The United States is no stranger to hurricanes, and the 2017 hurricane season proved to be especially devastating. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria went down in the history books as some of the costliest and most destructive storms on record.
While you need to prepare for a natural disaster, getting your home and family ready to weather a hurricane involves more than organizing a 72-hour emergency kit. It’s important to be proactive and have a plan and supplies in place long before a hurricane arrives. That includes knowing evacuation routes, understanding what your home insurance policy covers (and what it doesn’t), and having multiple ways to cook your family a hot meal.
Here’s what you can do to make sure you’re prepared when the next storm strikes, including how to save money along the way.
The Importance of Preparing Now
Hurricanes present a unique set of threats you might not face with other disasters. While you may have several days’ warning that a hurricane could affect your area, that is not the best time to rush out and buy water and canned food.
As people in Florida experienced during 2017’s Hurricane Irma, grocery stores can run out of food and water within hours, gas stations can run out of fuel, and people can wait hours in home improvement stores for the next shipment of plywood, only to go home empty-handed when supplies ran out.
Stocking up on supplies when everyone else is doing the same thing means that your selection will be limited, at best. You might not be able to get everything you need before the storm hits. You could also have to contend with a long-term power outage, which means your limited supplies might not last as long as you need them to.
Most of your hurricane preparedness should take place when there is no threat of a hurricane. There’s a lot you can do right now to keep your home and family safe when a storm hits.
1. Think About Your Water Needs
People can survive up to three weeks or longer without food, but they can only survive three days without water. Having enough drinking water on hand is the most important step you can take to prepare for a hurricane.
Each person in your family, including pets, needs at least one gallon of water per day, so start stocking up now on bottled water. Purchasing gallons of water will be less expensive than buying individual bottles. Keep an eye out for sales and buy extra when you spot a good deal.
Store some bottled water in your freezer if you have a large one that’s not fully stocked. Frozen water bottles will help your freezer run more efficiently and will also help it stay colder for longer if the power goes out.
It’s also important to have a way to purify water in the event of a long-term emergency. For example, I have several Sawyer Mini filters in my emergency pantry. These will clean up to 100,000 gallons of water before they need to be replaced. I also keep several LifeStraws at home and in my truck. These tiny filters are very compact and will filter around 750 gallons before they need to be replaced.
Another option is the Berkey water filtration system. The Berkey system is not cheap, but it’s an excellent gravity-fed system that will provide your entire family with clean drinking water, even when that water has been contaminated due to a storm. You have to buy filters for it, but only after every 3,000 gallons. If you currently buy bottled water to drink, this is a great investment that will save you money over the long run.
You can also purify water with Potable Aqua tablets or by boiling it. I also have a steam distiller, which can purify even chemically contaminated water. You need electricity to run a steam distiller, but if you have a portable or whole-house generator, a steam distiller will work just fine even if the power goes out.
2. Organize Your Long-Term Food Storage
Next, create a long-term food storage pantry. You need to put away enough food and water to last you and your family at least a week (but ideally longer).
FEMA and the Red Cross recommend having at least 72 hours’ worth of food, water, and supplies for each person in your family — but as we’ve seen with many hurricanes, including Hurricane Sandy in 2012, sometimes it takes relief agencies up to a week or longer to get set up and running in affected areas. If an area is especially hard-hit, there might not be enough food to go around at first.
The benefit of having a well-stocked pantry is that you don’t have to worry about feeding your family during and after a disaster. You’re also assured to have plenty of the foods they already like to eat.
Creating a long-term food storage pantry doesn’t have to cost a fortune. One of the best ways to save is to start stocking up slowly, only buying canned goods and grains as they go on sale.
