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A Detailed Look at What’s Wrong with FEMA’s Emergency Kit

Posted by JT Hats

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, provides several emergency kit lists to assist you in preparing for a disaster. These could be an excellent place to start researching disaster survival and learning how to build an emergency kit. Unfortunately, they fall flat in many regards.

First off, their site is a something of a disaster itself. FEMA is — somewhat inexplicably — attempting to maintain no fewer than six different lists that all make recommendations for necessary emergency supplies. I'm not sure if we're supposed to figure out which list is which, or if FEMA thinks that all of their lists are "good enough". Because — and here's the kicker — all of FEMA's lists are different! One list recommends a cellphone, other lists do not. One list recommends insect repellent, others do not. No cellphone in an emergency kit? Really? How do you Floridians feel about the lack of insect repellent in your kit?

But wait... it gets better. FEMA recommends that you expect — even bank on — help arriving within three days. Were these guys not around for Katrina? Did they not witness Haiti? Are they not reading the news about Fukushima? FEMA's recommended supplies are intended to last for three days, max. If help doesn't arrive by then? Um.... FEMA's not saying.

FEMA recommends that you expect — even bank on — help arriving within three days. And If help doesn't arrive by then? Um.... FEMA's not saying.

FEMA includes many warnings in their emergency advice which seem to classify the general population as inept and untrustworthy. There's good advice against starting fires in hazardous areas, but no advice about how to do it safely, even though FEMA's plans for sanitizing drinking water depend on boiling. There's good advice about building safe rooms, but no advice about how to get out of them if they're buried in rubble. Their plan depends on people who wait for others to help them. Disasters may be so overwhelming that even in developed nations with the best emergency preparations, survivors wind up catching their own food because emergency food doesn't arrive, or make packs out of trash and walk out of their ruined towns because rescue never comes. One of the best outcomes of disaster is that help arrives within the first three days. In the worst situations that only happens for a lucky few. If you find yourself in the unlucky group you'll regret having wasting your three best days just sitting around.

The thing is, it's not THAT hard to modify a home emergency kit to last for a lot longer than three days. A surplus of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) might not be tasty, but they don't take up much space in a home kit. If you're stocking them in your kit already, why not throw in a few more? A backpacker's water filtration system could extend your water supply indefinitely. And a camping stove with extra fuel is a compact and inexpensive tool for cooking food and boiling water.

The list of FEMA's omissions is actually quite long. Manual chargers for when batteries run out? Not there. A method for dealing with human waste disposal? Missing. A decent set of tools to clear or free yourself from fallen debris? Nada.

Below find just a sampling of the adjustments we made to FEMA's lists when preparing our own.

