- Experts are already warning that emergency systems are overloaded from COVID-19 and may not be as effective at responding to natural disasters this summer and fall.
- Households must be prepared to be self sufficient.
- To do that, we recommend responsibly stocking up on items vulnerable to shortages like hygiene supplies and certain foods (outlined below).
- Also, be ready to provide your own shelter. That means preparing to ride out a disaster at home or saving up in advance for a hotel (in lieu of public shelters).
- As always, PLEASE EVACUATE IF INSTRUCTED TO DO SO.
The federal government has emergency plans. So do your state, county, and town—probably even your HOA and church.
Nearly all of them share one major flaw: they’re designed for a single disaster. But what happens when two disasters hit at once? Like when a major hurricane lands in areas under quarantine for a pandemic?
“We haven't really done a deep dive [into this],” says Tricia Wachtendorf, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “To think about, well, ‘What does this mean, in reality, if this happens?’”
“Unprecedented is the word,” says Becky DePodwin, a meteorologist and emergency-preparedness specialist at AccuWeather. “There’s no playbook for this.”
Welcome to the 2020 hurricane/tornado/wildfire/etc. season, a time when emergency systems already maxed out from the COVID-19 virus will extend beyond their limits to respond to the natural disasters that are guaranteed to hit.
You can bet this will be a topic of panic in the news but follow our advice and don’t get caught up in it. The world might get even more dangerous this summer and fall, but if you focus your preparations on the SIMPLE TIPS BELOW, you’ll help keep your head above water while others are struggling to stay afloat.
1. Double Down on Items Vulnerable to Shortages
Because of the pandemic, certain must-have emergency supply items will be either hard to find or at risk of disappearing (temporarily). Follow these tips to stay ahead of the curve:
Cover your bases—the standard rules still apply
Of course, this season, like every season before it, the standard rules of preparation continue to apply. We recommend planning out your supply using the 12 areas of prep—they make it easier to organize and remember important items:
- Food – This includes a 72-hour kit for quick evacuation and at least one month of emergency food with extra-long shelf life. Also consider hunting and fishing gear for long-term survival.
- Water – Buy a water capture device, filters, and portable water (cans preferably), water storage barrels, etc.
- Shelter – You never know where disaster might take you, so make sure to pack a winter-rated tent, mylar blankets, a tarp, protective clothing (like a poncho), etc.
- Warmth – Keep hand and body warmers, sleeping bags, matches, a magnesium striker, fire starter, and a solar-powered heater handy.
- Light – Pack LED/solar flashlights, glow sticks (always very useful), long-lasting emergency candles, etc.
- Power – You can forgo the absolute need for a generator if all your gear is solar, but life without power is tough. We recommend solar generators over gas—fuel goes bad and is among the first things to vanish in a crisis. Also keep a portable cell phone charger and power cords.
- Sanitation – With the COVID-19 virus this list is now longer than it may have been just a couple months ago, but the basics still apply for warding off disease and infection: stock up on TP, sanitizer, towelettes, and garbage bags.
- First Aid – Have multiple, quality first aid kits with extra burn gel and dressing, potassium iodide tablets, etc.
- Communication – Often overlooked but ranking right up there with food and water, have a solar or hand-crank radio to tune into emergency info. Also pack walkie talkies, flares, rescue whistles, safety mirrors, etc.
- Cooking – Pack propane cookers and of course, implements for fire. There are also some handy heatless cookers that make full portions of emergency food.
- Tools – This list can be as long as you want to make it, but at very least have a backpack, hatchet or axe, pocketknife or multi tool, and duct tape. Add to that repair kits, liquid weld, etc., and you’re good to go.
- Planning – You’ll want a written emergency plan with meeting spots, communication protocols, evacuation routes—the works. Also think ahead: how much money will you need (cash is critical as well as coins for vending machines). Keep important documents like your license, social security card, wills, etc.
Hygiene Is King
The CDC has a long set of COVID-19-specific recommendations for emergency shelter managers and a somewhat shorter list for families. Of the few prep steps they do mention, sanitation items top the list—especially toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes. If a disaster were to hit this season with COVID-19, you can guarantee grocery store shelves would be cleared of these items quickly. Don’t wait for that to happen.
We recommend gradually and responsibly stocking up on these items now using the following method: every time you shop, purchase an extra pack of toilet paper, extra sanitizer, and one to three extra sanitizing wipe containers.