Only purchase foods that you and your family already eat regularly. This makes it easy to rotate foods out of your pantry each month as they get close to expiring. Choose foods that are relatively quick and easy to prepare and are low in salt. Consider the following:
- Canned fruits and vegetables
- Canned soup
- Peanut butter
- Instant rice
- Canned beans
- Packages of cheese and crackers
- Dehydrated milk
- Canned meat (such as SPAM or tuna)
- Protein or fruit bars
- Beef jerky
- Fruit juices
- Dehydrated fruit
- Formula or baby food (if you have infants)
- Pet food
As you’re stocking up, don’t forget to take into account family or neighbors who might need to take shelter at your home for an extended period. It’s impossible to predict if this will happen, but having some extra food on hand for unexpected visitors can make hosting guests during a disaster a bit less stressful. You might also want to have extra food to cook for elderly neighbors who can’t relocate easily.
Make sure you have a good mix of different types of food. Many families have a well-stocked freezer and assume they can rely on this when a storm comes; however, if the power goes out for an extended period, the food in your freezer will quickly become inedible. That’s why it’s best to have a mix of frozen, dehydrated, and canned food as part of your emergency food supply.
If your area is at risk for a hurricane that’s still several days away, know that many fresh foods will keep for a long time in a cool, dark closet, which makes them a great last-minute addition before the storm hits. These include:
- Winter squash (such as acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squash)
- Citrus fruits
- Cured meats (such as dry salami)
- Unripe avocados (choose the hardest ones so they’ll last longer)
It’s important to weigh your current savings against future fuel limitations as you stock up. Keep in mind that during an emergency, you might be cooking meals on an emergency stove. This requires fuel, which could be limited. While it’s less expensive to buy dried rice and beans, it will take much more fuel to cook these items when the time comes. However, if you have a wood stove, a gas stove, or an outdoor fire pit (with plenty of dry firewood), dried rice and beans might be fine.
3. Stock Up on Non-Food Supplies
When an area is affected by flooding or high winds, some items disappear fast. You’ll want to have the following supplies on hand to help you through the storm’s aftermath and cleanup.
- Paper Products, including paper towels and toilet paper.
- Disposable Dinnerware. Dishes will be hard to wash if you have a limited water supply. Stock up on paper plates, cups, and disposable silverware.
- A Manual Can Opener. Canned foods are an important part of an emergency food storage pantry, and the best electric can opener in the world won’t help you if the power’s out.
- Household Bleach. Bleach can be used to disinfect water for drinking and cleaning; the EPA has instructions here.
- Regular Garbage Bags. These can help keep items dry if you have to evacuate on foot while it’s raining.
- Heavy Contractor Bags. These thick black garbage bags can be found at home improvement stores. They can be used for sanitary disposal of human waste if the water is shut off or to throw out home items ruined by water.
Health & Personal Care Items
- Medicine. Have at least a two-week supply of any prescription medicines your family depends on, as well as basic over-the-counter medications like pain relievers and stomach medicine.
- A First Aid Kit. The Red Cross has a great checklist for what a well-stocked first aid kit should include.
- Hand Sanitizer. Cleanliness is essential after a storm to prevent the spread of illness and disease. Save your water for drinking and use hand sanitizer to clean your hands instead.
- Feminine Care Products. Some things you especially don’t want to run out of.
- Baby Supplies, including diapers and baby wipes.
- Bug Spray. Mosquitoes can get very bad after a flood.
- Earplugs. If you’ve ever been in a hurricane or tornado, you know the winds can get very loud. Earplugs can help you and your children feel less afraid when the winds kick up.
Tools & Emergency Equipment
- A Solar Charger for cell phones and tablets.
- A Hand-Crank Radio, ideally one with an NOAA Weather Radio band.
- Flashlights, lanterns, and extra batteries.
- Matches, including storm-proof matches.
- Fire Extinguishers. Make sure your family knows where your fire extinguishers are and how to use them.
- A Camp Stove or Solar Oven. After the storm, the power might be off for days or even weeks. You’ll want a way to prepare hot food for your family. You can purchase a propane camp stove with several extra fuel canisters, or you might want to consider a solar oven, which runs off solar energy and eliminates the need for additional fuel. If you have a gas stove, it will probably work without power unless it has an electric ignition.
