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Don't Panic: Be Prepared! 10 Things to Prepare For an Emergency

I've learned multitudes about panic and preparedness these past handful of years, both in my fiction and in my own life. Before we get into my preparedness kit...(if you wanna skip all the stuff about me and just get to the list, jump on down to the bold heading! I'll meet you there!)...

To start: I have panic disorder. It's one of the mental illnesses I am treated for along with depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and in the past few years, I have learned a lot about my brain and how it works and what it needs and what I need. My anxiety makes me flighty and easily distracted; it also makes me hyper-focused and obsessive, and ultimately no matter how it chooses to manifest, it's always there: A Jaws-sized shark in my backyard pool.

I had my first debilitating-I'm-going-to-die-what's-happening-help panic attack my freshman year of college in a philosophy class, on the very first day of class, as my teacher was lecturing about Plato's Cave. (I've found that last detail important -- as if perhaps my entire panic disorder is wrapped up in a budding existential crisis.) I thought it was a one-time event, but I was forced to drop the class because every time I sat down in that windowless lecture hall, my vision would tunnel, my heart would roar, my blood pressure dropped, and I'd feel seconds away from vomiting or fainting. My panic attacks pull me to the ground like I'm on an invisible wire: a marionette, on a string--and I crumple to the ground, a ball of noise and pain.

Then the biggest misconception would start with my friends and family: What are you panicking about? What is there to panic about?

The attacks themselves, mostly, but no - panic is not rational. If you have played The Sims, you understand how futile panic can be when your Sim encounters a fire and chooses to panic instead of putting it out. (Although, panic is a coded fear for fire. Case-in-point: One summer evening, ten minutes before my book club came over, a candle in an open window caught my paper tower holder and roll of paper towels on fire which spread in an instant to my window curtains. And instead of using the fire extinguisher mere feet away, I instead chose to turn on the sink, rip down the flaming curtains and paper towels with my bare hands, and shove the material under the running water. Because panic.)

When I imagined the world in Virulent, I imagined panic right away. The MOMENT people in my fictional world knew the virus was a bio-weapon and millions were dying, people panicked. It is acts of panic that took lives in the aftermath of that world, and while we can all imagine our dystopian worlds however we choose, I picked panic. Why? Well, because, I panicked the 10 days I was stuck in quarantine in Japan in 2003 during the SARS pandemic. I'll save the story of my ill-advised travels across Asia when I lived in Japan, right after the government restricted non-essential travel, but when I returned to Japan, I was put on a home quarantine for 10 days while we waited to see if I developed any SARS symptoms. My situation was mild compared to the poor Diamond Princess Cruise inhabitants quarantined for the Coronavirus-19, and I was twenty-two and arrogant and definitely tried to disguise myself (the only blonde girl in a thirty-mile radius) to hit the internet cafe twice because living without the internet is HARD. (You can insert an eye-roll here.)

Now, all these years later, here we are again but different. People are panicked. But this is how I see it: If you find yourself investing worry into what would happen if you found yourself living through an emergency, then prepare for that emergency. Seriously. The biggest way to alleviate worry is to figure out what you're afraid of and then tackle that fear: Are you afraid of a pandemic? Why? What aspects of that emergency would be hardest on you?

Right now, some grocery stores in Oregon are out of face masks. Stop. If you are buying face masks but you aren't sitting down and making a plan with your kids about school closures, then pause and take a deep breath. You're being a panicked Shelbi: Like the time I hauled a giant first aid kit to the park one hot summer afternoon....but forgot to bring water.

If you're new to thinking about emergencies, well, join us: The people who think and write about emergencies all the time! (Matt literally asked me two days ago what I had ready in our disaster kit and I maniacally laughed with glee at the opportunity to show him my hard work.)

I have a quick 10 Things To Do list that might be a good jumping off point as you think about the best way to ease out of panic-mode and slip into productive mode. Here we go:

10 Things To Prepare for an Emergency

1. Prepare an Emergency Plan With Your Family: The emergency my family has prepared for is an earthquake. As a Portland resident who often travels to the coast, prepping for an earthquake is practical, and in my case, crucial to establishing a plan with your family. In the event of a major quake, it's presumed that most of the bridges will fall, and my children go to school on the other side of the river from my home. We have a meeting spot, for all emergencies where communication is limited or non-existent, on both sides of the river and have walked through scenarios for if we are on different sides. (One of my best friends was in DC during the 9/11 attacks: She could not get a call out for nearly the entire day: Talking about your meeting plans is crucial because you never know what type of emergency might happen where phones are inaccessible. Also, pick someone to contact that lives in a different geographic area than you as a communication hub.) First, pick a meeting spot. Next, discuss plans for all types of potential emergencies. If you have school-aged children, do you have a plan if schools and daycares close? Last, find out if your community has a gathering spot in an emergency.

