Emergency Preparedness: What to Pack

Lori Booth-Houle CPA, CFP®

Jun 19, 2020

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst.

When my husband Craig and I moved from Vermont to Arizona nearly three decades ago, we counted ourselves lucky that we were moving from a state with very little exposure to natural disasters (if you don’t count the brutal winters) to another that was also fairly safe from earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and other emergency events that had the potential to upend life as we knew it.  Over the years we’ve seen increasing risk of wildfire in the Southwest, but even the fires in Arizona had always been a relatively distant experience.  That all changed on two hot, dry, windy days just two weeks apart last month, when disaster came too close for comfort.

Our first wake-up call was spending the entire evening of Sunday, May 17th in uneasy vigilance, watching the East Desert Fire scorch nearly 1,500 acres of pristine Sonoran Desert as it crept toward us over the mountains a few miles to the west of our neighborhood.  The firefighters worked extremely effectively to halt its progress on our side of the mountains, and when the fire was fully contained with no injuries or lives lost, and no primary structures burned, we breathed a sigh of relief.

And then it happened again, on Saturday, May 30th. This time the Ocotillo Fire sparked much closer to us, racing through neighborhoods just north of town, and at one point coming within two-thirds of a mile of our house. We watched in horror as thick black smoke arose from the neighborhood next to ours, indicating that another structure was going up in flames.  It took longer this time to contain, but the firefighters again persevered. In the end, no lives were lost and the acreage charred by this second fire was actually less than the first, but the toll on residential property was much greater—8 homes and 12 other structures burned. Left behind is a charred and devastating scar on a large swath of the natural landscape in our community. Our house and immediate neighborhood escaped unscathed, but the Ocotillo Fire’s victims were evacuated for 72 hours and many returned to find that although their houses were standing, they had significant smoke damage and their structures were now surrounded by a moonscape that will not repair itself in their lifetimes.

While a desert wildfire may never affect you, we’re all subject to various risks around emergencies that occur on short notice and demand action.  And as the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.

When seconds count, what’s your plan?

During both fires, Craig and I quickly and calmly packed for an evacuation, but it was a bizarre experience we had not planned in advance, and therefore one in which we weren’t completely logical about everything we chose to bring.  For example, I’m a big fan of workout videos to stay fit during our hot summers, so I spent a precious five minutes during the first fire trying to decide which ones I couldn’t live without if our house burned down.  Really?  I may have forgotten the dog’s food and water dishes, but at least I had six functional fitness, Tabata, and yoga videos (and no DVD player).  Lesson learned:  if it’s really an emergency, you’ll be in a rush, so make a plan ahead of time.

Personal Safety Comes First.

Obviously, the personal safety of you and your family is the highest priority—if you don’t take care of that, nothing else really matters. A few things to think about here: 

  • Local counties, cities and towns typically maintain an emergency alert system to which you can subscribe in order to receive emergency alerts, such as storm warnings or evacuation orders, by text or phone call. For instance, in Maricopa County, Arizona, landlines are automatically added to the Community Emergency Notification System (CENS), but you have to actively register a cell phone number, at Maricopa County CENS.  My town of Cave Creek uses the CodeRED Emergency Alert System, which requires a similar signup.  You should check your own county and city/town to see what alert systems they are using, and make sure you are registered to receive emergency alerts on both. (Do a web search for the name of your county and city/town along with the words “emergency alert system,” and you should easily find the information you’ll need to sign up.) 
  • Think about how you’ll keep your loved ones connected, before the emergency happens.  Identify where you can go, map out your route, and pre-arrange a designated place for everyone in your family to meet (this is all the more important and challenging in the era of COVID-19).  Put the plan in writing or better yet, in a prominent place on everyone’s phones along with pertinent addresses and phone numbers.

Making Your Plan.

When it comes to developing your emergency plan, there are many good resources and checklists available online.  Some of the most useful include the following:

Ready.gov – This robust website maintained by FEMA includes links for any type of disaster you could conceive of (and some you probably can’t).  Some of the most useful detail is under the Make a Plan menu, which also includes Financial Preparedness and Get Tech Ready links.  This website is worth your time, as you’re bound to discover valuable information you didn’t know.  (For example, FEMA has a mobile app for receiving National Weather Service alerts for up to five different locations in the U.S.—who knew?)

Red Cross – Get Help – A section called “Prepare for Emergencies” in the middle of this web page provides a number of links that will lead you to information about readiness preparation, a library of emergency resources, preparing an emergency plan for your pets, access to free mobile apps, and disaster preparation during COVID-19.

Insurance Information Institute’s Guide to Disasters + Preparedness – If you click on Other Topics near the top of this web page, you’ll find useful information such as a discussion of which disasters are covered by homeowners insurance policies (floods, earthquakes, terrorist acts, maintenance damage, and sewer backup are not), along with tips for making the claims process easier.  “Five Steps to Preparing an Effective Evacuation Plan” offers great information about how to plan for evacuation, how to create a home inventory, and what documents to bring with you.  (Also worth mentioning–verify that your homeowner’s policy covers replacement cost rather than actual cash value.)

Lastly, a Few Personal Observations About Packing Your “Go-Bag.” 

I can’t improve upon the useful resources in the websites linked above, but I can tell you a few things I realized when disaster nearly came knocking on our door not once, but twice, in the space of two weeks.

  • When it comes to important documents, I’m one of those annoying people who is pretty organized (my husband might say “over the top”), so I had all the most critical files already together in one spot and was able to grab them and throw them into a plastic bin for easy transport when we were packing for evacuation.  If you don’t have that kind of file system set up, just do it, because in the heat of the moment (no pun intended), you don’t want to have to deliberate about what to take and what to leave.  The checklists in the resource links above will help, and remember to focus on things that can’t easily be replaced—for example, it’s one simple phone call to get your brokerage account numbers or statements from your TCI advisor, but it’s a downright headache to replace your passport or birth certificate. 
  • Bring at least a few things that speak to you.  By this I mean photo albums, a favorite book, a musical instrument (keeping in mind that a piano will not fit in the trunk of your car), a small piece of art, or whatever else has special meaning and is part of who you are.  In our case, Craig and I packed photos of family and friends, and we took the time to load our mountain bikes on his truck, because those items are meaningful to us.

My hope is that you all stay safe and unaffected by disaster, but as we have seen so stunningly over the last four months, we can’t know the future, so it pays to plan.  Stephen King probably wasn’t the first to express it, but as he wrote in Different Seasons, “There’s no harm in hoping for the best as long as you’re prepared for the worst.”  

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