Years ago, I was told a story by a woman who had been a child in England during World War II. She and her sister had gotten so used to the bombings that the spectacle seemed more exciting than frightening, and the two girls would climb to their attic and peer out of tiny windows as the bombs dropped in the distance. One day, as the planes flew over her neighborhood, for the first time she was afraid. In that wave of fear, she did the only thing that seemed to make sense; she grabbed a vacuum cleaner and frantically dragged it away from the window, high onto a dusty table—for safety. And she cried.
That story has stayed with me because it seems like the little girl’s reaction was improbable, illogical, incomprehensible, and even a little funny. Why the vacuum cleaner? Why was that the one thing that seemed like it needed saving as the bombs fell? I expect it’s a typical reaction… to grab what we can, no matter what it is. The inner child takes over because we haven’t planned ahead.
For months we’ve watched from afar as natural disasters wreaked devastation across the country. This month, it was our turn. More than 9,217 acres were burned, 25 structures were destroyed, and 55 more were damaged in the Canyon 2 fires in Anaheim Hills that was finally fully contained on Tuesday. And while “our” fire was mild in comparison to the wine country wildfires that burned at the same time, it certainly made the reality of such a disaster much more concrete. It brought home the need for each of us to take the necessary steps to prepare for a swift and well-planned evacuation in the event of any emergency.
As the fire worsened last week and our skies turned orange, I found myself in conversations I never thought I’d have. Friends and clients watched in fear as the fire swept closer to their homes. Most who faced evacuation were scrambling to figure out their next steps. “I have no idea what to take!,” Sara told me as she sat in my office last Thursday. “My son put together an earthquake kit last year, so I felt prepared for that kind of thing. But leaving everything behind feels even worse somehow.” Sara wasn’t alone. So many people I spoke to felt unprepared and vulnerable at the thought of having to evacuate their homes.
And then I talked to my friend Linda. Unlike most of us (myself included), Linda seems prepared for anything. She told me that when she’d worked at the fire department, they gave every employee a laminated list of what to grab in an emergency. As she named all of the items on her “grab and go” list, I saw how different this was from a typical earthquake kit (at least any list I’ve ever seen). Here are just a few things that stood out to me:
- A waterproof bag with one full change of clothes, including underwear and outerwear, and comfortable walking shoes
- Electronics (mobile phones, laptops, iPads) and chargers—including a portable back-up charger
- Plastic sheeting, duct tape, and dust masks in case you need to seal your home or shelter from airborne contaminants such as smoke
- Medications for you and your pets
- A ziplock bag with copies of essential papers such as your driver’s license, proof of insurance, passports, social security cards, and printed list of personal contacts
- Cash, ideally at least $500 in small bills in case a disruption in banking services renders your ATM and credit cards useless
I began to think about what my laminated list should include. Sara and so many others seemed overwhelmed with choices. I could suddenly see how, in the midst of the chaos, a little girl might choose to save a vacuum cleaner. I decided it was time to stop thinking about planning for an emergency and start doing.
I started with Linda’s list, which also included the usual supplies. Enough water and non-perishable food to care for every family member, including pets, for at least one week. A well-stocked first-aid kit. Flashlights and batteries. Even a whistle to call for help. (For a complete list of what to include in emergency kits for your home and car, see the Build a Kit guide at ready.gov.)
But what about the emotional things? Would I remember to grab my grandmother’s pearl necklace in a panic? What about baby pictures of my children that I haven’t stored anywhere else? If, like Sara, I faced the possibility of losing everything I left behind, what would I want to take with me? After some careful thought, I have the answers. They are written down in the Notes app on my iPhone, ready to “grab and go.”
I hope you too will take our local fires as an urgent call to action. Build your emergency kit. Be sure you’ve uploaded your important papers to a secure online vault like eMoney (which we offer at no cost to every client) or our online Sharefile tool. Include your birth and marriage certificates, wills, insurance policies, military documents, retirement account statements, loan statements, and deeds. Create your laminated or electronic list of what to grab if you have to leave your home urgently.
Hopefully, none of us will be forced to evacuate our homes or cope with a disaster, but by putting your plan in place ahead of time, you’ll have what you need if and when you need it. Plus, you’ll be much more prepared to preserve those items that matter most in your heart—whether or not your list includes a vacuum cleaner.