Your Emergency Food and Water Supply

Marilyn A. Swanson
Extension Food Safety Specialist
School of Family and Consumer Sciences
University of Idaho, Moscow

Natural and manmade disasters continue to occur in the United States. The multiple environmental consequences of disasters can directly affect the public's health. Water sources can become contaminated with fecal material or toxic chemicals; water, electrical and sewer systems can be disrupted; solid-waste collection and disposal can be disrupted; and damage or destruction to homes and displacement of occupants may encourage the spread of some infectious diseases because of crowded living conditions and compromised personal hygiene such as handwashing. If you live in an earthquake area or in an area prone to other disasters, knowing what to do the disaster strikes and knowing what to do after the disaster can prevent you and your family from experiencing hardships and illness from unsafe food and water supplies. It can also save you time and money.

If you live in an earthquake area flood plain area, keep an adequate supply of food and emergency equipment on hand. This includes enough food and water to last four to five days, a manual can opener, battery-powered-radio, extra batteries, emergency cooking equipment camp stove and fuel, flashlights, candles, matches, a kerosene lamp, fire extinguisher and a first aid kit that contains iodine and hand washing materials.

Planning ahead: Your emergency food supply

Since gas and electric systems may be damaged during an earthquake, plan to store food that does not require refrigeration. Try to store foods that your family normally eats, plus some favorite treats. Avoid stocking too many foods that are high in salt and could increase thirst. Store foods in small serving size portions since you may not have refrigeration for storage of leftovers.

Canned goods, such as ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables, are good choices. Foods in glass bottles and jars may break in a disaster. Canned foods can be kept almost indefinitely as long as they are not leaking or bulging. For optimal quality, it is best to replace canned goods every 12 to 18 months.

Canned foods can be eaten cold or heated indoors with candle warmers or chafing dishes. Outside, use a camp stove or charcoal grill.

Other suggested food items for your storage include:

Planning ahead: Your emergency water supply

In moderate weather a normally active person needs at least 1/2 gallon of water per day for drinking and cooking. To be safe, store at least 6 gallons of water per person per week. You will need additional water for washing, brushing teeth, and dish washing. Some of the body's need for liquids can be met by using juices from canned fruits and vegetables.

Food-grade plastic containers are suitable for storing water, provided they are completely clean. Food-grade containers include store-bought plastic containers that have previously held food or beverages, such as 2-liter soda bottles, juice, punch or milk jugs. You can buy new plastic containers for water storage at sporting goods stores.

Clean used containers with hot, soapy water. Next rinse well with plain water. Then sanitize by rinsing with a solution of 1/2 teaspoon non-scented chlorine bleach per pint of water. Finally rinse with clean water. Also, remember to thoroughly clean the lid of the container. If you plan to store water in used plastic milk jugs, take special care to remove any milk residue particularly at the handle.

Never use empty bleach containers to store water. Bleach containers are not food-grade. In addition, a child may not understand that some bleach bottles contain safe drinking water while others are hazardous. Clearly mark all containers "drinking water" with the current date.

Store the tightly capped containers in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Because most plastic milk and beverage containers degrade over time, be particularly careful to store them away from heat and light to prevent leakage. Store containers in cabinets or on shelves that will stay upright and hold the containers securely during an earthquake.

You can also store water for an extended period of time in the freezer. Although you may not have enough freezer space to store all the water you may need in an emergency, storing some water in the freezer is a good idea. If you lose electricity, the frozen water will help keep foods in your freezer frozen until power is restored. Make sure you leave 2 to 3 inches of head space in containers before freezing. This will prevent water leakage and the container from breaking.

Another option is to buy a hand pump/filter which eliminates microorganisms. These are available from many camping supply companies or sporting goods stores. They range in cost from $40 to $250 depending on portability and quantity of water they can purify.

Coping after the disaster: Your food supply

After an earthquake, you should be able to count on your emergency food supply. Check foods carefully and discard any food containing particles of glass or silvers of other debris. Discard canned foods with broken seams.

You may also be able to salvage some of the food in your refrigerator. Generally, food in the refrigerator is safe as long as the power is out no more than a few hours. Food in a full, free-standing freezer will be safe for about 2 days. Food in a half-full freezer will be safe for about 1 day (storing water in the freezer to increase the amount of frozen items makes sense). If your freezer is not full, group packages together so they form an "igloo" protecting each other. Group meat and poultry to one side or on a tray so if their juices begin to drip as the food begins to thaw the juices will not contaminate other foods.

Unfortunately you cannot rely on appearance or odor to tell you if a food contains microorganisms that could cause foodborne disease. If perishable foods have been at room temperature for more than 2 hours, disease-causing bacteria may have multiplied enough to cause illness. The following chart can help you decide which foods are safe to use or refreeze when power is restored.

When you lose power for your refrigerator or freezer

In emergency conditions, the following foods could keep at room temperature (above 40 degrees F) for a few days. The lower the temperature, e.g., the closer to 40 degrees F, the longer the food will last. If anything has an unusual appearance or smell or it becomes moldy, it should be discarded.

Discard the following perishable foods if kept above refrigerator temperatures (40 degrees F) for more than 2 hours

Thawed frozen foods that still contain ice crystals can be refrozen when power is restored (quality of partially thawed and refrozen foods will decrease).

Coping after the disaster: Your water supply

In an area that has been devastated by an earthquake, the water supply may be disrupted or contaminated.

After an emergency has occurred, you may need to treat your water. Choose among the following treatment methods:

Boil vigorously for 1 minute in a clean container (3 to 5 minutes if you live in a high altitude area).

Household iodine from your first aid kit can be used to purify water. The iodine should be 2 percent United States Pharmacopoeia (U.S.P.) strength. Add 20 drops per gallon of cloudy water. Mix water and iodine thoroughly by stirring or shaking them together in a container. Allow the water to stand at least 30 minutes before using it.

Purification tablets
Available at drug stores. Follow directions on the package.

Liquid household bleach containing at least 5.25 percent hypochlorite can be used for purification following instructions in the table below. Do not use scented bleach.

Purifying Water with Bleach

Amount of Water

Clear Water

Cloudy Water

2 liters

4 drops

1/8 teaspoon

1 gallon

1/8 teaspoon

1/4 teaspoon

5 gallons

1/2 teaspoon

1 teaspoon

Let the water stand for 30 minutes. The water should have a slight chlorine odor. If it does not, add the same amount of bleach again and let the water stand for an additional 15 minutes.

If a chemical contamination of your water supply has occurred, contact your local health department for specific recommendations.

General keys to prevent disease and save resources after disaster strikes