The Brancatelli File



January 12, 2006 -- Just days after Hurricane Katrina, while we watched the underpinnings of modern life washed away from thousands of our fellow business travelers and millions of our fellow Americans, I began researching a column about putting together a practical "emergency kit" for both our lives on the road and our lives at home.

Katrina was last August. This is January. How quickly what seems urgent one moment seems like needless panic or even paranoia just a few moments later.

To be frank, one reason why it's taken me so long to put together this column is that I was looking for the easy way out. I figured some smart companies would create pre-packaged emergency kits that would have everything we needed as business travelers and everything we needed as homeowners. In fact, I even went so far as to contact John McManus, who runs Magellan's, the wonderful travel-goods supplier, and urged him to pick up the cudgel. I don't know a company that takes better care of travelers than Magellan's and I was sure that John and his team could have a few practical kits ready for market in short order.

I spoke to John again this week and his commitment to get it right is why Magellan's hasn't begun to sell a pre-packaged emergency kit. Besides the thorny issues of size and price and the practical issue of whether to outfit a kit with hand-cranked or battery-powered items, John raised business ethics. That's why I like John. He thinks about things like ethics.

"I don't want to put together a kit that forces travelers to buy things that they may already own" because they purchased the items independently, he said. "That's the trouble with kits. People often already have some of the components and I don't think it's right to require people to buy more than they need."

Okay, so pre-packaged kits are out. Fair enough. That forces us to put together our own emergency supplies, which is where this whole thing started last August. Let me suggest a few products I've examined in the intervening months. The list is far from encyclopedic and you will certainly have your own twists. Consider this column a jump start for your own thinking about preparedness.

Before we start, though, keep these two points in mind: You'll have to decide whether to rely on items powered by batteries or opt for products that rely on a human-powered crank. If you go with batteries, you'll have to stock your emergency kit with power cells and keep them fresh. If you go with the hand- or foot-cranked units, you'll have to accept a little larger size and pay a bit more. The other thing to remember: You should be preparing a kit for your home and office and a smaller, more carefully chosen kit that will fit in your luggage in case you get stuck on the road.

Here's some really good news: The world is now awash in high-powered, micro-sized flashlights that use batteries and bulbs that seem to last forever. Magellan's sells the Pulsar ($12.85) and Road Wired sells the Sapphire Elite ($17.95). They're no larger than a thumb drive and are small enough and light enough to fit on a key ring or even on the zipper of a jacket. They're perfect for your on-the-road kit. Prefer a more traditionally sized flashlight for your at-home kit? The Energizer Quick Switch is cleverly designed to run on C, D or AA size batteries. The one-pound device sells for $12.49 from Ambient Weather. If you're looking to eliminate batteries altogether, Magellan's sells the Freedom Flashlight. The 3-ounce device is powered by the energy created when you shake it.

One of the things we learned from Hurricane Katrina is that people were confused and angry because they had no sources of information. A battery-operated radio is the obvious answer, but I'm convinced that crank-powered models are a more practical solution in emergency kits. The Wind Up Radio ($29.95) from Battery Savers solves the problem. It runs on two AA batteries or a hand crank. The AM/FM/Weather Band unit is small enough and light enough to fit in an on-the-road emergency kit. For a home kit, consider the larger and nearly miraculous Eton line of hand-crank radios. Besides the AM/FM radio, the 1.5-pound device has a built-in flashlight, an emergency beacon--and a jack to power your cell phone. It will also run on batteries. The Eton model sold by Magellan's ($49.85) includes seven short wave bands. The model sold by Hammacher Schlemmer ($49.95) has VHF TV audio and weather channels rather than short wave capacity.

Another ugly reality of Katrina was the lesson of cell phones: They are less reliable than landlines because more can go wrong. You can't control the availability of mobile service, of course, but you can make sure that you won't be out of touch because your battery has gone dead. Electronics shops and Web sites sell Cellboost, one-time, disposable power packs for cellular devices, PDAs and even video cameras. Cellboost retails for as little as $5 and offers about an hour of talk time. But consider the Sidewinder ($24.95), which is a hand-crank solution. A two-minute crank will give six minutes of talk time. Both devices are small enough and light enough to toss in your carry-on bag.

One of the other lessons of Katrina is that gasoline may be hard to come by in a crisis. So much for those gas-powered generators you have in the basement or attic of your home. The solution: Free Charge from Freeplay. It will provide up to 40 watts of power using a step treadle, the foot-driven equivalent of a hand crank. It delivers power via jumper cables or a cigarette-lighter plug. It's $294.95 from C. Crane. By the way, 40 watts is enough to power many laptop computers.

It's fair to say that most Americans never thought they'd see the day when other Americans were begging for water. But Katrina showed how easily our supply lines can be disrupted. The cheapest, lightest solution is iodine tablets. Throw a packet ($15.85) in your carry-on bag. But iodine tablets are a worst-case scenario. Technology now has a better solution: a purifying water bottle. It'll process up to 100 liters of fresh water in 26-ounce increments thanks to a built-in filtering cartridge. It costs $44.85 from Magellan's.

The Department of Homeland Security created to assist planning for disasters and terrorist attacks. It's been criticized--Remember the flap over duct tape?--but it does have some useful sections. The Get a Kit area lists lots of thoughtful basics: a can opener, first-aid kit, sterile wipes, etc. It's all common-sense stuff. Meanwhile, stop tossing those amenity kits that the airlines distribute to international first- and business-class passengers. They have a lot of useful and appropriately sized supplies--toothbrush, toothpaste, lip balm, shampoo, mouthwash, razors and shaving cream--that will come in handy in an emergency.

Finally, a tip for all of us who live on credit cards and ATMs. Credit-card processing systems and ATM machines are powered by electricity. When the power goes out, our entire way of doing business grinds to a halt. The solution: a copious supply of small bills. You know, cash. Pack bills in a waterproof bag and store them in your home emergency kit. On the road, stick a stash of small bills in a zippered plastic bag and store it in a convenient pocket of your carry-on bag.

Copyright 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.