One of the most enduring images that shows a lack of preparation for emergencies is the too-frequent scene of people standing in floodwaters desperate for the delivery of bottled water. Granted, flood waters are dangerous and they should be your last resort, but they are usable if you have a little knowledge and a little prep.

There are three things that make any water dangerous whether it’s a flooded river or a stagnant pond.

  • solid matter – sand, dirt, algae and other debris suspended in the water
  • chemicals – in flood waters the most common danger is oil and gas that’s coming off flooded streets or out of storage containers
  • pathogens – bacteria and viruses, everything from cryptosporidium to E. coli may be present in contaminated water.

The first threat, solid matter, is the easiest to deal with.  Some will simply settle out if the water is left still for a period of time.  A good filter will remove most solid matter and often the dirt or other suspended matter is unpalatable but not dangerous.

The second threat, chemicals, is a serious concern.  Any attempt to clean contaminated water must include filter material capable of a absorbing chemical contaminants.  Activated charcoal is the most common means of dealing with chemicals.

The third threat, pathogens, are also a serious issue and are most often addressed using chemical purification or boiling, though UV sterilizers are also becoming more common.

The most common way to prepare for dealing with water purification is to have a filter on hand.  Whether it’s a big home-installed system like a Berkey or a small backpacker model like an MSR, these provide filtration and purification on demand.  However, it’s worthwhile to spend a little time learning how to build a filter from scratch to meet emergency or on-going needs.

One common and easy-to-build design is to fill a container with layers of sand (to provide filtration of solid matter) and charcoal (to absorb chemical contaminants).  Often layers of pebbles or cloth are used to stabilize the other layers so you don’t end up with channels that allow water to flow through without going through all layers.  These materials can be layered into any container that you can pour water through.  A bucket with an outlet on the bottom is ideal and allows you to pour water in the open top and collect filtered water flowing out the bottom.  You can even build a water filter like this from a water bottle.  Instructables has a nice page detailing one method.  Practical Primitive has another.

It’s important to note that the charcoal used in this type of filter is not the same as the compressed charcoal briquettes you buy for cooking on a charcoal grill.  Briquettes are made by compressing charcoal, but you have no idea what original source material was used to create the charcoal.  If you’re using it for fuel, the requirements are much less stringent than if you’re using it to filter water.  You can buy bulk bags of activated charcoal to keep on hand.  It’s used in many types of filtration systems, and places like aquarium supply houses provide it in bulk at a reasonable price.  Alternatively, you can make your own charcoal buy burning wood and smothering the fire before it completely burns.  This technique allows you to create the charcoal you need from a known-clean source of wood.  Always use wood you can trust, not things like building materials that might contain treatment chemicals.

The last threat, pathogens, can be addressed by adding chemicals like bleach or boiling.  A DIY filter doesn’t help with this step, but if you can build a filter that removes debris and chemicals, removing the pathogens is straightforward.  In addition to boiling or using a product like Aquapure, you might even use your backup filter, something like the MSR, which will remove many pathogens.  Using the homemade sand-charcoal filter first will help lengthen the lifespan of your filter cartridges.



If you’re a geek, you’re probably already aware of the TWiT network and the great podcasts available there.  In addition to the great news podcasts like This Week in Tech and Tech News Today, they have a fairly new one called Know How.  The most recent episode focused on tech for preparing for disasters.  While much of it was discussing other resources like, they did have a few tips, a look at some emergency bag items.  It’s worth a listen for a few pointers and discussion of priorities.


Disaster preparedness is always a hot topic leading up to a big storm. As hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast, every media outlet had checklists and tips for being prepared. Everyone rushed to stock up on supplies and learn how to handle the aftermath. That’s great, but the time to prepare is NOW, after the storm, before the next one, BEFORE THE NEED.

