Thinking the Worst: Emergency Planning or Fighting the Last War?

Between widespread fires and hard-hitting hurricanes, disasters have been in the news and on my mind.

We have relatives near Tampa and in Southwest Louisiana. Fortunately, my loved ones made it through recent storms just fine. Downed limbs and power outages were the worst they had to endure.

Fellow personal finance blogger DadsDollarsDebts, however, wasn’t so lucky in the recent California wildfires. He and his family evacuated to safety in the middle of a harrowing night. They lost most of their belongings, but fortunately not their lives. Now they’re putting their lives back together and thinking about what they could have done to mitigate some of the losses.

Disasters happen, as surely as death and taxes. Eventually, you’re liable to get hurt by one. Making some preparations and contingency plans can help you navigate disasters better.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t anticipate disasters very well. DadsDollarsDebt noted that he had an emergency kit including food, water purification tablets, etc in his garage when it burned. It wasn’t helpful in a wildfire. In the case of other disruptions, like an earthquake, it might have been invaluable.

Like old generals and politicians, we tend to fight the last war. We prepare for the disasters that have touched us first, with an eye to avoiding disaster next time. We fail to imagine or fail to prepare for all the other bad things that might happen.

My Disasters

I’ve been lucky. The worst natural disasters I’ve personally experienced have been limited to some extended power outages, thanks to some of our periodic North Carolina Hurricanes and ice storms. Oh, and one extra-long commute home during Raleigh’s Great Snowpocalypse of 2013.

(My 30-minute commute took 3 hours. I had coworkers who were still struggling home 5 hours later.)

When power outages hit now, we’re fully prepared.

We have an inverter that we can use to power a radio or lamp, and a generator we can hook up if necessary. Jon has a hand-crank radio and we have a battery backup for our phones.  We keep plenty of flashlights and blankets on hand, both in the house and in the cars. I stock the pantry with soups, rice, beans, and ramen noodles and put some snacks and water bottles in the car.

I even keep a couple of bottles of Starbucks Frappuccino in the cupboard in the winter so I can stay fully caffeinated.

Before any winter storm, we make sure to stock up on LP gas for our gas fireplace and grill along with our bread and milk. We fully gas up our cars, and mine has 4 wheel drive. In an extended outage, we know we can get to Jon’s parent’s house and hang out together in relative comfort.

We have a spent time and resources to deal with extended power outages. Since we tend to have them at least yearly, that makes total sense. However, in the rankings of critical disasters, power outages rank pretty low.

And Other Contingency Plans

A few years ago, a tornado hit my dad’s house. A couple of years earlier, lightning struck my mom’s, causing a house fire. In both cases, no one was injured (my mom wasn’t even in town at the time) and they both had the financial resources to rebuild.

So we’ve taken steps to address losing or needing serious repairs to a house. Jon and I have good insurance on our home and rental properties. We keep enough of a financial buffer to absorb deductibles or extra costs. We have relatives we can stay with if necessary, or the financial resources to stay in a hotel.

It would be painful to lose all our possessions, especially the ones we couldn’t replace. No amount of money can truly replace my mom’s handmade quilts, a clock that belonged to Jon’s grandfather, or Little Bit’s beloved stuffed koala. But better to lose our stuff or our house than our lives or health.

We know these disasters, though, and we’ve done what we can to prepare for them. There’s a place in our basement to shelter in case of tornados, and another in our yard to meet at if there’s a house fire. We’ve coached our daughter to know what to do in an emergency and who can easily tell you her address, her parents’ full names and phone numbers.

Death and illness happen, too. We have wills and designated guardians for our daughter if something happens to us. We keep a list of accounts and critical passwords with it. Our health insurance and beneficiary designations are up to date. Jon has more OTC medicines and first aid supplies than your average CVS.

We haven’t experienced these disasters ourselves, but Jon and I have been affected enough to actually do something about them. Maybe we’re fighting someone else’s last war?

As I think back, though, I realize that even though fires, tornadoes, unexpected death and illness are more serious than our power outages, we probably aren’t as well prepared for them.

Thinking the Worst: Emergency Planning or Fighting the Last War?

And Then There are Floods

We left floods off our list. North Carolina’s had a lot of flooding…it’s the danger of being in a hurricane-prone state. Even well inland, we can get tons of rains in Raleigh and enough flooding to shut down the public schools for a day last year after Hurricane Matthew.

It’s not like I don’t know folks who have been hit by floods. I do. The thing is, though, we live on top of a big darn hill.

I don’t worry about floods, at least not at our house. Maybe I should. Lots of people who had never worried about flooding have lost their house to it over the last few years, and they’ve learned the hard way that homeowner’s insurance doesn’t cover flood damage. 

My one fear, if we have flooding, is that we might not be able to reach my in-laws. They’d be safe enough in their home, which is also on a hill. But we’d like to make sure they had a road out in case of emergencies. We also want Jon to have access to be able to help them with anything they might need.

At the moment, that’s caused only the most passing concern. As they age and deal with the consequences of aging, though, access to them in case of an emergency becomes more critical. We’ve made no contingency plan.

But What If We Had to Leave?

As I read DadDollarsDebt’s story, I was struck by the thought that almost all of our emergency preparations center around the idea of waiting in place (or at least with Jon’s parents.)

