Emergency Preparedness: How Much Food & Water Per Person

Emergency Preparedness: How Much Food & Water Per Person

Dr. Michael Beach is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, who teaches and practices disaster preparation and response.

He’s a member of disaster medical assistance teams and has helped respond to Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—and most recently, those on cruise ships during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Micheal Beach’s thoughts on:

  • How to stay calm in emergency situations (3:04)
  • The biggest lesson he’s learned from his years of emergency preparedness (4:15)
  • His number one tip to keep in mind when preparing for shelter-in-place (5:34)
  • How much food to buy for an emergency (6:35)
  • What food to buy for an emergency (7:55)
  • Emergency supplies list for pandemic and coronavirus (9:24)
  • How much of an emergency water supply you need per person (10:15)
  • What medications to have in your emergency kit (12:00)
  • The importance of social distancing and handwashing (14:58)
  • If you can touch your face if you’ve been sheltering-in-place (15:52)

Want to hear more from Dr. Michael Beach?

Enroll for free in his course Disaster Preparedness on Coursera.



Coursera: From Coursera, this is Emma Fitzpatrick, and today I’m talking to Dr. Michael Beach, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. 

Dr. Beach teaches and practices in emergency medicine and disaster preparation and response. He’s a member of disaster medical assistance teams and has helped respond to Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. He’s also been involved with volunteer search and rescue for over 30 years. 

Today, we’re talking with Dr. Beach about his number one piece of advice as you prepare for quarantine or shelter in place, how much food and water to have on hand, and what you should keep in your disaster preparedness kit.

Let’s go ahead and get started.

[00:00:45] I’m curious, how have you personally been preparing or reacting to the recent COVID-19 outbreak?

[00:00:53] Dr. Michael Beach: I teach at the University of Pittsburgh. I have the opportunity to work from home, so yesterday I spent the day gathering supplies at work, making sure I have all my files. 

I think my wife and I are regularly well-prepared as far as food, water, and other things that we may need. So, it’s really a matter of sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying the good that is all around us.

[00:01:20] Coursera: That is definitely a different take, but your background is in preparing for these exact kinds of situations. 

So, how do you maintain your personal sense of calm as you read the news, and things are clearly ramping up? 

[00:01:35] Dr. Michael Beach: The news is pretty anxious. I understand that. My philosophy is to control what I can control and not worry about controlling what I am not able to control. I simply do my best. 

I’m part of a disaster preparedness team, and during a recent deployment, I worked with people who were quarantined off of one of the cruise ships. And I took all of the proper precautions and did everything that I was supposed to do.

[00:02:05] One thing that I teach my students is that there are levels of awareness if you will, and you can use this to prepare for bad things to happen to you. So, if you’re very aware, then you become aware of things that aren’t normal, and you can decide, yep, that’s not normal. That’s a bad thing. I have to react to it. 

But more often than not, it’s a matter of being aware, being prepared, and by doing that, you can enjoy—while, like today, it’s a wonderful sunny day outside. It’s going to rain later, but I’m going to enjoy the day while I can. 

[00:02:46] Coursera: Yeah, and I’m also curious. I know you mentioned that you worked with people who are on a cruise ship during this. 

Either through that experience or some of the other disaster preparedness and response work that you’ve done, how do you keep people calm when you’re the one kind of leading or helping in those situations?

[00:03:04] Dr. Michael Beach: By staying calm yourself. That is the biggest thing. And gosh, I talk about this so much, but it really is absolutely true. There is never a reason to panic and rarely a reason to be extremely anxious.

We spend a lot of time just talking to folks, interacting with them—sometimes face-to-face while we were dressed in full personal protective equipment. We talk about what’s going on, commiserate with people who didn’t get their luggage in time—just spending time with people and being human.

[00:03:43]And that’s really what it comes down to. Ask a person how they’re doing. Ask them if they need anything. Talk about your kids. Talk about their kids. Talk about just a normal conversation. 

[00:03:57] Coursera: I really like that. And especially in the coming weeks, we’re all going to find how much we need that sense of human connection. 

Are there any other lessons that you’ve learned along the way from working and helping people in situations like this before?

[00:04:15] Dr. Michael Beach: Preparing for a disaster or a pandemic or everything in between it’s not done at the last minute. You take the time to prepare. 

You take the time to gather the materials. Think about what you’re going to do. Speculate on what’s going to happen and how you’re going to respond to it. Figure out how you’re going to communicate with family, how you’re going to recharge your phone if the electricity goes off, what kind of food and water you should have, and whatever else. That’s all done long before the disaster.

[00:04:50] If you wait until they say, “Well, tomorrow we’re going to hunker down, and nobody’s supposed to go outside, ” that is the worst time in the world to go out and buy the stuff that you need or even think about how you’re going to react to this.

Lack of information and misinformation is rampant in situations like this. And if you’re prepared, if you have the stuff that you need, if you’ve thought about how you’re going to react, well then it’s going to be a whole lot easier, to survive, to be comfortable, and to not be anxious when the time comes. 