If you can’t find them at brick and mortar stores, shop online or make your own immediately before or after your shopping trip. Continue until you reach at minimum the FEMA recommended two-week supply.
Here are a few tips to help you stock up on each:
The toilet paper supply is slowly recovering, though it’s still hard to find in certain areas. Napkins, tissue, and even crumpled newspaper can work as substitutes in a pinch.
Before we ever talk about hand sanitizer and the COVID-19 virus, we have to mention that washing your hands is generally more effective at eliminating the kinds of germs that get you sick. According to the CDC:
Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing certain kinds of germs, like Cryptosporidium, norovirus, and Clostridium difficile1-5. Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can inactivate many types of microbes very effectively when used correctly 1-15, people may not use a large enough volume of the sanitizers or may wipe it off before it has dried 14.
That said, water is not always in abundant supply after a disaster, so hand sanitizer is key. The bad news is that this stuff is still notoriously difficult to come by in brick and mortar stores. It’s to the point that some companies are repurposing manufacturing plants for its production.
Supplies are better through online retailers, though you may have to wait a little longer than usual for delivery. Make sure to look for products with at least 60% alcohol (not everyone meets that standard).
And if going online doesn’t work, you can search breweries in your area—more than a few are jumping into the mix, producing hand sanitizer rather than spirits. Anheuser Busch is partnering with the Red Cross on just such a project.
Of course, with isopropyl alcohol (99% volume alcohol) and some aloe vera gel, you can make hand sanitizer at home (here’s a great recipe). Be warned though: there’s no guarantee that either of those items are going to be on the shelf when you go to find them—in which case we again suggest searching online.
Is there anything handier than a sanitizing wipe? They’re simple to use, easy to store, and they rank on the EPA’s list of COVID-19-figthing disinfectants.
It’s no surprise that so many grocery stores are picked clean of them. Clorox chairman and CEO Benno Dorer says that there should be a “substantial improvement” in the inventory of their wipes sometime this summer. “Until then, it’s going to be touch and go, unfortunately,” he said.
We give much of the same advice with wipes that we do with sanitizer: if you’re willing to wait, you may have better luck finding inventory online than in grocery stores (Target, Walmart, and Staples proport to have them).
And if all else fails, you can make your own disinfectant wipes (check out this recipe). Again, these require isopropyl alcohol (99% volume alcohol) and bleach—both in high demand—so your mileage may vary.
And then there are face masks. This is a sensitive subject. Until the pandemic ends, it’s hard to responsibly recommend N95 respirators for the general public.
But oh, those cloth masks…
One of the strangest, most memorable outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is the cottage industry that’s grown up around face masks. Everyone from major corporations to high-end designers and stay-at-home moms are jumping into the mask game.
They’re so easy to find now that there really is no need other than cost savings to make them at home. If that’s the route you want to go though, here’s a great YouTube fabric face mask pattern tutorial (with 41 million views and counting!).
We recommend treating cloth face masks like any other piece of clothing. The same way you wouldn’t pack a single t-shirt to last you a month, don’t think just one mask will suffice for the duration of a disaster. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you wash each mask daily, so pack absolutely as many as will fit into your emergency kit.
2. BE PREPARED TO PROVIDE YOUR OWN SHELTER
Many Americans could have a tough time getting into emergency shelters this season. And since shelters won't be turning away the sick (the right thing to do) they might also become ground zero for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The tips below will help you avoid putting yourself at risk.
With the first named storm of 2020 already come and gone, emergency managers are ramping up for a hurricane and tornado season that’s very likely to produce more than one mass evacuation.
“[The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] NOAA’s analysis of current and seasonal atmospheric conditions reveals a recipe for an active Atlantic hurricane season this year,” said Neil Jacobs, Ph.D., acting NOAA administrator.
NOAA has forecast 13 to 19 named storms this year, with six to 10 potential hurricanes, three to six of which will develop into Category 3, 4, or 5 storms. For perspective, a typical season produces 12 named storms, six hurricanes, and three Category 3+ storms.
And that’s just for starters. Tornadoes are already tearing through the South, California is bracing itself after a string of historically devastating wildfire seasons, and Earthquakes are popping up in the Intermountain West that have residents worried about “the big one.”
These days, an above average disaster year would be par for the course, except for one thing: the pandemic is already taking up the majority of emergency resources in this country.
