Preparing for disaster on a tight budget

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Disaster prep is easy if you have lots of money. Here's some advice in case you don't

How can Americans lose water, electricity, or other vital utilities through no fault of their own? Let me count the ways: tornado, derecho, El Niño, nor'easter, hurricane, tropical storm, thunderstorm, windstorm, rainstorm, snowstorm, ice storm, hailstorm, earthquake, volcano, lightning strike, water-main break, sinkhole, chemical spill, random bad drivers crashing into utility poles, and additional options I can't currently recall.

The point is that no matter who you are or where you live, you should always be prepared for the chance that your power, water or other vital utilities might disappear for awhile, possibly without prior warning.

When you search online for information about emergency food storage, emergency power sources, disaster preparedness, or similar topics, the results are usually cluttered by pages catering to so-called “preppers” or “survivalists” -- people preparing for the possibility that modern civilization will fall and its life-sustaining amenities permanently go away.

Not that there's anything wrong with preparing to live entirely “off the grid,” if you want and can afford to do so. But full-fledged off-grid living is vastly more expensive than preparing for a temporary disruption, which is why those survivalist-prepper sites aren't necessarily useful for people simply trying to make it though a relatively brief storm-generated power outage or similar problem.

Surviving without utilities

Like more and more Americans these days, over the past few years I've weathered several storms resulting in days or even weeks of weather-generated utility loss. I spent a cold wintry week without heat or electricity after the Halloween blizzard of 2011 killed the power to more than half the state of Connecticut. This happened a mere two months after Hurricane Irene knocked out the power to more than half the state, which happened only a couple weeks before some unnamed mid-September rainstorms brought down power lines and washed out roads all throughout my own city.

Capable of taking a hint, I moved to northern Virginia the following summer and hadn't even lived there a full week before that monster “derecho” storm of 2012 walloped the region and — you guessed it! — knocked down power lines for miles in every direction. I've trudged  through a handful of shorter outages since then.

The one good thing about repeated utility disruptions is that trial and error makes you progressively better at handling each one. It also drives home the lesson that the time to prepare your emergency kit is right now, before you think you'll need it, because once you know for certain that a power-killing disaster is headed your way, the local stores have already sold out of everything useful.

Storm preparation essentially falls into two categories: steps you must take to protect your home itself from being damaged or destroyed, and preparations necessary to live in your home after some or all of its utilities are cut off.

My colleague Stacey Cohen has already explained how to protect your house from a storm. Once you've done that, living in the house after the storm but before utilities are restored requires additional preparation.

Preparing your emergency supplies

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, recommends that every American have a disaster-supplies kit capable of sustaining your household for three days. FEMA still promotes this three-day rule more than 10 years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans and demonstrated that in the event of a real catastrophe, a mere three days' worth of supplies won't be remotely enough. I personally keep at least a seven-day supply for my own household, and recommend you meet the same minimum.

But what necessities (and even luxuries) should that seven-day kit contain?

Emergency power generation

If you have the money to buy a generator, dedicated outdoor space where you can safely operate it, and additional space to safely store the fuel, then buying a generator might be a good option for you. But it generally isn't a safe option for apartment or condo-dwellers, even those with outdoor balconies or tiny fenced-in backyards. I've muddled through my various electrical power outages without one.

Emergency lighting: lanterns, flashlights, or candles?

Even with a home power generator, you'll still want battery-operated flashlights and lanterns. The cost of their batteries is far cheaper than the cost of fuel to run a generator to power regular home electric lights.

If you need to light your path while navigating through a large, dark space – such as walking outside at night when all the streetlights are dead – then a flashlight is better than a lantern. Flashlights focus their light in one direction whereas lanterns shine everywhere, including in your own eyes, which wrecks your night vision and makes it much harder for you to see whatever's in the darkness beyond the lantern-light.

For lighting a room the reverse is true: a lantern shining in all directions is better than a flashlight illuminating a single spot.

Of course, candles and oil lamps can also be used for lighting, but they are fire hazards and also generate a good deal of heat (which can be useful in a wintertime blackout, but unpleasant in the summer).

