Household Emergency Supplies: Food & Water

Food and water are the most essential of your household emergency supplies.  And many disaster scenarios will threaten the availability of consumable food and potable water in your home and from local merchants, including anything that impacts the power utilities infrastructure (see hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc.).

For example, here in New York City, much of the electrical power infrastructure is located below ground and close to sea-level.  In the event of a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, storm surges could reach the height of 20 ft around much of the City, which would flood electrical vaults with sea water.  ConEd rightly has plans to shut down the power supply throughout the City before the storm surge reaches the City to avoid severe damage when the conductive sea water inundates the power infrastructure.   And they admit that it will take weeks, if not months, to pump out seawater from the vaults and dry them out and then to restore regular service throughout the City.  So without power, how long do you think fresh food will be available in your neighborhood?

Other disasters have similarly foreseeable impacts, which is why everyone from FEMA and the American Red Cross to Living Prepared™ recommends that everyone store two weeks of food and water in the home for “shelter-in-place” scenarios where you may remain in the home after a disaster – and 3 days ready for your evacuation kit (or go-bag).

Strategies for Food and Water Storage

So…  as I noted in my previous post, I believe in keeping your emergency supplies accessible, isolated and safe – and as far as food and water storage is concerned, do keep it separate from your regular household consumables.  Generally, I believe that there are two main strategies for emergency food and water storage:

Strategy #1: The Costco Solution: Buy in bulk and rotate.  This is the strategy I used to follow and for many, it may work out best.  For food – buy cases of canned foods that don’t require refrigeration or cooking/heating before you eat them.  Some examples:   baked beans, chili, tuna, peas, corn, fruit and most of all – soups.  You will find lots of other options at your local warehouse store.

Despite the long shelf life of many of these products, I would recommend replacing them annually and consuming the old stock rather than trying to stretch their longevity until the expiration dates near.  It also avoids having to track the expiration dates of many different products – some may be five years or longer – others only a year.

Many cans are self-opening, but you may need to stock a good manual (not electric!) can opener or two with the supplies.

For me, the problem with this solution for food was that I hate eating canned vegetables and prefer fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins.  I didn’t want to have to consume this stock regularly in order to rotate it.  I suppose I could have regularly donated it during holiday food drives.

For water: buy cases of bottled water in the largest bottles available (12 x 1 gallon bottles at my local Costco costs under $5).  You may elect to buy the smaller bottles (3/4 liter size or smaller) and use them as drinking water.  These clear plastic bottles are not designed for long-term water storage, so you should constantly use and rotate this stock of water.  Personally, I found that during the hot summer months, I was constantly poaching my emergency storage supply of bottled water.  I used a filtered water pitcher on tap water for drinking (and now have a filtered cold- and hot-water tap on my counter, so large storage bottles never got used – except to rotate them.  This wasn’t a sustainable, economic or green solution for me but it may work for you.

The advantages to the Costco Solution to emergency food and water supplies are cost, convenience and variety.

The negatives are mostly that it is a high maintenance solution – you need to rotate or check for differing expiration dates.  It is also an extremely excessive and un-green use of plastic bottles for water storage.

For me, these negatives made me turn to:

Strategy #2: The Living Prepared Solution: Buy dehydrated or other food designed for long-term storage and store water in large storage containers.  This is the strategy I follow now for my family.

Many suppliers of camping supplies have recently repackaged and remarketed a lot of their foodstuffs for emergency and disaster preparedness.  This is good because it has increased the options we have for long-term food storage.

These items have extraordinarily long shelf-lives – up to 30 years – and are designed for weight and storage efficiency.  Again, you will need to store a good manual can opener or two with the supplies, and in the case of dehydrated food, an extra allotment of water.  And mixing them with hot water is recommended, which could honestly be a challenge in a post-disaster environment.

I am counting on being able to heat some water – either through electrical means (hotpot, microwave) off of mains or generator power – through my gas range or propane grill with its own tank (and I should always have an extra filled tank on hand – but I don’t yet) – or even by building a small camp fire if I have to.  Time to consider a solar cooker as well.

