How to prepare your family for a disaster

By on December 30, 2011
Photo © Elena Derevtsova
Do you ever wonder how your family would escape if your home was engulfed in flames? How about if a chemical spill in your community forced you to evacuate to a shelter with your children? If an earthquake shook your town, leaving your family trapped in your house without power or water, could you cope?

In the event of a widespread disaster, such as a virus outbreak or severe flooding, emergency responders might not be able to reach you for several days. How well you prepare and how much you practice will determine how successfully you deal with and recover from disasters.  

“It’s absolutely essential that parents become their own advocates in terms of emergency preparedness, and learn how to take care of themselves,” insists Hal Newman, Executive Director of the National Emergency Management Resource Centre (NEMRC), and father of 13-year-old twin girls.  

If you aren’t prepared, keeping your children calm when fleeing your home or being housed in a shelter will present big challenges, adds Newman.   Here are several ways to prepare for a disaster:

1. Think about how your family’s needs should be addressed in an emergency.   
“Find 10 minutes of quiet time, and write out what you need to take care of your family,” advises Newman.  Devise a system to signal for help if phones and electricity are down. Consider purchasing a generator for emergency power.

2. Pack an emergency kit and Go Bag stocked with supplies tailored to your family’s specific needs. Store them in an accessible location so you can easily grab
them as you’re fleeing your home.  
Your kit should contain enough non-perishable food, water, medication and supplies to sustain your family for at least three days. You don’t need to collect everything at once, notes Newman; pick up items while grocery shopping, and set them aside in a backpack. “Leaving your home is a high trauma, high stress situation,” says Newman.

“In an emergency, little things make a huge difference, so having a box of Kraft Dinner or a favourite stuffed animal in your kit is a great idea, because you’re bringing along an element from home.”

3. Plan for disasters that could happen in your neighbourhood.  
Emergency preparedness is about giving thought to the unthinkable. Fire is the most likely risk that families are going to face. Ask yourself: Do you have hydro lines or electrical towers above your house that might fall on it? Are there propane manufacturers or suppliers in your neighborhood? Look at both man-made risks as well as weather or acts of nature, and make specific plans about what you would do if that actually happens.
4. Develop an escape route in case of fire, and practice it with your family until it becomes instinctive.   “There’s no point in saying, ‘We’re going to go out the back door’, then stack up all your recycling bins there because you forgot,” says Newman, who suggests practicing at least once a month. Keep a pair of shoes within easy reach, and decide in advance where your family can evacuate through.

5. Do some community outreach of your own.
 “If you don’t know your neighbors, now’s a really good chance to get to know them,” concludes Newman. “Say, ‘If ever there’s an emergency, could you check in on us?’ It’s incredibly low-tech.”

Non-perishable food
First-aid supplies
Lighter or waterproof matches
Your family’s current medical information and prescriptions
Portable radio
Change of clothing
Personal hygiene items
Photocopies of identification papers and other important documents (ie. passport, bank book, wills, insurance)
Back-up power, such as a generator for electrical medical equipment
Current photos and ID papers of children, in case of separation
List of potential guardians and other contacts in case of separation.


US Embassy in Japan

American Red Cross’ Preparedness Fast Facts:

Helping children cope with disaster:

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