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How to pack a go bag, according to disaster preparedness experts

Growing up with anxiety, I’d keep myself up at night imagining all kinds of calamities, often a natural disaster forcing me to evacuate and bring only what I could carry. As wildfires engulf my home state of California, that hypothetical is a reality for many of my loved ones. Many of us have filled a backpack with documents and other essentials, just in case. Many residents of the Southeast will likely find themselves doing the same as they enter hurricane season. What should you pack in a go bag, though, particularly in a pandemic? I turned to disaster preparedness experts for advice.

Know what to pack

The specifics might differ depending on the needs of your household, but in general, the experts I spoke to recommend bringing the following items. Start prepping them now, so if a disaster occurs, you’ll be ready to go, American Red Cross spokesperson Chad Carter says.

· Food “Assume you’ll be away from home for at least 72 hours,” or three days, says Jonathan Sury, project director for communications and field operations at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He suggests packing at least three days’ worth of non-perishable, high-energy, portable foods, like sardines, nuts, and meal replacement bars (think RX, Clif, or Kind). Make sure to bring a can opener for canned goods, or pack canned goods with flip tabs.

· Water Again, bring enough for three days. How much is three days’ worth of water? The general rule of thumb is to bring one gallon of water per person per day, plus some extra if you have an infant, since you’ll likely use it to mix formula, too, Sury says. He also suggests throwing in another gallon for handwashing, especially amid COVID-19.

· Waterproof jacket, raincoat, or poncho, especially in a hurricane, Sury says.

· Sweater or other warm layer, which you’ll also want to prioritize in a hurricane, Sury tells me. Choose fabrics that keep you warm even as you get wet, like wool.

· Mylar emergency blanket Not only can it keep you warm, it’s light and easy to pack, Sury says.

· Extra changes of clothing Consider possible weather conditions, says Greta Gustafson, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross. Bring a hat and sturdy shoes, too. Sury advises prioritizing anything lightweight, quick-drying, and easy to pack.

· Flashlight

· Batteries

· Phone charger and battery pack

· Power inverter for your car, so you can charge your laptop and other devices

· Important documents Prioritize those that are hard or take a long time to reproduce, or might help you should you need recovery financial assistance, such as your driver’s license and other identification, birth certificates, passports, medical information, proof of address, and insurance policies, Carter tells me. Consider packing a “digital go bag,” or digital copies of important documents that are securely backed up in the cloud, Sury suggests, which can also include doctors’ phone numbers, and medication lists.

· Medications and copies of prescriptions, if available. Bring an extra supply of medication, if possible, Sury says. The website Rx Open can also help you locate open pharmacies in disaster-affected areas.

· Eyeglasses and/or contact lenses, and contact lens solution

· First aid kit Make sure it’s well-stocked and up-to-date, Sury says.

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· Emergency contact information

· Toolkit

· Radio “hand crank is best, so you don’t need to worry about batteries,” Sury says. When cell towers and other communication lines go down, the radio is the most reliable way to receive emergency alerts and other information.

· Cash “In disasters, cash is king, especially if cell towers and communication lines go down, and digital payments aren’t possible,” Sury says.

· For kids, games and activities to keep them entertained

· For pets, enough food and water for three days, medication, leashes, and vaccination records and other documents, Carter tells me. Sury says the one gallon of water per day rule applies to animals, too.

· For the elderly and people with disabilities, any mobility tools, special medical equipment, and medication, Sury says.

For COVID-19 protection

o Plenty of masks to curb the spread of the virus, for yourself as well as those around you (if they forgot to bring one, for example), Sury says. He suggests disposable masks, since you might not get to wash your reusable mask as often as you’d like while on the go. (The recommendation is to wash reusable masks once a day.) Health officials recommend N95 masks or higher to filter out particulates from wildfire smoke, but N95 masks have been reserved for healthcare workers during the pandemic. A KN95 is probably the best option, since they’re more readily available. Avoid wearing a mask with a valve, since they don’t filter exhaled air, potentially allowing you to spread the virus to others.

o Plenty of hand sanitizer, specifically one containing at least 60% alcohol, Sury says.

o Antibacterial wipes to clean surfaces, since you don’t know where you’ll end up or how clean it’ll be, Sury says.

Pick the right bag

“You just want a bag that’s easy to carry, easy to handle, that can store all the items you need,” Carter says. Sury likes using a backpack since it frees up his hands. Ideally, you’ll fit everything in a small backpack, but the size really depends on your household’s needs. If you need to bring a lot, he notes that some companies make spacious duffel bags with backpack straps.

Consolidate items

Try to minimize the number of bags you carry. “The fewer things you need to focus on grabbing, the quicker you can get out the door and on the way to safety,” Carter says.

Easy access is key

Sury suggests storing your go bag near an exit where you can grab it quickly. You don’t want to have to dig it out of a closet, Carter notes, or struggle to take it down from a too-high shelf.

Keep a go bag in multiple locations

Since you may need to evacuate at any time, Carter advises keeping a go bag in your office — if you’re working from one — and in your car. Sury recommends building out a car kit with nonperishable food, masks, emergency blankets, a tire iron, jumper cables, a fire extinguisher, phone chargers, and a reflective vest, flare, or triangle in case your car breaks down at night. Make sure you have a full tank of gas, too, since gas might be harder to find in a disaster.

If you’ve already packed a go bag, update it

Given that many of us are working from home, you might’ve dipped into your go bag for snacks or other items, Carter says. Now is the time to replace whatever you’ve removed.

Have a plan

“Bags are great, but I don’t want people to think just having a bag is enough, because it’s not,” Sury says. Decide how you’ll communicate in the event that you’re separated from other members of your household, if any. Will you text, to avoid overwhelming the telecommunications infrastructure? Will you email? Does everyone know how to access digital backups of important documents?

Decide on a meetup point in advance, Carter adds. This way, if cell services goes down, you’ll still know where to find each other. If you have a fur baby, identify a pet-friendly location. And if you decided on a meet-up point pre-pandemic, make sure it’s still a good option. (You might not want to meet at your grandparents’ house anymore, for instance.) Identify back-up meeting points, too.

Have a point of contact out-of-state who you can notify that you’re safe. The American Red Cross’s Safe and Well Website allows you to list yourself as safe and others to look up your status.

“People are very, very stressed, and evacuating during a pandemic is in some ways unprecedented,” Sury says. Beyond the safety risks they pose, natural disasters, especially now, can take an emotional and psychological toll. Call SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline for free crisis counseling and support.

For more disaster preparedness tools, check out the American Red Cross’s emergency app (available on the App Store and Google Play), the RCRC Toolbox, and the NCDP’s Preparedness Wizard and 5 Action Steps to Preparedness.