Using Tech to Prepare for Disaster

This is a reprint from my ‘Ask a Geek’ column which originally ran in the Mount Vernon Register-News.

Most people don’t like thinking about disasters. Unfortunately, disasters do happen to us or loved ones. In our area we should be concerned with 3 types of disasters: tornado/storm, earthquake, and chemical spill. Most people are aware that we live in a tornadic area and that the New Madrid fault line may cause damage in our area if ‘the big one’ ever happens along that fault. Chemical spill may have some of you confused.

Our area has a low population density. This means that hazardous chemicals travel the railways and interstate highways daily. The theory is that if a spill happens here fewer people would be affected (injured) since we have less population than a major city. This is why I include chemical spills as a disaster that may happen locally.

General guidelines for disaster preparedness are: have some extra non-perishable food items stored, extra drinking water, a first aid kit, know basic first aid, keep copies of important documents and an insurance claim inventory, have extra clothing, and have a planned meeting place for your family/group. Storing of extra food is something that technology may not help a lot, unless you keep an inventory of your groceries using a spreadsheet. The other suggestions can all be assisted using technology.

Storing extra drinking water is not easy because it uses space. A gallon or two of drinking water in your pantry or a case of bottled water is something that most of us can do as preparation. Another step that you might take is to get water tablets to make bad water drinkable. These tablets are available at some camping stores, department stores, and I found them online for about $5. These tablets kill bacteria and other germs that can make you sick so that the treated water is drinkable. The water may not taste good since it is not filtered, but it should not make you sick.

A first aid kit around the house is a good idea. Most recommendations I have seen suggest adhesive bandages (Band-Aids), gauze, tape, iodine swabs, alcohol wipes, and a medium Ace bandage. With these supplies most minor scrapes and bruises can easily be handled at home. In an emergency situation fire, ambulance, and police will be very busy. This kit can allow you to care for your group until they become available. My advice is to purchase a pre-made kit from a department store with these items included. I found a kit at Wal-mart for about $5. Through technology everything is compressed into a kit smaller than a lunch box.

Knowing first aid is also helpful in a disaster. There may be injuries to others. Your first aid kit can help, but only if you learn what to do for injuries before the disaster. The Red Cross provides advice for preparing, links to find classes in your area, and refresher courses online at http://redcross.org. I have taken these classes several times and each time helps me learn or remember more than the last class.

Keeping copies of important documents like birth certificates, car titles, or phone numbers is very important. During a disaster you do not need the stress of trying to remember grandma’s number adding to your situation. One solution is to keep a hard (printed) copy of these papers and information in a fire proof safe at your home. This is a good idea, but there are other solutions. You could scan the documents or type a phone list and save the information using a computer. Then the files can be stored on a cheap thumb drive in your emergency kit (you do have one by now, right?), at a family member’s home, or online.

The thumb drive or online storage can also contain a list of your home inventory to assist an insurance claim. I don’t know about you, but if my home was just blown away in a tornado I would have a hard time remembering how many t-shirts and pillows I had in the house. Insurance companies want that kind of detail. If you forget to file for your favorite blanket or stuffed animal loss you may lose out on reimbursement. Be sure to take a detailed inventory of your home and keep it updated once or twice per year.

There are many services that offer free online storage of your files. My two preferred services are http://box.net and http://dropbox.com. Both of these are free services to store files and can be accessed from anywhere with an Internet connection, including your phone. You might be nervous about storing this personal information on a thumb drive and you should be nervous. With this information bad guys could pretend to be you. Many thumb drives include encryption software to protect your information, and you should use it to stop any worries you might have about theft.

Storing extra clothing might seem like it takes up a lot of space. You may not need to keep a complete wardrobe next to your bed or in the car, but a pair of underwear, glasses, and socks would be a good kit to have handy. Using vacuum technology you can put several pieces of clothing into a bag, suck out the air, and tuck your extra clothing into your emergency kit. You can also get a space blanket and light rain poncho that are folded into a small square in case your emergency happens in the rain or on a cold night. Space blankets are thin sheets like plastic that reflect heat back toward your body. A rain poncho will help keep you dry in a storm or protect you from the sun.

Finally, have a location where your family will meet after a disaster to perform a head count and check if anyone is missing. Google Maps is a great tool to create and map out your location(s) for meeting. You can create general maps of the area to what size you want. There can also be maps with directions from places where you commonly spend your days – work, school, home, etc. This might be especially helpful to children or the elderly to give to rescuers if they become lost or disoriented.

There are many other ways technology might help you in a disaster or emergency. Please email me at askageek@register-news.com and we can share any ideas you have with others to help us all be better prepared.

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