[00:05:24] Coursera: On that front, what’s your number one piece of advice for someone who is preparing to either go into quarantine or go into a lock-in? 

[00:05:34] Dr. Michael Beach: The number one piece of advice is stop hoarding. I really don’t understand why people are buying two years’ worth of toilet paper to prepare for this disaster. It just makes no sense to me whatsoever—and toilet paper, really?

Sure. Toilet paper might be a little difficult to find right now. Hand sanitizer, in particular, Clorox, Lysol, cleaners—all difficult to find—but I think the reality is that they’re going to be restocked.

We are not talking about the walking dead and a zombie apocalypse, where there will be no more grocery stores. 

[00:06:14]So again, I’ve said this over and over. Don’t panic. Buy what you need and what you feel that you can use. Don’t overbuy. Don’t hoard stuff. There is no reason for that. 

[00:06:28] Coursera: And on that front, when you talk about buying what you need, what do you recommend as kind of a good baseline—in regards to food? 

[00:06:35] Dr. Michael Beach: Sure. So, food is a little tricky. If we’re talking about a true preparedness kit, then we’re talking about food, water, and whatever else for probably around a week to two weeks at the most.

In a situation like this, I really don’t see a reason why the tap water that comes into your kitchen is going to be shut off. So, I think we have an adequate supply of water.

[00:07:02] Food—yeah. You should probably pick up some food and probably pick up food for two or three weeks—really to try to avoid going to the grocery store or at least spending too much time at the grocery store. 

So, it doesn’t mean that we can’t go there. Go grab some fresh fruits and vegetables, grab some milk, and head home. Make it a very short trip. 

Have some staples in your pantry, have some meats, and whatever else—frozen and in the refrigerator. Use those things up and then go to the store and add to it.

But again, relax. Use the basics that you have. Two weeks, three weeks is probably longer than what you’ll need at this point. It just minimizes your trips to the grocery store, and that’s a good thing. 

[00:07:55] Coursera: When people say, “Have two to three weeks of food,” in this specific situation that we’re in, does that mean it should all be dry, pantry goods?

Or like you said, as long as it’s in the fridge or the freezer, there’s no reason to assume that those would stop working, that you should have that backup of pantry dry goods as well. Is that right? 

[00:08:16] Dr. Michael Beach: So, that is correct. There’s no reason to believe that, at this point, that the refrigerator is going to stop working, that your freezer is going to stop and everything’s going to turn to liquid. That stuff—it’s going to be there. Use that stuff. 

You should have a nice supply of pantry goods as long as you’re financially able to purchase all of that. Have a nice supply of those things. 

[00:08:40] But there’s no reason to believe at this point that we’re not going to be able to make a quick run to the grocery store to resupply our fruits and vegetables, meats, and whatever else—those perishable items.

[00:08:55] Coursera: That makes sense. And I know you also mentioned a disaster preparedness kit, which is a little bit different. 

Could you go into a little bit more detail about what exactly that disaster preparedness kit is, and what should be in there?

[00:09:07] Dr. Michael Beach: Sure. So, a disaster preparedness kit is probably a bit more complicated than we can do in this interview. I guess now would be a really good shameless opportunity to promote my course on Coursera, and for that matter, my book on disaster preparedness

[00:09:24] But, here are the basics. I believe that everybody should have some degree of a disaster preparedness kit.

And that means that they should be able to take care of themselves and their family and their pets and whatever else in their little life group for anywhere from—we used to say three days—now we say, five to seven days. Really, two weeks is probably more than enough. 

And in this kit, you should be able to survive with the stuff that’s in the kit without any outside help. 

So, it’s going to include nonperishable foods and foods that are easy to prepare—for instance, canned foods—two weeks’ worth. Comfort food is something that I find important, so chocolate, chips, cereals, anything that you might find comforting.

[00:10:15] Water—at least a gallon a day for every person in the household unit. 

So, if you have a camping water filter, one that is designed to take water right out of a stream or a lake or a spring and filter that water and make it potable—and what I mean by potable is drinking water, able to be drank—then that filter is perfect. You can use that, as I said, in any of those sources. Or, if all of a sudden there’s a boil order for the water coming into your house, you can use that filter to filter that water and make it, again, drinkable.

What is not usable are filters that generally attach right to the faucet. They do not make non-potable water potable. Another quick comment: rainwater should be filtered before you drink it. Or if it’s a choice between dehydration and drinking rainwater, goodness, drink the rainwater. That choice is not the same for drinking out of our rivers and streams. 

Games to play, so you don’t get too bored. Tools for general jobs around the house as things get messed up. A first-aid kit with all of your medications. 

That’s probably a brief description of this. You can go online and look under the Red Cross, the CDC, Homeland Security—all of those have good lists.

But along with that, you should have communication tools and protocols to get information —good information from outside—to you and be able to communicate with your family and friends and emergency services.

