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June 10, 2009 > Are you good to go?

Are you good to go?

Emergency preparedness for an evacuation

By Alyson Whitaker

When Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast in early September 2006, I had just given birth to our third child. I sat riveted to the news, watching thousands of people evacuate. Many left with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Watching the coverage, I tried to put myself in the position of the evacuees. Would I be prepared to leave my home in a similar emergency? I promised myself that I would make it a priority to put together an evacuation pack.

As of last week, nearly three years later, my eight 5-gallon water jugs were still sitting empty in the attic collecting dust. The backpacks that should house food, water, a change of clothes and other necessities for our family of five were buried under a pile of winter coats in a little-used closet.

I know I am not alone in my level of un-preparedness. While it may feel overwhelming, it does not have to be. Break it down and tackle it a piece at a time.

A hurricane is improbable here in California. A landslide, wildfire, or earthquake would more likely create a need to evacuate, with little or no warning. Pack a portable emergency "Go-Kit," so that if an emergency strikes, you can pick up the kit and go. Government resources are rarely available in the first 72 hours following a disaster.

Start with the essentials. The first must-haves in your kit are food and water. Pack several small containers of water, rather than one large one. Make sure you have nutritious foods that can withstand temperature variations and keep for a year. Rotate your supply to avoid passing an expiration date. Choose familiar foods that are ready to eat. This is not the time to try out freeze-dried stroganoff on your 5-year old.

A change of clothes and shoes, small first-aid kit, flashlight, blanket, and other essentials should also be included. Modify your kit to include special needs, a copy of prescriptions, diapers, baby formula, or other necessities. A suggested checklist and recommendations for older and disabled adults or pet owners are available online at, under "Personal Emergency Preparedness".

Add the extras. Thinking back to Katrina, with thousands displaced in a makeshift shelter, I realized I needed more than the basics. My three children often complain of boredom while driving eight minutes to the grocery store. What would happen if we were out of our house, away from their usual sources of entertainment, for an extended period of time? I'd likely lose my mind.

For families with children, a deck of cards or other small game, paper/pencils/crayons and a new book or two, could go a long way toward keeping everyone occupied and entertained in what is likely to be a stressful situation. Each of my children has a special blanket for sleeping. Trying to fall asleep in a strange place could potentially be a challenge. While I don't have duplicate blankets, I can put in something familiar for each child to snuggle with as a reminder of home.

Next, plan for the adults. What helps you relax? Is it a piece of chocolate? A crossword puzzle? An automotive repair manual? A novel you haven't had time to read? Sit back and think about it. Then add it to your kit.

Alameda County has great resources available to help residents prepare for an emergency. The county will host a free "Emergency Preparedness" session for groups of 12 or more. The presentation takes just under an hour and shows how easy it is to put together a "Go-Kit" for your family. "Be Safe, Be Secure, Be Prepared." The discussion is targeted primarily towards older adults, but the information can be applicable to all ages.

Packing up our own "Go-Kits" this past week, I realized that being physically prepared for an emergency is not as daunting as I thought it would be. While I hope that I'll never have to use the packs that are now sitting on an easy-to-reach shelf in the garage, I have great peace of mind knowing that they are there, just in case.

If you would like to host an Emergency Preparedness discussion session, contact Colleen Campbell, at the Alameda County Public Health Department, 510-577-3535.

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