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The New Go Bag: What You Need in Your Emergency Escape Kit

Amid COVID-19, add masks and hand sanitizer along with your food, batteries and medication

Emergency preparedness supplies

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En español | JoAnn Rash has her go bag packed and ready in case of emergency. She first realized the need after a California friend was forced to evacuate quickly during an earthquake.

Rash, 54, consulted the American Red Cross for recommendations on a disaster preparedness kit. She found an oversize backpack with lots of pockets and filled it with essentials, ranging from flashlights and batteries to bottled water.

It's now ready to go if she and her family ever need to flee their Vancouver, Washington home. “I felt like we needed to be ready for whatever comes our way,” she explains.

In 2020 more than 500,000 residents are under evacuation orders as wildfires rage in Oregon, Hurricane Laura sent 1.5 million residents in coastal regions of Texas and Louisiana scrambling for safer ground, and the National Guard was dispatched to Michigan to help people evacuate when breached dams caused massive flooding.

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A heightened awareness of natural disasters has led to better disaster preparedness planning, according to Jonathan Sury, project director for communications and field operations at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Investing time and energy into getting prepared will save a lot of stress and fear when a disaster hits,” Sury says.

Packing a go bag is essential for disaster preparedness. Here are important items to include.

1. The bag. Your carryall must be large and sturdy enough to hold the essentials and small enough to grab on the run. A backpack is a great option. If you're not able to carry a heavy bag, Sury recommends a duffel bag on wheels.

2. Food and water. Add lightweight, nutrient-dense foods, such as protein bars, instant oatmeal, nuts and seeds, and at least one gallon of water per person, per day. Don't forget a manual can opener and utility knife. A go bag should have enough food and water for at least three days; remember to pack enough for your pets, too.

3. Personal essentials. Purchase travel-sized toiletries and a first aid kit. Pack a change of clothing, including a warm, waterproof layer, as well as an extra pair of eyeglasses or contact lenses (and solution). Other items that should be in your go bag are an emergency blanket, scissors, duct tape, work gloves, towels and matches, according to the American Red Cross.

4. COVID-19 needs. The pandemic means that masks are an essential go-bag item, and they can also be used to filter out ash from fires. However, Sury cautions that only N95 masks will filter out fire particulates that could trigger asthma or allergic responses. Hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol, soap, antibacterial wipes and a thermometer are important, too, Sury advises.

5. Medications. If there is a warning that you may be evacuated, call your pharmacy and request an extra medication refill. Pack a list of your medications and the phone numbers for your pharmacy and physicians. You'll also need portable versions of specialized medical equipment like syringes, CPAP machines and oxygen tanks.

If you have to evacuate without notice, the RX Open website, in partnership with the National Council for Prescription Drug Programs, maps the list of pharmacies that are open in disaster-stricken areas.

6. Electronics. Throw in extra phone chargers, a flashlight and batteries. “We recommend hand-crank portable radios,” Sury says. “When all of our lines of communication go down during a disaster, AM/FM radios have proven to be one of the most reliable sources of … communication, and you don't need to worry about having fresh batteries."

7. Paperwork. Make photocopies of essential documents, including passports; birth certificates; driver's licenses; Social Security and Medicare cards; marriage, adoption and naturalization certificates; title or lease documents; insurance paperwork; and credit and debit card information. Make sure to store these in a waterproof, zip-top bag.

8. Cash. If natural disasters cause power outages, you may not be able to use your debit or credit cards to make purchases, so add cash to your go bag. Sury suggests “a couple hundred dollars” for a two-member household, to cover gas, food and other last-minute essentials. A combination of small bills and rolls of quarters is ideal if you need to buy food or water from vending machines.

Keep your go bag in an accessible location, such as a front hall closet or garage, where it's easy to grab on your way out the door.

"[Packing a go bag] does take an investment of time, energy and a little bit of money,” Sury says, “but the payoff is worth it to have that peace of mind."