- Large Plastic Tarps. These can be used to cover your roof until your home insurance helps you find a contractor or to haul away items ruined by downed tree limbs and flooding.
- Plywood. You’ll want to board up your windows as soon as you know a hurricane is imminent.
- A Chainsaw. Local contractors will be flooded with work after a storm, and it might be weeks before someone can take that fallen tree out of your driveway. A chainsaw, and the knowledge of how to use it, means you can start on the work yourself.
- A WaterBOB. A WaterBOB is a sealed liner for your bathtub that allows you to fill the tub with water before a storm without having to worry about contamination from the tub walls or drain. It gives you 100 gallons of drinking water that will stay fresh for up to 12 weeks.
- Waders. These tall rubber boots that come up to your chest can make an enormous difference in your comfort and safety if you have to walk through deep water to get out of your home or neighborhood.
- An Inflatable Boat. Many people have been able to survive floodwaters because their neighbor had a small canoe, boat, or inflatable raft they used to help them get out. An inflatable boat can save lives, especially if you have children or are caring for seniors.
- Cash. How much cash you should have on hand depends on your financial situation and needs, but you should have at least enough to cover your family’s needs for a couple of weeks. If there is a longer outage, it might be difficult or impossible to get cash in your area.
- Games. If you have children, think about what you can do with them to keep their minds off the storm.
It’s best to do your research now and figure out which supplies you want to include in your family’s emergency kits, both at home and in your car.
Purchase or order supplies now so you’ll have them when you need them. Right before a hurricane, and for several weeks afterward, Amazon frequently runs out of emergency supplies. Prices also tend to go up as demand increases. Shopping early will ensure that you get a better deal and you have the necessary supplies when you need them most.
4. Create a Go Bag
A “Go Bag,” or “Bug Out Bag,” might sound like something only a serious prepper or survivalist would need. However, FEMA recommends that every family have a Go Bag.
A Go Bag contains everything you and your family would need to survive for at least 72 hours. Keep in mind that this is distinctly different from your home’s 72-hour emergency supplies. A Go Bag is pre-packed and portable, unlike your home’s 72-hour emergency supplies, which might be stored loose in a closet or pantry.
Your Go Bag is what you would grab if you suddenly found yourself in an emergency and had to evacuate with little warning. For example, if a hurricane moved inland, causing a local river to flood, and you had mere minutes to evacuate your home, your Go Bag is what you’d grab as you’re shoving the kids in the car.
So, what should be in your Go Bag? That will vary based on your family’s needs and the ages of your children. Younger children will require more supplies (e.g., diapers, wipes, formula, sippy cups). If your children are old enough to carry a backpack, they should have their own Go Bags.
Here are some supplies you should consider putting in your Go Bag:
- Clothes. Include one complete change of clothes for every member of your family. This clothing should be seasonally appropriate. Always include a warm hat.
- Water. While you might not be able to carry enough water for everyone in your family for three days, you can easily pack water into your Go Bag with Datrex pouches.
- A Water Purifier, such as the Sawyer Mini.
- Emergency Ration Bars. These ration bars have a five-year shelf life and an average of 3,000 calories apiece. You can find a decent selection on Amazon, but be forewarned that some brands taste like a vanilla cookie, while others taste like cardboard. SOS ration bars have great reviews for taste on Amazon.
- A First Aid Kit
- A Pocketknife
- A Multi-Tool, such as a Leatherman.
- A Small Camp Stove. I like the Solo Stove Lite, which is tiny and allows you to burn wood, eliminating the need for fuel canisters. If you have children, you might want to upgrade to the Solo Stove, which is a bit larger and can accommodate four or more people.
- A Small Cook Set. You’ll need a small pot to cook meals in. I like the Stanley Camp Cook Set or the MSR Alpine cook set, which is a bit larger.
