04/04/2011 01:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2011

Lesson From Japan: For Your Family's Health and Well-Being, Prepare for Disaster

Setting aside some needless panic on the West Coast tied to the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear calamity, the recent tragic disasters can have a beneficial aspect, providing us the prodding to do some critical thinking and talking about emergency preparedness. Ready or not, disasters will strike and they may put your health and well-being at risk, especially if you're unprepared.

We hope the world we've built around us will withstand natural or man-made disasters. We want the emergency plans that government agencies have made to protect us. But, ultimately, we must take responsibility for ourselves in an emergency. We must protect ourselves and our families. In California, we regularly face the threat of quakes, mudslides, wildfires, floods and temperature extremes. Every family should have its own disaster kit ready and a plan in place. But a study of Los Angeles County residents found only little more than half of those who consider themselves in excellent health have these. Among those who rate their health as poor, 41 percent have disaster supplies.

Disasters can knock out utilities, including water and power. They can make roads impassable. Hurricane Katrina stranded many for days before rescue. So, when preparing for disaster, it's crucial to assume you will need to rely on your own supplies for at least three days - putting up food, water, medication, batteries for flashlights and radios, and materials to provide possible shelter and warmth. Many good websites provide step-by-step guides for assembling a disaster kit and crafting a sound plan, including the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Basics: Water and Food
Let's start with the most basic need: water. Assume, just to start, that you will need at least one gallon of water per person per day - so, at least three gallons per person for your kit. Keep in mind that children, nursing mothers and those who are ill will require more. In event of a medical emergency, even more water may be needed. Soaring temperatures can double the amount of water each person requires. Err on the side of stocking more. While most recommend commercially bottled water (do mind those use-by dates), it's OK to buy containers designed to store water - provided you clean them thoroughly before use. Recycling is also an option, in which case the best choice is soft plastic two-liter bottles, thoroughly sterilized. Avoid those juice or milk containers, as sugars and proteins cannot be adequately removed from them, creating a breeding ground for bacteria in your emergency stash. Water in re-used soda bottles should be replaced every six months. Your water heater may serve as an emergency source if you haven't stocked up on enough water.

Keeping three days of non-perishable food, of course, should be part of your disaster preparation, too. Choose edibles that don't require water be added to them and prefer items that don't require refrigeration, cooking and are low in salt, so they won't add to your thirst. Your grocery list might include ready-to-eat canned meats and produce, dry cereals, peanut butter, nuts, crackers, canned juices, nuts, dried fruit and protein bars. Infants in the family? Don't forget baby food, formula and diapers. If you live near a grocery store and need more food, you will probably need cash, as debit and credit card readers may not be functional.

Remember, you'll need that manual can-opener. Keep on hand other Boy Scout-like tools to deal with damages around your home, and think now where they're all stored and whether you'll have access to them. Do you have blankets or camping equipment handy, in case you must stay in your yard or outdoors, especially in inclement conditions?

Beyond the Basics
When preparing for the worst, be mindful of those, who, on their best days, need extra help. Be prepared to look in on or even to care for a family member, close friend or neighbor with limited mobility. Figure in advance where your loved ones might be, where they might take shelter and how you might communicate with them in an emergency.

Your disaster planning absolutely should consider health needs. Talk to your doctor about getting extra prescription medications (like heart, blood pressure, diabetes or asthma drugs) to keep on hand for emergencies. Be sure you've stored copies of current prescriptions. And stock an extra pair of glasses, spare hearing aid and batteries, dentures and denture cream, as well as feminine and personal hygiene supplies.

If you or those around you haven't done so, it's wise to learn first aid. Injuries will be common in catastrophes and trained medical personnel may not be able or around to help when needed. Pack away a Red Cross text. You may need to treat cuts, wounds, burns, bleeding, bruises and sprained or broken limbs. Be prepared, too, to guard against infection. Some common diseases that add to disasters' misery include cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis and respiratory infections. Many of these can be blamed on poor sanitation, crowded conditions, exhaustion, exposure to the elements and the absence of clean potable water. If your reserves are drained or you suspect they're contaminated, be ready to treat water of uncertain quality before you drink it, use it to wash or prepare food, clean dishes or brush teeth.

Your emergency supplies should include materials for one or two methods of water treatment; the three main methods to treat water are boiling, chlorination and distillation.
All three methods kill microorganisms in water; only distillation also removes heavy metals, salts and other chemicals. Water can be distilled by boiling the liquid then collecting only the condensed vapor. Water also should be free of microorganisms after boiling for a full minute. It may be treated with 16 drops of bleach containing 5.25- to 6.0-percent sodium hypochlorite per gallon of water. Once treated, stir and allow the water to stand for 30 minutes. It should smell faintly of bleach - if it doesn't, repeat the dose and let stand another 15 minutes. If the water still doesn't smell like chlorine, get a different source of water - don't drink it.

I wish that I could promise you that multi-day preparations would suffice in a major emergency. As the crisis in Western, industrialized Japan and many others like it in recent years have amply shown, those afflicted by any number of disasters may find themselves stuck in tough circumstance for longer than they could imagine. Indeed, psychiatrists say those who survive calamities struggle to maintain hope and optimism. They can battle traumatic stress syndrome, flashbacks, nightmares, hopelessness and depression. If you can keep connected to the "functioning world" - by having a working radio or phones, especially as service gets restored - and you have your loved ones around you or you know they're safe and cared for, experts say this boosts your resilience. It will let you better cope with the daunting work, life and financial challenges you may confront after disaster. So, if you haven't done so yet, get busy, gather your loved ones and prepare now.