Honestly, if I can’t heat some water after a disaster, I’m probably going to have bigger problems than eating cold meals!

You could also stock ready-to-eat food bars; these provide a balanced diet and lots of energy and require no cooking or preparation.  They are the true survivor’s solution.  I stock some for evacuation and emergency purposes.  But I decided that if my family had to eat emergency food rations for a couple of weeks, I wanted to have a little bit more variety and something resembling the food they are used to.

For water, I decided to purchase 5-gallon food-grade plastic water containers designed for long-term storage.  I tried out a couple of different models that are available online.  My favorites come from the Ready Store – they are rectangular, stack really well, and have a lid that really closes tightly.  Be wary when looking for water storage containers online – some merchants chart a ridiculous shipping charge (I know that water containers are large – but Amazon.com manages to ship with Free Supersaver Shipping and The Ready Store has free shipping on all orders over $100 – so shop around for the best buy.

8 of my 12 5-gallon Water Containers in Storage

8 of my 12 5-gallon Water Containers in Storage

5-gallon containers made the most sense for me.  They are light enough to be able to tip and pour, load into the car for evacuation, and carry up and down the stairs – but still hold a decent amount of water.  30-gallon drums are also available which are not going to be as portable, especially once filled, but may work for you and your home..

Don’t forget water saver – which will extend the shelf-life of your stored tap water for at least 5 years!  This is absolutely necessary for any planned long-term storage of water.

Date of Filling Written in Sharpie on Water Container

Date of Filling Written in Sharpie on Water Container

Is Mark Living Prepared?

I feel pretty good right now about my food and water preparedness, though I still have some ways to go.

For food – I purchased a 45-day supply of dehydrated food from the Ready Store – that’s for one person.  To cover my family of four, I supplemented this stock by ordering additional cans of food to ensure 3-meals a day for four persons for at least two weeks, as follows:

  • Breakfast – 72 servings (that’s 18 days x 4 persons)
  • Lunch & Dinner Entrees – 122 servings (that’s 15.25 days x 4 persons)
  • Vegetables – 120 servings (that’s 15 days x 4 persons)
  • Sides – 72 servings (rice – 18 days x 4 persons – once per day)
  • Fruits – 120 servings (that’s 15 days x 4 persons)

Assuming that my kids probably won’t eat a full portion, we’re in good shape for food.  (I have not yet planned for my poor 20 lb cat, however… although I think having an extra 20 lb bag of his diet “lite” cat food and keeping it rotated every few months will probably cover the poor little guy for a couple of weeks).  For my sheltering-in-place, I am assuming that I have access to my home – including plates, cups, pots, etc., so am not storing those with my emergency food supplies (though I am storing an extra manual can opener with it).  I will need to consider this for evacuation preparedness.

I also stock some ready-to-eat food bars – enough for more than 3 days for my entire family – that is suitable for go-bag/evacuation purposes as it requires no preparation and is rich in energy and nutrients.  These came in a transportable case with a handle so it is ready to go when needed.

For water, I have stored 40 gallons of water in 12x 5-gallon containers.  At one gallon per person per day, that should provide water for drinking and sanitation for 15 days for four people.  But that’s actually not enough.  I forgot to plan for the water I need to reconstitute my dehydrated food (or for my cat).  I am going to need almost 15 gallons of water just to reconstitute the 29 cans of food I have in storage, so I will need to order another 3x 5-gallon cans from the Ready Store.

For portable water, I am considering purchasing some packs of water designed for long-term storage – then I don’t have to worry about cups or drink containers, but for now, I plan to take 4 of the 5-gallon containers with me in the car should I need to evacuate my family.  The round ones come with dispensing spouts so those are the ones I have designated (but still need to separate and label as the evacuation supplies).  Our family is pretty attached to our stainless steel drink containers, so those will be designated as part of our evacuation kit as well.  (Part of what you never leave home without).

