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Water Storage for Disaster Relief

Nobody has to tell you how important water is. Our bodies are mostly water and air, in fact! Unfortunately, most of us don’t think about water that much until we’re forced to go without it. From drinking to bathing and cleaning up our surroundings, water is precious and vital.

water storage tank
Water Storage Tank, Photo By: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Peter Reft

During a natural disaster or another emergency event, water becomes even more important. And it’s all too easy to take for granted that there will always be water around when we need it.

If you should find yourself cut off from a source of potable water during an emergency, it’s already too late to prepare. Whether or not you live in a part of the world that sees frequent and intense weather events, here’s everything you need to know about storing water for disaster relief purposes.

Know How Much Water to Store

The first and most important question to ask is, “How much water should I store for disaster relief?” The answer depends on how many people will be sheltering in place with you.

People who are fairly active drink around a half-gallon of water each day. So during an emergency, to leave a comfortable margin for error, you need to plan to store one gallon of water per person per day at a minimum. If you have pets, the same goes for them: one gallon per pet per day. People who are ill or pregnant, or situated in harsher climates, will likely require more water.

As for how long you should be prepared to hunker down? According to FEMA, it’s wise to plan on storing a three-day supply at the minimum. If you have the space to store it and the time to prepare, two weeks’ worth of water is ideal. For one person, that works out to 14 gallons. A family of four would need 56 gallons to make it through a two-week disaster.

In any event, store as much as you realistically can. If you’re putting together a survival shelter without any specific disaster on the horizon, get to the two-week threshold for storing water and then continue slowly stockpiling it.

During Hurricane Maria, potable water was a scarce resource for many Puerto Ricans five days after the disaster struck. And five months later, the quality of the island’s water was still uncertain. Take nothing for granted — especially something as critical for survival as water.

Prepare Your Containers

The containers you choose for storing water are not something you should take lightly while preparing for a disaster.

FEMA and other agencies recommend buying sealed water from the grocery store. But if you’ve prepared well, you’ve been slowly accumulating water for days or weeks rather than counting on well-stocked store shelves as a storm approaches.

You can provide your own containers to store water in, but you need to know what to look for. Here’s how to choose water storage containers and then prepare them for use:

  • When in doubt about materials, choose stainless steel containers. They’re the safest way to store potable and non-potable water alike. If you must use glass storage vessels, ensure they’re stored safely and consider wrapping them in newspapers so they run less of a risk of getting broken.
  • Use standard dishwashing soap first to clean your storage containers. Rinse them thoroughly to remove all traces of soap.
  • After they’re clean, but before filling up your containers, sanitize them completely by filling them up with one teaspoon of chlorinated bleach per quart of water, shaking them thoroughly, and then rinsing them out.
  • Never use containers that could foster bacterial growth, such as recycled milk cartons. Cardboard vessels are prone to leaking anyway. One- and two-liter soda bottles, properly cleaned out beforehand, are a better choice.

Fill Your Containers the Right Way

After you’ve selected your water storage containers, it’s time to fill them. Does your tap water at home contain chlorine? If so, you don’t need to put any additives into your water. If your water at home isn’t treated with chlorine by your municipality, add two drops of non-scented chlorine bleach to each gallon of water. This won’t affect the taste.

Depending on where you live, the type of situation you find yourself in, the state of local infrastructure and how safe you wish to be, it may be a good idea to boil your water before storing it. Doing so purifies it and provides the utmost peace of mind. It’s a simple process:

  1. Make sure your water achieves a rolling boil for between one and three minutes.
  2. Prepare your containers as described above while you’re waiting.
  3. If you wish, you can improve the taste of your boiled water by pouring it between two containers a number of times. Doing this adds oxygen back into the water, which was jettisoned during the boiling process.

Another useful reminder? Remember the possibility of introducing contamination of your own while you’re preparing for an impending disaster. It’s easy to overlook, but try not to touch the inside of the lid or cap as you’re screwing it on. If you do, you may transfer bacteria or contamination to your potable water supply.

Write the fill date on the container along with a label that says “For Drinking” or something similar. You may come across advice to replace your water every six months unless you bought it sealed in a store. This isn’t necessary, however. Storing water for prolonged periods may compromise the taste somewhat, but so long as you took the precautions described above, that water won’t go bad on you.

Choose Your Storage Location Wisely

As you accumulate your survival supplies, plan to keep your water in a dark and cool location. Sources of heat and light can cause some types of containers to leak.

It’s also important not to let your water mingle with other supplies, especially if you’ve chosen plastic water storage containers. Proximity to gas cans and other harsh substances can cause noxious fumes to permeate the plastic.

Rain barrels deserve some special mention here. They’ve come into vogue thanks to interest in homesteading and sustainable gardening and landscaping. If you find yourself at home during an emergency, rain barrels can be a useful source of water — just not for every purpose.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming this water is potable. The CDC notes that rainwater can be riddled with viruses, bacteria, chemicals, parasites and other contaminants that range from a mild nuisance to a possible source of a disease outbreak. Since rain barrels typically don’t contain filtration and can’t be sealed completely while they’re in use, follow the same advice we’ve given elsewhere, which is to filter the water for bacteria and solid particulates, and then boil it to make it safe for drinking.

Having a 55-gallon drum on your property full (or nearly full) of water could be just what you need to make sure your emergency plan stays the course. Just don’t dip into this source without fully understanding what you’re getting into.

Know How Not to Deal With Water Shortages

We’ve focused a lot on how to store water and prepare yourself for shortages. But there are also a few things you should not do, including appropriating water from other sources in your home if you run out:

  • Do not drink water from pools, toilet tanks or waterbed mattresses, as it is not safe.
  • Do not allow contamination of the water already inside your home. If you become aware of broken sewer lines or water pipes in the immediate area, shut of the water at your main shutoff valve. Look for it in your basement, and ensure other family members know how to operate it (and when they’d need to).
  • Do not drink untreated water from other sources. If your supplies run out and you need to find water elsewhere, be sure you know how to treat water sourced from rain barrels, rivers, springs, and ponds. A camping or backpacking water filter will remove Giardia, while two drops of bleach per liter of water take care of any viruses.

In closing, it’s wise to remember that FEMA says it’s unwise to ration your water. If you and your family find yourselves running low on water one day, continue drinking the amount you need and concentrate your efforts tomorrow on finding another source.

Folks in the path of hurricanes and other disasters regularly receive advice to fill their bathtubs with water to ensure there’s a reliable source somewhere in the house if the water is turned off or otherwise unavailable. But the Red Cross recommends that you only use this water for flushing toilets, washing clothes, or general cleanup, and not for drinking. Boiling the water can remove pollutants, but bathtub water may also contain harmful traces of glaze leeched off the surface of the tub.

Another way you can prepare yourself and your household in advance of an impending disaster is to know about alternative water sources in the area and have a plan for securing more should you run out. As headlines have demonstrated recently, there’s often little indication when emergency crews might have infrastructure up and running again in the wake of a disaster.

Above all, remember that water must remain a higher priority even than food. The human body can function for a few days without food, but it begins to suffer almost immediately without a regular supply of water. With these tips, you should be in good shape to weather the next storm.


Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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