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Published on August 09, 2021

Preparing for an Emergency

building blocks with emergency symbols

Because of the potential for seismic events in the Pacific Northwest, everybody needs to be prepared to keep our families safe at any given time in different situations. Barb Jensen, manager of trauma services at EvergreenHealth, details why preparation is important and what you can do to get started.

Where do we start? What are the components of a good sound emergency preparedness plan?

Barb Jensen RN, CHEP: Start by looking at your family. Look at where you live and what risks are there for you. Some of us live in areas that are prone to flooding. Some of us live in areas with big trees that are prone to power outages or trees down. But all of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, no matter where we live, have to always have in the back of our minds the chance of the Big One happening, the Cascadia Level event earthquake.

We are overdue for that. And when that happens, it will truly be a regional catastrophe. So, it needs to be high on our radars.

The most important thing is to have a plan. You need to sit your family down and talk about it. Then you need to prepare. You need to gather your supplies. There are wonderful websites that make it so easy for each of us to do this preparedness. You can download communications plans. You can download shopping lists. You can download guidance for storing water. It’s not hard.

The biggest challenge is we just have to do it. And it’s so easy to just procrastinate. We’re busy. We don’t think about it. So, the most important thing is to take action.

So how do we formulate that plan?

Barb: Well I think the most important thing is put pen to paper and really think about it based on the ages of our kids.

For the little kids, it’s planning to have specific things in your emergency kits for them. That means age appropriate foods, it means distraction, card games, books, anything that you can use to keep a kid distracted during a time of crisis when parents need to be focused on the big picture.

For school-aged kids, make sure they have preparedness supplies at school. Most elementary schools at the beginning of the year have kids gather things in a big ziploc bag, but also you can put things in your kids’ backpacks. The other important things for school-aged kids to know is their phone contact in an emergency. I recommend that you find a friend or a family member out of state. After an earthquake particularly, in state communications can be very challenging but out of state communications often survive. Our family has an out of state contact in Chicago and when my kids were home, everybody knew, in case of an emergency, to call that out of state contact, report where you are and that you are okay. There should be something in their backpack to remind them of that out of state contact.

Then start teaching preparedness to your kids and your family. For little kids; make it a game. Think about gathering those important things. How much water do you need? How much food do you need?

One of the things I always remind people when they are thinking about water; one gallon per person per day. Ideally, two gallons to allow for hygiene and for extra cooking and don’t forget your four-footed family members. They need food and water as well.

When it comes to food, remember your audience. You are not going to feed a toddler a dried Coast Guard protein bar. You have to think about the ages of your family members and think about special dietary restrictions when you are storing and stockpiling your food.

Another thing that you’ll always have to remember is medications. It’s not easy to set aside a two week supply, but you need to. And sometimes that means going to your provider and requesting a two week overage. It can be difficult but it’s very necessary especially if you have prescriptions that you depend on. Diabetes, high blood pressure, those kinds of things.

Those are important meds and you need to know that you have them because after that big earthquake, your pharmacy may not be open for days, if not weeks.

So start making a list and then put it together in your plan.

So how long do we keep those supplies? Do we replace them every six months, every year?

Barb: Medications have an expiration date so you need to always be aware of that. I look at my emergency supply and I rotate every six months. I use up the ones that have been stored for six months and I replace them with fresh ones.

Water is really the key thing that expires. If you store commercially prepared water like the gallon jugs you get at the grocery store; those are good for one year. So, put a nice piece of duct tape or something with big felt pen on the outside that gives your replacement date. If you prepare your own water, if you clean water jugs and you store your own water; that needs to be changed every six months. So, write yourself a note, put it on the calendar.

All foods have an expiration date. I try and rotate things through periodically once or twice a year so that I’m sure that the things in my supplies don’t get close to their pull date and nobody is unhappy with the selection because tastes change. So, rotate them through your regular meal planning so that the supplies you have set aside are always fresh and ready to go.

Give us some tips for specific disasters. We’ve been talking about earthquakes, but what about fires, mudslides, there are all kinds of disasters that can happen, tornadoes or even just power outages that can last for weeks. What do you want us to know about those specific things?

Barb: As I mentioned earlier, know your area, know your risks. If you live in an area where it floods every year; you need to be aware of where you store your supplies. You need to be aware of having waterproof clothing so that if you have to evacuate on foot; you can.

If you live in an area where trees go down and your power goes out, consider getting a generator to keep your family safe and comfortable until the power comes back on.

Your preparedness is based upon how you assess your risk. People in eastern Washington certainly need to be more aware of wildfire danger than those of us in the urban area. So, know your risks depending on where you live.

Should we have a grab and go kit for evacuation?

Barb: A grab and go pack is great. I have one under the foot of my bed with a pair of hard soled shoes and that is key because whether it’s an earthquake or a power outage or a fire, you’re going to be getting out and getting out fast and you don’t want to go out barefoot or in shoes that don’t protect you. So, underneath the foot of your bed or someplace where you can grab it quickly, put on a pair of hard soled shoes and get out.

Similar kits should be in your car. Anything in the back of your car, bottle water, a change of clothes, a pair of dry shoes, medications if you need them. For instance, if you are an asthmatic; maybe an extra inhaler. Those things that you might need, should you become stranded for hours. Think about those things, some Power Bars, something that can make you comfortable and help keep you safe until you can either get to safety or be found.

What if our children are at school when disaster strikes? Do we jump in our car and go get them? Do we try and call the school? What are we supposed to do?

Barb: If you have kids in school, my best advice is every year when the school year starts get to know your school's emergency plans. Schools are required to be able to shelter kids in place for a period of time. Know what your school plans are. Jumping in the car and rushing to the school may put you at risk and it may put others at risk if you are dashing down a roadway that may be damaged. Better to wait a bit, wait for the aftershocks to simmer down, assess what the situation is and then go to the school or try and contact the school.

What is your best advice about why it is so important that we have a plan ahead of time for any emergency in our area.

Barb: I think the best advice that I can give is don’t procrastinate. Start now. Even if you do a prepare-in-a-year type plan where every time you go to the grocery store you pick up one item, whether it’s a gallon jug of water or some long shelf life foods or perhaps some candles, you add a little bit at a time. Or if you can do it, get a professionally prepared kit that gives you the basics and then you can add to that kit for your specific family needs whether it’s medications, age-specific toys, bottles and formula and diapers if you have an infant at home.

But don’t procrastinate. Start now because truly it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

Visit our Emergency Preparedness section where you can hear more from Barb Jensen and get more tips for putting together your family's emergency plan.

Barb Jensen Meet the Expert

Barb Jensen, MD

Barb Jensen is the manager of trauma services and in charge of emergency preparedness at EvergreenHealth.

She’s had a lifelong passion for preparedness, and has a master’s level certification as a healthcare emergency professional.

Barb is also a member of the Washington State Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT).

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