One of the most important lessons we’ve learned from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma is that every American—regardless of where you live—must have an adequate supply of safe drinking water on hand for emergency situations.
America’s top disaster preparedness agencies have consistently offered the following advice: Maintain the equivalent of 3 gallons of water for every family member in your home. This covers drinking and sanitation needs over the critical 72-hour period when you may be on your own (1 gallon per person, per day), as rescuers tend to those most in need of assistance.
But after seeing footage of a ravaged New Orleans, should we keep even more water on hand? The answer may, indeed, be “yes.”
“The amount of safe water that should be on hand depends on the risks and hazards of the area in which the household is located,” says Dennis B. Warner, senior technical advisor for water supply, sanitation and water resources for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, one of the largest humanitarian agencies in the world.
“Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, industrial accidents, disease outbreaks, heavy snowfalls and terrorism all have differing consequences and time periods associated with them. It is clear that preparedness for a tornado—which may cause severe point damage, but have little effect on the ability of public service agencies to provide assistance—is not the same as preparedness for a major hurricane, which may cause widespread severe damage, thus having a great effect on public services and emergency assistance.”
Warner, who has responded to disasters in many countries around the globe, believes every household requires a basic, sensible level of disaster preparedness. He echoes the need for 3 gallons of safe water per person for 72 hours, as well as emergency food rations for the same period.
“This will provide a base of sustenance for short interruptions of electricity,transportation and other services that would require people to be self-sufficient for a few days,” he explains.
But you may want to consider keeping a larger supply of water and food on hand.
“For geographic areas that are at elevated risk of major interruptions of services—such as floods along the Mississippi River, hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault in California and nuclear accidents anywhere—household preparedness would warrant keeping larger stocks of water and food on hand, along with other essential items such as first aid supplies, personal drugs and medications, and appropriate clothing,” Warner says.
The exact amount, he notes, depends on specific hazards in your particular area and the likely risks of a serious disaster. You need to use common sense and err on the side of caution.
“It is difficult to state how much additional water and food should be stored,”Warner says. “Historical experience in each area should certainly be used as a guide. Another source of information would be the disaster management agencies—federal, state and local—that are located in the area.
“Despite all efforts toward a reasonable level of disaster preparedness, however, there is always the possibility that the type of emergency and/or the magnitude of the event may go beyond what had been anticipated,” he adds. “There is no way to prepare for all possible disasters. Both natural and man made disasters will always have an element of unpredictability inherent in them. Our basic approach to emergency preparedness, therefore, should be one that tries to balance hazards, risks, customs, costs and basic human nature. At the same time, it is crucial that we continually learn from our experience with disasters and revise our thinking, planning and preparedness efforts accordingly.”