Sensible Steps that Protect You from Natural Disasters and Terrorist Attacks




by Neal Rawls with Sue Kovach

General Preparations

Our lives were changed overnight by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Faced with new threats, it’s more important than ever to think ahead and have a plan. Our imaginations can create some pretty difficult scenarios, but visiting those thoughts is what makes them less scary, even if it’s only a little less so. We fear the unknown, and by at least contemplating the unknown, we can make some measure of preparation for dealing with it, should it ever become reality. We may find ourselves so bolstered by the planning that we not only see the possibility of survival, but embrace the possibility of emerging from the ordeal stronger than ever.

I got into a discussion about disaster preparation with some of my friends, and I asked them what they planned to do if a disaster struck. They told me they were all coming over to my house. That was both flattering and frightening to me. I was glad to hear that they thought my preparedness was thorough and viable. But living in south Florida, where hurricanes are a way of life, it surprised me that these people hadn’t taken some very basic measures to help get themselves through a disaster. I told them they really need to make their own plans, because there’s not room for everybody at my place.

Years ago when I was a cop, I was the civil defense liaison between the police department and other city services. I attended regular planning meetings for man-made catastrophes and natural disasters, the latter of which is a big topic in south Florida. I learned that preparations for various disaster scenarios are very much the same, because the aftermath of many such disasters is similar. A large tornado, a natural gas explosion, a bomb detonating in a building—if you’ve seen news images of these occurrences, think about how much alike they look in the aftermath. Destruction of property, injuries, utilities going out of service, inability to reach victims, lack of supplies all these things happen. With this in mind, a good place to start your disaster planning is with some basic measures that can provide for your safety and security in more than one possible situation.

Disasters, either man-made or natural, often put you in a position of being isolated in your home for a period of time, either by choice or by necessity. Whether it’s earthquakes or tornadoes, winter storms or hurricanes, floods or even volcanic eruptions, the basic preparations you make should be geared toward that scenario of isolation and shelter.

What about the new disasters everyone currently fears? Terrorism, biological attack—our country has already been a victim of these. Going through that difficult period has made everyone think about preparedness. Just as basic personal security practices can help you in many situations, you can also extrapolate basic disaster preparations to cover scenarios of terrorism and chemical or biological attack.

First, a word about survivalists and disaster preparation: Being prepared for major disasters does not automatically make you a survivalist. I bring up this point only because the term can have negative connotations, and I don’t want people to think negatively about being prepared. You’re not crazy, kooky, nutso, or "out there" because you’re thinking ahead, gathering a few supplies, and making plans in case of disaster. To me, it doesn’t make you a survivalist, but it does go a long way toward making you a survivor.

I couldn’t ever call myself a survivalist, even though I certainly put survival high on my list of things to do in case of disaster. I’m not cut out for the survivalist lifestyle—I like restaurants, pizza delivery, movies, friends, and bookstores too much to live in the wilderness. But I do like to think I’m a survivor, so I definitely have a disaster plan.

Think the Unthinkable

Some of the topics covered in this section used to be unthinkable.  You still may not want to think about them. But remember that if you think things through and have a plan, decision making at the time of a disaster can come easier, quicker, and with more confidence. Training and mentally planning for possible situations must go hand in hand. Well-trained people can still freeze up if they haven’t made a mental plan to cover whatever might occur.

When I make my plans, I start with an assumption that has proved itself out over and over: that people in this country are pretty resilient, and they pull together when disaster strikes.  Whether it’s a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, people in one part of the country immediately begin working to help those in the stricken area. With this in mind, my basic disaster plan covers the survival of my loved ones and me for at least one week without outside assistance, and does so as comfortably as possible. This basic plan assumes that we will "shelter in place," which is take shelter at home rather than to evacuate, and that outside help will come within one week.

Start by identifying what emergencies you are most likely to face. This can help you in assembling your emergency supplies.  I keep certain emergency supplies on hand at all times.  There’s nothing wrong with stocking up on a few things, and not having to rush out to procure supplies when a threat approaches. In fact, as you go through this list, you may find that you already have a number of these items on hand and, in fact, use them in your everyday life. This can make disaster planning easier.  

Top Ten Disaster Supplies

1.   Camp stove with fuel.

A portable camping stove with an emergency supply of fuel is easy to store, and an absolute must if you have to shelter in place and utilities are out of service. I have two small single-burner camping stoves—one that burns white gas and the other, propane. Any good-quality portable stove will do. I like propane because it’s safer to store extra fuel than having cans of gas around. But I have one of each because in an emergency, you can’t be sure which fuel might be easier to obtain. Better to cover all bases. Avoid charcoal stoves—you can’t use them in a closed space because they generate deadly carbon monoxide.

2.   Water-storage containers.

I have three plastic five-gallon jugs stored empty and out of the way in the back of a closet. When a hurricane is approaching, I fill them up—along with my bathtub—and don’t have to run out to buy bottled water. Additionally, I’ve stored a couple of filled gallons of water, just in case a disaster strikes suddenly, with no warning. The rule of thumb on water rationing is one gallon of water per day per person. I drink a lot of water, so I plan on two gallons a day per person.