2. Prepare a House Plan: If you are at home when an emergency happens, what should you do? You should have an answer to that question. In the case of: tornado, hurricane, earthquake, fire, flood. When we moved into our current house, I immediately bought a fire ladder for my master bedroom. The bedroom is at the end of the hallway from the kitchen with no exits except the windows two-stories off the ground. In the event of a fire upstairs, a fire ladder became a necessity. Have we used it? Once. Because I broke our bedroom door and trapped myself in the room and no one was home and I used it to climb down and save myself from waiting an hour for Matt to get home...because living without the internet is hard.

3. Prepare Your House: Preparing your house might look different depending on what emergency you are preparing for, again: tornado, hurricane, earthquake, fire, flood. My parent's house is on the river and it flooded in the Portland flood of 1996: A neighbor took me from my front door to the edge of the water by boat so I could go to school that day...I had an extra backpack of clothes, toiletries, and a few keepsakes. So, you need to know what emergency is most likely to impact your house and act accordingly. Buying fire extinguishers and knowing how to shut off your gas and water in an emergency should be high priority.

4. Prepare a First-Aid Kit: A small first aid kit is important for every household and should go hand-in-hand with preparing your house for an emergency. Different emergencies, different risks, so equip your first aid kit with essentials. We have a first aid kit upstairs, downstairs, and in each car. We also have a digital thermometer with probe covers, extra medications, and body wipes.

5. Prepare an Important Papers Folder: Identification, information about bank accounts, anything valuable that you may need in an emergency, cash. If you need to vacate your house in a hurry, these are things you might need and may not have time to dig around looking for. Keep copies of essential papers in water/fireproof material with the rest of your emergency supplies.

6. Prepare for Lights Out: A power outage, for myriad reasons, is inevitable. In the case of a power outage make sure you have plenty of: Flashlights, candles, non-electric heat sources or cooling sources, and ways to start fire (matches, lighters, pet dragon -- just seeing if you were still paying attention). Get a manual can-opener and batteries and a solar-powered/crank-powered radio. I have a solar-charger for my phone because even if the internet is down...I can at least still play Pinochle on it.

7. Prepare & Stock-Up on a Few Essentials: This is where you think about the food and water situation in your house and invest in some canned, dried, long-lasting shelf-life foods. We rotate through canned food that we actually eat and use, and things that can be easily heated up with a Sterno. For storing emergency water, I buy water pouches like these. Stocking up on essentials also means: have some extra toilet paper, pet food, hygiene supplies, duct tape, garbage bags, and other things you can't live without for a few weeks (Diet Coke!). If you are just starting, slowly build up to 3-4 days worth of food/water for each family member (including pets).

8. Prepare a Go Bag: This is what I carried with me to school at age fifteen while the Willamette river played tag with the houses in my neighborhood. Have a backpack ready to go for each family member that includes a seasonally appropriate change of clothes, toiletries, and any other necessary essentials (extra inhaler, epi-pen). In an emergency, if you need to leave your house in a hurry, these bags are pre-packed. Each kid also picked a card game to put in their bag and I encourage putting a journal and writing utensil in each bag, as well. A few things each bag also has: a whistle, water pouches, protein bars, flashlight, and emergency blankets.

9. Prepare to Help Others: In an emergency, there are some people who are more vulnerable than others. Know your neighbors and who might need help, and seek out ways to be a helper in any situation. Some people might be in a situation to panic, but you aren't going to panic because you have a plan.

10. Prepare to Add Extra Items as Needs Arise: Our earthquake/emergency kit has several things specific to an earthquake. We have tents, tarps, ropes, a bathroom bucket--all things that we might need if we are forced outside because of shaky foundations. I also went a little extra in the "things you can crank" category. But your kit will be specific to your needs and your location. A few years ago, after a lockdown at our school lasted several hours wizened us to the importance of bathroom buckets, we thought harder about what emergency supplies a classroom should have.

There you go! This might be all very familiar to you or maybe you're new to thinking about preparedness, but no matter which end of the spectrum you are, thanks for coming to my talk. No need for panic.


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