Janice Collins McNeil - Preparing Your Family for the Unthinkable; Putting a Plan in Place Helps Minimize Panic During a Disaster

by Janice Collins McNeil, MSN, APRN, BC &
Judy Carbage Martin, PhD, APRN, BC

Lately, it seems everywhere we look and everything we read carries a frightening message about the state of world affairs. What's more troubling is that, individually, we have little control over what the future holds for our families, our country and the world. Men and women are being called to duty by the thousands, many being deployed to the most dangerous spots on earth. More often these days, we've found ourselves either personally affected by the situation or listening to and consoling loved ones who can only wait and pray for their soldier's safe return. These uncertain times are not completely out of our control, however. Alleviate some degree of psychological stress by preparing a disaster response plan that's carefully thought out, communicated to all involved and thoroughly rehearsed. And take heed: if you feel the need for such a plan is utterly ludicrous, think back to the World Trade Center bombings. Only two short years ago, we never imagined something so horrific could ever happen on our own soil.

Communicate Effectively

A good place to start is keeping the lines of communication open in your family. Sharing useful information reduces uncertainty and should be shared with children, adolescents and the elderly, all of whom may not understand or may have difficulty coping with tragedy.

Be especially sensitive to younger children and their fears. And don't let them watch TV shows or videotapes of a disaster repeatedly; they'll believe the tragedy is happening over and over again, which may heighten their stress.

Additionally, discuss with your family the types of disasters that may occur. Explain how to prepare and how to respond. Plan what to do if authorities advise your family to evacuate, and practice the drill before an emergency arises.

Be sure to provide a supportive environment for your families to help them deal with concerns and fears as well. Consider facilitating family and community meetings organized by a mental-health professional, or set up a meeting in a community center or local church, where people can share their concerns informally.

Families also should explore the need for counseling and establish relationships with mental-health professionals, including physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurse practitioners and licensed clinical social workers.

Prepare Relentlessly

When the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked, most of the U.S. was frozen in a state of panic and despair. Children either were frightened or despondent; employees were displaced; and families were stranded and separated due to the high state of national alert and no air travel. To avoid these types of chaotic conditions in the future, develop a written family emergency plan, and plan those drill exercises because under dire circumstances, families must first contact one another to assure everyone's safety needs. In a disaster, fear can paralyze and prevent people from saving their own lives, or the lives of those they know and love.

The following, outlined on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website, are planning steps for families so they can prepare ahead of time and act swiftly and appropriately if a disaster strikes.

  • Plan how the family and immediate community will stay in contact if separated by disaster. Think about establishing a meeting location. (Choose two, in case your first location becomes available.) These locations should be a safe distance from your home and neighborhood, in case of fire or other disaster occurs there.
  • Choose an out-of-state friend as a "check-in contact" for everyone to call. In a disaster, it is often easier to make long-distance calls rather than local calls.
  • Do not forget to plan for family pets. Shelters will not harbor them.
  • Maintain access to a portable emergency disaster supply kit. Keep a kit at home and a smaller version in the car.
  • Know your child's school emergency plan. Make sure schools have your most current contact information.

So what should be your first moves if a disaster really strikes?

Above all, remain calm and focused. Then refer to your written disaster plan, gather family members, or call them if you're all at different locations, and remember the following:

  • If you must evacuate your home—and if time allows—be sure you take your disaster supply kit, lock the doors and windows, and put on long-sleeved shirts and pant and sturdy, comfortable shoes.
  • Listen to the Emergency Broadcast System, which will be on most television and radio stations.

A disaster can strike anytime and anywhere, leaving you without basic services like gas, water, electricity and telephone. Although relief workers will be put in place quickly, they can't reach everyone immediately. That's why the disaster supply kit is so crucial; it will help you endure an evacuation or home confinement during those first difficult days afterward. The chart below outlines what supplies you should pack and in what quantities. If you have additional questions, contact FEMA via the Web, www.fema.org.

