16 Cheap Emergency Essentials You Don't Want To Be Without
With hurricanes, tornadoes, flash floods, earthquakes, and even strong thunderstorms, there's always the possibility of a natural disaster causing evacuation or the long-term disruption of essential services. It's easy to go overboard on storm prep, especially in last-minute panic mode, but a few simple steps taken in advance make emergency preparation affordable even on a tight budget. The American Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency recommend two weeks' worth of emergency supplies for sheltering in place and a three-day supply for evacuating to a safe zone.
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Any emergency kit requires a supply of food that can be stored without refrigeration and eaten without cooking or preparation. Many ordinary canned heat-and-serve foods, such as baked beans, pasta, and stews, also double as emergency rations. They can safely be eaten cold, although they won't taste as good. Store at least one manually operated can opener with the food supply -- and keep an eye on expiration dates. Other inexpensive food possibilities include crackers and no-refrigeration sandwich fillings such as peanut butter, honey, and single-serving jams and jellies; canned fruit or fruit cups; pudding cups; trail mix; raisins and other dried fruits; fruit leather; granola or energy bars; summer sausages; and meat jerky.
A barbecue grill or wood- or gas-powered camp stove can cook and heat foods outdoors. But never, under any circumstances, use such items inside a house, garage, or any other building. Even with all windows wide open, there's a deadly risk of toxic, suffocating fumes filling the space. In case outdoor cooking is not possible, keep a supply of ethanol gel cans (used for chafing dishes). These do not generate enough heat for true cooking or boiling water, but they usually are sufficient to heat canned items. (Find the best barbecue grills under $300.)
Minimum recommendations call for a gallon of water per person per day, although people who live in hot climates or are prone to excessive perspiration need more. Empty plastic soda or juice bottles can be washed and re-used to store tap water. Do not use milk jugs or dairy containers for this purpose, because it's impossible to know for sure that washing has removed all traces of milk proteins.
Water alone is sufficient to prevent dehydration and maintain good health, but drinking nothing but lukewarm water gets monotonous after a while. Consider stocking powdered drink mix and shelf-stable liquids, including single-serve milk and juice boxes. Choose drinks sold in cardboard boxes or plastic bottles rather than breakable glass. (There are also many foods that help you stay hydrated.)
When you first hear that a storm might strike during the coming week, start making and storing as much ice as the freezer can handle. Also, start eating as much food as possible out of the fridge and freezer to avoid waste in case the power goes out. Fill clean, empty plastic bottles with water and freeze them to serve as an emergency supply of ice and water. Be sure to leave a couple of inches empty at the top, so the freezing water has room to expand. The filled bottles even reduce electricity consumption in normal circumstances, because keeping ice frozen uses less energy than cooling empty air, and help food stay cold during a power failure.
Natural disasters threaten public water supplies. Sometimes the water flowing from taps must be boiled before drinking or bathing with it, because of storm-runoff contamination, but at least it keeps a toilet working. Far worse is a disaster bad enough to cut off water supplies altogether. Bottled water bought for drinking is too expensive to flush down the toilet. Instead, fill the bathtub (make certain the plug does not leak) and store water in large pails or washtubs to shelter in place after a storm. Add bleach to forestall microbial contamination, and use this water only for flushing, not drinking or bathing.
A lack of clean running water can leave you with no ability to wash and re-use regular dishware and utensils, so make sure to stock up on disposables. In addition to paper plates and plastic utensils, lay in a supply of small, disposable aluminum pie pans or chafing dishes to use as "cooking" pots for heating emergency canned foods.
For personal cleaning without water, use pre-moistened towelettes or baby wipes -- not as good as a shower or bath, but definitely better than not washing at all. Also maintain a two-week supply of any additional hygiene items required by members of the household. Parents who usually rely on cloth diapers for their children might need disposable diapers during emergencies.
Don't discard those plastic shopping bags -- save them for an emergency. If a natural disaster is bad enough to suspend regular garbage pickup for several days, plastic bags with no rips or tears in them are a good way to store used disposable dishes, empty cans, dirty diapers, and other stink-inducing, vermin-attracting forms of garbage until it can be thrown away for good. Tie each bag shut to keep the stink in and the bugs out.
When preparing for an impending disaster, it's easy to overlook everyday tasks like doing laundry. But washing machines won't work during power outages, and wearing fresh socks and underwear every day becomes even more important when limited water supplies mean rare opportunities to bathe. Also, make certain to have at least one pair of good, sturdy shoes -- if a natural disaster leaves the ground littered with debris, wearing sandals that offer only minimal protection for your feet is a bad idea.
A well-equipped first-aid kit is essential for any household, stormy weather or not. But storm prep requires extra supplies. The recommendation to keep three days of supplies to evacuate and two weeks of supplies to shelter in place also applies to household medications and medical devices, including syringes, prescription drugs, hearing-aid batteries, contact lens cleaner, and related supplies.
With air conditioners out of commission during hot-weather power outages, battery-operated fans are the next best thing. The ideal minimum is one fan per person, plus two extra fans to draw air in and out of open windows. People who live in hot but dry climates can set up a makeshift "swamp cooler" by simply running a battery-operated fan over a shallow pan of water. The moving air causes the water to evaporate, drawing heat out of the atmosphere as it does. But swamp coolers won't work in humid conditions; if the air is already hot and muggy, adding more water to it will only make matters worse.
In cold weather, turn metal coffee cans into crude space heaters by burning four or five metal-cup tea-light candles in the bottom (after tearing off the can's paper or plastic labels, of course). Keep the coffee-can space heaters on stable, fire-resistant surfaces, beyond the reach of pets or small children, and never leave burning candles unattended. Although vegetable-wax candles do not emit toxic vapors, remember that any open flame consumes oxygen. When using this as a primary heat source, crack open a door or window every few hours to let in fresh air.
Have at least one flashlight or lantern for every member of the household. LED lights powered by lithium-ion batteries are usually cheaper, both upfront and long-term, while those powered by more-expensive alkaline batteries are usually brighter and more powerful. Stockpile extra batteries for the lights and any other battery-powered emergency items, such as fans. Remember that alkaline batteries (AA, AAA, C, D, and 9-volt) are especially prone to corrosion, so alkaline-powered emergency devices not in use should never be stored with their batteries inside.
The American Red Cross sells a specialized hand-crank weather radio plus flashlight for $40, but consumers can make do with a cheaper battery-powered device. (Also, battery-powered objects are far more convenient than hand-cranked ones.) Any emergency device should pick up weather radio frequencies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in addition to the more common AM/FM stations. People who find sleeping easier with "white noise" in the background can turn the radio to a static station.
When power goes out in an extended area, ATMs and credit-card readers don't work. Whether evacuating or sheltering in place, keep enough cash on hand, preferably in small bills, to get by until the power is restored. If emergencies do not strike, setting aside $1 and $5 bills is also a good way to build up a savings cushion.
In addition to basic survival supplies, stock some books, portable board games, decks of cards, puzzle books and other non-electronic amusements. After the initial excitement of a storm wears off, life without electricity (or sleeping in an emergency shelter) can get very tedious very quickly. A few engrossing reads, a deck of cards, coloring books, and word games can help young and old alike pass the time until life returns to normal.