A budget-minded strategy for building a home survival kit

By Gordon Williams

September is National Preparedness Month, and the key to being prepared is having a home survival kit that will help you and your family ride out whatever disasters come your way.

To help build a survival kit on a budget, we turned to Red Cross volunteer Deb Crosby. In her working years, she helped food giant H.J. Heinz keep its worldwide operations running in the face of natural disasters and other challenges. She retired from Heinz in 2010 and volunteered at the Red Cross where she now teaches preparedness.

First question you must answer is how long a period you should plan for. “Your survival kit must last for at least three days, but 14 days is better and a month is best,” says Crosby. Three days would get you through a power outage or maybe a bad winter storm that shuts roads and stops food deliveries. A damaging earthquake could easily shut things down for as long as 14 days. A quake involving the Cascadia Subduction Zone could leave you on your own for a month and maybe more.

So, what should be in your survival kit? Crosby lists seven must-have items — and suggests ways of collecting them that won’t crash the household budget.

Deb Crosby is a Disaster Preparedness Volunteer Lead in the Northwest Region

Water. “You can go for a few days without food, but you must have water,” says Crosby. The recommended standard is a gallon a day per person, with enough to supply family needs for 14 days. You could buy enough cases of bottled water to fill your needs. A far cheaper way, says Crosby, is to take every container you have — soda bottles, juice containers and the like — and fill them with water. “Clean them thoroughly, and don’t use any containers that held milk or dairy products,” she says. Another suggestion is to add a drop or two of chlorine bleach to re-used bottles, as normal plastic is not safe long-term.

First Aid Kit. “First responders will be busy dealing with major injuries,” says Crosby. “You need to take care of minor injuries yourself.” Building your own kit could cost plenty, but Crosby says adequate kits can be found online or at drug stores for as little as $12.

Food. You obviously want food that will last and is easy to prepare, but you also want items that don’t weigh a lot in case you must evacuate your home. That would argue against lots of canned items. Crosby suggests things such as noodles and protein bars. And don’t forget your favorite treat, like chocolate. You don’t have to build your stockpile all at once. Keep on your budget by adding a bit more each week until you reach your goal. “Hold down costs by going to Walmart or dollar stores or bulk food stores,” she says.

Most food items have a “sell by” date. “Check every six months to make sure you don’t have items that have timed out,” Crosby says. Use your emergency stockpile only in genuine emergencies. Resist the temptation to dip in when you want something for tonight’s dinner.

You will need something for heating water. Crosby suggests an inexpensive camp stove, but says you can make your own stove with a large tin can and Sterno. Cabela’s — the sporting goods chain — offers a portable folding stove online, using Sterno, for $5.99. Don’t forget pets in building your emergency food and water supply. Finally, you’ll want a manual can opener for any cans in your stockpile.

Medications. Have enough of your “must have” medications to last for at least two weeks. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about managing medications, such as insulin, that need to be refrigerated. If you use oxygen, do you have a planned fallback if the power goes out?

Build your emergency supply of medications by setting aside a pill or two each time you get a new 30-day supply. Crosby suggests setting aside one pill from each new delivery, Next month, put that pill back and take out two pills. The month after, put back the two pills and take out three. You will gradually build up your emergency supply while making sure all the meds are fresh and still effective.

Battery-powered radio. Assume that a disaster will knock out electrical power for days, even weeks. Use a battery powered radio to keep up with the latest warnings and evacuation notices. Crosby sees no need to pay extra for a radio that carries NOAA weather broadcasts. Basic AM-FM battery radios sell for as little as $10 at Walmart, Target, Amazon and elsewhere.

Flashlight. Everyone in the family should have a working flashlight. Keep it readily accessible since disaster could strike at night, forcing you to descend stairs in the dark. Make sure there are enough batteries for both the radio and the flashlight. Avoid rechargeable batteries, since you won’t be able to recharge them if the power is out.

Cash in small denominations. If power goes out, ATM machines won’t function. Still, you may be able to make small purchases such as food from a roadside stand. Have enough small bills and coins to spend when there are things to buy. One suggestion from Crosby is to put aside all the quarters you get in change. They could come in handy in an emergency.

That’s only a start, of course. Beyond that, make copies of all important documents — birth certificates, passports, medical records, car title, insurance policies, record of vaccinations. You will need copies of all pet vaccinations to bring the animal into a kennel or shelter. A multi-purpose tool would help you shut down water and gas lines. A whistle could lead rescuers to you if you have been trapped by the emergency. An assortment of books and games could help amuse the kids until the emergency ends. Finally, don’t forget to stockpile enough sanitation and personal hygiene supplies to tide you over until stores reopen.

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