Jan 29

Are You Prepared for a Natural Disaster? 15 Prepping Tips

Student Debt Survivor Sandy

Water on the streets during hurricane Sandy

My past experiences with natural disasters

Have you ever lived through a natural disaster? I hope that you haven’t had to! Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve lived through several pretty big natural disasters including hurricane Sandy and the Ice Storm of 1998. The way that I experienced each of the disasters was pretty different based on where I was living (rural Maine and metro NYC) and the time of year that the weather even took place (the middle of winter and the late fall). I was a high school freshman living at home with my parents during the ice storm and I was an adult living with the bf in our 3rd floor condo during hurricane Sandy.

Growing up in rural Maine you learn to be pretty self-sufficient (“off the grid”) from an early age. Because my parents live so far away from “town” and the amenities that most folks would expect to find in a city, we learned to be a little creative and innovative when it comes to weather problems and solutions. The electricity went out a lot when I was living in Maine and, “back in the day” we didn’t have a generator. From snowstorms, to ice storms and thunderstorms, we were often without power for days and sometimes even weeks. During those times we were able to stay safe, sane (some people might debate this) and comfortable, because we were always well-prepared for disasters. Thanks to that early “training” I felt confident that we’d be OK when hurricane Sandy, “came to town” in 2012.

Although the supplies/things you’ll need during a disaster can vary widely based on the type of disaster, the time of year and your geographical location, many of the items you’ll need to meet your basic needs are largely the same. Having all of these things ready will save you money, time and frustration once the storm arrives.

15 tips for preparing for a natural disaster:

(**in no particular order)

  1. Carry cash.

    If you’re like me you almost never carry cash. This can be a real problem when the power goes off. Without electricity, nobody can run their credit card machines and you’re credit cards are worthless. I recommend having at least several hundred dollars in small denomination bills for buying essentials, bartering and getting out of town if you need to.

  2. Fuel up your car and generator.

    Keep your gas tank full and if possible have an extra tank of gas on hand (do not store the gas in your house!). Many gas stations didn’t have the ability to pump gas without electricity during hurricane Sandy. Imagine what a disaster this was and how long you had to wait in line at the few stations that had gas and had a way to pump it. If you have a generator make sure you have enough to run it for several days. Gas is obviously a hot commodity when there’s no power and gas prices will rise dramatically for anyone who needs it after the storm has passed.

  3. Stock up on non-perishable food.

    In the days leading up to the storm (if you have advanced notice), try to stock up the pantry with non-perishables. Canned beans, canned meat, peanut butter and other canned goods (fruits and vegetables) that can be eaten cold are good options. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to go to the store after the storm to buy goods. Everything you’ll need to sustain yourself (and your pets) for the duration of the storm should be in your home.

  4. Have a manual can opener.

    Seems silly, but if you only have the electric variety, that stockpile of canned goods isn’t going to be very accessible.

  5. Test flashlights and lanterns.

    You don’t want to wait until the middle of an emergency to find out that flashlight is broken or doesn’t have batteries. Oil lanterns and candles can be dangerous if you have pets or small kids. Consider buying battery powered or solar lantern. You can also purchase windup flashlights that don’t require batteries at all. We had one flashlight during hurricane Sandy that we shared (talk about inconvenient when Eric left for work in the morning and I didn’t have a flashlight all day at home).

  6. Have a battery powered radio.

    Public service announcements and warnings are often broadcasted over the radio during emergencies. There’s nothing more scary and frustrating than being without basic information during an emergency. You’ll want to know when the power is coming back, where the local shelters are, and when it’s safe to leave or stay in your home.

  7. Plan how you’re going to communicate with others.

    When the power goes out, your cordless phone will be useless. Even if you have a back-up “corded” phone, that won’t do you any good when the phone lines are down. Not being able to communicate with family, friends and your employer during an emergency is really frustrating and scary (you don’t know if they’re OK and they don’t know if you’re OK). Invest in a way to make your cell phone work during an emergency. From back up batteries, to solar powered chargers to hand cranked charging stations there are a bunch of ways to charge your phone without electricity.