Erin Hughey at the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) reflects the concern of emergency managers all over the country when she says, “[the] same resources that would typically prepare for hurricane season or flood season or tornado season [are] working at max capacity just to respond, and manage the logistics in response, to COVID.”
The most concerning “max capacity” resource this season is clearly emergency shelters, which have the potential to be ground zero for the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
With over 33 million Americans currently out of work and short on expendable income, shelters are bracing for overload. As University of Nebraska at Omaha disasterologist Samantha Montano points out, unemployed Americans may not be able to afford their own evacuation—cars, gas, hotels, food, etc.—and will have to to rely on shelters run by already stressed out emergency organizations.
And once evacuees arrive at shelters, they’ll find public spaces under the grip of COVID-19 conditions, unable to fill to capacity because of social distancing and face mask rules. This tornado season has already seen at least one family turned away at a shelter in Crossville, Alabama, because they weren’t carrying enough face masks for every family member.
In an attempt to curtail a potential catastrophe, the CDC has issued COVID-19-specific guidelines for shelter staff. The picture they paint, quite frankly, sounds like something out of a movie:
- All residents must be monitored daily for symptoms of the COVID-19 virus.
- Temperatures must be taken every time residents or staff enter a “food distribution area.”
- Residents infected with the COVID-19 virus cannot be turned away.
- Residents with symptoms of the COVID-19 virus must be isolated and can only leave isolation to use the restroom.
- All residents must wear a mask at most times, unless under the age of two or exhibiting breathing problems stemming from the mask.
- Residents must remain 6 feet apart.
- Group shelters must be disbanded at the earliest opportunity to prevent further spread of the disease.
If that sounds like a recipe for conflict and illness, the CDC is right there with you. They’re recommending that whenever possible, to look for alternatives to shelters. They single out hotels as a great option in particular, and warn that the private homes of friends and family are danger spots for the spread of the virus.
We obviously echo the CDC’s recommendation that you stay away from shelters if possible. That’s not to say avoid them altogether. Just use them as a last resort where you can.
That means families should begin preparing now to provide their own shelter in the event of a disaster. Here are a few key tips for doing that:
Pack Away at Least a Month (Or More) of Extra Supplies
FEMA recommends that every household store at least two weeks of emergency food, water, and gear. Our advice for 2020 is to at least double that figure. This year, be ready to survive without help for a month or much more.
For starters, if you do end up in a shelter, there’s a chance that management will attempt to disburse residents as early as possible out of concern for the virus, leaving you on your own for extra days or weeks.
And if you never enter a shelter, emergency workers in your area will be overwhelmed with the COVID-19 virus and disaster responses. This means you could be on your own for food, water, shelter, and other supplies for longer than usual.
Be Ready to Shelter in Place
Let’s preface this conversation with a warning: even in this unusual season, please DO NOT IGNORE EVACUATION ORDERS. Having said that, you need to be prepared to shelter in place in the event that shelters in your area are at capacity.
We’ve written some great guides on all types of emergency shelter alternatives, so I won’t elaborate too much here, other than to remind you about the basics:
- Write a family emergency plan
- Practice your family emergency plan
- Listen for condition updates
- Follow the instructions of local and federal disaster agencies
- EVACUATE IF INSTRUCTED TO DO SO
- Store away enough food and water for your family
- Store a variety of foods and meals to help fight food fatigue
- Opt for solar power rather than battery or gas
- Keep communications devices handy
- Keep flashlights, lanterns, and glow sticks handy
- Have a portable bathroom available
- Have solar light available
- Designate a safe room
- Have a space set aside for isolating sick family members
- Have activities ready for children and adults alike
- Only emerge when you’ve received confirmation that it’s safe to do so
Start Saving for Hotel and Travel Now
Depending on your circumstances, this may be difficult to achieve, but you will thank yourself if you do.
A few bucks for gas should suffice (prices are very low at the moment), but put away as much as you can for a hotel room. If you can cash in points on your credit card, now may be the time to do it. If you can put away money in an account or even a coffee can, start doing it right away.
These are scary times, there is no doubt about it. But that doesn’t mean we need to live in fear. If you follow our advice by storing away extras of items vulnerable to shortages, making extra preparations to provide your own shelter, and then going about your preparations as usual, you should make it through just fine. God bless and stay safe out there!