Emergency Disaster Supplies & First Aid Kit – Basic Supplies

1. Water Store water in plastic containers such as soft drink bottles. Avoid using containers that can decompose or break, such as cardboard or paper milk cartons or glass bottles. The average adult needs at least two quarts of water each day to drink

  • Store one gallon of water per person per day (two quarts for drinking, two quarts for food preparation/sanitation).
  • Keep at least a three-day supply of water (i.e., three gallons) for each person in your household.
  • Hot environments and intense physical activity can double the amount of water needed. Children, nursing mothers and ill people will need more.

2. Food Store at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food. Select foods that require no refrigeration, preparation or cooking, and liter or no water. If including foods that must be heated, pack a can of jelled chafing dish fuel (Sterno). Select food items that are compact and lightweight. Include a selection of each of the following foods in your disaster supplies kit:

  • Vitamins
  • Special foods for infants, elderly persons or persons on special diets.
  • Comfort/stress foods -sweets, instant coffee, tea bags.
  • Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables
  • Canned juices, milk, soup (if powdered, store extra water).
  • Staples -sugar, salt, pepper.
  • High energy foods -peanut butter, jelly, crackers, granola bars, and trail mix.

3. First Aid Kit

Assemble a first aid kit for your home and one for each car. A first aid kit should include:

  • Comprehensive First Aid Manual
  • Sterile adhesive bandages and gauze pads in assorted sizes.
  • Antiseptic.
  • Antibiotic cleansing agent/soap.
  • Latex gloves (2 pairs).
  • Aspirin or ibuprofen pain reliever.
  • Anti-diarrhea medication.
  • Syrup of Ipecac (use to induce vomiting if advised by the Poison Control Center).
  • Laxative.
  • Activated charcoal (use if advised by the Poison Control Center).

4. Clothing and Bedding

  • At least one complete change of clothing and foot wear per person.
  • Sturdy shoes or work boots. D Rain gear.
  • Blankets or sleeping bags.

5. Tools and Supplies

  • Mess kits, or paper cups, plates and plastic utensils.
  • Emergency preparedness manual.
  • Battery operated radio and extra batteries.
  • Flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Cash or traveler's checks, change.
  • Non-electric can opener or utility knife.
  • Waterproof matches or lighter (to be used only if there is no threat of a gas leak),
  • Duct tape.

6. Sanitation

  • Toilet paper, towelettes.
  • Soap, liquid detergent.
  • Feminine hygiene products.
  • Personal hygiene items.

7. Special Items for Baby

  • Formula
  • Diapers
  • Bottles
  • Powdered milk
  • Medications
  • Blankets

8. Special Items For Adults

  • Heart and high blood pressure medication.
  • Insulin
  • Prescription drugs.
  • Denture needs.
  • Contact lenses and supplies.
  • Extra eye glasses.

9. Communications Cellular phoneshave saved lives in times of disaster. Be sure to keep charged spare batteries available.

10. Important Family Documents

Keep these records in a waterproof, portable container.

  • Will, insurance policies, contracts, deeds, stocks
  • Passports, social security cards, immunization records.
  • Bank account numbers.
  • Credit card account numbers and companies.
  • Inventory of valuable household goods, important telephone numbers
  • Family records (birth, marriage, death certificates).

Suggestions and Reminders

  • Store your kit in a convenient place that's well-known to all family members.
  • Keep a smaller version of the disaster supply kit in the trunk of your care. At least include your written plan with contacts and phone numbers, some food and water, a first-aid kit and whatever else you deem most important in an emergency.
  • Keep items in airtight plastic bags.
  • Change your stored water and food supplies every six months so they stay fresh.
  • Rethink your kit and family needs at least once a year.
  • Replace batteries, update clothes, etc.
  • Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist about storing prescription medications.

Adapted from: FEMA: Disaster Services – "Disaster Supplies Kit" and "Disaster Preparedness for People with Disabilities."