  8. Buy batteries.

    Keep a good selection of all types. You’ll want batteries for your flashlights, electronics and radios. You never know when your smoke alarm or CO2 alarm will run low, and you certainly don’t want to be without either during an emergency. Side note-if you have electric smoke detectors and CO2 detectors make sure that they have battery backups. During a natural disaster gas lines might be broken or leaking and you don’t want to put yourself at risk.

  9. Find your matches and candles.

    Candles can be used both for light and for limited warmth. I have several big Yankee candles in glass jars at all times in our house. They are sturdy (won’t fall over like candle sticks), large (burn for a long time) and put off a decent amount of light. They’re also less dangerous for our pets because they’re in glass containers, which means less risk that our kitties cozy up to the candle and catch themselves on fire.

  10. Get out your blankets & hand warmers.

    If it’s winter, or you live in a cold climate you’ll want to have plenty of blankets and possibly those chemical hand warmers available. Even if it’s summer, or you live in a warm climate, you’d be surprised how cold it can get at night. Flannel sheets, down blankets and sleeping bags are good ways to stay toasty. I used all 3 during both emergencies to stay warm.

  11. Stock up on OTC and prescription medications.

    During hurricane Sandy I waited outside in a long line in the cold for 2 hours (and that wasn’t even a bad wait) to get inside CVS to pick up my prescription medication. Thankfully, I didn’t need that medication to live, so I could have gone without it, but some people aren’t that lucky. I’d also recommend having a copy of all of your most recent scripts that you can bring with you in case you have to leave the area or go to a different pharmacy. Keep in mind that computers will be down and your doctor may not be working or reachable by phone during an emergency. Also have a good first aid kit and plenty of the Over The Counter (OTC) medications that you might need during an emergency (pain relievers, stomach settlers etc.).

  12. Find your pet carriers.

    If you need to leave your home, you’ll want to be prepared to bring your pets. Leaving our pets during an emergency is not an option for us, so we always have their carriers ready to go when we anticipate an emergency. Most shelters will allow you to bring your pets if they are crated. So even if you don’t normally crate your dog, you’ll want to make sure that you have one for emergencies. For the safety and comfort of others most shelters impose a strict, “No crate, No Go!” policy.

  13. Keep important documents close by.

    Have your license, passport, birth certificate and other important paperwork handy and ready to go. I don’t have anything fancy for mine, a basic watertight zip-top bag does the job just fine. If I need to hop on a plane or get on a train, I don’t want to be fumbling around looking for these things in the dark. I also leave a copy with my mom, in case anything happens to my originals.

  14. Keep lots of water handy.

    Self-explanatory, but have plenty for drinking, washing, brushing your teeth etc. Water is likely the first thing you’ll run out of during an emergency. You don’t really think about how much water you use on a day-to-day basis until you don’t have access to it. If you live a high rise building in the city this is a particularly difficult problem to get around. Without elevators, you don’t want to be carrying around huge jugs of water. Some of the bigger housing projects in NYC had huge issues with lack of water during hurricane sandy. Fill up a bunch of bottles and your bathtub before the storm hits.

  15. Keep pepper spray or other means of protection.

    When people are hungry and scared they can be pretty unpredictable. There’s no telling what someone will do to provide for their families. Thankfully I’ve never been in a situation where things got that bad. But if I was, I’d want to have a way to protect myself. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating unprovoked violence, but if somebody is coming into my house trying to hurt my family, you can bet I’m going to fend them off.

Please share your experiences in the comments and let me know what I’m forgetting!


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  1. Anne @ Unique Gifter

    All great points. The cash thing is one I’ve been meaning to get to for months actually. I need to go get a bunch of $5 bills and stash them in one or two places. I would also like to remind people not to use camp stoves inside; without sufficient oxygen, people die of asphyxiation every time there is a natural disaster or prolonged power outage.