What if, like DadsDollarsDebts, we had to leave our home as quickly as possible? What if we had to leave Raleigh?

We are not prepared.

No go bag, stuffed with emergency clothes and toiletries. No stash of cash easily at hand. Important paperwork scattered in a dozen places. 

I’m not even sure I know where the darn stuffed koala is right now. Under Little Bit’s bed, maybe? But if we needed to flee in the middle of the night. Little Bit would probably be traumatized enough to need Sydney.

I can’t even pack for a week at the beach in less than 2 hours. What if I had 2 minutes?

How quickly could I get the essential paperwork together? How quickly could we get Jon’s parents out of their home with their medications, essential papers, and cats? 

Who would drive? What’s the best route? Where would we go?

These are all questions we need to answer.

Think of the Worsts, Then Make Plans

Like most people, we don’t like thinking of the worst things that can happen. When circumstances force us to pay attention to the awful possibilities, take advantage of it. Make your plans. Plan your contingencies.

So I’m going to ask you to think about how you and your family would deal with the following:

  • Your home was destroyed or unliveable or under imminent threat of being destroyed or unliveable, due to hurricane, fires, earthquake, tornado, sharknado, etc
  • You lost power, internet, and/or cell service for multiple days at a time
  • You had to leave your city or immediate area for an extended time
  • If you couldn’t easily leave your home due to impassable roads, fuel disruption, civil unrest, disease, or zombie apocalypse
  • You or your spouse died
  • There were snakes on the plane or termites in your home’s foundation
  • You or a family member became seriously ill, injured, or otherwise physically or mentally incapacitated
  • You lost your job, ability to work, or another stream of income

Basic Emergency Planning

That’s an awful lot of terrible things to think about. No matter what happens, though, there are a few basics that will help almost any conditions that warrant emergency planning.

Have a Financial Buffer

Whether you call it an emergency fund, buffer, or savings, you will weather any emergency better if you have your rainy day cash stashed away. 

Emergencies are expensive. Nine times out of ten, they’re going to cause expenses outside of your usual spending patterns. Maybe you’ll need to pay for lodging, takeout, or extra gas. Possibly medical attention or repairs. Even if you know insurance will reimburse you, reimbursement takes time. Your needs will probably be more immediate.

Have some money set aside in case of real need. If you don’t have it now, think about how you might start accumulating some, either by generating some extra or cutting your expenses. Make it a priority. Once you get into emergency situations, finding extra cash becomes a lot harder.

Have Proper Insurance

Okay, I get that it can be really frustrating to spend money on insurance. It’s the one thing you buy really hoping that you’ll never need it.

Get it anyway. Protect yourself.

Health insurance for health. Homeowners or renters insurance for your stuff. Car insurance for wrecks. Disability insurance to protect your income stream from illness and injury. Life insurance to protect your loved ones if they lose you. Business, liability and professional insurance in case of lawsuits.

Get Organized

I realized today that I have certain useful documents in a folder in my desk drawer. It’s great that I know exactly where I can find my birth and marriage certificates, but wouldn’t an envelope be smarter than a folder? They could easily fall out.

What about all our other important documents? Some are in a locked file cabinet. Some are in Jon’s desk drawers. And then there are some that have probably been sealed up in a box since we moved seven years ago.

Get your important records together. Try to get important computer files and pictures backed up to secure Cloud-based storage. Use a password keeper so you don’t lose critical data. Consider a fire safe or safety deposit box for critical papers.

And consider eliminating some of the clutter from your life. Decluttering will make it easier to find the things you really need, plus make it easier to access them.

Pay Attention

There are disasters that strike out of nowhere with no warning. Who can predict where an individual lightning bolt will strike?

Don’t be the guy playing golf in a lightning storm.

Pay attention to your surroundings and conditions.

If you know the risks for you are higher at a given time, reduce your risks or ramp up your contingency plans. Keep an eye on the weather reports and news. Go to the doctor regularly.

When our local weather forecast is for snow, we stay glued to our local tv station. Sure, the meteorologists might be wrong. Their predicted massive snowstorms often end up an inch or less of winter weather. Nevertheless, as the potential snow day gets closer, we make sure we have our supplies of bread, milk, and hot toddies chocolate, as well as full tanks fo gas in the cars.

Vacate the path of the storm if you can. Prepare if you can’t.

Read more good stuff on emergency planning and preparation:

Thanks to DadsDollarsDebt and Liz at Chief Mom Officer, the personal finance blogging community is doing a number of articles on emergency planning and preparation. You should check out the posts, I’ll add more as my fellow bloggers write more.

I hope these stories help you avoid, mitigate, or recover from the worsts that happen.

Where do you think you are in your emergency planning? Do you plan for what you’ve already experienced and what’s touched you and yours, or are you prepared for everything down to the zombie apocalypse and snakes on a plane?

16 Responses to “Thinking the Worst: Emergency Planning or Fighting the Last War?”
  1. Brian 10/17/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/18/2017
  2. Mrs. Groovy 10/17/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/18/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/18/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/18/2017
  3. Liz@ChiefMomOfficer 10/17/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/18/2017
  4. Prudence Debtfree 10/18/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/19/2017
  5. Laurie Blank 10/20/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/23/2017
  6. Mr. Groovy 10/23/2017
    • Emily Jividen 10/23/2017

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge