Remember that weird wind storm that hit DC in late June? The one with the name nobody on the East Coast had ever heard--the derecho. It knocked a million people off the grid for about a week. I've got a lot of family down there. One of them had to pack out in the dark to get her two young children and ailing mother out of the 104 degree heat wave before the rush of fellow blackout refugees hit the interstates. Another, age 80, ended up hospitalized for pneumonia after he tried to shelter in place. They were all sort of prepared, for some kinds of emergencies. They're smart, resourceful people, and all of them got through okay. The experiences they had kind of sucked, though, and sometimes in avoidable ways. Every time I called to check on how they were doing, I thought to myself, My household is not ready for hurricane season. What will I do with my two tiny kids if Jersey gets another storm as big as Irene?
As big as Irene. Well.
After the derecho, Barnes & Noble had its topical display of disaster preparedness books by the cafe--the cafe where my children aren't, where I don't have to clean anything, and therefore where I get a bit of writing done at the end of a typical teaching night. I bought a few survival manuals, read them, and implemented some of their suggestions. That handful of changes in household inventory and habit has made it possible for us to shelter in place in relative comfort and good spirits through Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath so far.
The most important of the books was Kathy Harrison's Just in Case: How to Be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens". As most disaster preparedness gurus seem to be, she's slightly nutty, and quite open and cheerful about it. She aims to have a year's supply of food and water on hand in her house, and her descriptions of what she's done to approach that goal are wryly funny. Her voice is friendly and neighborly while she explains how to protect your children from things like chemical warfare. Though a few passages and chapters seem a tad over the top to me, her general readiness recommendations for what to assemble, how to organize and acquire it, and how to rotate the perishable bits, have saved my ass. Her suggestions about how to pace yourself through the acquisition to avoid financial shock were immensely helpful, too. We went into the storm with a five-day supply of drinking water, and a four day supply of just about everything else we really needed. Only now that the stores in our area have their supply chains working again are we starting to run out of stuff.
It helps that our house is on high ground, nowhere near any major bodies of water. It also helps that Dan gets a kick out of lopping questionable limbs off the trees in our yard with his 16-foot pruning saw, so none of our trees caught enough wind to damage anything. Sheltering in place actually made sense for us. If we'd lived somewhere more flood-prone or with bigger trees, we'd have gotten more use out of the next book on my list.
Creek Stewart's Build the Perfect Bug-Out Bag: Your 72-Hour Disaster Survival Kit balances the universal needs (water, shelter, food) with regionally specific needs (clothing for Arizona, clothing for Maine), and special cases (evacuating with children, elders, pets, wheelchair-bound people, etc.). He's a relatively practical survivalist: as far as I can tell, he has actually tested every item he recommends, and he won't tell you to do something dumb like flee to the nearest state forest to starve indefinitely in a cold tent among hundreds of thousands of your new heavily armed friends. (There are books that suggest you do that kind of thing. I didn't buy any of those.) I assembled emergency packs bit by bit, starting by organizing the camping gear Dan and I used to use before the kids. Weeks before Sandy came around, I had everything I could possibly need--and far more than I actually ended up needing--in three big bags near the front door.
Had I lived in Sea Bright, or had a tree fallen through my roof, I can only imagine what a difference that could have made. With our much smaller share of misfortune, I was plenty glad enough to be able to find all my backup light sources in the dark when the electricity went out and the kids started to panic. Within one minute we had headlamps, hand-cranked flashlights, an LED lantern, and glowsticks. And that's what we used for the next four days.
One reason I knew I needed to read Creek Stewart's book is that I'd read a bunch of Jim MacDonald's emergency preparedness posts on the magnificent blog Making Light, and particularly remembered this one about what to pack for an evacuation.
I also owe some thanks to The Prepper's Pocket Guide: 101 Easy Things You Can Do to Ready Your Home for a Disaster, by Bernie Carr. Carr digresses to get to his 101 things, which is odd, because he could just have broken down some of his large items into sub-sections and reached the same arbitrary number with a more focused book. That said, he puts readiness for financial disaster right at the beginning, to dissuade his readers from running out and spending all of their emergency savings on emergency gear at once (and you know some people would). He also emphasizes that the first thing to do to ready your house for an emergency is to declutter, because it doesn't matter what you have if you can't find it. Though the book has some shortcomings, I do plan to reread it now that I have a real disaster fresh in mind.
While I'm on the subject of who and what saved our bacon, I should also mention my awesome neighbors across the street. Their home generator gave everyone on the block a warm place to go for coffee. They took in my family's tankful of tropical fish when we realized the lack of a working filter, heater, and bubbler was about to get dire. They never lost internet, so I was able to make my weekly Black Gate blog post on time. Before the storm, there were a lot of different election yard signs in a lot of different yards. During and after the storm, there was just kindness and cooperation. There were places, other places, in New Jersey where people rioted over gasoline, or looted, or shoved one another to buy the last pack of batteries. I hesitate to judge people in those situations, because I've been spared all that this time. But when you've had enough of the gloomy headlines, please allow yourself to picture this: a living room packed with people drinking sparkling cider toasts to their hosts, voices raised only so their thanks can be heard over the rumble of the generator.