Image: Disaster kit with emergency items and food © Joel Sussman, Getty Images

The great blizzard of 2011 closed highways, collapsed roofs and knocked out power to two-thirds of the country last February. Wonder how many people wound up fumbling for flashlight batteries and dining on dry cornflakes?

Object lesson: You need to be ready. If a natural disaster or even just a really big windstorm happened, how would you eat, drink and stay warm? And where would you go to the bathroom?

"It's just common sense to have something set aside for when you need it," says Bernie Carr, the author of "The Prepper's Pocket Guide: 101 Easy Things You Can Do to Ready Your Home for a Disaster."

Maybe the word "prepper" conjures up images of camo-clad guys waiting out Armageddon in rural bunkers, surrounded by ammunition and MREs. Certainly, some prepper sites toss around acronyms like BOBs ("bug-out bags") and TEOTWAWKI ("the end of the world as we know it"), and emphasize survival skills and marksmanship.

But not everyone who preps is hard-core or imagines the collapse of society -- or even lives in the country. About 60% of the visitors to Carr's website, The Apartment Prepper's Blog, live in cities or suburbs. Carr lives in Houston.

Robert Richardson, who blogs at Off-Grid Survival, says the majority of his readers are city or suburban residents, worried more about inflation than the doomsday predictions for December 2012.

Image: Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman

"It doesn't have to be an end-of-the-world scenario. I'm talking to people who are prepping for things like job loss," says Richardson.

Preparedness isn't paranoid -- it's prudent. Just ask Uncle Sam: The Department of Homeland Security recommends having enough supplies to survive for at least three days after an emergency. And right now, while there isn't an emergency, is the time to get those supplies.

The list might seem daunting if you're living in a tight space on a tight budget. Chin up: You probably already have some of those items, and you can use frugal hacks to get the rest cheaply or maybe even for free. Here's how.

Easy does it

The American Red Cross has an even longer list of suggested emergency items. Because every family (and every disaster) is different, however, pick what works for you. You don't have to get it all at once.

California reader Kelly A., who blogs at My Friend Kelly, says it's like building an emergency fund.

"You accrue (items) little by little," she says.

Until you can get specialized gear, Kelly suggests using things you already have: comforters rather than sleeping bags, a hibachi instead of a camp stove. (Note: Never use either one indoors.)

Instead of or in addition to buying bottled water, fill your own bottles. Some preppers prefer two-liter soda bottles, because they're fairly sturdy and also easy to store in small spaces. Refill every few months, and don't waste the "old" water -- use it in the garden, to do hand laundry or to rinse shampoo out of your hair (or the dog's).

Your emergency food stash should require little to no cooking. Choose things you'd eat anyway, so you can rotate and replace the stock. Some obvious choices are crackers or pilot bread, peanut butter, dried fruit, granola or protein bars, and canned meats, fish, stews, fruits and vegetables.

If you'll would have a way to heat water -- camp stove? barbecue grill? -- store instant soups or oatmeal, noodle bowls, bouillon cubes, teabags and instant coffee or hot chocolate.

Watch for sales, and use coupons and/or rebates if possible. A few examples from my own shopping trips: granola bars for a penny apiece, hot chocolate for a nickel per envelope, dried plums for 40 cents a bag, 12 ounces of peanuts for 69 cents, a 14-ounce bag of M&M's for 50 cents, 3-ounce pouches of tuna for free.

'Shake lights' and hand-cranked radios

Don't neglect dollar stores, where you can buy useful items like disposable dishes and utensils, baby wipes, hand sanitizer and -- this is important -- a manual can opener.

Drugstore loss leaders have yielded hand sanitizer, baby wipes (aka "shower in a pouch"), painkillers, batteries, energy bars and crackers for free or nearly free with coupons and/or rebates. Check clearance bins, too.

While living in Alaska, I bought polypropylene long johns and a down vest at a thrift store. They're just as warm as if I'd paid retail. Also, watch for rummage sales.

Some readers in hurricane country store disposable plates and utensils in case of prolonged outages. Post-holiday sales are a good place to find these, at discounts of up to 90%. If you must use candles, the same sales can yield votives for pennies apiece. Note: Burn your candles inside wide-mouth jars, set high up so kids or pets can't knock them over.