Along with water, I keep at least one gallon of unscented bleach. It’s an inexpensive and reliable disinfectant that can also be used to purify water in an emergency.  It’s generally advised to use sixteen drops of bleach per gallon of water, and never more than thirty-two drops per gallon. If you plan to measure anything in drops, it helps to keep an eyedropper around, too.

3.   Food.

Emergency food should consist of items that store easily and have a long shelf life. Better yet, consider foods you have around the house all the time and consume and replace regularly. I’ve never stashed away canned meats or other strange items I don’t ordinarily eat. I figure if a disaster strikes, why force myself to eat lousy food? A lot of foods I eat regularly are easily stored and cooked, so I include them in my emergency food stores. The list consists of: pasta, tomato sauce, smoked oysters, cereal, beans, rice, coffee, tea, and the few canned vegetables and soups I do like. With a stove, water, and fuel to cook with, I can eat pretty much as I usually do. When storing canned goods, don’t forget to include a manual can opener!

4.   Duct tape and garbage bags.

Duct tape is a wonderful product that has a multitude of uses. It can help keep your windows from shattering in a strong wind, or help to seal a room in the event of a chemical attack. Garbage bags are for garbage. You don’t know how long it might be until trash pickup resumes, so having good, sturdy garbage bags can help make life much less smelly. They have many other uses as well, such as sealing off openings or serving as makeshift ponchos in bad weather.

5.   First-aid supplies.

My medicine cabinet is my first-aid kit. A lot of the things you keep around on a daily basis can also serve you as a disaster first-aid kit. I always have the following items on hand: adhesive bandage strips, antibiotic ointment, aspirin, gauze, iodine, hydrogen peroxide, eye drops, antidiarrhea medication, tweezers, and other items that people should probably have on hand anyway.  If you have those basic items, you don’t need a separate first-aid kit.

Additional items I like to have include a package of two-part temporary tooth cement, a brand my dentist recommended. This stuff has saved members of my family a painful weekend on several occasions. I also keep several surgical masks, which are useful if I ever have any sanding to do as well. I try to not run low on the items I do keep, and therefore I don’t feel the need to have a first-aid kit. I do have a small travel first-aid kit, however, with fewer items; it’s reserved for travel use.

6.            Custom-need items.

Everyone has certain specific needs that will have to be met during an emergency. You’ll need to have a week’s supply of these items on hand as well. These might include pet food, toiletries and personal hygiene items, prescription medications, disposable contact lenses, vitamin supplements, baby formula and diapers, denture products—anything that might be important to you. For things like this, take time to figure out how much lasts you for a week. Then, when you have that week’s supply on hand, you simply buy more. That way you’ll always have enough.

By the way, I also keep a few extra rolls of toilet paper stored in the closet. It’s just one of those things I don’t like to run out of. If you’re smoker, you might put away a week’s worth of cigarettes—one of the worst disasters I’ve experienced was going through a crisis with a smoker who hadn’t planned ahead.

7.   Battery-powered radio and batteries.

That boom box you take on picnics will do just fine if it can be run on batteries. No need to get something special. Just be sure to have plenty of extra fresh batteries on hand.

8.   Flashlight with batteries.

I keep a big flashlight near the door, probably one of those habits I have left over from being a cop. I also keep a few mini flashlights around the house, and one in every car. I get the type that use the same batteries I put in the TV, stereo, and VCR remote controls. When I have to replace the batteries in my remotes, I use the ones from my flashlights. This way I’m always putting fresh batteries into the flashlights.

9.   Sleeping bags.

I have one for every person in the house. They’re useful even if it’s just a case of the electricity going off on a cold night. Treat it like a camping trip—fire up the camping stove, make some hot chocolate, and crawl into the sleeping bags.

10. Cash.

I try to keep a few dollars around—not thousands, but enough to tide us over in case banks are closed or ATM machines don’t work. If you have a week’s worth of food on hand and a real emergency strikes, you probably won’t need too much money anyway.


It’s not that difficult to stock up with these supplies. You probably have most of them in your home already—you just never thought of them as "disaster supplies." The most you may need to buy is likely a camping stove, fuel, and some extra batteries.  Quilts and comforters can substitute for sleeping bags if you don’t have them. Increase your supply of unrefrigerated foods to last at least seven days, wash out and put away the one-gallon milk jugs for water storage, and you’re covered.  

Safe Rooms

If you haven’t chosen a safe room yet, consider an interior bathroom. This is what I use for a safe room. It has a toilet, the tub can be used for water storage, and it’s where my medicine cabinet—aka first-aid kit—is located. It’s an easy room to get to in case an intruder invades, it can be sealed off against chemical attack (using duct tape and the shower curtain or garbage bags), and it’s a good room to take refuge in if the roof happens to blow off during a hurricane. I don’t necessarily think I’ll ever need to use it for any of those reasons, but it’s in my plan because of the remote possibility that I might have to use it.


