When the subject of emergency preparedness comes up in our home state of California, the focus is almost always on earthquakes and, more recently, wildfires. The discussion is not about if one will happen, but when. Similar conversations could — probably should — be going on in almost any part of the United States, with the only difference being the type of natural disaster most likely to occur. In the Southeast, the topic would be hurricanes, in the Plains states, tornadoes, in the Northeast, blizzards and ice storms, and in the Midwest (and elsewhere), floods. Unfortunately, there’s also the possibility of manmade disasters, which can happen anywhere.
There are two ways to react to the knowledge that some day, a disaster or emergency situation will happen in your area. One is to not do anything and to either worry about what will happen or deny that you could possibly be affected. The second is to prepare, just in case you are affected. Obviously, the second option is more likely to keep you healthy in the long term, and it may help you to feel calmer and more secure now, too.
Emergency preparedness is important for everyone, and when you have diabetes, it requires that much more planning and gathering of supplies. However, it being human nature to procrastinate, many people (maybe even you?) are not fully — or even partially — prepared to deal with having to leave home in a hurry or to survive at home for several days with no power, no running water, a limited ability to communicate with others, and no way to buy groceries or get to a pharmacy.
With preparation, however, you can survive — and maintain diabetes control — under such circumstances. This article presents some basics for collecting and storing the supplies you’ll need to be self-sufficient if necessary. (Click here to learn about some government agencies that can help you prepare for and deal with disasters.)
Where to stock supplies
Before making a list of the supplies you’ll need to prepare for an emergency, think of the various places you may need them. These would be the places where you and members of your family would likely be — and may likely be stuck — when an emergency happens.
The most common locations are in your home, car, workplace, or school. For your home and car, you’ll want to build an emergency kit that includes water, food, first-aid supplies, prescription medicines and diabetes care needs, personal hygiene items, one or more communication devices, and sources of warmth, shelter, and lighting. Keep your home kit in a location that will not likely be obstructed or damaged in an emergency. For example, if the most likely disaster to strike your area is a flood, do not store your emergency kit in the basement.
It’s also a good idea to keep a smaller collection of these items in a “go bag” that you can grab quickly if it becomes necessary to leave your home in a hurry.
Ask your workplace and your children’s school(s) if they have an emergency plan of action and appropriate supplies for their staff and students. Most states have requirements for school emergency management planning, but it doesn’t hurt to ask to make sure a school is in compliance. If a school or workplace doesn’t have a plan or supplies in place, recommend that they get prepared — and offer to help. Until that location is adequately prepared, keep a complete emergency supply kit there as well. If the school or workplace has a plan with adequate supplies, you need only supplement it with your unique needs, such as diabetes supplies.
How much to stock
The rule of thumb is to have, at a minimum, a three-day supply of necessities. Depending on the scope of the disaster, it could easily take that long for assistance to reach your area, and, as was the case for many people caught in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it could take longer. Assume that you will be on your own without running water, power, or community assistance.
To calculate how much water, food, and other necessities you will need, multiply the daily amount required per person by the number of days that you are preparing for. Then multiply that number by the number of people likely to be at that location when the emergency hits. (For example, 1200 calories x 3 days x 4 people.) Do not forget to consider your pets in your calculations.
Because food, water, medicines, batteries, and other supplies don’t last forever, you will need to check, replace, or replenish your emergency supplies at least once a year. To improve the odds that you won’t be caught with foul water or rotten food, stock up with supplies that have the longest shelf life possible. There is water and food that is specially packed so that it can be stored for five years or longer.
Many medicines do not have a long shelf life. It is important to make sure that you always have an unexpired supply of the medicines you use.
A person cannot survive for more than a few days without water. This makes water the most important item in your disaster survival kit, particularly since your normal water source is highly likely to be cut off following a disaster.
The American Red Cross recommends storing one gallon of water per person per day. Half of that is for drinking, and half for cooking and sanitation. Store more than that if you live in a warm climate. A two-week supply in your home and a three-day supply in your car is optimal.
The simplest and most reliable method is to use specially packed emergency water that has a five-year shelf life. You can also use regular bottled water, but it will need to be replaced about once a year. Although most experts agree that bottled water doesn’t actually go “bad,” it does pick up flavors from its packaging and can develop a musty taste.
