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How to Build a Disaster or Emergency Family Survival Kit

Simple steps to prepare for the Really Big One

Published on: September 23, 2013

Chances are you have read, or saw, the recent article in The New Yorker about The Really Big One's potential impact on Seattle. It was both terrifying and fascinating, a well-written piece that sparked fear in residents from Seattle to San Francisco. 

This wasn't really news, of course; we all know that our region is earthquake-prone and that a truly disastrous one could hit our region in our lifetime (or not). We also know that as responsible parents, we should be prepared for a number of scenarios in which we might be cut off from basic services for several days or longer. 

But how to get started? If disaster paralysis is striking you, here are simple steps for preparing an emergency supply kit at home and specific guidelines for earthquake preparation. (Also be sure to read the follow-up to the New Yorker article.)

Overall disaster prep tips

- Create your emergency kit and decide as a family where you want to keep your kit and all disaster supplies. Choose somewhere convenient — you’ll want to make sure it’s easy to access after an emergency. 

- If a disaster occurs, the federal government expects everyone to be self-sufficient for at least three days. In catastrophic circumstances, it could take that long (or longer) for help to arrive. And even if you think you will have enough food in the house, you might not. And remember, there may be no electricity or gas, which will mean no cooking or refrigeration. 

  • Create a disaster plan as a family. Be sure everyone knows what to do and where to meet after a disaster.
  • Keep copies of important documents in your emergency bag.
  • Create an out-of-area contact (often during emergencies, it's easier to reach someone by cell phone out of the region than within the region). Be sure to let the out-of-area person know that you've designated him or her as your contact.
  • Create a small emergency kit for your work and vehicles.
  • Keep a flashlight by each bed.

Creating an emergency kit

FEMA recommends every family should have at least three days worth of supplies in their basic disaster kit (though some say you should actually prepare for three weeks): 

  • Water: One gallon per person per day, plus a three-day supply for each pet. You could purchase purified water by the gallon at the grocery store, or the next time you see a 12-pack of bottled water on sale, grab a couple. Keep an eye on expiration dates and rotate appropriately.

  • Food: Enough for at least 72 hours, for every family member, plus pets. You’ll want nonperishable food, preferably not salty (you don’t want any food that will make you thirsty). Make sure anything you buy in cans can be eaten cold, without preparation, and buy some food that your family likes as well as "fun food." Make a note of the expiration dates of your kit items so that you won’t forget to rotate the food. Don’t forget plastic utensils or paper plates if needed. 

  • Battery-operated or hand-crank radio that also gets weather. There are combo units on the market that include hand crank AM/FM radio, NOAA Weather radio, flashlight and cell phone charger. These vary greatly in price, but can be purchased for as little as $20-$40. For that price, you could have four items checked off of the list!
  • Basic medicines your children and the adults in your family might need, plus feminine hygiene products, diapers and powdered formula if applicable.
  • Other essentials include a can opener, flashlight plus extra batteries, cell phone charger or solar charger, First aid kit, whistle, dust mask, trash bags, moist towelettes, wrench or pliers to turn off utilities and local maps.

There are ready-made kits available online, but they are quite expensive. Building your own kit can be simple if broken down into steps. By making your own, you control the cost and ingredients of your kit.

Start by designating a large box or plastic bin to store your supplies. Then, look around to see what you might already have. For instance, you could add a package of baby wipes or maybe you have a battery-operated radio that isn’t being used.


For a more detailed list of survival kit items, and lots of free downloadable information, check out FEMA.

Preparing for an earthquake

Now, think about steps to take to specifically prepare for an earthquake: 

  • Check out this map from FEMA to find the potential strength of an earthquake in your area. 
  • Download mobile apps for emergencies, first aid, earthquakes and more through the Red Cross. 
  • Prepare your home by walking through and checking for potential hazards.
  • Bolt all tall pieces of furniture to walls.
  • Look out for anything that can fall or fly off the walls. Check your children’s bedrooms and remove anything above their beds.
  • Make sure your home is secured to its foundation.
  • Practice earthquake drills as a family. This is often overlooked but very important. You want to make sure your kids know exactly what to do and what not to do in an earthquake. 
  • Walk through your home as a family and identify the ideal place to go in an earthquake.
  • Learn first aid and CPR. Make sure you are prepared to help your family if needed.
  • Find out if you live in a tsunami zone. If you do, make sure your emergency kit is light and that you are able to grab it quickly.
  • Consider joining AlertSeattle. Launched on August 1, the idea is that during an emergency the city will be able to communicate better with city residents by text, email, voice messages and social media.  

What to do in an earthquake: 

  • Drop to the ground to protect yourself from falling and flying objects. Get under a sturdy table or desk. Hold on!
  • If you cannot find something sturdy to get under, go to the closest interior wall. Make sure you are away from windows and anything that could possibly fall. 
  • Always cover your head and your neck with your hands.
  • If you’re outside, go to an open space away from buildings, trees and power lines. 
  • If you’re in a crowded area, do not panic or rush. Try to stay calm. Do as you would do indoors and avoid elevators.
  • If you are in bed: Stay there, curl up, cover your head and hold on. Use a pillow if available.
  • If you are in a vehicle: Pull over to a safe place (not under a bridge, overpass or close to anything that could potentially fall on you.) Stop and stay put.
  • Do not run outside, stand in a doorway or try to get to another room. Do not get out of a vehicle if a power line has fallen on it. 

After the shaking stops:

  • Account for all family members at your home.
  • Perform first aid and call 911 if needed.
  • Check your home for hazards. Remember to be careful!
  • Find your radio and listen for emergency announcements.
  • Update your out-of-area contact.
  • If you are at the beach, get to higher ground immediately!
  • Look out for gas leaks or structural damage before entering a home or building. Always make sure it’s safe first.
  • Remember not to use camp stoves, gas lanterns, gas generators or gas/charcoal grills indoors.
  • If you are trapped: Cover your mouth with a shirt and try to make noise by tapping on a wall. Try not to scream. 
  • Watch out for aftershocks. These can come as soon as minutes after. Drop, hold on and cover your head.

More helpful links:

Red Cross

72-hour kits for kids

Emergency ration bars

Grab-and-go survival kits

A parent's guide to first aid


Books to prepare your kids for earthquakes

Earthquakes are complicated to understand and very frightening for kids. No doubt they’ll have a ton of questions- they always do! Grab one of these books to prepare them and help them understand all about earthquakes.

Earthquakes By Seymour Simon

Jump into Science: Earthquakes by Ellen J. Prager and Susan Greenstein

Earthquakes (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Franklyn M. Branley and  Megan Lloyd

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