Report after report comes in about how many people couldn’t or didn’t escape the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. More reports come in about the disorganized relief effort, the communications problems they’re having and the difficulty in getting survivors to safety even when they are reachable by rescue personnel.
Hopefully, few of us will ever be caught in such a widespread and devastating disaster as Hurricane Katrina. But should a natural or man-made disaster threaten your family or force an evacuation, having a fully-stocked and easily-reached emergency “bug-out” bag could help save your life during the first stages, and help make rescue, recovery and a return to normalcy easier and more successful.
A bug-out bag is basically a duffle bag or other easy to carry luggage piece stocked with the following items:
- Photocopies of important documents such as birth certificates, drivers’ licenses and so on for the entire family. Note: keep the originals in a safe deposit box or other safe place – non-notarized photocopies cannot generally be used for official actions like getting a drivers license, but are more than fine for temporary ID in emergency situations. And don’t forget insurance papers and other items you might need to begin rebuilding.
- A small sum of cash ($20-50) for immediate emergency use.
- A temporary supply of prescription drugs in their originally-labeled containers, regularly rotated for freshness. This is easily done by buying one refill ahead. As you finish your current package or bottle, take the next one out of the bag and replace with a newly purchased refill.
- A supply of meal replacement and energy bars. Look for items that are designed more for calorie and nutrient density, such as protein bars and hikers’ meal bars, rather than those sold as snack products or candy bar substitutes. You can also include dried foods or hiking meals and other lightweight, easy to prepare and eat items such as nuts, small candies and oatmeal packs.
- A water purification kit or hiker’s filter system. Bottled water is bulky, heavy and goes stale quickly. Dirty water, while distasteful, can often be easily found, roughly filtered through cloth to remove large particulate matter and then sterilized for safe drinking. In a worst-case scenario, boiling dirty water for 15 minutes will serve until alternatives can be found.
- A pre-paid phone card and a list of relatives, friends and emergency numbers. Check for expiration date and rotate out or renew as needed.
- A non-battery-dependent, rechargeable flashlight, radio and cell phone charger, if you have a phone (alternatives include solar, squeeze-charge or kinetically charged options). Even when phone service was available, many Katrina survivors could not call out to get help or update relatives because their phones were dead and there was no power. Keep in mind also that even when phone service is spotty, small text messages can sometime get through.
- A multi-tool (the kind with blades, pliers, screwdrivers and so on) for taking care of small but sometimes life-or-death repairs and jury-rigs.
- A small first aid kit containing at least bandages of various sizes, antiseptic ointment, sunscreen, a bottle of contact lens saline solution (good for cleaning injuries and flushing eyes) and OTC pain relievers.
- A safety lighter and a few small candles. Never light these unless you are sure that there is no chance of an explosion from natural gas, propane or other leaking fuels. For safety, use your flashlight for your primary light source. Save the lighter and candles for starting cooking or heating fires.
- An indelible, waterproof black permanent marker (buy new and keep in package until needed, to maintain freshness). Useful for many things including leaving notes for rescuers or others on whatever is at hand, marking your gear at a shelter, and writing ID and medical info on the arms of kids, the elderly, the ill or anyone who may become separated or are unable to speak for themselves. (There are also white markers that can be used for darker-skinned individuals, or simply write on a lighter area of their body). Sturdy hospital or nightclub-style ID bracelets are also handy for this purpose. Note: there is always danger in having children’s ID plainly visible to strangers. Use your best judgment in each situation to weigh the various benefits and concerns.
- Don’t forget the pets! Keep their carriers handy, clean and ready to go. Your kit should have any food, medications, leashes and important papers necessary for them, as well. Not all evacuation shelters will take animals. If you have pets, it is important that you know ahead of time where they can go and how you will take care of them in an emergency.
The bag should be checked and the edibles or expirables rotated at least every 6 months or as needed (schedule a regular check during daylight savings changeovers, when you also check your smoke alarm batteries and do other seasonal activities). Although this will cover most survival situations, you should customize it to fit your needs (toiletries, special gear, food additives, small paperback books, etc). Just keep in mind the weight and size of the final kit and that in an emergency situation you may have to carry it for a long time over rough terrain while tired, hungry or even injured.
Your bug-out kit should be placed near the main entrance and exit, or in an easy-to-reach central location. Every member of the family should know where it is and to make sure it is part of any emergency evacuation. (It is important to stress, however, that no one ever go after any item, even the emergency bag, in the case of a house fire. In that case, focus only on getting out as soon as you can.) Smaller versions of this bag can also be kept in offices and vehicles.
Although having a bug-out kit cannot guarantee your safety, it goes a long way toward ensuring that you and your family have the best chance possible of making it through any unforeseen emergency as healthy and safe as possible.