Learn where to find other sources of water in or near your home. A hot water tank, if you have one, is one of the best sources. There is also water in canned foods, in fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and in your pipes. To get to water in your pipes after the faucets have run dry, turn on and leave open the highest faucet in your house. Then turn on the lowest faucet in your house, and more water should come out.
There is water in your toilet, but it must be purified for human consumption. Also consider rainwater, streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, or natural springs. Avoid water with floating material, an odor, or a dark color. Before drinking water from any of these sources, purify it by boiling it, distilling it, or adding chlorine or water purification tablets designed for purifying drinking water. (Faucet-mounted or pitcher-style water filters are not sufficient for purifying water from these sources. To learn more about purifying water, click here.) Camping equipment and sporting goods stores often sell water purification kits for backpackers. Saltwater can only be used if it is first distilled, and you should never drink flood water.
Daily food intake varies from person to person, but plan on stocking at least 1200 calories per person per day, and more than that for anyone who is pregnant or nursing. Store some foods that you eat regularly and are accustomed to, as well as some high-calorie “survival” foods such as food bars and freeze-dried meals. If you regularly use juice to treat hypoglycemia, make sure to include some in your emergency stock.
Foods that do not require refrigeration, preparation, or cooking are best. Canned goods are ideal, and foods with a long shelf life, such as granola bars, are good, too. Put any boxed foods in waterproof storage bags, and keep cooking and eating utensils, a manual can opener, and waterproof matches in your emergency kit, too. Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to do some cooking on a propane or charcoal grill, on a camping stove, or with Sterno.
Check your stored food each year, and replace anything that has expired or will expire within the year.
Be aware that most “survival” foods are high in calories and will likely raise your blood glucose more than “ordinary” meals. The stress of the situation can also elevate your blood glucose. If you need to sustain yourself with emergency foods, read the package labels carefully so you know what a single serving is, how many calories it provides, and how much carbohydrate it contains. If possible, monitor your blood glucose more frequently than usual.
In most of the United States, it can be cold for much of the year. If your electricity or gas is cut off, so, probably, is your usual source of warmth. If you have a fireplace, keep a stockpile of wood. This old-fashioned source of warmth could find sudden practicality in an emergency.
Pack blankets and sleeping bags in your kit. You can purchase inexpensive, very compact survival blankets made of Mylar, which reflects back body heat; these are easy to store in a car or “go bag.” Check any cloth emergency blankets yearly for mold or moth damage. Keep extra gloves and socks in your kit, as well, along with instant heat packs (usually available at camping or sporting goods stores).
Insulin and blood glucose meters are vulnerable to cold: If insulin freezes, it is rendered permanently useless, and meters can cease functioning in very cold temperatures. You may be able to keep your meter warm by placing it inside the clothing you are wearing. An insulated carrying case — the same type that’s used to keep insulin cool — can protect insulin from extreme cold.
Shelter and tools
It’s possible that your home may become damaged and uninhabitable in a disaster, so set up a buddy system with friends or relatives so that you’ll have someone you can stay with. Ideally, you should have a local buddy, as well as one who does not live in the geographic area. It’s best that the buddy system be reciprocal: That way, both parties stand to benefit.
You should also pack a tent or some tarps in your kit for short-term shelter. And your home kit should include basic tools such as a shovel, pry bar, hammer and nails, manual screwdriver and screws, duct tape, marking pen, hard hat, work gloves, safety goggles, dust masks, and a wrench that can be used to shut off your gas and water connections.
Become familiar with how to shut off your gas, water, and electricity. If you don’t know how, ask your local power company for help. In the event that you need to turn your gas off, do not turn it back on yourself. Your gas company will need to do that for you.
Power outages are common after a disaster. Be prepared with a flashlight in your emergency kit, your car, and in at least three rooms of your house. Test the batteries regularly, just as you should be doing with your smoke alarm.
The ideal flashlight for your emergency kit is one that can be powered by battery, electric, solar, or hand crank. In your home, keep a rechargeable flashlight in an outlet so that it is fully charged when the power goes out.
These days, many people have several ways of communicating, including a conventional telephone line (land line), cell phone (which can also be used to send text messages), and computer, personal digital assistant, or smart phone, on which e-mail and instant messages can be sent and received. Radios and televisions can also be useful for getting information about disasters and emergency situations.
