Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why You Should Have a 72-Hour Kit

When my daughters were about nine and six years old, we lived in a four-plex apartment building. There were two units on the second floor and two units on the main floor, one of which was ours, the other belonging to a cop. In the basement, was a storage area for all the tenants, and a laundry hook-up for the cop’s unit. Only he had access to the basement from his apartment. The rest of us had to go outside the building and down some stairs to gain entrance.

I was sitting alone, curled up on my living room couch, reading. It was close to midnight so the girls had been asleep for a few hours. I became vaguely aware of a steady humming noise, but couldn’t quite place the source. I ignored it for a few minutes until it became more annoying. I walked around my apartment, trying to determine where it wailed the loudest. Finally, I went into the bathroom and noticed that the noise was a lot louder there. I looked out the window, but could see nothing out of the ordinary. I bent down and realized I could hear the hum grow louder. I put my ear to the heater vent on the floor and could plainly hear a smoke alarm in the basement. From room to room I went, putting my ear to the heater vent. Soon smoke started coming up through the vents as well and I knew that it was time to get out. I quickly called 911 and went to the girls’ room to try to wake them. I had to start dragging them from their beds before they understood the urgency.

With as much calmness as I could muster I said, “Get your packs and go outside to the meeting place! I’m going to get my pack.”

They scrambled to the floor, got their backpacks from under their bunk beds. Together, we walked to the front yard of a neighbor’s house, which was our designated meeting place for emergencies. I wanted to still “meet” in the designated spot so that it would become habit if they had to do it alone. We lived only a couple blocks from one of the city fire stations so by the time I had gotten the girls out, the fire department had already arrived and was checking the other apartments.

A neighbor lady let us go inside her house to wait out the situation. I felt somewhat calm, knowing that no matter how the night ended, I was prepared.

In each girl’s backpack were emergency items. A change of clothing. Socks. Underwear. Shoes. Sample size shampoo, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush. A few toys. A jar of coins valued at about $12 for vending machines, phone calls or necessary purchases. A comb and brush. Paper and a pencil. Scissors. A needle and thread. Non-perishable food, including candy. A water bottle. Toilet tissue. Bandages. Phone numbers of relatives. A small fleece blanket. A rain poncho. Plastic utensils. A can opener. A flashlight. Mine was similarly packed, but with more items and more money.

After about an hour, we were told that it was safe to go back inside our home. Apparently the cop started a load of laundry in the dryer before he left for work, and the dryer caught on fire. Aside from a smoky smell throughout the building, the fire had been contained inside the dryer. We were very lucky.

My inspiration for having a 72 hour Emergency Kit

Other people have no been so lucky, and it was their misfortune that prompted me to start 72-hour packs for our family.

In May, 1990, I was living in Sioux City, Iowa. Through the west side of town runs Perry Creek which winds through business areas and backyards. On May 19 at around 1:00 a.m. because of heavy rains, the creek rushed over its banks, flooding the area. Many residents wakened to find their beds in three feet of water. Rescue workers went door to door in boats, trying to waken those still sleeping. I remember seeing pictures in the local newspaper of people in wet pajamas, standing on their roofs, waiting for help.

Most of those rescued were taken to the nearest large facility, which was West High School. They stood, cold and wet, on the gymnasium floor, trying to make temporary living arrangements. Many things stood out to me during the subsequent television and newspaper interviews.

The people were wet and miserable.

They remarked that they only had time to grab their eyeglasses or their pets or their children or their shoes.

Since they were in pajamas, many felt exposed and “naked.”

Children were crying because they were cold and hungry.

The adults, having no change on hand, couldn’t even use the vending machines to abate their hunger.

Many couldn’t remember their relatives’ phone numbers.

Infants had no diapers or formula.

I had heard before of people packing 72-hour kits and many of my friends already had them prepared. If people have time to grab their children and pets and shoes and glasses, wouldn’t they also have time to grab an already packed 72-hour kit? A kit containing a change of dry clothes, needed medication, spare contact lenses, coins for the vending machines, a list of important phone numbers, baby food and diapers? How much more comfortable would these people have been, knowing that the things they would need to get them through the crisis were already on their backs in a backpack?

Why 72 Hours?

Most emergencies that would cause you to evacuate your home, last for approximately 24-72 hours. This can include flooding, fire, earthquake, tornado, gas leak, or other disasters. The kit is not a panacea for all emergencies, but it can be a comfort, knowing that no matter what happens, you will be dry, clean, and fed. Even something as simple as being able to brush your teeth and put on deodorant can do wonders during a time of stress. At the end of 72 hours you most likely will know whether or not you can ever return to your home.

What goes in your kit?

I have found that the LDS church is the champion of 72-hour kit preparedness. For a great list on what you should have, go here. Of course any list needs to be adapted to the needs of your own family. Small children who can walk are capable of carrying a tiny pack on their backs. Mom and Dad will need to carry the excess for them, for infants, and for those whose disabilities prevent them from carrying their own.

For this reason, I pack my own, instead of buying pre-packaged 72-hour kits. If you have a ten year old girl who can’t live without her crossword puzzles, by all means stick a few in her pack. For your toddler who walks around all day saying “cracker, cracker,” make sure you have some. Remember that for growing children, you should store clothing that is at least six months larger than what they are currently wearing. Better to wear something a little too large than something they can’t squeeze into.

