How to prepare your family for an emergency or disaster

New Hampshire isn’t known for earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides or tornados. But we do have winter storms and hurricanes, and with them the potential for lengthy power outages, floods, and fires. You may even live near an industrial plant that could have an emergency.

There are different levels of emergency. Hurricanes and winter storms are forecasted, which gives you time to prepare. But there is minimal to zero warning when it comes to tornados, flash floods or gas explosions — such as those that rocked blocks of homes in Massachusetts and displaced homeowners for long periods of time last fall and winter.

Emergencies are unexpected with the potential for tragedy. The key to surviving is having a plan that involves the whole family that you can revisit and tweak as necessary.

What about the kids?

“Any emergency where you need to leave quickly, such as escaping during a fire, is scary,” Wendy Lapham, chief communications officer for the American Red Cross New Hampshire and Vermont Region, said.

But children who participate in American Red Cross emergency preparedness classes such as the Pillowcase Project or Prepare with Pedro can feel empowered, according to Lapham.

The Red Cross brings the message of fire safety home too, through the Home Fire Campaign, which helps families design escape plans.

“This is a great activity parents and children do together. This program, sponsored by all American Red Cross chapters, installs free smoke alarms in homes. We make an appointment to install them and help the family create an escape plan.

“Kids really like it,” Lapham said. “It gives them a sense of security, knowing if something happens, they’re prepared — a vital part of our mission.”

Prepare with Pedro is for children in kindergarten through second grade, and is about fire safety and prevention and other natural hazards; the Pillowcase Project, inspired by university students who carried their belongings in pillowcases while evacuating for Hurricane Katrina,  is geared toward third- through fifth-graders.

Abby Kelly is the School Safety Initiative Coordinator for the regional Red Cross. She implements preparedness programs throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, but is based in Nashua, which is where she goes into the elementary schools. In other areas, trained volunteers may lead the programs.

The American Red Cross New Hampshire and Vermont Region has 1,100 trained and dedicated volunteers across both states who respond to crises and empower and train others.

“The Pillowcase Project covers fire prevention, but also local hazards such as winter storms,” Kelly said. “We also teach kids how to be prepared by keeping our bodies calm in an emergency, through a breathing exercise.

“We do a breathing exercise because when our brains are calm, they work better. Kids seem to have a positive reaction” to it, Kelly said. They’re surprised they feel calmer, and it’s pretty amazing how easily it works, she added.

Pillowcases feature items to include and students decorate the outside as part of the hour-long curriculum. Each child gets a booklet.

Kelly has had parents tell her, “My child reminded me we should use a flashlight instead of a candle during a power outage.”

“That’s great that children can feel empowered to effect change in their own house, to make sure everybody is safe. These free programs are a great addition to Red Cross community-based programs,” she added.

We all hope to get through life without a major disaster. The Boy and Girl Scout motto, “Be prepared” is a reminder that anything can happen. Staying calm and knowing what to do goes a long way toward a successful outcome.

Have a plan and a ‘go bag’ 

There are numerous websites with specifics about what to pack and have available in case of an emergency. A few sites are below. Survival kits and “go” or “bug out” bags can include everything from a tent and water purification tables to food and water. Musts are matches in a waterproof container and a battery-operated radio with extra batteries.

Walmart sells a backpack for one that includes food, water and other essentials for a few days for about $60. Whether you buy one or assemble your own, every family has individual needs. If someone has a chronic illness such as asthma, diabetes, or a life-threatening allergy, have an extra inhaler, insulin, or EpiPen available. But these may have limited shelf life or need refrigeration. Your plan needs to account for your special circumstances.

A worst-case scenario might be a widespread disaster with children at school, and parents at work a distance away. If you can’t contact them and vice-versa, who else can be called? Is there a central message board? Where will you meet up?

If you’re displaced for a length of time without important records, what will you do? Today’s cloud-based applications and thumb drives can be lifesavers, if they are secure. The old standby, a safe deposit box, is still relevant for original documents and emergency cash if more than one person can access it.

You’ll also need what the Department of Homeland Security calls a “financial first aid kit” that includes account numbers.

Also keep in mind

Parents with older children away at school need to have a broader contingency plan that includes what to do without cell service. If phones are lost or destroyed, batteries dead or towers down, how will you access contacts and vital information?

Many shelters won’t accept pets (who should be microchipped in case you get separated). Horses and farm animals pose a greater planning challenge.

In any situation, it’s helpful to know first aid and CPR, and to have a first-aid kit available — even at the soccer game and in the car.

Mary Ellen Hettinger, APR is an award-winning reporter, editor and writer, and accredited public relations professional. She won a bronze award in 2017 from the Parenting Media Association for her news feature on perfluorochemicals in NH’s water supply.

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