    1. KK

      I almost never carry cash, so Sandy was a real wake-up call for me. Thanks for sharing about camp stoves. During the most recent ice storm in Maine several people died from breathing in carbon monoxide. Really sad and really preventable!

  2. Holly@ClubThrifty

    We live in Indiana. Here, we mostly have flooding and tornadoes. I’m not sure there is any way to prepare for a tornado, but I am glad that we have one room in our new house that doesn’t have any exterior walls.

    1. KK

      Thankfully I’ve never experienced a tornado, they really scary me (I guess because there’s nothing you can do except for pray it doesn’t hit your house).

  3. Hayley @ A Disease Called Debt

    These are great tips KK. It’s a very scary thought having to prepare for a natural disaster. I live close to a river and we’ve almost been flooded a few times since we moved in a couple of years ago. I haven’t got half the stuff you outlined above, so I need to stock up!

    1. KK

      Flooding is so awful. The owners in the basement unit (we’re in a condo building) took all of their belongings out of their apartment right before Sandy, but the whole apartment flooded and all the floors, walls, cabinets etc. had to be ripped out. I felt horrible for them.

  4. E.M.

    These are all great tips to follow. I remember hurricane sandy gas lines all too well. I was really lucky to have my dad go out at around 1am to fill both my mom’s car and mine up. He had no line! Water, milk and bread are the first things people stock up on. I was using my phones car charger for a little, but my job at least had power. It was scary when you couldn’t get in touch with someone. My boyfriend didn’t have cell service, but he actually drove to my job and I was so relieved when I saw him.

    1. KK

      Very smart to try the late night gas run. Not being able to get in touch with friends and family during an emergency is so scary. I remember after 9/11 it was really hard to get in touch with people because the cell towers were overloaded.

  5. Mark Ross @moneysavingdude

    Great tips KK! Residing here in the Philippines, a place prone to typhoons, can really make you more nervous and more cautious when it comes to preparing for disasters. It really is better to be prepared than sorry, right?

    1. KK

      Definitely pays off to be prepared. Even if I never need half the stuff I have at least it gives me peace of mind.

  6. Alicia

    I’ve been meaning to get some cash on hand as well. I’m so reliant on plastic that honestly, I’d be screwed if there was a major power outage. I’ve been through my fair share of weather being just up the coast from you, so I’ve experienced the tail-ends of a lot of the Maine storms. Not fun. When I lived at my parents they had all this stuff set up. After one particularly bad storm back in 2003 we drove 2 hours to get a generator from my uncle (out of the storms radius). After that my parents had one hard-wired in – just flip a switch and go from the grid to our own power. The main reason for that is because we were lower than the street so the sewage had to be pumped up to the city’s lines… not fun to have to worry about sewage backups, that’s for sure!

    1. KK

      I’m so reliant on credit cards it’s not funny. I almost never have cash. My parents now have a generator hard wired too. With so many storms it just made sense to do it and not have to worry about it anymore. Sewage backups sound pretty awful. My parent’s septic system is also uphill from their house. Without the generator we couldn’t flush the toilet.

  7. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

    A topic near and dear to my heart, KK! Excellent and thorough list you have compiled here. One thing I might add is to have two manual can openers, in case one breaks. I’m writing more about that at Three Thrifty Guys next month. :-)

    1. KK

      That’s probably a good idea. I think we actually have two (now I’m going to have to go look out of curiosity). We actually don’t even own an electric can opener. We have limited counter space and I hate clutter. Looking forward to reading your post.

      1. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

        We don’t own an electric can opener either, and I don’t miss it for anything!

  8. ann

    These are really great tips – I’ve only experienced a couple of earthquakes and when SoCal didn’t have power for a day, but I caught myself nodding to your list when the latter occurred. There was so much traffic because all the lights weren’t working, and most places were gridlocked and couldn’t get gas to get to their loved ones. Ever since, I’ve been more mindful to carry a head lamp, snacks, medicine, and gas in the car.

