vary slightly based on if you expect to evacuate to another location or shelter in place, so here are two lists to use as starting points.
What supplies should go in every natural disaster preparedness kit?
Getting together an emergency kit may sound intimidating and expensive, but it's a key piece of a holistic disaster preparedness plan. Sury approaches creating an emergency kit as a two-pronged venture: one piece of the kit is the tangible stuff, like food and water, and the other is information and knowledge that fuels your preparedness.
"Preparedness is not a one-dimensional activity that is about you and yourself; it’s about your household and your community."—Jonathan Sury, MPH, senior staff associate, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia Climate School
In general, Sury recommends stocking enough water, food, and supplies to last your household for at least three days (and up to two weeks). However, he says the specifics of what goes in your kit really depend on your living situation. (For example, if you have a dog, you'll have to account for extra pet food, medications, etc.)
Before buying anything, think about each person you live with needs—whether that's extra diapers and baby food for your infant, or medication refills for your elderly mother if you live together. “It’s going to take up a little bit of space but that’s okay because you’re going to be really grateful when you need that stuff," he says.
Sury says the below list is a starting point that you can add to and adjust:
- Non-perishable food items (think: protein bars, snacks, etc.)
- Drinking water (a water filter like this one can be especially helpful)
- Copies of essential documents (e.g. passports, insurance papers, car and home deeds, IDs like your driver’s license or work badge)
- Up-to-date first aid kit (Be sure your kit is replenished and has enough Band-Aids, ointments, and other supplies)
- Medications and supplements, if you take them (Dr. Sury recommends asking your doctor to write a prescription for this purpose, if that’s possible)
- Glasses, contact lenses
- Warm or waterproof jacket
- Small, portable emergency blankets
- Phone chargers and mobile battery packs for charging
- Portable radio (“Radio is really one of the most reliable places to get emergency information during a disaster," says Dr. Sury.)
- Batteries to power your radio and flashlight
- Special supplies depending on who you live with:
- Children: spare clothes, a comforting item like a stuffed animal or blanket, games and toys
- Pets: Water, treats, bed
- Elderly or disabled people: Cane, portable walker, medical equipment like CPAP machines, or other necessary supplies
If you're sheltering in place, a generator is a helpful item to have in your home, too.
Sury says it's not a bad idea to assemble a smaller, separate kit to store in your car in case you're stuck there during a natural disaster or some other adverse event. Here's what to put in a car emergency kit: cordless or battery-operated electric blankets to stay warm, a few gallons of water, a spare tire (plus a tire jack and tire-iron to change it if needed), flares or other reflective items in case you need to pull over to the side of the road, and an extra phone charger.
Use the lists here as a jumping off point, and be sure to add anything specific to the natural disasters you're most likely to encounter in your area. (More on that in a minute.)
Sury says another key part of disaster preparedness is the actual practice and knowledge of how and when to use everything you’ve gathered. For example, do you know where you’d likely take shelter in case of an emergency (like a friend or relative's place)? How will everyone in your house evacuate if they need to? This list of what Sury calls "intangibles" is a great way to answer those questions and get your ducks in a row before a disaster hits:
- Family communication plan: This is essential because it dictates how everyone will be in touch before, during, and after a potential disaster event. Figure out how to contact everyone at school and work, and how to get information from those places if something happens there, and where your family would meet up if you were separated. Establish if everyone will text each other, which is recommended to avoid overwhelming cell towers during disasters, and maybe even create a household group chat.
- Digital backups: Have digital copies of key information like IDs, credit cards, bank information, house and car titles, etc. backed up to a cloud server or other data storage system. Don’t forget family photos, too.
- Checking in on your neighbors: Disaster preparedness is community care, so Sury recommends considering if there are people you need to check on to help prepare or who you might take with you.
- Disaster insurance: The last thing you want to deal with after a disaster is the logistics of figuring out what damage is covered by your insurance, so call your company and figure this out ahead of time. If you don't have a policy that accounts for natural disasters, add to yours because it's a great way to save a lot of hassle and heartbreak in the future. "Having good insurance is the first line to getting the help that you need, especially if there is damage to your home," Sury says. Check out what's offered by both local and federal authorities, too; for example the National Flood Insurance Program covers floodplain areas around the U.S. and is certified by FEMA, and you can get earthquake insurance in California through the California Earthquake Authority. Don't forget to look into your options as a renter, because Sury says many companies offer protections for you, too.
“Preparedness is not a one-dimensional activity that is about you and yourself; it’s about your household and your community,” Sury adds. He says that knowing your neighbors and planning alongside them is especially important in under-resourced and remote communities where it may be more difficult to get immediate help from authorities.
Information moves quickly during disaster responses, too, so it’s best to know where to turn for the most reliable info before, during, and after a natural disaster. "Be sure to pay attention to and get connected with the emergency management, fire, and law enforcement agencies in your community because they'll have the most accurate and up to date information," Sury says. The National Weather Service (NWS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC are three such federal agencies that send out real-time disaster alerts (the NWS even has a page on its website full of links to subscribe to specific alerts). As you assemble the physical items in your disaster kit, don’t forget to work through these logistics, too.
What to add in your disaster prep kit, based on which type of disaster you’re most likely to encounter
The above lists are a starting point, but it's wise to add specific items in your emergency kit that make sense for what you face in your region. Read on for what to include in your emergency kit if you live where earthquakes, wildfires, tornados, hurricanes, and floods are common.
Besides knowing where you can shelter in place during shaking, according to Sury, you need to know where the shutoffs are for the gas and water mains in your home in case you need to quickly cut the lines. "Lines could break and sparks could cause bad fires," he says.
One of the main concerns during and after a wildfire is smoke inhalation, Sury says. Breathing in wildfire smoke, which is a mixture of gas and ash particles from burning objects, can have dangerous effects both in the near and long term, so it’s important that each member of your household has a tightly-fitting N-95 respirator without a valve (KN95s are also effective) to protect themselves. Make sure they fit properly before putting them with the rest of your emergency items.
The most important piece of a tornado preparedness kit is identifying a safe place to go, whether that's a tornado cellar, basement, or elsewhere in your house (this might be your bathroom because they're usually located in the interior of the house). "Not everyone has a tornado cellar or basement, so if you don't have those things you need to identify where in your home you can go," Sury says. According to the NWS, the safest part of the house that's not a basement is an interior room on the lowest floor without windows; it might be your bathroom, hallway, or closet.
Hurricanes and floods
If you're likely to encounter hurricanes and floods in your area, Sury says you should expect to be away from home for at least a few weeks, so it's wise to make sure you have a kit that can handle that. Get your flood insurance ready now, and be sure to prioritize finding a place to stay in your list of intangible supplies. "You're going to be away from your home for a while, so making sure you have extra supplies and making connections for how to handle that is helpful," he says.
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