There’s a great article at Natural News talking about the politics of emergency response and the mentality of too many people who rely on government help.  Whether we continue to have FEMA and other federal resources or those functions return to the state and local level, individual preparedness is still important.  I’m a firm believer in having some government response, whether it’s FEMA or state level, because it’s just not reasonable to expect a major response to hinge on individual effort.  The citizens of NYC are not going to pool their resources to pump the water out of the flooded subway, and if we expect them to be self-sufficient in this kind of situation, we need to abolish FEMA and other resources in a time when they’re not needed and let communities prepare.  That said, I also believe that big government response should be focused on things like infrastructure problems and not getting food and water to refugees except in the most dire circumstances.  People need to fend for themselves and not rely on government to bring them “room service” every time there’s inclement weather.

For all those people who were shaken out of their comfort zone by hurricane Sandy, the time to prepare is now.  Please don’t return to business as usual.  Think ahead to the next inevitable storm.  Think about what you’ll need and how to have it on hand so you’re not rushing to Walmart at the eleventh hour for bottled water and canned goods. We’ve covered ways to make prepping food and water easy and affordable so your readiness is part of your routine.




Storing food is an important part of any preparedness plan.  A storm like hurricane Sandy should make this all the more obvious.  Everyone should have at least a few days if not a few weeks of food set aside for times when they can’t get out to big box stores and the neighborhood bodega is under water or blown away.

Storing food need not be a huge financial burden.  Yes, you could get online and find places selling military MREs and other specialized food with very long shelf life, but for many of us it’s not practical to have hundreds or thousands of dollars invested in food set aside for emergencies.  A much more pragmatic plan for most of us is to make minor adjustments in our day-to-day shopping to build up a surplus supply.

Step 1:  Make a list -  go through your pantry and identify the things you eat on a regular basis that are candidates for stocking up.  This includes everything you use that has a long shelf life.  List the things like peanut butter, canned goods, soup, beans, rice and pasta.  Obviously things like fresh fruit and most dairy products are not on this list, but look at those items and think about how you could occasionally substitute something with shelf life like dried fruit, canned veggies and powdered milk.  The key is to put things on the list that you’ll still use on a regular basis, not things that will sit at the back of the pantry unused and eventually spoil.  Don’t forget things that might seem like “luxury” items which will be critical in making an extended outage more livable, things like coffee, chocolate and any other treats that relieve your stress.

Step 2:  Buy two – when you go shopping, every time you buy something on the list from step 1, buy two.  Alternatively, buy big.  Instead of buying the one-pound bag of rice, buy the 20-pound bag and just fill a smaller container or ziplock bag for everyday use.  It’s that simple, just buy a little extra when you can.  This spreads out the cost of prepping so it doesn’t bust your budget and makes it an easy adjustment to your existing routine.

Step 3:  Rotate – put the new groceries behind the older ones you already have so you’re constantly rotating through your surplus and nothing spoils.  Most items make this easy by printing a use-by date on the can or package.  If you pay just a little attention to how you stock your shelves and choose which items to use, everything in your pantry will rotate through use and never go bad.

Depending on your needs and what types of situations you’re preparing for, you may be fine with a couple of extra cans of chili and a big bag of rice, or you may need several weeks of food stocked up.  Whatever your requirements, simply building a surplus of your usual food is the easiest, cheapest and most effective way to start building an emergency food supply.



With Hurricane Sandy slamming the east coast, evacuations and power outages are already in full force.  We’ve covered a lot of storm prep tips before and the news is full of checklists to help.  As often as I’ve done storm prep, I ran across a little twist on a common tip that was worth sharing.

