Image: Man reading leaflet © Image Source, Getty Images, Jupiterimages

One of the worst storms in U.S. history ended lives and devastated property across the East Coast this week after wrecking similar havoc in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. People will be cleaning up for months, but a few lessons from the superstorm have already become clear.

They include:

Your stuff is not worth your life

Several people who ignored evacuation orders and who later had to be rescued told reporters they stayed to protect their property.

Hello? Nobody wants their stuff carried off by looters, but public safety officials don't issue mandatory evacuation orders lightly. What such an order says is that your life is at risk. Maybe you'll get lucky, and the hurricane or wildfire or whatever will miss your home. Or maybe you've just made the stupidest (and last) decision you'll ever make.

What you should do, according to the Insurance Information Institute and emergency officials, is plan your evacuation in advance. Figure out where you'd go if you had to leave your home (a friend's house, hotel or shelter), and map out more than one route to get there. Keep a few backups in mind if you can't get to your original destination. Select an out-of-town friend or relative as a contact person your family can reach if you become separated.

Have a ready bag

Stuff a backpack or duffel with basic emergency supplies that you can grab on the way out the door. Make sure the bag is big enough to throw in a few extras if you have time, such as your laptop or hard drive.

Basic supplies include:

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

  • Bottled water.
  • Nonperishable food (such as energy bars).
  • Flashlights.
  • Portable radio.
  • Batteries.
  • Emergency blanket.
  • Medicines.
  • Hygiene items.
  • A first aid kit.

If you have a baby, diapers and food or formula should be included. If you have pets, you need a ready bag for them, too, including pet food, any medications and a crate or other method to transport them. 

A change of clothes and a sleeping bag or blanket may come in handy as well. If you don't already have a backup battery for your cellphone, it might be time to get one. Something else that can come in handy: cash. Your access to ATMs may go out with the power, so keeping some green on hand is smart.

Prepare to be on your own

If you stay put, you need to have supplies to take care of yourself and your family for at least 72 hours (a two-week supply is even more prudent). Think through how you would feed, warm and entertain yourself if the power went out for a week or more.

You don't need to stock up on freeze-dried rations. Just buy extras of the groceries you already eat that have a fairly long shelf life, and replace what you use as you go along. Have some backups for perishable items: powdered milk, for example, along with canned fruits and vegetables.

In addition to food, water and medicine, you should stock gear that will allow you to get along without electricity: manual can openers; flashlights and lanterns, plus plenty of fresh batteries; games and art supplies to keep kids busy; a camp stove and fuel if you have somewhere to cook outside. Some people invest in a portable generator, which can cost from $200 to more than $2,000, but you can't use these gas-powered units in an enclosed area -- you must have an outdoor space, or you'll kill your family with carbon monoxide poisoning.

You're not just preparing for your own comfort. You're also helping to ensure you won't be unnecessarily clogging emergency lines as first responders try to do their jobs. The New York City mayor's office tweeted that its 911 system was receiving 10,000 calls an hour Monday night and begged people to use the number only for life-threatening emergencies.

Here's another thought: Get to know your neighbors. They may be able to offer help when official sources are tied up, and you could save a life by checking in on older or disabled folks.

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