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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


Overpacker or Prepared?

Author: Ron Piedrahita, Senior Producer, Division of Communications, HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response
Published Date: 9/4/2015 9:04:00 AM

I recently had an epiphany. I’m a chronic overpacker, but that wasn’t it. It was that being an overpacker got me past a horrible personal disaster.

For years I traveled extensively, producing for many news entities. Often I traveled in response to “breaking news” so time was of the essence. Because I frequently got calls that started with, “How soon can you get to the airport?” I had a bag ready at all times. Rarely was there time to check luggage, and even if there had been, I couldn’t afford the risk of my bag being delayed or lost. My hand-carry bag had to get me through the duration of the job. Thus began my overpacking obsession. It’s amazing how much I can stuff into a carry-on bag.

Flashing my press credentials usually resulted in a knowing nod from airport screeners as they rummaged through an odd assortment of the obscure tools, non-perishable food, and clothing I’d packed so I’d be ready for whatever I faced in the “breaking news” environment. I had become a professional overpacker.

Turns out my “always ready to go with an overstuffed bag” habit gave my family an odd advantage.

Fast forward to 2012. We had decided to remodel our home. Our daughter’s bedroom barely fit her baby crib, much less the planned “big-girl” bed. We lived on one floor with construction in full swing upstairs.

In the middle of one late-June night, I thought one of my dogs was licking my face to wake me up for a morning stroll. As I opened my eyes, I realized it wasn’t the dog; it was actual water – very nasty, gritty water; the ceiling was spitting on me. An ear-piercing squeal was going off, too, and after a moment I realized the source of the horrific sound was the cheap battery-operated water-detection alarm in my basement.

In the fog of a waking mind it was difficult to comprehend immediately, but when I focused for a moment the situation became joltingly clear: a big storm was crashing overhead and my house was flooding. Only later would I learn a new word: derecho.

I could see water pouring in from all the recessed ceiling lights, much like a wide-open bathtub faucet. From each light fixture. The sprinkling over my head became a steady stream as water fully saturated the dry wall and burst through the paint. Paint bubbled across the ceiling, miniature water balloons waiting to burst.

My wife, usually the epitome of strength and logic, wasn’t. Our little girl was screaming and justifiably scared out of her mind. We set her down on the only dry spot we could see; my wife ran for car keys and I ran to get The Bags… the bags I’d kept packed for just such a moment, the bags my wife rolled her eyes at whenever the topic arose.

Just as I got back I saw something no parent ever wants to see. With ceiling drywall now splitting at the seams, a large sheet broke free, swung open and landed nasty-side down, covering our little girl. We quickly dug her out, paying special attention to what may have entered her mouth, nose and eyes. The look on her face is forever burned in my mind. I quickly scooped her up, and rushed her, two large dogs, our go-bags, and my wife to the car. I stayed behind at the house as my wife drove our family to a nearby hotel.

My attention turned to the laptop holding all our family photos and almost all of our records. Getting to it meant going through standing water. Duh, I forgot to turn off the power! I got to the breaker box and shut off the power, then realized I also needed to shut off the gas and water in case whatever was happening to my house got even worse.

I found the laptop; it was destroyed but an external backup drive was (thankfully) intact. I got to the hotel room and my wife and child were freshly bathed and had delved into their bags for clean clothes and snacks. My daughter loved having a newer version of her favorite stuffed animal, “Piggy”.

In the end, our house had been gutted down to bricks and frame. We lost most of our possessions, but that bag we each had made things so much more bearable in the initial horrific moments.

Several months later, Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast and I deployed to New York. Being knee-deep in the recovery portion of my own personal disaster shed new light on what I witnessed in the region. Seeing, first-hand, people who lost so much; I admit it got a bit overwhelming. I was thankful my little girl had Piggy.

Years later, my wife no longer rolls her eyes at our go-bags. She’s ruefully thankful that I’m a professional overpacker. While I realize not everyone strives to be one, I do hope everyone will think ahead about what they would do if a disaster affected them.

Consider this: most people have some kind of insurance, and most of us have done some form of overnight travel. It seems a pretty short step to merge the two concepts: overpacking an overnight bag and putting it someplace as insurance for that “just in case” moment.

I set a calendar reminder on my phone to swap out the snacks, change the clothes for something more seasonal, and confirm Piggy is still relevant. Aside from the bag purchase and the stuffed animal, everything else is an extension of a closet or pantry – getting rotated and used – so no additional cost.

Still, that may be tough for some. But here’s one that’s not tough: chat with your family about what to do if something bad happens. If phones don’t work and something goes wrong – maybe as simple as a broken water main – do you have a plan for who picks up the kids or where do you meet if you can’t get home? Take a moment, download a preparedness checklist – there are tons around the Internet – and take that first step.

I may not be prepared for everything, but as luck would have it I was prepared enough for a little known hazard where I live, a severe storm called derecho.

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Thank you for personalizing the need for preparedness

I enjoyed your eye-opening article about what you and your family went through and how having a few bags prepacked made such a huge difference. I have wanted to get prepared and have talked numerous times to my grown children about the need for us to be prepared, but I must admit, I didn't know how or where to start. At least, not until I read your article. Now it makes sense to me and seems less of a daunting task. I see now that I can pack a couple of bags as if I am going on a short trip and just keep them handy! Thank you for sharing your story.
9/8/2015 8:20:23 AM

Thank you

I am sorry that you and so many others had to suffer through this. Thank you for using your experience to help and advise the rest of us.
9/8/2015 8:20:42 AM

Realistic Readiness

Often, we think of preparedness as akin to doomsday preppers - maybe a little over the top and silly. None of us actually thinks disaster will personally affect us. Thanks for this personal, eye-opening and realistic look at why and how we should be ready for any possible disaster...even those we know nothing about. Your forethought saved your family from even greater distress, but will now help to save others, as well. You gave us readers a wonderful outline of what we should be doing to be prepared. I appreciate the insight.
9/10/2015 8:16:40 AM

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