  • Bottled water — Bottled water is fine for a three-day plan, but bottled water runs out. Your kit should also be stocked with a backpacker's water filter and chlorine dioxide water treatment tablets.
  • Utility knife — One knife is not enough. Equip everyone in the family old enough to use a knife with a good pocket folder that opens with one hand. We recommend the Gerber AR 3.0.
  • Disposable eating utensils — Okay for the short term but, for a longer-term plan, include camper's mess kits.
  • Flashlights — You'll need one per person. Choose waterproof LED flashlights which extend battery life, work consistently for hours, and isolate internal switches from any flammable vapors in the air.
  • Hand crank chargers — Flashlights, cellphones and rados should have hand-crank charers for when batteries run out.
  • Portable radio or TV — Consider a hand crank-powered model for extended operation when batteries have run down. Also consider a NOAA weather radio.
  • Dust masks — Make sure you have plenty of these. Although they don't filter out the fine particles they do catch the big stuff and make breathing much easier in dusty and smokey conditions.
  • Handwipes, toilet paper, and other hygienic supplies — Sanitation issues aren't covered well by FEMA's list, and the safe room plan makes a toilet an option, not part of the safe room. If you don't have a working toilet in your safe room, imagine what happens when the safety conscious typical family closes that door for 24 hours. At the very least you'll need a chamberpot or the modern equivalent, and the experience won't be private or pleasant.
  • Tape — Exactly why do you need tarps, plastic sheeting, and duct tape? You might be able to patch small holes in the roof or broken windows with these materials. You also might hear an announcement on the radio that you should stay in your home and seal the openings. It's hard to do that without plenty of duct tape, so stock more than one roll. Better yet — also store some electrician's tape and stretch-activated plumber's epoxy tape.
  • Tent — FEMA's recommended tube tent is only big enough for one person and open to weather and bugs at both ends. Get a real tent big enough for the family, or several smaller tents for easier transport.
  • Pliers — Pliers are great, but long-nosed electrician's pliers are much more versatile than the regular kind. Cover your bases much better with the SOG Power Assist Multi-tool.
  • Fire-making gear — Don't limit your fire-making gear to FEMA's recommendation: waterproof matches only. Toss in a good lighter and a spark-generating permanent match. If it's the type that's mounted on a magnesium bar you'll never be short of tinder. A little pile of magnesium shavings ignites easily with a spark and burns fast and hot. Carry the Bear Grylls Survival Knife and scratch three things off the list: knife, whistle and permanent match.
  • Plastic storage containers — Make sure some of your large storage containers are five gallon buckets with strong handles and tight fitting lids. If you purify and store drinking water you'll need them.
  • Signaling equipment — If you must own FEMA's recommended signal flare, learn to use it so you don't set the neighborhood on fire. Emergency flashers which generate a powerful strobe for hours on a single charge might be much more useful and safer. Metal signal mirrors also work well if you care to learn to use them. Sight through the hole in the center and hold the mirror so the flash sweeps back and forth over your target.

Add Some Camping Gear

Any gear you'd need on a camping trip makes equally good sense as part of your home survival kit. Keep your backpacks rigged for a three day trip and store them in the safe room. Forget the tube tent that FEMA recommends — I've camped in them and they're useless. If you can't afford a lightweight backpacking tent big enough for the family, buy a tent designed for family car-camping and delegate some sturdy family member to carry just that. A three room tent allows survival in relative comfort even without the house.

Don't forget that most tents come without sealed seams — set it up and waterproof it with seam sealer as soon as you get it. Store essential medicines and documents in one of the packs, so you won't forget them on disaster day. Include cordage and rope just in case you need to build something primitive.

Escape Tools

FEMA recommends letting emergency contacts and the local fire department know that you have a safe room and where it is, because there's a real possibility that you could be temporarily trapped in it under a pile of debris. I would also include some heavy duty tools in the safe room emergency kit, because you might need to dig your own way out. The utility knife FEMA recommends won't handle the job.

A carpenter's hammer, full-sized demolition crowbar, Japanese-style pruning saw, fireman's axe, and urban survival knife all make excellent additions to FEMA's wimpy blend of plumbing tools and plastic kitchenware. Most of those tools are self-explanatory, used to bash, pry and cut debris apart. The AMPCO Fireman's Axe won't make sparks if it strikes a nail and allows work even when the air is filled with flammable gases. The pruning saw's narrow blade works well on any lumber you can hook it over, and it cuts on the pull stroke. It's a much better tool than a carpenter's saw in cramped conditions.

The Ka-Bar Tac Tool urban survival knife was designed for SWAT teams breaking into barricaded rooms, but works just as well for getting out of one. The knife allows chopping, prying and chiseling as well as wire cutting and slicing. If you live in flood-prone country, don't forget to stash an axe in the attic. For cramped quarters consider a smaller axe like the Estwing Hatchet.

Closing Thoughts

FEMA's got a tough job, no doubt. Helping people prepare for large-scale emergencies while instilling confidence and avoiding fear-mongering is tricky business. But that's no excuse for omitting critical safety items from their various emergency kit lists. No excuse for presenting six different lists, each of which is unique and yet also uniquely limited. And it's no excuse for producing an online resource that is confusing to make sense of, when this resource should be a critical component of every American's emergency planning.

C'mon FEMA, up your game. Lest we suffer another Katrina on your watch. We'll be keeping score...

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