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Having A Water Emergency?

Having Water in an Emergency

Hand placing a cap on a gallon of water.

In the event of an emergency, having an ample supply of clean water is the top priority, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A normally active person needs to drink at least two quarts of water each day. Hot environments can double that amount. Children, nursing mothers and ill people need even more.

If an earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, wildfire, winter storm or other disaster strikes your community, you may be without water, food or electricity for an unknown period of time.

While you can survive for weeks without food, you can’t survive without water for more than a few days.

Storing water for an emergency

For short-term emergencies, use tap water

If you anticipate being without utilities for a short period of time, such as when a weather watch is issued, you can store tap water from your well or municipality. Fill containers and your bathtub. Keep the water reserves inside your house to moderate the temperature. If the storm passes without incident, be thankful and use the water as you normally would. But if your local authorities advise you to evacuate, you may need to take the water with you.

For transport and storage, use food-grade containers such as empty 2-liter soft drink bottles, or gallon or 5-gallon jugs (such as those used for water coolers). Avoid using containers that have previously stored milk or fruit juice, as they are hard to clean thoroughly and may grow unwanted bacteria. Do not use glass containers, either. Glass is heavier than plastic and can be easily broken, which would result in a safety hazard as well as loss of precious water.

Fill the bottle to the top with regular tap water. If the tap water is from a public source treated with chlorine, you do not need to add anything to the water to keep it clean. If the water is from a well or water source that is not treated with chlorine, you can use regular unscented household bleach to disinfect it; refer to guidance from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Tightly close the container using the original cap and date the outside of the container so that you know when you filled it. Store it in a cool, dark place. Replace the water every six months.

Remember to purchase disposable or plastic drinkware that can be stored in its original packaging. In the event of a flood or exposure to contaminants from a fire or other conditions, your dishware will be unusable. Having to wash drinkware before use will deplete your valuable resource.

Note that well water should be tested and disinfected after floodwaters recede. If you suspect contamination, contact your health department for advice.

For longer-term emergencies, keep prepackaged water on hand

For unexpected or longer-term emergencies like earthquakes, you may want to stock up on water. Generally, once you have your short-term needs met with water reserves from your tap, you need to consider having more potable water on hand.

Emergency planners suggest having a gallon of water per person per day. If you’re able to do so, stock up to two weeks’ worth of water. Though food may be rationed, you should never ration water intake as this can lead to dehydration. Instead, reduce your activity level and sodium intake, and avoid becoming overheated.

If purchasing commercially bottled water, start with 1 or 5-gallon containers. In bulk, this will be less expensive than purchasing large volumes of individual water bottles. They are also generally easier to store, and can be poured into cups or containers as needed. You can also assign gallon containers for each person in your household, allowing you to plan out your exact needs.

You may also purchase packs of 16.9-ounce (1/2 liter) bottles. These bottles can be reused, so you’ll just need one per person if you have larger storage containers for your reserves.

Collecting rainwater

Collecting rainwater using rain barrels is another option. Rainwater collected directly from the sky is generally safe to use but slow to accumulate. Collecting rain from your roof is faster, although it should only be used for flushing toilets or other nonpotable needs. If you must use rainwater for drinking, follow the boiling and bleaching instructions below.

Safely using water reserves

Boiling water

Your area health department will determine if tap water is safe for drinking. If the public water supply is compromised in a large-scale emergency, boiling water is the safest way to purify it. Bring water to a rolling boil for 1 minute (some of it will evaporate). Let the water cool before drinking.

Not only is boiled water safe, but it tastes better. This is because pouring water back and forth between two clean containers introduces oxygen back into it. Boiling will also improve the taste of stored water.

Disinfecting water with liquid bleach

If you are unable to boil the water, you can disinfect it with unscented household bleach. Again, refer to EPA guidance.

Other chemicals, such as iodine or water treatment products sold in camping or surplus stores that do not contain 5.25% sodium hypochlorite as the only active ingredient, should not be used.

Collecting water from a hot water tank or pipes

You may also use the water in your hot water tank or pipes, or thaw ice cubes. To use the water in your pipes, let air into the plumbing by turning on the highest faucet in your home. A small amount of water will trickle out. Then collect water from the lowest faucet in the home.

Shut off the incoming water valve to stop contaminated water from entering your home if you hear reports of broken water or sewage lines. Know the location of the valve and how to shut off the water as part of your emergency plan.

To use the water in your hot water tank, turn off the electricity or gas. Open the drain at the bottom of the tank. Start the water flow by turning off the water intake valve on the tank and turning on a hot water faucet. Refill the tank before turning the gas or electricity back on. If the gas is turned off, a professional will need to turn it back on.

Do not use water from toilets, radiators, swimming pools, hot tubs or spas.

These guidelines are not difficult to follow, but they do require planning. Don’t wait until you are in an emergency to consider your water needs. You won’t be able to rely on your local supply chain after the shelves have been emptied. With some simple forethought, you can help keep your family safe in an emergency.

Timothy G. Russell, CPCU

(203) 255-2877

trussell [at] therussellagency [dot] com

The Russell Agency, LLC

317 Pequot Avenue

PO Box 528

Southport, CT 06890


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