Dealing with Disasters On a Budget

It’s important to be ready for any emergencies and disasters, right?  But sometimes it’s easy to forget that the average person is on a budget and is very busy with all the other very important parts of life, such as holding a job, getting the children through school, maintaining the house, and all the other normal activities of a family life. We want to be prepared and have a survival kit, but it seems as if all the gear and products of self-reliance require us to be a wealthy person to obtain them.

Is there a way for the person of modest income to also be ready for emergencies?

Absolutely!  Preparedness is a state of mind. And just having lots of gear – even really good and expensive gear – doesn’t necessarily make one fare better in emergencies. It’s all about lifestyle, how you know how to use your gear and how you interact with other people.


According to Julie Balaa, a board member of the nonprofit WTI, which has been conducting survival preparedness classes in Los Angeles for almost 50 years, Neighborhood Watch meetings are one of the best ways to be prepared for earthquakes. “Neighborhood Watch meetings give you the chance to get to know your neighbors and to explore ways to work together, especially in the aftermath of an earthquake,” she explains. The same benefits apply regardless of what types of challenges you are preparing for.

“Getting to know your neighbors, and working with your neighbors, is perhaps one of the most important ways to be ready for an earthquake,” says Balaa. She quickly adds that there are many economical ways to be ready for a quake, methods that have been taught in her nonprofit’s seminars since the mid-1970s.

While no one disputes that money can help you be more prepared, it’s important to realize that one’s survival quotient is about much more than just how much money you earn. It’s about how much you know, how you use that knowledge, and how you work with others for everyone’s mutual benefit.


According to Balaa, “You never know precisely what might happen in an earthquake or other disasters, but there are some things you can always expect. For example, you can expect electricity to go out and for water supplies to be sporadic.”

It’s imperative to store water in your home if you don’t have a well on your property. Most people these days are getting piped water from somewhere afar. If you live in the northeastern U.S., in general, you’re water-rich. But if you live in the Plains, the Southwest, or California, you should always be concerned about water.

“Preparedness is a state of mind.  And just having lots of gear – even really good and expensive gear – doesn’t necessarily make one fare better in emergencies.”

Balaa suggests that every household store as much water as possible, even in areas where it doesn’t seem like water will be an issue. In the case of Los Angeles, about 75 percent of their water comes from about 300 or more miles away. “With only about a quarter of our water coming from local water, it makes sense to store water,” she explains. In the seminars conducted by her nonprofit corporation, they instruct how low-income people can store water without having to buy expensive water containers.

Plastic and glass beverage containers can be cleaned out and filled with tap water or filtered rainwater and stored for future use. This includes food-grade 3- to 5-gallon buckets, which the food industry (such as bakeries) routinely discards. These buckets are easily cleaned and filled with water. This also includes all glass and plastic liter-size juice and water containers, which can be easily cleaned, and filled with tap water. A little bleach can be added to each jar – just a few drops – in order to retard the growth of algae in storage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a guide that describes options for providing safe drinking water at home. (See SOURCES section for link)

Water is essential to life, so keep several gallons on reserve in case utilities stop working during a disaster.

Since government response time in emergencies can be two weeks or more, they advise people to store as much as two weeks’ worth of water in whatever appropriate containers you have.

How much water should you store? Though FEMA likes to say that you should store 1 gallon per person per day, that is really wholly inadequate for all daily needs, and after an emergency, there will be cleaning to be done and you may also have first-aid water needs. A U.N. study once reported that the average human actually needs, for all uses, slightly over 11 gallons of water a day. If you do the math, that means that for a family of four, you need 308 gallons of water for one week! While that might sound like a lot, that is way below what an average American family of four uses in normal times. Yes, you can always get by on a lot less than you can when times are normal, but the message is that you should store as much water as you possibly can.

Did you ever notice how all the bottled water from the stores is gone quickly as a storm advances? If you plan ahead, you won’t have to be a part of the panicked mob.


Food storage is also a part of their earthquake seminars, such as storing canned goods and dry goods (beans and pasta, for example) that do not require electricity for storage.

Julie Balaa (left) shows student Michael McKenna some of the wild foods that occur naturally on the non-profit’s property. Learning to identify wild foods wherever you live helps to increase your survival quotient.