Many of the things that go in your kit can be found around the house without too much extra expense. Every time I receive a mail sample of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, or feminine products, guess where it goes? If expense is a problem, then at least do something. If you can’t yet afford a backpack for every member, then at least do a boy scout-type bedroll, rolling everything inside a fleece blanket, secure with safety pins. If you can’t afford that, then wash out a plastic mayonnaise jar and stuff it with money, portable toothbrush, needle, thread, pocketknife, a granola bar, tissues, bandages, phone numbers, a mini-flashlight or whatever else will fit in that small jar. Our family did not go all out on buying things all at once. We used the girls’ too-beat-up-for-school backpacks and put things in there one at a time. The priority is usually food and water.

Where to store?

Shortly after I had prepared my own kits, one for each member of my family, I watched on television as hundreds of people in California left their homes due to wildfires. Many had the same story—they had to leave in a hurry, only having time to grab essentials such as shoes, car keys, kids and pets. In a time of urgent departure, you don’t always have time to think of everything you might need. For that reason, the best time to prepare for a rapid exit is now.

Where do you keep your 72-hour kits for that rapid exit? Many people vary in their preferences. Some families prefer to keep them in the car, since if they have to flee, most likely they are fleeing by car. Others keep them in shelves by the door, ready to grab on the way out. Still others store each person’s kit in a different spot in the house, assuming that the odds of at least 1-2 kits making it out of the house are better than if they were all stored in the same place. Others keep two kits for each family member—one in the car and one in the house. It’s really up to you and the needs of your family.

That old cliché---Better Safe than Sorry!

Sure, chances are you may never need to use that kit. In the past fifteen years, I have had to only use mine once. But we all saw the Katrina disaster on TV. Ask any survivor what they would have given to have had fresh clothing, drinkable water, some food to give their hungry babies, some toilet paper and a toothbrush. I’m sure you’ll agree that having a few supplies on hand is well worth the effort.


  1. Randi, thank you so very much for this post! I'm going to print it out and start working on our kits right away. I have wondered about the panic that would set in during an emergency. It would be comforting to know that we would have some basic essentials on hand when we would have to evacuate.

  2. septembermom: You are so welcome! I am so happy that you are going to start working on yours already. Mine gave me so much comfort the night of our fire. The girls, knowing that there were granola bars in their packs, asked if they could have one while we sat at the neighbor's house waiting. So even while we sat, wondering if we would ever see anything of ours again, I was able to keep two small girls from panicking. They loved knowing that they still had some of their 'stuff' with them. Now that my older daughter is married and has two kids of her own, she has continued the practice. You'll have to let me know how it goes!

  3. Well done Randi...a great post.

    As I'm LDS I'm all prepared...I think! I hope! I'd better check!

  4. Ken: I'm grateful that all my LDS friends are way ahead of the game! That makes fewer friends I have to worry about! :)

  5. I've always had a list of what to grab in order of priority (comes from living in hurricane alley) and it's pretty much my irreplaceable stuff first.

    I back up our computers routinely and we are purchasing a water and fireproof backup. As long as I have our family filing (two boxes), our wallets, my viola and violin, our backup, and our "sentimental" stuff (three boxes)we could start over. We can have those out of the house in three minutes.

    It's probably different when you have kids but right now our emergency plan focuses on those particular items rather than comfort.

    Once we get the new backup, I want to digitize our "sentimental" stuff and our filing so that we are even more lightweight.

    The meetup place is PERFECT.

  6. Hayden: Wonderful advice on remembering to back up your computer regularly! That's great that you have all your stuff prioritized and ready to roll in case of emergency. [That's why I never recommend commercially pre-packed 72 hour kits--each family knows what's important to them.] And I love the idea of digitizing everything. How great would that be to have all your family's SSN's, birth certificates, marriage licenses,family pictures and other important documents all on one lightweight disk? Thanks for the valuable input, Hayden.

  7. Wow - what wonderful piece of practical advice! (I can see why you and Hayden get on so well!) We have to think practically about potentially tough situations like this so we're free to live with as little anxiety as possible.

    Don't laugh, but in addition to an emergency bag, my handbag is a scaled down version of many folks' 72 hour bags, and it's one of the things I'd grab anyway. I need to take medicine every day, so there are always extras there plus tiny toiletries and a mini first aid kit. There's also a mini battery charger for my mobile phone and 4 spare batteries! If I had a blackberry, it'd be in there too!

    I'd also recommend folk carry a keyring wih a little digital photo frame in it if they don't have photos in their handbag or phone. If a child gets lost in a panicky crowd, it's useful to have.

    Because we fly every year, packing Day 1 holiday essentials into a carry on back pack is a habit in case suitcases go AWOL. Every family member has one and we each carry water, nuts, a book and a wee mini fan too.

    In a similar vein,to help clients focus on what's important to them, I often ask what they'd take with them if they had 15 minutes to pack for a new life. As I get older, my list has gotten smaller but my kids' still have their teddies on theirs. We've nearly finished uploading all of our music onto MP3.

  8. Janice: You are the Queen of Preparation! I'm not laughing at your purse because mine is very similar. In fact, I was at a baby shower recently where they played a game and checked to see whose purse weighed the most. I tied with another gal at six pounds.

    I love love love your idea of keeping a picture of your child on a keyring. In case you get separated, that is invaluable. It also helps prove the child is yours in case of kidnapping at the store. Sad to have to worry about that.

    That's a great exercise asking your clients what they would take if they had 15 minutes. It really helps you determine what you really need and what you just want--although I do recommend taking along a few wants, especially for kids.

    I've really gotten some good advice in these comments! Anyone else?


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