The water has been treated with water saver and is stored in my cellar – and labeled with the date or storage.  In five years – or probably in a little less, I will replace the water.  The food as long as it remains sealed in its cans, has a 30-year shelf life.

Hey – I know it is August already, and the Atlantic Hurricane season – quiet so far – is about to hit its peak for the year.  The summer in New York has been mild – and the wettest I can remember.  This is the first year I haven’t had to water the plants in our window boxes since I planted them in May.  The pendulum will swing the other way and we could be in for a hot and humid August and September, which brings its own risks of utility and infrastructure challenges and potential failures.   I’m going to continue to get my home and my family prepared for any disaster and I recommend you do the same.

Remember it’s never too late to start Living Prepared™.

Ten Things You Should Never Leave Home Without: #6: Stainless Steel Drink Container

Stainless Steel Sealed Drink Containers

Stainless Steel Sealed Drink Containers

What is it: By a stainless steel drink container, I mean one of two things – either a truly non-spill hot drink container (a true thermos that closes with an airtight seal such that it doesn’t leak if turned upside down) or a water bottle – with a similarly watertight seal (flat cap or sport cap).

True stainless steel for several reasons: 1) it’s green (non-toxic, BPA free, reusable container); 2) thus, it keeps your liquids fresher, longer and safer; 3) it’s easy to clean and won’t retain taste/odors of previous contents; and 4) it’s unbreakable and durable.  And get true stainless steel – not aluminum containers, which contain internal liners that can break down over time.

I highly recommend Klean Kanteen for your stainless steel drink containers.  Their faq provides an excellent justification for the use of true stainless steel.  We’ve also found that the 27 oz. version is the perfect size for a full (750 ml) bottle of wine (or you can order their wine carafe (the only difference between their wine carafe and their 27 oz. bottle is the wine carafe is more expensive but it comes with a stainless steel flat cap that otherwise you have to buy for about $6 as an accessory).  We use the standard 27 oz. bottle to take such refreshment to outdoor concerts in Prospect Park during the summer where glass is not allowed.

Stainless double-walled, vacuum insulated Thermos hot drink container

Stainless double-walled, vacuum insulated Thermos hot drink container

For hot drink containers, I carry a Thermos vacuum insulated model with a pretty watertight top.

The purpose is two-fold – a) hydration – in the case when you carry water; or b) stimulation – for those who carried a higher-octane beverage (coffee or tea).  But the reason to have this container with you is hydration – you can always wash out a hot drink container and fill it with water – assuming it has a watertight/airtight seal – it becomes easy to carry with you.  Again, the primary purpose of having a stainless steel drink container with you is for water, which can save your life in an emergency.

Utility on a Daily Basis: It’s fairly common today for people to carry around a drink container with them – whether a hot liquid cup for coffee or tea – or a water bottle of sorts for water.  It has become acceptable to walk into stores, schools, classes, and business meetings with them.  And I think these “green” stainless steel water bottles have an additional cache that makes it okay to have one attached to your arm at all time.  As it has become socially acceptable to do so, I encourage you to do so.

You are, of course, free to carry your drink container in a backpack, attache, computer bag, or other tote that you bring with you (just not your empty bag!); they also slide into coat pockets pretty easily in a pinch.  But I think it is fine to equip one of your two hands with it if necessary.

You can’t be at your best if you are thirsty (or tired for that matter, if an insulated hot drink container is your preference).

Personal Report – Is Mark Living Prepared™? Yes.  My liquid of choice is hot – black English Breakfast tea.  I never go anywhere without my Thermos hot drink mug filled with tea.  In warmer months or when I carry a bag/backpack with me, I usually bring a Klean Kanteen water bottle with me as well.  I don’t always have water with me, but I usually have a container I can rinse out and fill with water if needed.  It’s honestly not totally habitual yet to always carry water with me in warm weather, but I shall attempt to do so this summer and see if I can identify tips for making it easier.