Battery storage

Most LED flashlights and lanterns these days are powered by lithium-ion “button” batteries, though you can still find some powered by alkaline batteries (usually AA, AAA, C or D-cell). Alkaline batteries are far more prone to corrosion than button batteries, especially in humid climates. That's why you should never store emergency radios, lights, fans, or other appliances with their alkaline batteries in them. (I accidentally ruined a very nice battery-powered camp lantern because I foolishly forgot this rule, stored the lantern with its D-cells in place, and some months later discovered nasty green corrosion had completely destroyed the lantern's battery compartment.)

Now I keep my battery-operated appliances in a dedicated emergency-storage box, with any pre-used batteries in plastic sandwich bags duct-taped to the appliances: this radio was powered by the two D-cells in the attached baggie, that fan by the four attached D-cells, and so forth.

Do not “mix and match” batteries. Different items drain battery power at different rates, which is why you must, for example, make sure that the two D-cells you used in your radio are henceforth only used in that radio, not in the D-cell lantern or fan, and vice-versa.

Water storage, when money and space are limited

If you're in an area where a hurricane's forecast to strike, the authorities will urge you to fill bottles and jugs with water now, in case storm runoff contaminates or cuts off public water supplies. You should also seal your bathtub with a leak-proof plug and fill it with water, for flushing toilets. Add some bleach to the bathtub water, so it doesn't turn into stagnant bacterial soup.

Of course, buying and storing bottled water is the easiest emergency-water option – if you have the money and space for it. The minimum clean-water storage recommendation is one gallon per person per day, though people in hot climates can need far more than that in order to account for perspiration.

In my household, we often wash and save clear plastic juice bottles with screw-on caps for water-storage purposes. Some of these recycled bottles are in my fridge and freezer right now, primarily as an energy-saving measure: keeping ice frozen, or cold water cold, requires less electricity than cooling an equivalent volume of empty air.

But should you suffer a short-term power outage, when you can hope power is restored before your frozen food thaws and refrigerated food goes bad (so long as you don't open the door and let the cold air out), that ice or cold water helps prolong the time you have before losing the food. And in the event of a long-term outage, after the food in the fridge has been written off, those bottles now hold emergency water supplies.

It's always good to have more water-storage capacity than you think you'll need (and if you don't need it, your neighbors might). Empty plastic juice or soda bottles are very lightweight, but also very bulky. I don't really have the floor or shelf space to store these empty bottles, so I keep them in a clean, never-used garbage bag thumbtacked to the ceiling of my storage closet.

However: while you can wash and re-use juice or soda bottles for water storage, do not try doing this with plastic milk jugs or dairy bottles. No matter how thoroughly you wash those, you can't ever be certain you removed all traces of milkfat and milk protein, so a bottle that looks clean can still be a breeding ground for disease-causing bacteria.

Other drinks

You should have individual-size servings of your favorite juice or soda over and above your drinking-water supply, because a power outage is boring enough without drinking flavorless lukewarm water, too. If you have young children, you should also consider getting boxes of no-refrigeration-needed milk for them. As with all food and drink purchases, keep an eye on the expiration dates and rotate/replace your stock as required.

Bear in mind: as a consumer-news source, this website usually urges food and drink shoppers to check the unit prices and buy the lowest one — for example, buying a gallon jug (128 ounces) of fruit juice for $4 is much cheaper than paying $2 for a six-pack of seven-ounce single-serving juice boxes or cans (42 ounces).

But that assumes you have a working refrigerator to safely store that gallon of juice after you open it. In a power outage with no refrigeration, any canned or bottled food or drink must be consumed soon after opening, or it will go bad. So, unless you have an unusually large household big enough to consume a “giant economy size” in a single sitting, your emergency food and drink supply should primarily consist of small single- or double-serving sizes, even though they cost considerably more than larger bulk purchases.


The obvious choice for emergencies is food that can be stored without refrigeration and eaten without cooking: crackers and peanut butter; bread; canned fruit; granola or energy bars; pudding or fruit cups, and the like.

