With another massive hurricane bearing down on the U.S. mainland, and with other disasters, natural and man-made, always looming as a possibility, now is as good a time as any to start preparing yourself and your family to survive a disaster.
First--you need a survivor's mindset. The core of this mindset is knowing that you are responsible for your own survival. Know that if the hurricane hits or the earthquake strikes or another terrorist attack takes place, YOU are your own first responder. For situations that you can predict, like a hurricane, get out of the way. Inconvenience versus death--I know which one I'd choose. But some disasters can't be predicted, and that's why it's important to be prepared ahead of time. This isn't an indictment of any level of government (although it's not a bad idea that you hold your local and state governments accountable first, since they're already on the scene). But nobody can be fully prepared for every eventuality. That's why it's ultimately up to you.
Know that you are on your own for at least the first five days of a disaster, and prepare for it. Stockpile non-perishable food and water in water-proof containers. If you can keep the food lightweight (foil packets instead of cans, for instance), do so. Keep a large plastic jar of peanut butter on hand--it's a great source of nutrition, isn't particularly expensive and keeps well. Buy tuna in foil packets. Buy cereal bars. Buy instant oatmeal--it can be mixed with a small amount of water to make a hearty breakfast. Have some plastic bowls and cups on hand. Plastic utensils. And plenty of bottle water--a gallon per day per person is the recommended amount.
Have a couple of changes of clothing available. Hygiene isn't your primary focus in matters like these, but as the flooding in New Orleans showed, you don't know what condition your clothes will be in when you reach safety. If you have a change of clothing where you can reach it, you're ahead of the game.
Stockpile at least five days worth of your prescription medications. I have asthma, and I've already set aside a full 200-dose rescue inhaler for such purposes. I also have a five day supply of my other inhaler, and a three day supply of my two other prescription medications. (I'm working up to stockpiling five days' worth). Also, have a first aid kit with the basic supplies, plus extra pain reliever, anti-biotic ointment or cream, sunscreen, bug repellent and any hygiene items you may need.
Have some basic tools available—manual can opener, bottle opener, hammer, duct tape, plastic sheeting, matches or a lighter, candles, flashlights, etc. You know the drill, and if you don't, there are plenty of places to find a good working list.
Learn first aid and CPR. Keep your car in good working condition and full of gas if you can. Keep your cell phone charged up. Have an evacuation plan—do you have relatives or friends who can take you in? Have a plan for your pets—check with motels in the area to which you plan to evacuate to find out if they'll allow pets. Some do. Most don't. After Katrina, it seems like some of the public shelters are relaxing rules about pets. Check into what's available in your area. Or, if you evacuate ahead of time, you can find a veterinarian in the place to which you plan to evacuate who can board the animals for a few days until the crisis is over. Be sure you have enough carriers for all your animals. Stockpile some pet food along with your food in case you have to shelter in place together.
If you evacuate ahead of time, be sure to take copies of important records, such as birth certificates, social security cards, drivers' licenses, prescriptions, insurance, etc. You'll need those numbers if something happens to your home or property. Go ahead and make copies now and keep them in a zip lock bag or something similarly waterproof and easy to carry.
Everyone in the family should have a contact number to call in case you get separated. One of my contact numbers for my family is my friend Jenn, who lives in New Jersey, several states away. She can act as our clearing house so we can let each other know we got out safely and where we are.
Finally, be a good neighbor. If you know that a neighbor or friend doesn't have a car, for instance, or has health problems, see if you can help your neighbor or friend get to safety while you're getting to safety yourself. Help that neighbor or friend stockpile his or her own disaster kit--pick up some extra peanut butter or an extra pouch of tuna when you go to the grocery store, an extra six-pack of bottled water.
And not to go all Mad Max on you, it's not a bad idea to be prepared to defend yourself and your neighbors from people who will try to take advantage of the crisis. I don't personally own a weapon, but I'm all for personal firearm ownership if you're responsible, careful and well-trained. A group of neighbors banding together with just a few personal weapons among them can keep a whole neighborhood safe from criminals.
I haven't covered everything you'll need for everything that might happen—it's impossible to prepare perfectly for any eventuality. But if you'll do the basics and, most importantly, if you'll maintain a survivor state of mind, you'll have a good chance of being the one still standing when the dust settles.