[00:12:00] Coursera: Those are some ways that people can prepare for disasters in general. With this specific crisis that we’re preparing for—staying at home quarantine, lock in for COVID-19—we talked about the food that people should have on hand. 

Could you talk a little bit more about what kind of medicine or medical supplies people should make sure that they have at home?

[00:12:23] Dr. Michael Beach: Sure. So everybody should have a good, simple first-aid kit—bandages, triple antibiotic ointment, Band-Aids, ACE wraps for twisted ankles, maybe even a splint, like a SAM splint. 

So, basic first-aid supplies, I think are very, very important.

[00:12:43] I do have to say that the majority of what you’re going to use over time, from that first-aid kit—Band-Aids. I have first-aid kits that I’ve used nothing out of except for bandaids. That seems to be the thing. 

As far as medications go, if you are prescribed any medications, you should have as much of a supply as possible of those meds. Now, this is really difficult because insurance dictates when we can get things renewed and refilled and so on. 

[00:13:16] Beyond medications that are prescribed to you, something for pain, Tylenol, and Motrin or ibuprofen—always good things to have on hand. 

Because we’re not going to be eating as we usually eat—or may not be—we may have some, a little bit of GI upset. GI medications can be very, very helpful. Tums, Pepto-Bismol, anything like that to relieve bloating, upset, stomach, diarrhea, things of those natures. 

And the last thing I would add as far as medications are allergy medications, something like Benadryl, Claritin, for allergic reactions.

[00:13:54] Coursera: And a lot of the coronavirus symptoms are similar to the flu. So, should people also consider having medication on hand to help with flu-like symptoms? 

[00:14:05] Dr. Michael Beach: I would add those as well. So, some sort of cough and cold medication, something to help you sleep at night. 

So, these medications obviously make you feel better, but just because you feel better, that does not mean that you’re over the flu or, for that matter, over COVID-19. You need to self-quarantine or be quarantined for at least 14 days.

[00:14:30] Coursera: And as people are preparing to either quarantine, any other materials that they should have on hand that we haven’t already covered?

[00:14:38] Dr. Michael Beach: I think we’ve covered most things. Truly, this is a time to spend time with your family, with loved ones. Play games if you like playing games. Read a book that you’ve always wanted to read. Read to your kids. Cook a good meal. Spend time together. That would be my recommendation for people.

[00:14:58] If you do go outside, I don’t think there’s a reason why you shouldn’t go for a walk, particularly a walk in the woods or a walk through your neighborhood. The key is social distancing. If you stay about six, seven feet away from, people that you encounter, you can even stop and have a chat with them.

[00:15:17] Wash your hands a lot. Hand sanitizer, if you can get it, but good old soap and water—15 to 20 seconds—that’s perfectly fine. 

Don’t touch your face. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you get a virus on your hands, it’s not going to affect you unless you take your hands and touch your face. Don’t touch your face. 

[00:15:39] Coursera: I was wondering if people are staying at home more for days and weeks on end, can they ease up on touching their face—if they aren’t going out and being exposed to other people, places? Or should they still refrain?

[00:15:52] Dr. Michael Beach: So, that’s a great question, and really after you wash your hands, there is no reason not to touch your face. 

And if you’re in your house and you have had no visitors for a couple of days, most viruses die on surfaces after 24-to-48 hours. So, if it’s been that long, and I don’t know what the current science is on the coronavirus—how long it can last on a surface. But if you’re beyond that point, and you’re in your house, yeah, there’s no reason not to touch your face—except this one. 

If Americans and the world would get to the point of not touching our face, sickness, the flu, COVID-19, all of the things that we’re exposed to would not affect us.

So, you can, after somewhere between five and ten days, sure, you can touch your face. But, that’s just going to put you back in the habit of touching your face. And you’re going to walk outside, touch your face after you touch a doorknob or your car or whatever, and then you’re going to catch the flu.

So, just don’t touch your face.

I’m Michael Beach. I am an acute care nurse practitioner and a pediatric nurse practitioner. I have a doctoral degree in nursing, and I teach at the University of Pittsburgh in the school of nursing. 

[00:17:19] I have a course on Coursera that is specific to disaster preparation. Preparation is not something you can learn in a short interview or reading one article.

It is something that you learn far before a disaster occurs and put in the time to prepare what you need to survive and to survive comfortably in a disaster. 

My course on Coursera goes relatively deeply in what you need to prepare, as I said, not just for this COVID crisis, but disasters in general.

It talks about personal preparedness. It talks about what you can expect from the medical system when you present during a disaster and a bit about weapons of mass destruction.

I believe everyone should be personally responsible for themselves and their families as much as they are able. We all need to be prepared and take care of ourselves to the extent that we’re able to do that. I believe that’s a responsibility we each have to live up to.

So, take my course, have fun with it. I hope you enjoy it.

[00:18:27] Coursera: To learn more from Dr. Michael Beach, go to Coursera.org today to enroll for free in his course, Disaster Preparedness.

And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning.