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Storms, floods, disasters demonstrate importance of home emergency plans

A pedestrian walks under a tree blocking Wellesley Street East following an ice storm in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. The past 12 months or so have given millions of Canadians first-hand experience with why governments urge them to develop household emergency plans that include stores of non-perishable food, bottled water and extra prescription drugs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Matthew Sherwood

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A pedestrian walks under a tree blocking Wellesley Street East following an ice storm in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. The past 12 months or so have given millions of Canadians first-hand experience with why governments urge them to develop household emergency plans that include stores of non-perishable food, bottled water and extra prescription drugs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Matthew Sherwood

TORONTO - Last summer, surging flood waters forced the evacuation of a section of Calgary that is home to 80,000 people. Over Christmas, an estimated three million people were affected by power outages caused by an ice storm that hit Central and Eastern Canada. Last month, 4,000 residents of polar vortex-gripped Niverville, Man., lost natural gas delivery as a result of a pipeline explosion.

If there was ever a teachable moment in which to drive home the importance of household emergency planning, this may be it.

Agencies like the Canadian Red Cross as well as federal, provincial and municipal governments all urge Canadian households to have an emergency plan. The idea they promote is that people need to be able to take care of themselves for three days — 72 hours — in case bad weather or other types of disasters force people to hole up in their homes or flee them in a hurry.

But few households seem to take the message on board, says John Bryne, director general for disaster management for the Canadian Red Cross.

That organization conducted a poll about 18 months ago in which it asked Canadians if they had experienced disruptions like floods, bad storms or major power outages.

Almost half of respondents said they had experienced at least two disasters or disruptive events. But fully two thirds admitted they had taken no steps to prepare for emergencies or disasters. And one third of the respondents said they didn't have disaster preparedness kits or emergency stores of non-perishable food and water.

"People don't respond until they're faced with it," Bryne says.

Len MacCharles, deputy chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency says people who work in emergency planning and disaster management know that people do pay more attention to messages about household planning when they've been primed by a recent event. And people in his sector try to take advantage of it, he acknowledges.

The first thing people ought to do, he says, is think about the kinds of events they might face. There's no point preparing for hurricanes in places where they don't hit. But hurricane planning is important in some parts of the country. And in much of Canada, winter storms and spring floods are risks people should be thinking about and planning for.

"These things don't always happen half way around the world. They can easily happen and do happen right here at home," MacCharles says.

As many Canadians will have experienced this winter, trying to buy emergency supplies during an emergency is a stressful and often futile endeavour. Even finding road salt has been a challenge with this winter's bouts of freezing rain.

Bryne recommends thinking ahead, preparing in October and November for the kinds of weather you might face in December and beyond. "You know it's coming," he says.

After figuring out what risks you need to prepare for, experts suggest you devise a household plan — an emergency response plan.

It should address things like who should be an emergency contact if your children get separated from you. Your children need to know who the person is and how to reach him or her. And just in case smart phones get lost or batteries die, the kids should memorize the person's phone number.

Writing it down might also be a good idea.

"There's a rule of thumb in the ... emergency management world: All electronics are great, when they work. But a good old paper back-up is never harmful to have," Bryne says.

Emergency plans can also designate a meeting spot, if families get separated.

Once you've identified the risks and devised a plan, it's time to put together an emergency kit. You can buy one — the Red Cross and other organizations sell them — or you can use lists agencies like Public Safety Canada have compiled and posted on the web to build your own.

This is the point at which you need to be thinking about non-perishable food, water, batteries, flashlights, water purification tablets, a radio that runs on a crank. Another important item: a manual can opener. Include a first aid kit, extra supplies of any medication you, your kids or your pets need.

Choose the foods you're going to store carefully. You need things you can eat that don't require cooking. Bryne says people generally think about the wrong foods.

"Chocolate bars are great, but they'll only sustain you for a very short period of time," he says, suggesting protein — canned tuna or ham — vegetables and canned juices. Rotate the food in your emergency cache, so it doesn't go to waste.

Make sure you keep a stash of cash on hand. If the power goes out, ATM machines don't work and anything you try to buy may be a cash-only transaction, Bryne says, noting small bills are best.

MacCharles also suggest you put together an "important documents" bag. Make photocopies of key documents like passports, drivers licences, birth certificates, insurance policies, emergency contact numbers, and lists of any prescriptions drugs family members take. Store them in a sealable plastic bag. Give one to a trusted friend for safe keeping, keep another in your emergency kit.

The effort may sound daunting. And some may feel the expense is too great to be able to put together an effective household plan. But Bryne says this kind of undertaking doesn't have to cost a lot of money. Putting together an emergency kit can be done for $50 to $100, he says. And the emergency cash envelope doesn't have to be bulging — $100 in small bills could be adequate.

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On the Web:

The Red Cross has lots of advice on household emergency planning at: http://www.redcross.ca/what-we-do/emergencies-and-disasters-in-canada/for-home-and-family

Public Safety Canada's emergency planning website is at: http://www.getprepared.gc.ca/index-eng.aspx

The Calgary Emergency Management Agency's recommendations for emergency kits are at: http://www.calgary.ca/CSPS/Fire/Pages/Calgary-Emergency-Management-Agency/72-hour-kit.aspx

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