If you do want to cook, remember the first and most important rule of cooking in a power outage: never, under any circumstance, try cooking indoors with a barbecue grill, liquid or gas-powered camp stove, or similar items. They all generate toxic fumes or exhaust, and can only be used in outdoor settings where the fumes can dissipate.

During my week without power, I didn't do any true “cooking,” in the sense of transforming raw ingredients into something edible. However, I was able to warm up various canned heat-and-serve items over a small can of ethanol gel of the sort used under chafing dishes. The key word is “warm”; ethanol gel is good enough to heat a can of ravioli, but won't work for boiling water or anything like that.

And, of course, you'll want a manual can opener since your electric one won't work.

Dishes, utensils and cookware

If you lose power but still have clean (though cold) running water, you can use your regular dishes, cookware, and utensils and, in a pinch, hand-wash them with dish soap and cold water. But if you suffer a loss of power and clean water, you can't even do that, so make sure you have plenty of disposable utensils and paper plates on hand. I also keep a supply of inexpensive disposable aluminum chafing dishes just the right size to heat a can of soup or baked beans over ethanol gel.

Keeping things clean

If you're generating far more and far dirtier garbage than usual, say because a lack of running water means you can't wash dishes or even rinse out dirty cans before throwing them away, it's useful to have several small plastic bags to wrap these dirty cans and paper plates airtight. If you leave dirty plates and cans exposed to the open air too long, they're likely to attract bugs.

If you live in an area where stores still give customers disposable plastic shopping bags, keep a few dozen of them on hand for this purpose. Otherwise, you'll need to buy some.

Either way, if you lose water you'll also want a supply of pre-moistened towelettes or baby wipes to keep yourself clean – not nearly as good as a real bath or shower, but far better than nothing if you lack water for bathing.

Home climate control

If you get lucky, your extended power outage will coincide with a period of clement temperatures – not too hot and not too cold, so lack of heat and air-conditioning won't be a problem.

You probably won't get lucky.

For outages in too-hot weather, you always want some battery-operated fans on hand: ideally, a minimum of one fan for each person in your household, plus an extra couple of fans for drawing air in or out of open windows. Most such fans require alkaline rather than lithium batteries, so remember not to store the fans with the batteries inside.

If you live in a hot but dry climate, it's quite easy to use fans, water, and thin, damp cloth to jury-rig a makeshift “evaporative cooler” or “swamp cooler,” which works because when liquid water evaporates, it draws heat away with it. If you plan ahead, you can also buy supplies to make a dedicated emergency swamp cooler for less than $100.

Unfortunately, swamp coolers don't work in humid climates; in such conditions, adding humidity to the air only makes you feel warmer.

Generating heat in a cold-weather power outage is much easier, even if you lack such amenities as a fireplace or wood-burning stove. During my post-snowstorm week without power, when nighttime temperatures dropped to the teens or low 20s, I closed off the bedrooms in my apartment and managed to get the common areas up to 66 degrees at night, by burning vegetable-wax tealight candles in space heaters I'd made from coffee cans.

However, mine is an all-adult household. If I lived with small children, rambunctious pets, or anyone else incapable of showing proper respect for fire, it would've been far more difficult to safely use coffee-can space heaters.

Cash in small bills

If the power's out in your area, the ATMs will stop working — and a lot of businesses, even if they manage to stay open, won't be able to accept credit cards. During the week my whole region lost electricity, there were a couple stores and sandwich shops in walking distance that stayed open on generator power, but until the regular power came back they operated on a cash-only basis.

Medicines and medical supplies

If you or anyone in your house requires regular doses of medication, always have at least a few days' worth on hand, if possible.

Whether you require medication or not, you should also have a well-stocked first aid kit available. Plenty of companies will sell you a pre-stocked first aid kit, but in most cases, when you look at what those kits actually contain, it's much cheaper for you to buy the individual components and put a kit together yourself.

That's usually the case for any pre-stocked emergency kit offered for sale: anything from a three-day emergency food supply to an all-purpose lost-in-the-wilderness survival bug-out backpack might well be good to have, but you'll get a better kit for less money if you put it together yourself.

And put this kit together now, before you need it, because if you wait until you do then it'll probably be too late.

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