- A Small Solar Charger
- A Small Tent. Choose a lightweight backpacking tent that’s large enough to fit your entire family. If you don’t want to invest in a tent, then purchase an emergency shelter, like the Sharp Survival tent, which reflects heat and will at least keep your family dry for a night if you can’t find shelter.
- Sleeping Bags. Each member of your family should have a small sleeping bag that’s rated for your region’s average temperatures. An emergency sleeping bag is lightweight and inexpensive. Have extra bags on hand; they tear easily, and it’s also helpful to have extras to pass out to other evacuees who have nothing. You should also have some Mylar emergency sleeping blankets.
- Storm-Proof Matches
- A BIC Lighter
- Copies of Important Documents. These can either be paper copies or digital copies on a jump drive. (We’ll cover which documents you should have in Step 7).
- Local and Regional Maps
- Cash in small bills.
- Games, such as a deck of cards.
As you can see, many of the supplies on this list are also listed for your home’s 72-hour emergency supply kit. However, you should have duplicates in a bag that’s always packed and ready to go. Of course, it can get expensive when you need to purchase duplicates of several items. One way to save is to look for used supplies on eBay. You can also purchase used camping equipment at OutdoorsGeek and GearTrade.
If you need other ideas for what to include in your Go Bag, browse around on Amazon and look at the companies that sell pre-packed emergency survival bags like this one from Sustain Supply Co. Seeing what they include will help you determine what you should put into your own bag.
5. Be Prepared for Evacuation
Many people are caught off guard when they find out that their neighborhood or region has been ordered to evacuate. That’s why it’s essential to become familiar with your community’s evacuation route and where emergency shelters are located along that route.
As many people discovered during the 2017 hurricane season, emergency shelters can fill up fast. You might have to drive farther than you anticipated to find a safe place to stay. Keep a 72-hour kit in your car just in case you have to travel a long distance. Keep in mind that most public shelters only accept service animals, so you’ll need to identify pet-friendly hotels along your route.
Next, find alternate, safe places to stay during the storm. For example, do you have any friends or family who live inland who would open their doors to you? If you have pets, would they be welcome?
Another option is to find alternate routes away from coasts and rivers using the Waze app. This app uses real-time traffic information from other drivers to help you find routes around traffic backups and road closures. Also download FEMA’s mobile app, which sends out weather alerts and safety information and can help you find open shelters in your area.
It’s also smart to keep a local map in your car. A paper map might seem like a relic from a bygone era, but it can be an essential tool when you find yourself in a situation where your cell phone or GPS doesn’t work. Research some alternate routes away from the coast, and drive these routes at least once so you’re familiar with them.
During an evacuation, you depend on your car to get you to safety. Stay on top of car maintenance, make sure your spare tire is in good condition, and keep the gas tank at least half-full in case of unexpected evacuations and full if a hurricane evacuation is possible.
Finally, learn how to turn off the gas to your home. You’ll want to do this before you evacuate to prevent a possible explosion.
6. Develop a Family Communication Plan
What if your neighborhood was suddenly ordered to evacuate due to rising flood waters, and most of your family was either at work, at school, or at a friend’s house? How would you communicate with everyone? Where would you all meet if going back to your home was not an option? If you have pets, who would return home to get them?
Cell phone networks might be unreliable, or even down entirely, during a disaster, which is why you need to create a family communication plan.
Developing a communication plan isn’t as complicated as you might think; FEMA offers a useful booklet to guide you through the process. Create a plan now so you have plenty of time to go over it with your family before an emergency occurs.
Last, if your family will be evacuating in multiple cars, purchase some long-range walkie-talkies and keep them charged. These will allow you to communicate even when your cell phones aren’t working. I have Midland 50-Channel Walkie-Talkies with a 36-mile range, and they work great.
7. Copy Important Documents
Make a copy of all your important documents and store these on a jump drive that you keep in your Go Bag, or store paper copies in a safe deposit box located in another town.
