What the Derecho Storm Taught Me About Preparing for Disasters

On August 10, a derecho blew through a large band of the Midwest. Stretching across central Iowa, northern Illinois, and portions of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana, this “derecho” was a megastorm, featuring 80+ miles per hour sustained winds and gusts up to and over 130 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, my home was directly in the line of the worst part of this storm. While our home did not receive too much direct damage, many homes, apartments and businesses near us — including our neighbors — received significant damage, with some homes suffering a total loss. Coupled with the damage was a lack of electricity for several days, which meant dealing with refrigerated and frozen food loss and a severe reduction in food preparation options, among other concerns.

Over the years, we’ve done lots of things to prepare for various kinds of natural disasters. We learned pretty quickly that some things did not help, while other things were extremely helpful.

9 ways to prepare for a natural disaster

Keep a first aid kit

You’ll never be more convinced of the value of a good first aid kit — and the knowledge of how to use it — than during a natural disaster. The ability to treat minor medical issues — the kind that might necessitate a doctor or an ER visit in normal times but aren’t life-threatening — is absolutely vital at a moment where doctors and hospitals may be overloaded or not have power themselves.

By simply having a well-stocked first aid kit nearby, we were able to deal with all of these things without calling medical personnel, which would have resulted in more expenses and challenges. We bandaged things up, put on some butterfly bandages and cloth bandages, pulled out splinters with tweezers, used some alcohol wipes to clean things well, used a bunch of antibiotic ointment and everyone got through their issues with no real problems.

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This list of first aid kit supplies from the Red Cross is a great starting point. Our approach was to start with a pre-purchased first aid kit long ago and then restock it constantly if anything even gave a hint of getting low.

Invest in a propane burner or grill

Even without any electricity, we were able to prepare a ton of meals on our propane grill and propane stove. We simply hooked up the propane tank we had to whichever tool best served our needs and started to cook.

During an electricity outage, focus on trying to cook things that may be in the process of going bad due to lack of refrigeration before they need to be thrown away. Minimize the amount of time that the refrigerator and freezer doors are open to retain the remaining cool air. These tactics not only saved us from a lot of food loss, it also saved us from the expense of having to try to find somewhere to get food from.

The nice thing is that you can use a propane grill any time whenever you want to grill, and a propane burner can be useful if you ever go camping. These items aren’t useless outside of a natural disaster.

Use rechargeable batteries

In many ways, we treated this energy outage as a camping trip at home, which meant that we tapped into supplies that we also use for camping and backpacking. Rechargeable batteries are a prime example of this.

We were able to effortlessly use a rechargeable flashlight that provided us with a ton of light. We also used a couple of small rechargeable fans that helped move air around at night so that our house wasn’t overwhelmingly hot. In addition, we used solar-powered LED light cubes that provided wonderful light during the evenings.

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Although these were less essential, we also got tons of use out of solar USB power mats. We set these up during the day for the sole purpose of recharging the battery packs. We could just leave them in a spot where they caught direct sunlight all day long and by evening, all battery packs attached to them were fully charged, which meant that they would easily recharge our phones and other items overnight.

In short, we repurposed quite a few bits of our camping gear to help us through this time, further reinforcing the value of camping as an inexpensive option for vacations and long weekends.

Save water in milk jugs

Some of the space in our freezers was taken up by milk jugs that had been filled with water. During times without a natural disaster, those milk jugs served the purpose of reducing the amount of energy needed to keep our freezer cold. The frozen water served as a heat sink of sorts, keeping the freezer from having to work quite so hard to keep things cool.

During short power outages, those milk jugs helped keep everything in the freezer cold so that there wouldn’t be food loss. Unfortunately, this was an outage that lasted several days, so we didn’t get that benefit this time, though it has helped in the past.

Instead, when it became clear we weren’t going to have power for several days, we repurposed that ice and used it to keep some refrigerated items cold in a nice insulated cooler. This kept us from having to find and buy bags of ice from anywhere else and helped us save even more of our refrigerated items.

