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RISMEDIA, March 28, 2011—(MCT)—If there is one thing we saw with the Japan earthquake, it’s how quickly the world can go from “normal” to “complete disaster.” After the earthquakes and tsunamis struck, many people in Japan were thrown into quite primitive conditions: no electricity, no telephone service, no medicine, no clean drinking water and no shipments of food arriving because the roads were gone. Hurricanes can bring the same kind of destructive force across a wide area. So can volcanoes.

If your city were to be struck with a large-scale disaster, would you and your family be ready to handle it?

That’s where emergency preparedness comes in. The basic idea is to have enough supplies on hand so that your family can survive a week or two of pandemonium that follows any major disaster. One reason to be prepared is because it ensures the survival and relative comfort of your family. The other reason is because it makes things less chaotic for rescuers and relief crews. If you are able to manage your life without any help, it frees up rescue teams to handle those who are truly in need of assistance.

So what should you have on hand in an emergency?

Perhaps the most important thing is water. Humans use a lot of it: for drinking, cooking, cleaning and even for flushing the toilet. At a bare minimum, a person needs about a gallon per day. You would like to have at least enough water available to handle three days, and a week or two would be even better. If you have four people in your family and you are planning for a week of coverage, you need a minimum of 28 gallons stored somewhere in the house. And it needs to be in the right kind of package. Milk jugs of water start leaking after a year or so—clear plastic bottles won’t. If there is a natural source of water nearby (river, lake, etc.) you can use it if you have a way to carry and sterilize the water.

You need any prescription medicines that are essential to your life, as well as an adequate first aid kit. Because there will be no electricity, you will want a good flashlight and fresh batteries, as well as a battery operated radio to get information. Glow sticks are also nice to have available.

Of course, you will need some food. Many people have enough food in the pantry to handle a couple of days. In a big disaster you may want a week or two of food on hand. Canned foods (soup and other prepared foods) and dried foods (rice, pasta, etc.) are best. Keep in mind that you need a way to open the cans and cook the food. And old-fashioned can opener and a camp stove are handy.

It is nice to have some emergency cash. With the power out and the telephone system down, ATMs and credit card machines are not going to work. For the same reason, gas stations are not going to be pumping gas either. If you have some advanced warning of something like an approaching hurricane, filling up your car’s gas tank is a good move.

Don’t forget the little things. If you run out of toilet paper, that is a disaster all on its own. Keep several packages of toilet paper in the back of the bathroom cabinet just in case.

In case of a hurricane, a big tarp and some rope might be nice things to have in the garage. If the roof gets damaged, you may be able to cover the hole.

If you want to ride out a disaster in style, an emergency generator (and enough gasoline to keep it running) can be a very nice thing to have. With it, you can keep your refrigerator running, provide lights at night and so on. Having a generator requires an extra level of discipline, because gasoline goes bad. If you are keeping gasoline in the garage for the generator, you need to replace it on a regular schedule.

Thankfully, full-on disasters—like the one that happened in Japan—don’t occur very often. But when they do, it’s good to be prepared so you can survive without undue hardship.

(c) 2011, How Stuff Works Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.