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Disasters and Your Family: Why to Be Prepared

​By: Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP

It's the 14th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That was a disaster that none of us will ever forget; the images of people stranded on rooftops and huddled in the Superdome are in our memories forever.

It was an extraordinary disaster, so extraordinary that it's easy to think: "Nothing like that will ever happen to my family." But the truth is that disasters do happen. We are in the midst of hurricane season now. There are wildfires raging in California. There have been tornadoss in the Midwest. Last winter brought record snowfall to many areas of the country.

Anything can happen!

Nobody likes to think about a disaster happening—but thinking about it is exactly what we need to do. Preparation makes all the difference; it can literally save lives.

Make a Plan, Build a Kit, Be Informed Graph

Here are Two Simple, Life-Saving Things You Can Do with Your Family:

Talk to your children about disasters that might happen—and what they should do.

  • Teach them the basics about what to do in a fire, such as getting low to avoid smoke or feeling doorknobs for heat before opening them. Have a fire escape plan.

  • If you live in an area affected by hurricanes, tornadoes, or earthquakes, talk with children about how to recognize the signs and where they should go.

  • Make sure children know how to call 911. Even very young children can learn this.

  • Have a meeting place outside the house.

  • Decide on a person (preferably not a local person who might be affected by the same disaster) that everyone can call if you are separated.

  • Practice! That is the best way to be sure the information sticks. Have fire drills and drills for possible other disasters where you live. If you have young children, try making it a game—they will be less scared and more willing to practice regularly.

Put together a family disaster kit.

Having basic supplies is crucial if there is a disaster—but in the heat of the moment, you may not have the time, or presence of mind, to gather them. So, do it ahead of time. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have great information on items to pack, but here are some ideas to get you started:

  • A first-aid kit

  • Water (2 gallons per day per person)

  • Flashlights, batteries, chargers

  • A battery-operated radio (which hardly anyone has these days!)

  • Non-perishable foods, like canned foods (include a can opener) and peanut butter

  • Cups and utensils (pick up some inexpensive camping kits)

  • Spare clothes, and a blanket or two

  • Toys or games

  • Supplies for pets

  • Medications—if you can, try to stay ahead of your refills and keep one in the disaster kit. At the very least, take a picture of the bottle so that you know exactly what you take.

    • Tip: It's not always possible to keep things like current medications stored away, so make a checklist of everything you might need to grab quickly. You can tape the list to the top of the container, which should be a manageable size (you may need a couple of them) and in a readily accessible place in your house.

Involve your children in planning and packing—you can make it a game by doing a scavenger hunt. Remember to check expiration dates and have kids help with remembering and doing that, too. The more you make it something regular and ordinary, the better.

Hopefully, your emergency preparations will never be more than a game. But should a disaster ever hit, they will be the most important game your family ever played.

Additional Information:

About Dr. McCarthy:

Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP is a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a senior editor for Harvard Health Publications, and an official spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She writes about health and parenting for the Harvard Health Blog, Huffington Post and many other online and print publications.  

Claire McCarthy, MD, FAAP
Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2015)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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