It's cold and dark. The power's been out for a few hours and the storm seems to be fond of your area. In fact, it seems to be staying over like those relatives you really don't like. The car is either snowed in or firmly wedged in place by a downed tree branch. You wonder if your friends and relatives are okay, but you can't reach them on your cell. And, of course, it would be nice to eat something.
We are the only species that can plan ahead, so why do we wait until it's raining or snowing before we think about preparations? The time to get ready is now. It will save you hours of frustration standing in lines for items that could be out of stock by the time your turn comes. And if you think about it, the difference between misery, comfort and safety takes only a few minutes and a few dollars. You probably already have most of the items you need. All you have to do is make sure they are accessible.
What do you really need? Here's my "top ten" based on personal experience weathering out a winter ice storm that cut my power for eight days (and quite a number of smaller outages).
Personal Medications - Always make sure to have at least a week's worth of all your required medications. Get into the habit of refilling prescriptions eight days before they run out. This will cost you nothing extra.
Water - You'll need a gallon a day per person. If the city water stops or the well needs electricity, this is a must have. Always have spare water stored in containers in the kitchen. You can recycle old pop bottles or buy the camping models. Another useful thing to do is freeze a few gallons. If the power goes off, you can transfer the frozen water to a cooler and keep your perishables longer. When they finally melt, you'll have some cool drinking water. This will cost absolutely nothing if you use recycled bottles.
Shelter - You're in your house, but the issue is to make sure the weather stays on the other side of the walls. If warmth is a consideration, then you need to consider safe methods of warming a house. Indoor space heaters work, but not for the whole house. You'll have to pick one room (basements, if available, are usually the best) and close it off so that the heat doesn't escape. This will not cost you anything if you have a wood burning stove or fireplace. This would be the most expensive item if you decide you need to generate heat. Space heaters that work on kerosene or alcohol are available. Make sure they are rated for indoor use! Wal-Mart has a model, which will heat a 400 square foot area, for $98.96.
Clothing - Use what you own. Keeping dry and warm is what you want to concentrate on. Don't wear wet clothes. Do wear items made of polypropylene, wool, or fleece; they keep you warmer if you get wet.
Communication - Your cell phone will work as long as the batteries are charged, but portable phones won't. The handset may be charged, but the base needs to be plugged into an electrical plug. So to keep up with what's happening and to contact friends and family, you may want to consider getting a land line phone. These are the cheap models that have no electrical plug. They only have a phone line jack and will work as long as the phone lines haven't been cut. Land line phones generally cost $10 or less. Another option is a battery or wind up solar radio. They cost about $30.
First Aid Kit - Include bandages, tape, and sanitary napkins (excellent dressings for larger cuts). Most of us have these items available.
Non-Perishable Food Items - If you stock up when you buy groceries and use them in the course of normal meal preparation, you'll always have a supply on hand.
Cooking Facilities - You will need something to cook on or, at the minimum, boil water. Alcohol stoves are recommended. Camping stoves, heaters, and BBQs are for outdoor use. Never use them in the house. A full-sized alcohol fondue, which can boil water and heat canned goods, costs around $30. For bigger budgets, marine stoves (alcohol fueled) are very compact and useful for inside applications.
Flashlights, Batteries, Matches, and Lighters - Candles are dangerous. Kids and pets can knock them over and cause fires, unless you have a really good candle holder. Flashlights with batteries stored separately are recommended. Matches and lighters should be available in most of our homes. Make sure you have enough. The matches won't cost you a penny if you start picking them up at restaurants and bars. The cost of batteries, lights and lighters will depend on how many and what sizes you need.
Tarps and Plastic Sheets - These are useful for waterproofing and repairing damaged windows or even as makeshift rain ponchos. They can be bought in prepackaged sizes or by the yard. Make sure you get a heavy duty grade.
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