I have a few water bottles half full of water in my freezer.  Usually I just use these on hot days, topping them off with water so I can have a cold water bottle on a hike, but they’re also useful for detecting a power outage.  Any time I leave for an extended period, I turn one of these bottles upside down in the freezer.  When I come home, if it’s like I left it then everything is fine.  If the power went out for any amount of time, the ice would have at least partially melted and fallen to the bottom.  This could leave the bottle in one of four states:

  • power wasn’t out for long, bottle never thawed, everything is fine,
  • power was out long enough for the ice to start to thaw, the ice “let go” from the top of the bottle but is still a chunk at the bottom, maybe the melted part is still water or refroze.  This means the power was out for a while but items in the freezer didn’t fully thaw and are probably safe.
  • power was out long enough to melt the water and it’s still liquid.  This would be obvious even without the bottle, the contents of the freezer may not be safe.
  • power was out long enough to melt the water but refroze.  This is the condition you’re really using this trick to detect because you might not notice that the power had been out long enough to thaw the freezer but was back on and refroze before you returned.  The contents of the freezer may not be safe.

This is a pretty common tip for storm prep and I know a lot of people who use it.  The twist I saw this week was a guy who had not planned ahead to freeze bottles half full of water so he just left a bowl of ice cubes in the freezer.  His ice trays might thaw and refreeze without him noticing, but if the cubes in the bowl thawed, he’d come back to a bowl of water (maybe refrozen) rather than individual cubes.  This is a quick and easy version of the half-full water bottle trick that doesn’t require any advance planning.


With tropical storm Isaac bearing down on the Gulf coast, it’s the perfect time to review your storm preparation whether you’re in the path or not.  Here’s five things that should be top of your list:

5.  Fill your gas tank

This should be routine, but some people don’t bother to fill the tank until they’re running on empty.  Make sure you’re topped off in case you have to leave or if supplies are limited in the wake of the storm.

4.  Store some water

We’ve already covered storing water.  Hopefully you have a few gallons per person set aside.  Anytime storm water rises, municipal supplies may be compromised.  Double up on your regular supply just in case and you can always use it up slowly if you don’t need it.

3.  Store some food

Keep in mind that you may have to do without power for a while.  Those frozen pizzas can be hard to cook over a camp stove.  Make sure you have some non-perishable food that doesn’t require a lot of preparation.  Fruit, nuts, hard cheeses and crackers are perfect storm food.  Keeping some of your favorite candy around is a great way to raise your mood in a crisis.

2.  Fill your freezer

This can go hand in hand with storing some extra food, but just putting some bottles of water in your freezer can help in several ways.  Your freezer is more efficient when it’s full, and that extra ice will keep your food cold if the power fails.  Make sure you use clean bottles so you can drink the water as it melts, and don’t overfill the bottles so they don’t burst as the ice expands.

1.  Evacuate

If you’re in the path of the storm, get out of the way.  Very few people who evacuate end up regretting it, and many people who decide to ride out a storm end up realizing it was a bad decision.  Unless you’re a thrill-seeker looking for new adventures, get yourself and the people who depend on you to safety.

Whether or not Isaac reaches hurricane status, it’s going to cause flooding and wind damage along a large swath of the Gulf Coast and there will be more storms coming behind it.  Now is the time to review your preparations and make sure you’re ready.




We had a nice thunderstorm yesterday, full of lightning and hail.  It was a beautiful spectacle to watch while sitting safely under cover with friends, but it was a reminder that the season for summer storms is here.  Where I live, our biggest threat is a hailstorm and the result is rarely more than property damage.  This time of year we’re more concerned about high winds and wildfires.  But there are many places where summer brings torrential rains and flooding, tornadoes, and hurricanes.

The web is full of lists to help you prepare for storms.  NOAA and the Red Cross have great general lists.  The NAIC has a list focused on preparedness from a property damage and insurance standpoint.  Wired Magazine has a list for people who are as much concerned with keeping their phone charged as they are with food and water.

Reading a few lists might give you some ideas, but the best preparedness is to look at your own situation, think through the risks, and role play what you would do and need during and after a storm.  Every situation is different, and you’re better served by thinking through your own preparedness rather than using someone else’s list as gospel.

The first storm of the season is a good reminder to check your water, food and batteries.  Are you ready?