Criticality after a disaster: Similar to an empty bag, water has 100s if not 1000s of uses.  It can be used to clean and sanitize, but what we are mostly concerned about is hydration in an emergency.  Having a container that can be filled with water, put in a bag for accessibility when you need it, and carried with you without fear of spillage, can extend the time you can go from point A to point B without having to stop.

Rwandan refugees waiting to cross Kagera river into Tanzania

Rwandan refugees waiting to cross Kagera river into Tanzania

Once upon a time, I set out on a sunny morning in Tanzania to take a pleasant stroll to the border with Rwanda to see where refugees were crossing the Kagera river border by canoe.  I carried with me only two liters of water that day (mostly due to weight) which was fairly hot, and pretty humid.

Local canoe carrying Rwandan refugees into Tanzania

Local canoe carrying Rwandan refugees into Tanzania

The 10-mile hike took me over a few sizeable hills, through mostly grassland, with little shade, and once within a mile or two of the river, became mucky swampland.  It was hard going.  Needless to say, it wasn’t enough water, and I finished my last drop at the river-bank at around 2 PM after rationing it all day.

Rwandan refugees arrive in Tanzania

Rwandan refugees arrive in Tanzania

I was able to make it to the nearest village by late afternoon and collapsed in a building the village used as a public meeting place.  I was pretty dehydrated by that time and could only ask the villagers if there was any water “here”, I said, pointing down at the ground.  “No water here,” they replied, and I sighed audibly, resigned to the fact that I was going to die.  “Fanta?” one man continued, offering me an orange soda.  I swapped a dollar for a Fanta and then was told that the village water point was outside about 200 meters away.  Somewhat refreshed, I was able to fill up my empty water bottles at the tap and make it back to my tent before dark.  True story.

The point is, well, first, that I never should have put myself in the situation of not having enough water with me for the trek that I was undertaking.  I was younger and that was an important learning experience.  What I learned is that you need to carry enough water with you to get you where you are going.  Having a container with you that can haul some water can help you to get where you are going after a disaster strikes.  That’s good enough for me.

Another true story:  In 1998 following a major earthquake, I found myself in Istanbul, Turkey, working around the clock – quite literally – to assist the Turkish Ministry of Health to sort out the flood of international donations of drugs, medical supplies and equipment donated from dozens of countries that was overwhelming their capacity to handle.

Setting up Commodity Tracking system in Istanbul warehouse

Setting up Commodity Tracking system in Istanbul warehouse

Their warehouses were overflowing and they could not sort through the donations in order to find the drugs and medical supplies needed by the earthquake victims.  The team I was leading was setting up a commodity tracking system for the Ministry of Health, organizing their warehouses, and setting up distribution system to get needed supplies to the hospitals operating in the disaster-affected area.

For the first three days I was in Turkey, I slept not at all, working all day conducting needs assessments and helping Ministry of Health staff in organizing warehouse spaces, and working all night with a group of techies in the US who were designing the commodity tracking system.  For the next week, I got no more than three or four hours of sleep as we deployed the system.

Now, I absolutely do not recommend this sleep schedule; getting adequate rest is essential for emergency responders to be at their best and I have on subsequent missions always set up shift schedules with my teams to ensure that everyone gets at least 8 hours off every day to recoup.

Anyway, this inhuman effort was possible, in my recollection, only by the endless supply of Turkish coffee – providing both stimulation (in terms of caffeine) and energy (in terms of sugar).  And that Turkish coffee was poured into my own insulated 20 oz. coffee mug, which I had brought with me as an essential piece of my emergency kit at the time.

So whether it is water or something more stimulating that you need to get by after a disaster strikes, a stainless steel sealed drink container will serve you well.

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The Living Prepared Scorecard:  Stainless Steel Drink Container

  • Easily Carried: YES
  • Not too heavy: YES
  • Practical Purpose on a Daily basis: YES
  • Critical Purpose when Disaster Strikes: YES

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So, carry a stainless steel drink container with you. If you do, you will be Living Prepared.