Vehicles as Places of Refuge

Unless you have a convertible, your vehicle—car, truck, SUV—may be an excellent place to take refuge in a number of emergencies.  You can put up the windows, close the vents, and turn off the air conditioner to keep chemicals and dust out. It offers safety from lightning in a storm, as long as flying debris doesn’t break a window.

Vehicles also offer some protection against fire. I know this firsthand. Someone once threw a Molotov cocktail onto my police car. It broke, igniting gasoline and spreading flames over the hood. I figured it was safer to stay in the car than to jump out and possibly get burning gasoline on my clothes, or have another Molotov cocktail thrown at my head. I rolled the window up, turned off the air conditioner, and kept driving. Even though wind fanned the flames, they quickly burned themselves out as the fuel was spent. It actually caused very little damage to the vehicle. But that flaming police car driving down the street must have been quite a sight!


Family and Loved Ones Contact Plan

Being separated from your loved ones during a disaster can cause a lot of anxiety and worry. When Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in 1992, one of my employees went through such an ordeal. His parents lived in Homestead, in the heart of the storm’s devastation. He had no idea if they were alive, injured, or unharmed—their telephone was out, and he had no other way of contacting them. Therefore he had little choice but to try to drive into the stricken area to find out if his parents were safe. He didn’t get far—the roads were blocked and the National Guard turned him back. Meanwhile, his parents were equally anxious to let him know they were all right. They had no phone or electricity, and their car had been destroyed, but otherwise they were safe and uninjured. They needed some supplies and hoped he could bring them these things as soon as the roads were open. In an effort to contact him, they walked several miles and eventually found a working pay phone. They tried to call him, and were surprised to find they could actually make a call out of Homestead. But they were unable to reach their son—though his home was far enough away from Miami to be undamaged, it was close enough to the storm that his phone lines were down as well. The result was a family in the dark about each other’s whereabouts, frantic to make contact but unable to leave word anywhere.

If we happen to be separated from our loved ones when disaster strikes, it can be a nightmare trying to find out if they’re safe and where they are. This doesn’t have to happen. Putting a family emergency contact plan in place can give everyone peace of mind.

Here’s how it works: You set up a contact hub, usually a close friend or family member who lives in another city or state.  You want someone who lives far enough away that a disaster in your area isn’t likely to affect that person. Now he’s your emergency communication center. If you’re separated from your family and can’t reach them during a disaster, you direct your communication efforts toward this person, as does everyone else in the family. The contact person can pass messages among you, and everyone can know each other’s whereabouts. You can reciprocate and serve as the contact person for your contact as well. Exchange all important phone numbers with each other—home, office, pagers, and cell phones for every member of your family. Don’t forget e-mail addresses. Interestingly, after the World Trade Center attack, it was nearly impossible to get a phone call into or out of the New York City area due to extreme call volume. Yet I exchanged many e-mails all day with friends who live in Manhattan. The Internet was still accessible, even though you couldn’t place a voice phone call.

The contact plan would have worked nicely for my friend and his family after the hurricane. If they had agreed on an out-of town contact person (way out of town in the case of Florida and hurricanes), they could have left messages for each other and eliminated a great deal of anxiety. The parents might have also gotten their much-needed emergency supplies a lot faster.

Speaking of New York, I want to mention another recent case of a couple who live in New Jersey and were in New York on business at the time of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. They were supposed to meet at the World Trade Center for a late lunch, then take the train back home together.  The couple have two grown children—a daughter who lives in California and travels as part of her job, and a son in the military.  (You might already see where this is going.) At the time of the terrorist attack, all four people were on the road, trying to call each other to find out if everyone was all right. Luckily they were all okay, but they spent a rather frantic day worrying and trying to contact each other—a day that could have been avoided if they had prearranged an out-of-the-area emergency contact person to call.


Communication Plans

What else can you do to plan for limited communication during a disaster? Here are some suggestions:

1.   Carry your out-of-town contact’s name and phone number in your wallet or purse. Use an "In Case of Emergency" card. Be sure your children have one as well. The out-of town name and number offers added security in case your child loses the card—there’s nothing a potential predator can use. But if police or other emergency personnel need to find you, they can still locate you through your out-of town contact.

2.   Set up an in-town contact person for emergencies, as well as a meeting place that’s not too close to your home. If something localized separates you, it may still be easy to make contact within your area. The plan can be as simple as saying: "If for any reason you can’t go home, go to Aunt Sara’s house across town."

3.   Set up a "fire" meeting place near your home. I’ve seen parents rush back into a blazing house because they thought a child was still inside. The child was outside and safe all along, but the parent couldn’t find him in the confusion.  As part of a complete fire safety plan, select a place to meet. It could be a neighbor’s house or the big elm tree half a block down the street. It may sound overly simple, but lives have been saved by designating such a meeting place.

From Be Alert, Be Aware, Have a Plan. Copyright © 2002 by Neal Rawls and Sue Kovach. Excerpted by arrangement with by The Lyons Press. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-243-0495 or click here.