    1. KK

      Earthquakes are totally terrifying to me. We had a little one here a few years back and even that was scary. We don’t have snacks in the car but I’m thinking about buying a few granola bars and whatnot, just in case.

  9. C. the Romanian

    Oh, my, God. Are there electrical can openers? Man, Romania is decades behind civilized world!

    Anyway, I am a big fan of Doomsday Preppers, even though I don’t really believe that there’s an apocalypse coming soon, and I totally agree with the idea of being prepared. Although water is pretty difficult, in my case, to have stacked up at all times, everything else is on the “to do” list, if not already done. Minus the electrical can opener. Don’t have one and if in need, I can easily open a can using a knife. I’m a sort of a Superman :))

    1. KK

      Lol, there are. We don’t own one, but I grew up with one.

      I like watching doomsday preppers, but it does make me a little neurotic. I’d love to see you open a can with a knife. That’s some skill! Maybe do a u tube video or something?

  10. Andrew@LivingRichCheaply

    Haha, I’m with C….electrical can openers?! In any case, I used to have a flashlight in my car but due to the weather I think the batteries would drain and one time, it leaked and sealed the battery lid or whatever it is. No point having a flashing light if it doesn’t work. I bought a hand-crank flashlight which has a built in radio. It’s great and was pretty cheap on amazon.

    1. KK

      I didn’t know manual can openers existed until I was camping one time. I think they are foolish, but my mom always had one. She has arthritis now so it makes sense. We have a bunch of handcrack flashlights and now a radio. We got ours at LLbean. It’s nice not to have to worry about the batteries.

  11. Broke Millennial

    I need so many of these! All over the candles one and don’t have a car so can ignore the gas. When Hurricane Sandy was heading our way I filled up every available device with water. Pots, left over pasta jars, every cup and bottle I owned. I was fortunate enough to be in Astoria though and didn’t even lose power.

    1. KK

      Start small, I didn’t have most of these when I started either. Thankfully none of them are that expensive. I’m glad Sandy missed Astoria. I have a few friends out that way and they were fine too.

  12. Demaish @ Borrowed Cents

    I think you covered most tips. And from what we saw in Atlanta, keeping you car full tank would be advisable when weather is bad.

    1. KK

      Yeah, that was a crazy storm. Who knew a few inches of snow could send everybody into a panic? I guess the South just isn’t geared up for snow the way we are here.

  13. DC @ Young Adult Money

    Really solid tips. I think #1 should be having an adequate water supply. Having that reserve of water is the first thing that people should pursue when preparing. I admit that I do not have one right now and this article just might have given me enough motivation to buy some extra water and start preparing. I read a book about how to prepare for disasters and whatnot and I really have no excuse not to be prepared.

    1. KK

      I guess I didn’t really think about order when I wrote the list (which would have made total sense). #1 is definitely the water, without water you’ll die after a few days. Without the other stuff you’ll probably just be uncomfortable. I’m going to put a disclaimer in the post now to clarify the tips aren’t in order of importance. Thanks :-)

  14. jim

    Great article. We live in Colorado and have had more than our share of serious blizzards (and floods) out here. A few years ago we got 7 feet of snow in 2 days. It took down the electrical and gas lines. I was driving at the time it hit. Traffic was crazy as were the roads! Now I keep a few candles (in glass) with a couple of boxes of stick matches in zip-lock bags (you’d be surprised how much heat they can give off in a car), bottled water, hand warmers, granola bars and ski clothes in my car at all times.

    1. KK

      Oh wow, if you live in a climate like Colorado it totally makes sense to carry water and candles and hand warmers in your car. If you get stuck in a snowstorm you’d be in a real bad situation with no heat. I hadn’t thought of keeping candles in the car, but that makes a lot of sense. I’m going to bring that up to my mom and dad (who live in rural Maine where something like that could happen)

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