Documents you should have copies of include:
- Birth certificates
- Social security cards (which are required to receive FEMA assistance)
- Marriage certificates
- Immunization records
- Military service records
- Health insurance information
- Home insurance information
- Tax statements (proof of income might be required to receive certain levels of FEMA assistance)
- If you own your home, property tax statements or a mortgage payment receipt (you will have to provide some proof of ownership of your home to receive FEMA assistance)
- If you rent, a copy of the lease, a utility bill, or another document that proves the home or apartment was your primary residence (to receive FEMA assistance)
Take pictures or video of your home and its contents, along with your cars, boats, shed, and anything else of value that you own. Put this video on a jump drive and keep it in a safe deposit box in another town. Having a visual record of your valuables will help speed up a home insurance claim.
You’ll also want to take pictures and video of the storm’s damage as soon as it’s safe to do so. Having “before” and “after” pictures can significantly speed up an insurance claim and make it easier to receive FEMA assistance. You can learn more about applying for FEMA assistance here.
Speaking of paperwork, if you depend on monthly mailed checks for income, such as Social Security, switch these payments to direct deposit. After a major hurricane, mail service can be delayed by days or weeks, depending on the level of damage. Direct deposit will ensure that you still receive an income without having to rely on the mail service.
8. Analyze Your Home Insurance Policy
Have you ever read your homeowners insurance policy? Most homeowners don’t give more than a passing glance at what their homeowners insurance covers and what it doesn’t. If you take a careful look at the details, you might uncover a few unpleasant surprises.
For example, some insurance companies charge higher deductibles if your home is damaged due to a “named storm.” This amount could be 1% to 10% of your home’s value, instead of a fixed dollar amount, such as $1,000. According to the Center for Insurance Policy and Research, 19 states plus the District of Columbia currently have a “hurricane clause” or “named storm clause” in their policy. You can see if your state is one of them here.
Some insurance companies don’t cover indirect flood-related damage at all. The day after mud inundates your home is not the time to find out you aren’t covered for something like this.
People in hurricane-prone areas are always advised to carry flood insurance, which can be obtained through FEMA. Even if you’re not in a classified flood plain, you still might want to consider flood insurance. Hurricanes can move far inland, causing devastating flooding in areas that don’t usually see rising waters.
There are many ways to save money on homeowners insurance, so make sure your coverage and deductibles are at a level you’re comfortable with long before a storm hits.
9. Analyze Your Home’s Safety & Security
There are many things you can do to get your home ready to cope with extreme rainfall and high winds.
Keep the trees around your home trimmed and cull any trees that appear to be sick or weak, as they can easily be knocked over from high winds. Keep gutters and drainage pipes clear of leaves and debris. Talk to your neighbors about how all of you might protect the neighborhood from looters if a hurricane strikes and help is delayed getting to your area.
10. Make a Checklist
When a storm is on its way and you get the order to evacuate, you’re likely to panic, or at least feel flustered. It’s not the best time to try to think about everything you need to take with you.
Long before you’re in this situation, make a checklist of the items you’ll need to take with you for survival and comfort, as well as any treasured items you really can’t replace and don’t want to leave at home.
You should also make a checklist of last-minute to-dos to take care of before you leave your house. For example, you’ll want to shut off the gas, put any loose lawn furniture or toys into the garage so they don’t become projectiles when the wind kicks up, and unplug all electronic devices so they’re not exposed to electrical surges if the power goes on and off.
No one wants to think about the worst happening to them. But as the 2017 hurricane season showed, the worst can and does happen. Being prepared for hurricanes can make an enormous difference to your family’s safety. It can also relieve the stress of having to prepare at the last minute.
Keep in mind that even if you don’t live directly on the coast, it’s still important to be prepared for hurricanes. Storms can cause devastating flooding and wind damage even hundreds of miles away from the ocean.
What are you doing to prepare for a hurricane? If you’ve gone through a hurricane, what lessons did you learn? What do you wish you’d done differently?