A wealth of great food can be found in less-than-perfect condition.  Over on scienceblogs, there’s a great post about salvaging produce in the wake of a flood.  Sharon makes the important point that produce doesn’t have to look good to be healthy and appetizing.

We’re all about preparing for disasters, being self sufficient, and making use of our resources, but I have to admit that it never occurred to me to turn a flood into a goldmine by visiting local farms and buying their produce before it ruins.  Recovering from disasters and managing your resources doesn’t stop at your front door.  By helping these farmers, you not only get a bounty of produce now but you make sure the local farms recover more quickly and continue to be a resource for your area.

What do you think?  Please use comments to share any other great tips for helping your community in the wake of a disaster.


Hurricane Irene was not as severe as many people expected, though both the loss of life and property damage make is a significant storm.  In the aftermath, many people who prepared for the storm are left with supplies they don’t need and this is a problem for several reasons.

First, if you prepare in a rush before a storm and end up not needing it, it may discourage preparation for the next event.  Worse still, your supplies may be wasted if they were bought in a rush and aren’t the type you can store indefinitely so they don’t even contribute to you building real preparedness when no emergency is imminent.

Over at TheGreenMiles, there’s a great article on how stocking up on bottled water before a storm is wrong in a couple of ways.  They make an interesting point that water may not be your most urgent need during and after a storm and believe that making sure you can keep your cell phone charged may be a higher priority.  I think it’s a good point from the standpoint of analyzing what the realities of an emergency are likely to entail but I think it goes a bit to far.  It seems to miss the basic risk assessment regarding what happens if you’re not prepared.  Yes, it may be more likely you’ll lose power than water, but the downside of doing without your cell phone for a couple of days is not as dire as doing without water.  You can construct scenarios where you hang on without fresh water but need to call in help for a medical emergency, but I think most situations would favor preparing the basics (shelter, food and water) before worrying about power.

In the end, it doesn’t have to be an either-or decision.  If you prepare your plan in advance, review a number of preparedness checklists for ideas, and stockpile over time, you can prepare for lots of different situations without putting a huge dent in your wallet or rushing around in a panic in advance of a storm.


Hurricane IreneAs Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast, a lot of people are getting their introduction to emergency preparation. With a hurricane, there is a lot of advance warning, and for people in the projected path there is a big decision whether to evacuate or ride it out.

One state governor was on the news urging evacuation.  For those staying behind, he had only the following advice:  “the first 72 are on you”.  This is the basic YOYO (you’re on your own) emergency response program most people advocate as the only practical response to natural disasters.

A lot of citizens interviewed by on the news were intent on riding out the storm.  Many said simply “this is our home, we’re staying” but I suspect the real reasons are more complicated.  In many cases, families don’t have the financial ability to evacuate.  Yes, they might be able to stay in shelters instead of hotels, but with gas, food, and other travel expenses, it’s much more expensive than staying home.  Another, much more dangerous reason that people don’t evacuate is the pervasive feeling that “it won’t happen to me”.  Too many people think they’re bulletproof.

In 2005, I rode out Hurricane Rita in Texas.  Coming in the wake of Katrina, no one took this storm for granted, but I thought we were far enough inland and far enough off the projected path that we’d be fine.  Rita was still a class 1 hurricane when it came right over my house.  My family spent the day nervously watching the pine trees bent sideways over our house.  We were reasonably well prepared with food and water and we rode out the storm just fine.  However, in the aftermath of the storm, many of our friends and neighbors evacuated when they realized the storm itself was just the beginning.  Faced with several days with no electricity or running water, compounded by typical East Texas summer heat and humidity), many people left their homes and delayed their cleanup until services were restored.

When planning for any emergency, it’s important to take into account the big picture.  Riding out a hurricane requires a certain type of preparation, gathering supplies, boarding up windows, etc. but in addition to the storm, you need to be prepared not only with supplies but mentally and physically for the days afterward when you’re on your own.



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