As powerful Hurricane Harvey stubbornly barrels toward the Texas coast, images of harried residents rushing through local stores pushing carts overflowing with food, water, flashlights and other supplies dominate the news cycle. A spending frenzy is underway and residents aren’t taking any chances.
In Houston, consumers are buying everything possible in anticipation of the monster storm. “My husband, he’s never been in a hurricane, he’s not a Texan,” Destiny Okerekeocha told Houston Public Media as she stocked up on canned food and alcohol. “I am a Texan, so just in case, got some candles, got us little things just in case we have to stay and bunker down in the house.”
Local retailers have reported a high demand for water, bagged sand, flashlights and batteries, with stores closer to the storm’s direct path being sold out of necessities like water.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency advises people to prepare for a disaster by having three days’ worth of food and water, including at least one gallon of water per person per day and enough nonperishable food to feed each person for three days. Don’t forget to accommodate any family members with special needs — or prepare for your pet. Beyond food and water, other basic items include a battery-operated flashlight and radio, extra batteries, first aid kit, manual can opener, medications and cash.
Preparing for a disaster while under duress
Rushing to the store to buy supplies in a panic can actually prompt you to buy things you don’t really need because a primal need to survive takes over: “It starts with a normal impulse to stock up on things that might not be available for a few days,” consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow told Time. “Panic hits when the stores are jammed with other shoppers and the shelves look a little bare.”
All of this means you end up buying items you don’t really want or need — and you might then forget or skip items you do require. “Shoppers are going to find that canned food in the back of their pantries someday and wonder what they were thinking,” Yarrow said. “The fact is, they really weren’t thinking. Primal brain took over.”
While it’s a good idea to purchase disaster supplies ahead of a snowstorm or hurricane, not everyone plans ahead. So if you find yourself in the middle of storm panic, how can you prepare — and get the true necessities to stay safe — but not overspend?
1. Follow a smart list
Download and print a basic supply list before you shop, especially if you aren’t clear on what you really need. Review the basic list and check off items you already have at home, such as flashlights and extra batteries. Make sure items are in working order or haven’t expired.
Next, make a personal list of how many gallons of water you need based on the number of people in your household, along with a list of nonperishable food. Buy food you would normally eat and don’t forget to include food and water for your pets, too.
2. Check your current supplies to avoid purchasing repeats
Before you shop, make sure you don’t already have some of the items you need in stock. Scan your pantry for nonperishable items and put canned or boxed goods aside. Make a note of what you currently have before shopping for storm supplies.
Eat any perishable food before the storm hits, Miami-Dade County’s website suggests, since you may lose power and food could spoil.
3. Stick with items your family will use after the storm
Just because your neighbors stocked up on cans of tuna doesn’t mean you have to do the same, especially if no one in your house is a fan. This is where your list comes in handy — before you hit the stores, you should have already planned exactly you’re going to purchase. In the event the store does not have that item in stock, have a backup item ready.
Since every family’s needs are unique, poll household members to determine what nonperishable food they will eat during the storm and in the future. Stay away from salty items to help keep your water supply in check, and purchase food that can be easily eaten out of the can or box without being heated up. Food like applesauce, canned fruit, granola bars, peanut butter and bread are all winners during a storm. If possible, use your coupons and go for generic brands to save money.
4. Recycle and share
You can bolster your water supply or skip purchasing water if you have empty, clean jugs at home. Simply clean jugs with mild soap and water and then fill with tap water, according to MiamiDade.gov. You can also remove the tops of plastic gallon jugs, fill the jugs with water and freeze them before the storm. The frozen ice blocks will keep perishable food in your refrigerator and freezer fresh for longer.
In the event a “boil water” alert is issued, use eight drops of unscented bleach to purify your water supplies or opt for water purification tablets. That way, you don’t have to tap into your bottled water supply for bathing or washing dishes.
Also, find out what your neighbors have for supplies. Combining resources during a disaster can help you save money and form an important support system.
A word on price gouging
Retailers know consumers are in panic mode during natural disasters, and unfortunately, some take advantage of the frenzy by hiking prices. More than 2,700 reports of price gouging were logged during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, with price increases affecting gas stations, hotels, food and water. To combat unfair price gouging, states typically enact laws making it illegal to increase prices during times of natural disasters. Such laws can remain in effect up to 30 days after the end of the emergency.
How do you know if you’re being gouged? One example is if a hotel room typically runs about $65/night and then suddenly increases to $150, USA Today reported after Hurricane Matthew. If you suspect a local retailer jacked up prices during a storm, FEMA advises you to report the business to your state’s Office of the Attorney General.
To protect yourself from fraud and price gouging, be wary of any contractor who requires you to provide your Social Security number or bank account number before performing repairs. And don’t pay for anything with cash — use a credit card instead.
In a natural disaster, stay calm and know that you only need supplies to sustain you for three days — not a lifetime.
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