Emergencies often are unpredictable. But you can still plan for them.
During this week alone, millions of people across the country experienced catastrophic emergencies. Hurricane Ida left millions of Louisiana residents without power or without access to food and water. Flash floods in New Jersey and New York caught many people off guard. In Lake Tahoe, some residents evacuated in less than an hour after an evacuation order as fires threatened their homes. In August, flash floods ravaged Central Tennessee, and earlier this year, millions of people in Texas were left without electricity and water following a winter storm.
Unfortunately, climate scientists now warn that weather emergencies like these may be the new normal, as global warming leads to heavier rains, stronger hurricanes, more tornadoes and bigger wildfires. The average number of climate- and weather-related disasters per decade has increased nearly 35 percent since the 1990s, according to the World Disasters Report.
The ‘Go Bag’
No matter where you live, every home should have a ‘go bag’ and a ‘stay bin.’ The go bag is what you grab when you have to leave the house in a hurry, whether it’s to get to the emergency room or to evacuate because of a fire or hurricane. The stay bin is a two-week stash of essentials in the event you have to hunker down at home without power, water or heat.
Creating a go bag and a stay bin does not make you an alarmist or someone who lives in fear of the apocalypse. It just means you’re prepared. Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that emergencies can happen anytime and anywhere. One night while living in London, I came home to a wrecked apartment because an upstairs neighbor had left his water running. (I was able to rescue my passport and my cats, but I lost everything I owned.) Years later I had to evacuate my Pennsylvania home three different times — twice because of Delaware River flooding and once because of Hurricane Sandy.
The first time my house flooded, I was completely unprepared as the flood water was just feet from my driveway. I had to grab my four small dogs, some clothes and whatever else seemed important and get out of there quickly. I couldn’t get home for two weeks. It was then that I realized I needed a real home evacuation plan, not just for me and my daughter, but also for my pets. (I was better prepared when I evacuated before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast a few years later.)
The hardest part about creating a go bag is getting started. You don’t need to do it all at once. I started with a Ziploc bag and placed my passport, birth certificates and other important documents inside. Then I added an extra pair of reading glasses. Last year, I added a phone charger to my go bag because an emergency room doctor told me it’s the single most requested item in the E.R.
I also added some masks, which we all need now because of Covid-19, but you might also need a mask if you’re fleeing a fire or a chemical spill. I remember on Sept. 11, after the first tower fell, a New York City bakery distributed hundreds of masks to those of us stranded in the area to protect us from breathing in the ash and fumes.
Recently, I upgraded my go bag to a more sturdy Stasher reusable silicone bag and added some emergency cash (small bills are best). I also added a list of phone numbers to reach family members and friends in the event that I end up in the E.R. The list is useful if your phone battery dies, too. On Sept. 11, I used a pay phone to reach my mom in Dallas, because it was the only phone number I could remember.
Some people treat their go bags like a survival kit and add lots of extras like multipurpose tools, duct tape, fire starters, portable cooking stoves and a compass, among other things. But I prefer to keep it simple. I assume that if I need my go bag, it’s because I have a short-term emergency, not because it’s the end of civilization as we know it.
Once you’ve collected the basics, consider using a backpack or duffel bag to hold a few more items that could help in certain types of emergency evacuations. Add a flashlight and batteries and a small first aid kit that includes dental care items. You should also have a few days’ supply of your essential medications. Pack a few water bottles and granola bars for the traffic jam on the evacuation route or the long wait in the E.R. An extra set of car keys is a great addition to your go bag, but extra car keys are expensive, so if you don’t have them, just make it a habit to leave your keys in the same place so you can find them in an emergency.
If you have a baby, add diapers, wipes, bottles, formula and baby food to your go bag. If you have pets, add leashes, portable bowls, some food and copies of veterinary records, in case you have to take your pets to a kennel while you stay in a shelter or hotel. Some people add a change of clothes to their go bag, but I prefer to keep my go bag small and light. Once you’ve created your family’s primary go bag with documents and other essentials, you may want to pack personal go bags for any children.
I recently ordered one more item for my go bag after reading about emergency preparedness supplies on Wirecutter. It’s a $3 whistle. “No one wants to think about being trapped during a natural disaster, but it does happen,” wrote Wirecutter. “Screaming for help might get a rescuer’s attention, but the high-pitch shrill of a whistle is far more likely to cut through the din of a wildfire, windstorm, or emergency sirens.”
The ‘Stay Bin’
In the event you need to hunker down, you probably have a lot of the essentials for a stay bin already in your home. It’s a good idea to gather these items and put them in one place — like a large plastic bin or two — so they don’t get used. If you’ve already created a go bag, you’ve got a head start, because many go bag items could be needed in a stay-at-home emergency. The stay bins should also have a two-week supply of bottled water and nonperishable food, pet food, toilet paper and personal hygiene supplies. Flash lights, lanterns, candles, lighters and firewood are important. (Wirecutter recommends a head lamp.) A battery-powered or crank weather radio as well as a solar phone charger will help you cope with power outages. Extra blankets are a good idea. Other items that are often recommended are duct tape, a multipurpose tool, trash bags for sanitation, and hand wipes and sanitizer. If your prescription plan allows it, order an extra supply of your medications or ask your doctor for some free samples to have in case of an emergency.
The city of Milwaukee has a helpful checklist for building your go bag. The website Ready.gov has a checklist to help you build your stay bin, and the American Red Cross has more advice on emergency preparedness. Pick and choose the items that make sense for your family.
My go bag and stay bin are still works in progress, but I feel better knowing that I’m more prepared than I used to be. I’ve also created a crisis notebook in the event of a health emergency. My advice is to just get started today with what you have handy and work on acquiring more items over time. A little planning and preparation goes a long way in any emergency.
For more on emergency planning, read Wirecutter:
The Best Emergency Preparedness Supplies for 2021
Scared of bears? Take the bear quiz!
Recently, when my daughter went hiking, I was most worried she would encounter a bear. After all, it seems like I’ve been reading a lot lately about bear attacks, including a grizzly that terrorized a man in Alaska for days and a woman in Montana killed this summer in a bear attack. But while bear attacks make headlines, they are less common than you might think. I learned this after taking the quiz “Could You Survive a Run-In With a Bear?” Among the things you’ll learn are:
What activity are most people doing when they are attacked by a bear?
What’s the most effective bear deterrent?
Is it better to stand your ground, climb a tree or run if you encounter a bear?
The quiz is challenging and fun, and I learned a lot about bears!
Take the bear quiz:
Could You Survive a Run-In With a Bear?
Join a Times live event with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci
Times subscribers are invited to a live event with Dr. Fauci, along with Apoorva Mandavilli, who writes about vaccines and Covid for The Times, and Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist who writes for Well. The event will be hosted by Andrew Ross Sorkin and will focus on kids, Covid and back-to-school.
Click the link to R.S.V.P. for this subscriber-only event:
Kids and Covid: What to Know, a Times Virtual Event.