Keep your food safe in a natural disaster
October 26th, 2012
11:39 AM ET
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Safety and sufficient rations should be your primary concern in a hurricane, flood, snowstorm or tornado but that doesn't mean you can't also eat well.

First off, here's what FEMA - the Federal Emergency Management Management Agency  - says people should have on hand, in addition to a manual can opener and one gallon of water per adult and per pet each day, with a three-day minimum supply:

Store at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food. Select foods that require no refrigeration, preparation or cooking and little or no water. If you must heat food, pack a can of sterno. Select food items that are compact and lightweight. Avoid foods that will make you thirsty. Choose salt-free crackers, whole grain cereals, and canned foods with high liquid content.

– Ready-to-eat canned meats, fruits and vegetables
– Canned juices, milk, soup (if powdered, store extra water)
– Staples–sugar, salt, pepper
– High energy foods–peanut butter, jelly, crackers, granola bars, trail mix
– Vitamins
– Foods for infants, elderly persons or persons with special dietary needs
– Comfort/stress foods–cookies, hard candy, sweetened cereals, lollipops, instant coffee, tea bags

Read Hurricanes and Floods and Key Tips for Consumers About Food and Water Safety

Should your home happen to lose power for any length of time, as often happens in a hurricane, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offers the following recommendations to determine if your food is safe and how to keep it as such:

Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed as much as possible to maintain the cold temperature.

The refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened. A full freezer will hold the temperature for approximately 48 hours (24 hours if it is half full) and the door remains closed.

Discard refrigerated perishable food such as meat, poultry, fish, soft cheeses, milk, eggs, leftovers and deli items after 4 hours without power.

Food may be safely refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or is at 40°F or below when checked with a food thermometer.

Obtain dry or block ice to keep your refrigerator and freezer as cold as possible if the power is going to be out for a prolonged period of time. Fifty pounds of dry ice should hold an 18-cubic-foot full freezer for 2 days.

If the power has been out for several days, check the temperature of the freezer with an appliance thermometer. If the appliance thermometer reads 40°F or below, the food is safe to refreeze.

If a thermometer has not been kept in the freezer, check each package of food to determine its safety. If the food still contains ice crystals, the food is safe.

Discard any food that is not in a waterproof container if there is any chance that it has come into contact with flood water. Discard wooden cutting boards, plastic utensils, baby bottle nipples and pacifiers.

Thoroughly wash all metal pans, ceramic dishes and utensils that came in contact with flood water with hot soapy water and sanitize by boiling them in clean water or by immersing them for 15 minutes in a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of drinking water.

Undamaged, commercially prepared foods in all-metal cans and retort pouches (for example, flexible, shelf-stable juice or seafood pouches) can be saved.

Use bottled water that has not been exposed to flood waters. If bottled water is not available, tap water can be boiled for safety.

The FSIS also emphasizes "When in doubt, throw it out." A taste-test is counterintuitive.

Keep your medicine safe

Got that? Now let's zest it up.

If you're at home and the power goes out, it's an excellent opportunity to race to the fridge and gobble up whatever pre-cooked meats and cheeses are at the ready. Transfer whatever you can't eat to the freezer to buy yourself a little more time, and make sure to have a cooler or two stocked with cold packs - whether you're at home or on the road.

Now is not the time to take chances, so make sure you've got a food thermometer on hand - as well as a way to disinfect it between uses. Visualize what you want from the fridge or freezer before you open the door. Things can get warmer, but you can't get that cold back.

Once the storm has safely passed and winds and rain have died down, now might be an excellent time to grill that meat that's just thawed out from your freezer. Visualize your usual process, from marinating and rubbing, to basting, flipping, carrying and prepping back in the kitchen - as well as all your hand and equipment washing - and make sure you've got enough soap and water for each of those instances, in addition to any you'd usually have on hand to quench flare-ups and fires.

Just batten down the hatches for the arrival of all the neighbors who may catch a whiff and come over with rumbling stomachs. If they ask what they can bring, tell them, "Your own plate, silverware, glass and napkin - and a promise you'll take them when you go."

Mayonnaise may adorn your sandwiches and tuna or chicken salads at the outset, and pre-sealed packets aren't a bad way to go, but after a few hours, mustard is a better safety bet. Avoid flavor fatigue by assembling a sampler pack of yellow, Dijon, deli, whole grain, flavored and honey mustards. Per the good folks at French's Mustard, "There are no ingredients in mustard that spoil. "Refrigerate After Opening" is not required for food safety–we only recommended you do so to maintain optimal product flavor."

Peanut butter is another excellent bet, but it too can get monotonous. Put a portion into a small bowl or plastic container and play around with spice mix-ins like cumin, cinnamon, hot sauce, paprika, Chinese five-spice or curry spices. It's dandy on bread, crackers (you did remember to stock up on crackers, right?) or raw vegetables; just don't make your blend too hot or salty if water and other beverages are still in short supply. If peanuts aren't your bag, pop a can of chickpeas, mash them up and gussy 'em up.

About those raw vegetables - you're not locked in to the ho-hum trinity of carrots, celery and cauliflower. Corn that's been cut off the cob is sweet, crisp and delicious raw. So is okra, zucchini and plenty other vegetables you might never think to chomp into without cooking. Plan ahead and wash them off now, so they're at the ready when you want to get your disaster snack on.

And booze. You probably shouldn't be drinking right now, but that might not stop you (or, uh, us).

Red wine is an obvious choice, but if only white will do, stash your bottles in the fridge now before the power goes out. Should you anticipate things getting dire or dull, slip the inner plastic bag from your favorite boxed wine (Shhhh! It's okay! Food & Wine's Ray Isle says so and has some excellent suggested brands.) and pop it in the freezer. Under normal circumstances, we would not suggest treating your wine in such a fashion, but this ain't the Loire Valley in stomping season. You haven't had running water in two days and a nice, cool glass of something that isn't bottled tap water might go down nicely.

Prepare lidded pitchers of cocktails now and put them in the fridge. Freeze small plastic, freezer-friendly lidded storage containers of water or ice cubes made of your favorite juice, mixed with fruit like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. When it's time to serve, drop the container into the pitcher for dilution-free cooling, or let the juice cubes and fruit melt into the drink.

Last, but not at all least - make coffee NOW and chill or freeze it. Make coffee ice cubes if need be, and consider using melting ice cream or canned, condensed milk to sweeten or lighten your drink. Alternately, you can bone up on your cold brew technique. There's no reason you should have to face a storm's aftermath with a caffeine headache.

From our readers who have weathered similar weather:

As a Girl Scout leader for many years, the "buddy-burner" is an easily made, inexpensive cooking method. All you need is a #10 can with some air holes punched in the sides as well as a good candle. You can heat soup, boil water, grill sandwiches and even fry eggs. Search "buddy-burner" on a search engine and make one for future needs. - dl1976

Living in Florida and making it through 4 hurricanes in one year as well as others, one thing everyone seems to forget is that you have a hot water tank that is now filled with warm water (40gallons) maybe. This water is clean and available. - Norman Drew

Every time there is a serious power outage in the Pacific Northwest, one or more persons die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Please: DO NOT light up any kind of hibachi, grill or gas-powered stove INSIDE an apartment, home or partially enclosed garage/basement/etc. Even with a window open. Please. Tepid meals will NOT kill you. Carbon monoxide will.

A big block of ice has the smallest surface area to volume ratio – less air can invade a large, well-insulated block of ice than say, a big bag of ice cubes. Freezing 3/4 full bottles of water is a nice idea, too, but a block (e.g. a plastic bag lined cardboard box) will keep things cold the longest during a power outage.
- Jean V


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