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This can also serve as a great source of potable water if you’re in a situation where a disaster makes potable water unavailable to you. Just pull out the jugs and let them thaw — you’ll have plenty of potable water. It’s always a good idea to have extra potable water around for a disaster, but having gallons of it in the freezer allows it to perform extra duties.

Store non-perishable pantry items

As the outage wore on, we lost most of our refrigerated and frozen food. Thankfully, we were able to eat some of it, but some of it was simply an unavoidable loss.

However, we were still able to avoid having to go to restaurants for food by turning to food items that we were able to store at room temperature. Later on, we had things like ramen noodles, soups, grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, pickles, tuna sandwiches, spaghetti with marinara sauce and tuna mac.

All of that stuff was stored at room temperature in our pantry, bought prior to the storm with the eventual intent of eating it in some fashion. Simply having nonperishable food on hand made it so easy to prepare our own meals when there really weren’t other good sources of prepared food nearby.

Keep physical, printed copies of all of your insurance information

While we didn’t have any insurance claims, many, many people around us had major issues that needed to be reported to their insurance carrier.

Unfortunately, more than one family near us relied exclusively on digital copies of their insurance policy. In most cases, they were able to get things eventually hashed out with their insurance company, but given the number of insurance calls being made in our area, people found themselves on hold for hours on phone lines when they could have used automated systems if they had their account information available.

Make sure that your insurance information is in a physical printed form somewhere so that you know the details of your policy, your policy number, and what number to call for claims. You can’t rely on digital copies in a disaster.

Rely on and help your community

Over the years, we’ve built up very strong relationships with most of our neighbors. We’ve swapped vegetables with them, helped each other with small projects and borrowed tools from one other.

Those relationships came in handy during the aftermath of the storm. We helped our neighbors with things like tree removal, fence repair, food sharing and other things. Our neighbors helped us by giving us an outlet on their generator so that we could save our youngest child’s aquarium, clearing items from our yard and lots of other little things.

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It’s simple: help your neighbor when they need help, and don’t hesitate to ask them if you need a little help, too. Give them small things freely without worrying about reciprocation. Pitch in when they need a hand. Ask when you need a little help. You’ll find that these efforts build a relationship over time, and when things fall apart, that relationship will be very helpful. We’d probably still be clearing stuff without the help we received and I’m sure our neighbors that got it even worse than we did feel the same way.

Cultivate strong workplace relationships and a good reputation

A good reputation at work and good relationships with the people you work with means that they will work wonderfully with you in moments of disaster. If you’re a valued employee, they’ll want to keep you, and thus in a true disaster they’ll help you by giving you extra time off, schedule flexibility and sometimes some financial help in a disastrous situation.

On the other hand, a bad reputation at work and a poor relationship with your supervisor means little help, and it also likely means extra professional pressure when you have a lot of problems already to deal with.

Build a good reputation at work by taking care of your responsibilities without causing a fuss. Build a strong connection with your boss and coworkers. If you learn that your boss doesn’t come through for people in a crisis, use that as an indication that another job might be best for you. Those things come through for you when the chips are down.

Be patient

In a natural disaster, most people want to help. They really do. Most services are designed to fire up and take care of problems, and many emergency responders and technicians go into overdrive when there’s a crisis.

Understand this, and be patient and have grace. Don’t get upset because another street’s power comes back on before yours does — they have to start somewhere. Don’t get mad if no one has picked your branches up after a few days. Don’t scream at someone over the phone because the tree service hasn’t shown up yet or you haven’t heard back from the insurance company.

Too long, didn’t read?

The key step behind all disaster preparation is to think through what things would look like around your home if you were to lose power and water while also losing access to local grocery stores and other services for a week.

Disaster can strike when you least expect it, as when a storm equivalent to a category 3 hurricane hit parts of the Midwest with less than an hour’s notice. Smart preparation will save you a great deal of money, time, and heartache when disaster strikes without emptying your wallet today.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

Reviewed by

  • Courtney Mihocik
    Courtney Mihocik
    Loans Editor

    Courtney Mihocik is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in personal loans, student loans, auto loans, and debt consolidation loans. She is a former writer and contributing editor to Interest.com, PersonalLoans.org, and elsewhere.