Do You Need a Disaster Survival Kit?

Photo: morswilmor

I've always thought of disaster preparedness as something for the highly paranoid or mildly insane. But something about today's news (coverage of a Mid East weapons bazaar, heat beaming guns, Iran not backing down from its nuclear program, and my general feeling about our federal government's competency in the face of major disasters) has made me a little spooked and slightly morbid. If nothing else, it has led me to believe that "Better safe than sorry" is a mantra that I should be chanting all day.

Let's just say that, should some disaster befall my fair city in the next 24 hours, I would probably not be ready to handle my own survival in the face of such an occurrence. But all of that is about to change, because tonight is my Disaster Preparedness Night, in which I assemble my very own survival kit, that will hopefully see me through any major emergency.

A while back, Slate offered a series of articles on how to survive disasters. The one on nuclear disaster was actually almost comforting, but some of the others, like the one about avian flu, were more disturbing, and didn't really go much beyond "See your doctor, get a flu shot, we are ALL GOING TO DIE AAAAAAAUUUGH!" However, it never hurts (although it might frighten) to read about what we need to do to be safe and sound should we ever find ourselves facing something like Hurricane Katrina.


Earthquakes, like all disasters, require preparedness and resilience. In terms of preventing disaster, there's not much you can do beyond getting a fair warning. David Shenk (the author of the series) offers the possibility of installing an Earthquake alarm. It will apparently only give you a few seconds warning (and false alarms might be annoying), but it's better than nothing.

Nuclear Disaster/Dirty Bombs

From the article:

"This would not be the end of the world," nuclear expert Charles Ferguson emphasized to me as we talked through the sequence of post-atomic events. "We can deal with this kind of horrific attack, and a little preparation can go a long way to increasing your chances of survival." It's a shocking, unnerving reality that one can rationally prepare for a nuclear blast. But all it really takes is a trip to the grocery store, a few clicks on the Internet, and short conversations with your boss and your wife.

In terms of getting a fair warning, Shenk recommends the pricey keychain radiation detector, whose makers claim can warn you about radioactive isotopes before you are exposed to dangerous levels. In terms of surviving the disaster itself, it turns out that if you aren't incinerated straight away, your chances are pretty good as long as you can make it down to your basement and hole up for a few days until the radiation settles.

General Readiness

Anyway, a common theme to be found in most articles of this nature are: be ready. Have supplies. Stay calm. Make sure that rescuers can find you (hang something outside that indicates that you are present inside, assuming that you ARE inside).

I've looked around the web in search of some good survival kits, and there are some reasonably-priced ones to be found, but honestly, you can put one together on your own. None of them include items that you can't find on your own, although you run the risk of never assembling such a kit on your own if you are as lazy as I am. Also, the kits obviously don't contain water, so you have to get that ready on your own.

Here's what our federal government has to say about surviving disasters:

When preparing for a possible emergency situation, it's best to think first about the basics of survival: fresh water, food, clean air and warmth.

The following list of items is from the website — I've shortened some of the descriptions in the interest of space.

  • Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  • Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food (Andrea's note: Power Bars/Cliff Bars and a jar of peanut butter — you're golden)
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Dust masks, to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
  • Baby wipes, garbage bags, and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)
  • Local maps
  • Prescription medications and glasses
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification, and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container
  • Cash or traveler's checks and change
  • First aid book
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person.
  • Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper (you can also buy water-sanitizing tablets).
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches, stored in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Paper towels
  • Paper and pencil
  • Infant formula and diapers
  • Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children

I would also add:

  • Superglue (good for everything — remember, it was developed to seal flesh wounds)
  • Ionic breeze or other odor-neutralizing device
  • Banner or flag to alert rescuers to your whereabouts
  • Ice chest or cooler for medications that require chilling
  • If you can, a bottle of prescription antibiotics
  • An extra bucket (for whatever)
  • Long-range walkie talkies in case family members have to separate, extra batteries

Most of this stuff you can probably find around your house, except for a hand-crank radio. I didn't know that those existed.

A key to having a good survival kit is maintaining it — making sure that the spare batteries are changed out once a year, not taking the spare cash out and spending it, checking to see that the energy bars and peanut butter hasn't gone bad, etc.

Also, make sure to have a coherent plan. Where should family members convene, if possible, during an emergency? You can get a a href="">free disaster preparedness guidebook.

As with all the sad things in life (disaster, death, taxes) it's better to plan ahead of time, and to spend a little extra on being prepared, than to pay the price for not thinking about the future.

Location, Location...You Get the Idea

One difficult aspect of putting together an emergency survival kit is figuring out where to store everything. If you have an actual house, you might have luck figuring out where to put jugs of water, but I live in a townhouse, and I don't have a lot of storage space. I finally settled in storing a bit of water on my bottom level and a bit more on my main level in a cabinet that I barely use. I might disperse some of the other kit components as well.

I'll post pictures, and prices, when I'm finished putting it all together. I've got a budget for it, too — I'm not going to spend over $50 for all of these items. I will either buy them second hand or pilfer what I have around the house. I'll let you know how it goes, but in the meantime, I urge all of you to consider getting something similar, if you don't already have one.

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Jessica Okon's picture

If you  had watched "Wife Swap" last night, you could have picked up on some tips for saving raw meat  aka "High Meat" to eat in case of an emergency.

Andrea Karim's picture

I'll be sure to include "television set" in my survival shopping list. :)

Will Chen's picture

When the **** hits the fan, we're all coming over to your house!

Guest's picture

If anyone is interested I have a few 72 hour kit how-tos on my preparedness pages.

No, I don't think anyone needs to be in a panicked, or 'end of the world' or 'we are all gonna die' mode. I do feel it never hurts to be prepared.

If you would like to learn how to make a 72 hour kit or any of the other items on my site, you can find them here:

or the 72 hour kit specifically is here

Bev Q

Guest's picture
Sean - guest

Good list.

I see this was written in 2007. Do you feel any better about your governments ability to take care of you? I feel like being prepared is good, but also pray a lot. If God can take care of the sparrows and the lilies of the field then He knows what we need.

Guest's picture

"Better to be safe than sorry" is definitely not a phrase just for the paranoid. I used to think the same way as you that all this preparedness wasn't necessary, but with everything that keeps happening every day all over the world with earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters it's hard to keep ignoring the signs.

Guest's picture

My parents have lived in the same area of the country all of their lives and never experienced an emergency situation until 2 years ago. Then they had 2 emergencies in one year (as in so bad the national news came to cover them). They had a major tornado rip through town and 6 months or so later an ice storm where they were without power for 2 weeks. They were, more or less, prepared and had plenty of food to see them through. They could still get mail so I overnighted them a case of handwarmers to help with cold. They spent a lot of those 2 weeks under blankets with a handwarmer tucked into their shirts. I have added a bunch of those to our go bags.

Guest's picture

Being prepared is a mind set. My family and I just started getting our food storage ready. WE just do a little every month and we are starting to get a good little stash going. Just a little at a time.