Why You and Your Family are Probably Not Prepared for a Disaster

Based on her experiences as an emergency medical technician, emergency room technician and registered nurse, and having lived through hurricanes in her hometown of Long Branch, Tara Heagele believes that you and your family are probably unprepared for a natural disaster or other emergency situation.

Heagele is a doctoral student in the Rutgers School of Nursing. She has completed 13 emergency-preparedness certifications through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is a member of the Emergency Nurses Association. Heagele recently published an article on disaster preparedness in the American Journal of Public Health, as well as an article in Forbes magazine.
Here is why Heagele thinks you probably aren’t prepared for a disaster.

1. Disaster Kit Checklists: Do you have a disaster kit in your home? If so, what’s in it? Heagele found research studies showing that there are over 70 different checklists for disaster kits online and the only thing all of them have in common is water.
“When you’re telling people they need to prepare for disaster, they do a Google search. And then they come up with 70 different check lists. People are going to say ‘Who do I believe?’ ‘Why aren’t they agreeing on this?’ This inconsistent message means people can’t trust the information, and it confuses them.”

2. Disaster Preparedness Campaigns: Most campaigns advising people on how to prepare for a disaster are internet based, Heagele says: “That’s a problem because there are huge portions of the population that either don’t have access to the internet, or don’t frequently use the internet, and thus aren’t being reached by these campaigns. These are usually the people who have the worst outcomes in a disaster.”

3. Insurance Problems: For the elderly and medically frail, the risk increases. Heagele points out that some insurance companies only provide medication in 30-day supplies and, if a disaster strikes, patients may run out of their medication. Individuals on home oxygen may wind up in the hospital during disasters, because they use up all of their supply. Heagele says: “Many people who have medication pumps or need ventilators, or on other electronic medical devices at home have a real problem in a power outage. If their battery backups die, they all wind up in the hospital. And insurance does not cover generators.”

4. Medical-Needs Shelters: Medical-needs shelters are intended to provide shelter for medically frail people and their family or caretakers during a disaster or emergency situation. These shelters are intended to provide temporary care and housing for individuals with chronic medical conditions that require regular medical treatment that they can no longer get in their home due to the disaster situation. “In New Jersey, during Hurricane Sandy, we only opened up a few medical needs shelters in the entire state. If you’re living in a city, and you don’t have a car, you may not have the ability to get to those medical needs shelters. New Jersey also opened them up about three days after the disaster hit, so at that point, people are already in the hospital. I think the medical needs shelters should be mandatory in all communities and opened before predicted disasters, instead of days after, to be sure that they have that service there.”

5. There’s not a lot of intervention research on disaster preparedness. There is a lot of assessment research in terms of disaster preparedness, that is, who’s prepared and who’s not prepared for a disaster. But there is very little intervention research. Intervention research, for example, looks at if individuals are provided with emergency kits and medical needs shelters, does this help save lives? So there is little research to rely on when those in charge of emergency preparedness are working to improve their strategies and tactics.

Here’s what Tara Heagele has in her personal emergency kit, developed according to FEMA’s checklist:

Basic Disaster Supplies Kit

  • Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days
  • Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle to signal for help
  • Dust mask to help filter contaminated air and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter in place
  • Baby wipes
  • Garbage bags and plastic ties
  • Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  • Manual can opener for food
  • Local maps
  • Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar charger

Additional Emergency Supplies

  • Prescription medication and glasses
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet
  • Cash or traveler's checks and change
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container.
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person.
  • Complete change of clothing including a long sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes.
  • Household chlorine bleach.
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books and games

First Aid Kit

  • Sterile gloves
  • Sterile dressings to stop bleeding
  • Cleansing agent/soap
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Burn ointment
  • Adhesive bandages in a variety of sizes
  • Eye wash solution to flush the eyes or as general decontaminant
  • Thermometer
  • Non-prescription drugs:
    • Aspirin or non-aspirin pain reliever
    • Anti-diarrhea medication
    • Antacid
  • Scissors
  • Tweezers

For more information on disaster preparedness, view the FEMA website here.