Maintaining calm amid chaos

Families discuss the importance of 'go bags' for disaster preparation

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Green and tan backpacks sit in the front of Joshua and Kelsie Griffin's guest room closet in the grab and go position. The “go bags” are filled with emergency supplies.

Every May, the Panama City residents refresh the “essentials,” part of an annual routine to “swap out expired goods, check batteries and check pant sizes,” said Joshua Griffin.

In October of 2018, as Michael, a powerful category 5 hurricane, was approaching the Florida Panhandle, the Griffins' “go bags” were put to use as they evacuated to a safer location.

With extreme weather events escalating in frequency and severity in recent years, experts urge families to plan ahead for natural disasters. Ready.gov, a FEMA website, recommends putting together a “collection of basic items” to last for several days, including food, water, a change of clothes, cash and a flashlight.

After the storm, Joshua left his wife in a safe place and returned to Panama City to check things out. He ended up living out of his go bag for four days.

Even though the power was out, Joshua was able to communicate with Kelsie because he had a solar charger. “You needed something like that in order to communicate. I think that was one of the most valuable things in the bag because it literally connected us so we could communicate.”

The Griffins credit regular disaster-preparedness reminders through their congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and on the Christian organization’s official website, jw.org, for helping them to keep at the ready.

“Being ready to face a natural disaster may be the difference between life and death when it unexpectedly hits,” said Robert Hendriks, a spokesperson for the Jehovah's Witnesses. “We can’t just say life is precious; we need to live it. That’s why the Bible’s advice to take practical steps to protect ourselves and our families from danger makes so much sense — even if threats seem far off.”

Until recently, Colorado couple Michael and Crystal Brook only thought of wildfires as a threat to those high on the slopes of the Rockies — never imagining that their suburban home in the foothills would be at risk.

Still, heeding advice to expect the unexpected, the Brooks assembled go bags.

Last December, their efforts paid off when the Marshall Fire, a record-breaking inferno fueled by drought conditions and high winds, ravaged homes and businesses in Boulder County.

As flames leapt across the interstate highway near their home and billows of smoke darkened the midday sky, the Brooks grabbed their go bags, along with pillows and stuffed toys to help keep 6-year-old daughter Annastyn calm amid the chaos of evacuating their community.

Michael recalls the panic within the community. “They didn’t know what to do,” he said.

Though the Brooks’ house sustained only minor smoke damage, and their go bags went unused, the couple feel being prepared helped them remain calm and act swiftly under pressure.

“Having the go bags made things simple,” said Michael.

“These days, anything can happen anytime, anywhere,” added Crystal. “It’s good to be prepared.”

In flood-prone Louisa, Kentucky, Brandon and C’onia Fitch made preparing go bags a fun activity for kids Nolan, Gavin and Stella, letting them pick out their own bags and add their favorite toys and nonperishable snacks.

“Everyone in the family had a role in preparing the bags,” said Brandon. “They know what’s in them, and they know where to find them.”

The importance of being "go bag ready" was put to the test last year when floodwaters surrounded their home in rural Appalachia.

In pitch darkness and with freezing water rising steadily in their home, the Fitches loaded their go bags — and Princess Pickles, 6-year-old Stella’s beloved guinea pig — into the family car and drove to higher ground.

By morning, four feet of muddy floodwater had devastated the Fitches’ home and brought into sharp focus the true value of their efforts to prepare.

“It took a bit of the panic away,” said C’onia. “It seemed like a daunting task … but I’m so glad we did it.”

“You’re not going to regret it,” agreed Nolan, 16. “It could save your life.”

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