Make a Disaster Preparedness Checklist

SEPTEMBER 16, 2008
Martin Kuritz

Whether it's a house fire, earthquake, or terrorist attack, at any time, a disaster could strike quickly and without warning. With a little advance planning and common sense, much can be done to protect yourself and your loved ones in the wake of a disaster. After weathering last summer's fires in California, I found out how a practical disaster survival plan can help.

Family Communication

Plan so that each family member can contact the same person in an emergency. Choose an out-of-state contact who can receive and communicate information to separated family members. Be sure that each family member has the telephone number of the central contact and the resources to call them. With young children, be sure that the school and caregiver know to call the central contact if you can't be reached. Plan a rendezvous point where your family will meet both within and outside of your immediate area, and practice getting there.

Find out what kinds of disasters are most likely to occur in your area and where to obtain disaster information. Inquire about emergency plans. If none exist, consider creating one. Talk to your neighbors. Decide who will check on elderly or disabled neighbors. Find out if anyone has specialized equipment like a power generator or expertise that might help in a crisis. Having a fellow doctor by your side may prove very helpful.

Staying or Evacuating

The first important decision is whether to stay put or evacuate. You should plan for both possibilities. Use common sense and available information to determine if there is immediate danger. There may be situations when it's best to stay where you are and create a barrier between yourself and potentially contaminated air outside. In these situations, take the following steps:

  • Bring your family and pets inside.
  • Lock doors and close windows, air vents, and fireplace dampers.
  • Turn off fans, air conditioning, and forced air heating systems.
  • Take your emergency supply kit.
  • Go into an interior room with few windows, if at all possible.
  • Seal ventilation gaps to create a barrier between yourself and any contamination. If you use plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal all windows, doors, and air vents in a small area and there are too many people occupying that space, the supply of oxygen can quickly be depleted. Consider purchasing a portable air purifier to help remove contaminants.

There may be conditions under which you decide, or are ordered, to evacuate. If you have a car, keep a half tank of gas in it at all times; if you don't have a car, plan how you will leave. Find out alternate routes and other means of transportation out of your area. Take the following steps when evacuating:

  • Take your emergency supply kit.
  • Lock the door behind you.
  • Take your pets with you. Note: Only service animals may be permitted in public shelters.
  • Call or e-mail the out-of-state contact and tell them where you're going.
  • If there is damage to your home, shut off water, gas, and electricity.
  • Take important papers, documents, personal telephone numbers, etc.
  • Leave a note telling others when you left and where you are going.
  • Check with neighbors who may need a ride.

Far from Home

Take necessary precautions if you're in a moving vehicle when disaster strikes. If there are factors that make it difficult to control the vehicle, pull over, stop the car, and set the parking brake. Follow these useful tips:

  • Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, signs, and other hazards.
  • If a power line falls on your car, you are at risk of electrical shock. Stay inside until a trained person removes the wire.
  • Listen to the radio for important information and instructions. If you find yourself in a high-rise building, take the following preventative measures:
  • Be sure you're familiar with the locations of the closest emergency exits.
  • Know another way out in case your first choice is blocked.
  • Take precautions, such as ducking under a desk or table if objects are falling.
  • Move away from file cabinets, bookshelves, or other objects that might fall.
  • Face away from windows and glass and move away from exterior walls.
  • Determine if you should stay put or evacuate.
  • Listen to instructions and stay calm.

Survival Kit Assembly

Consider putting together two types of kits—one for your home or office with everything needed if you are confined in either place, and a portable, lightweight, smaller one that you can take in the event of an evacuation. In addition to survival necessities such as food, water, first aid supplies, etc, your disaster survival kit should include a waterproof, portable container. For the container, keep the following in mind:

  • Print a copy of your survival plan so that no detail is overlooked.
  • Make a personal telephone directory.
  • Have photocopies of family records such as birth and marriage certificates, passports, medical and other ID cards, and banking and credit card information.
  • List where your important papers and documents are located.
  • Have your family's medical history, including blood types, allergies, medications, etc, handy.
  • List insurance carriers and policy numbers.

Personal Possessions

Surviving a disaster is the first order of business, but make sure you can retain your lifestyle after the storm. If disaster strikes, an inventory of your household possessions that lists and details everything you own could help prove the value of what you owned if those possessions are damaged or destroyed. In addition to providing documentation for tax deductions you claim for losses, you will also likely receive a faster, fairer payment from your insurance company.

Make a complete inventory of personal possessions, including the model, serial numbers, original purchase dates, and price, along with copies of receipts, cancelled checks, and appraisals for valuable items.

If creating a written inventory of your worldly possessions seems like too much work, consider an annotated photo or video inventory of your home and personal possessions. In addition to saving you time, pictures often describe possessions better than words. Remember: Don't leave your only copy at home, where it might be destroyed.

The best way to protect yourself and your loved ones is to have a plan in place that addresses your particular circumstances and location. Once you've established your disaster plan, have periodic rehearsals to ensure that everyone in your family knows what to do in an emergency. Teach your children what to do if they are alone when disaster strikes. Contact the US Department of Homeland Security and the American Red Cross for more complete and up-to-date disaster planning information. Above all, stay calm, be patient, and think before you act.

For more information

  • US Department of Homeland Security (800-BE-READY;
  • American Red Cross Family Disaster Planning (
  • American Red Cross Pets and Disaster (

Martin Kuritz is a retired estate planner, who, for more than 30 years, has helped clients effectively communicate their economic and personal wishes to their heirs. His 1993 best-selling book, The Beneficiary Book: A Family Information Organizer, has sold more than 1 million copies. He is also the coauthor of 2 other books, My Busine$$ Book and Take Good Care of My Baby. For information about these books, call 800-222-9125 or visit www.

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