While it is unlikely that all of these devices will become inoperable after a disaster, it is almost a certainty that cell phone towers will be jammed, and they may cease functioning if the power goes out.
So, what to do? Have a land line telephone that does not rely on electricity for power (one that plugs directly into the phone jack and not into a power outlet). Keep your cell phone charged at all times. If you can’t call, texting may work. You may have better luck with e-mail, so also keep your laptop charged. If you are lucky enough to reach (or to be reached) by someone outside the geographic area affected by the disaster, ask that person to spread whatever word you need spread, since you may not be able to call out again for some time.
Since it is likely you will have no means of outside communication for hours or days after a disaster, decide on a meeting place with your loved ones ahead of time. Also agree on a second meeting place in case your first choice is not reachable. If you leave your home following an emergency, leave a note on the door saying where you’ve gone and how to reach you. (Click here to find out about getting out in a hurry.)
Pack a radio in your emergency kit — one powered by solar, hand crank, or batteries, and be sure to pack some extra batteries along with it.
Sanitation and hygiene
The last thing you want to do during or after an emergency is to get sick or to spread a sickness through your household. The best way to avoid that is to keep your hands as clean as possible. If you have running water, wash your hands frequently with soap and water. If you don’t have water, use a waterless hand gel or moist towelettes. Keep a stock of these in your emergency kit.
Remember to include personal hygiene items such as a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, comb, brush, contact lens supplies, and feminine supplies in your emergency kit. Travel-size containers are good for stowing in your “go bag.”
Also keep a bucket, a portable toilet seat (available from emergency preparedness retailers), toilet paper, and a box of large trash bags in your home kit.
Maintain basic first-aid kits for your home, car, and workplace for treating minor injuries. Your first-aid kits should include the following items:
- Adhesive bandages of various sizes
- A 50 x 90 sterile dressing
- Gauze roller bandages
- 30 x 30 or 40 x 40 sterile gauze pads
- Elastic bandages
- Antibacterial hand wipes
- Antiseptic wipes (for wound or skin cleaning)
- Several pairs of nonlatex gloves
- Adhesive tape
- Antibacterial ointment
- Cold packs
- CPR breathing barrier
Include small amounts of any over-the-counter medicines you might want, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, an antihistamine, and throat lozenges. Look through your kits each year to replace expired or soon-to-expire items.
It is vital that you have an adequate amount of diabetes medicines and supplies throughout an emergency. Have at least a three-day supply in each of your emergency kits, and never run lower than a one-week supply at home. If a medicine needs to be kept cool, however, do not store it in your emergency kit; keep it in the refrigerator (both at home and at work).
Your list of diabetes medicines and supplies will likely include all or some of the following:
- Extra insulin(s)
- Extra glucose meter
- Test strips
- Lancets and lancing device
- Insulin pump supplies
- Extra batteries for your blood glucose meter and pump
- A glucagon kit
- Ketone test strips
- Alcohol wipes
- Glucose tablets or gel
Since insulin needs to be kept at a temperature below 86°F, be prepared with a method of keeping it cool in the event of a prolonged power outage in hot weather. One option is to have an evaporative cooler such as a FRIO insulin cooling wallet, which is activated by water, keeps insulin cool for two days, is reusable, and does not require ice packs or refrigeration. If you don’t have a FRIO wallet, use an insulated bag or lunchbox with a cold pack, ice, or frozen food from your freezer. (Don’t place your insulin directly on a cold pack, ice, or frozen food.)
Your emergency kit should include copies of all of your prescriptions (including glasses or contact lenses) and a current dosage regimen in case others need to give your medicines to you. For pump users, this should include basal rates, insulin-to-carbohydrate ratios, and correction factors. If you subscribe to a medical identification service, include a printout of all of your information. Put this information in a ziplock bag.
Take action now
Even a simple power outage can turn into a dangerous situation if you’re not prepared. But with adequate supplies of water, food, ways to keep warm (or cool), and supplies to take care of your diabetes, you can survive all sorts of situations and stay in good health while doing it.
Take some time now to assess how prepared you and members of your household are to survive on your own for a few days. Note what steps you need to take to become prepared, then take action. By putting together an emergency plan and an emergency kit today, you can enjoy peace of mind in the days ahead.