Perhaps the best principle of food storage is summed up in “store what you eat, and eat what you store.”

A family on a budget is not likely to be able to go out and buy a year’s supply of food, but they can constantly buy a little extra each week so that a significant supply is gradually built up. By using coupons and buying in bulk, you can save money on canned goods and dry goods – foods that do not need refrigeration.

By continuously growing some type of food, they will always have food available, emergencies or not.

It is also recommended that everyone grows at least some of their food, so fresh food is always available. This includes vegetables and greens, which can be grown in most backyard gardens. Many home-grown foods can be preserved using the simpler dry canning method. Also, the food supply is increased by regularly replacing ornamental hedges and trees with those that produce food, such as citrus trees, avocados, loquats, edible cacti, figs, grapes, apples and even roses.

To prepare for an emergency, stock up on canned goods, and dry goods (beans and pasta, for example), that do not require electricity for storage.

“Did you know that the rose petals and rose fruits are edible?” asks Balaa.

And you can never have too much food. Keep in mind that in the aftermath of an earthquake, you could also trade and barter some of your excess food for other supplies. Balaa took a moment to show how some of the wild and cultivated plants on the nonprofit’s property were also medicinal and edible. These were all extremely easy to grow, and would be useful as articles of trade such as aloe plants, Peruvian mint and green onions.


Day in and day out, everyone is cooking meals all day long. One thing you can be sure of: if there is a natural disaster, you’re still going to make the time to have meals. And quickie meals and MREs are going to get old in a hurry. Plan ahead so you can always eat well. That will go a long way toward giving you a good state of mind.

Julie Balaa shows a pot she’s been cooking in a solar oven. If electric and gas service goes out, solar ovens are a viable way to cook meals on sunny days.
Julie Balaa cooks in a Sun Oven brand solar oven.

Obviously, you’ll need to have stored water, food, pots and alternatives to your kitchen stove.

An alternative to your gas or electric stove needn’t be complicated nor expensive. You can get an old barbecue grill for next to nothing. In fact, I have one that cost me nothing! A neighbor put theirs in their trash, not because anything was wrong with it but because they upgraded to a better one. That barbecue still serves me well. I cook on it sometimes with charcoal and most often with little pieces of twigs and scrap wood that I’ve accumulated from the yard.

An old wood stove in the yard is the backup stove for cooking.
A circle of rocks, a rack and a pot makes for an impromptu backyard cooking area.

Other low-cost stoves include a hibachi or just a circle of blocks on a concrete surface, with a grill over the rocks for cooking.

I also have a few Coleman stoves that I’ve obtained for camping. These do require the purchase of fuel, but the fuel lasts a long time and is not expensive.

I suggest that you practice cooking in your backyard at least once a month just to get used to the idea of trying something different.


A family on a budget is not likely to be able to invest in solar panels, batteries and an inverter for a backup power system.
But that doesn’t mean that no action can be taken.

“You never know precisely what might happen in an earthquake or other disaster,” she explains, “but there are some things you can always expect.”

“We encourage everyone to have as many manual appliances as possible,” suggests Balaa, referring to manual kitchen appliances (such as coffee grinders, orange squeezers, cheese graters and other tools), manual yard equipment (do you really need a blower and weed whacker? What about using the old-fashioned broom?), and gather as many battery-operated appliances as possible, particularly if you can acquire a solar battery charger.

Food dehydrators allow you to dry your own food for future use, whether that’s for regular consumption or in preparation for emergencies.

Even in urban areas, there are many tasks that simply do not need to be done with electricity. In other words, if you don’t buy an electric can opener, an electric orange juicer, an electric coffee grinder or an electric blower, you won’t be hooked on those devices and will just carry on fine with your manual devices when the power goes out.

Wild-food outings conducted by the author provide students an opportunity to learn about wild foods and how to prepare them into meals.
A Coleman stove is a good investment for camping or as a backup when power goes out.

Although it may seem initially more expensive, it pays to purchase rechargeable batteries for appliances (such as a lanterns, flashlights, drills, kitchen tools), and at least one solar battery recharger so you can always recharge your batteries from the sun.


The toilet is often the area that is most sensitive to the attendees of the WTI seminars and should not be ignored. According to Balaa, if your sewer line is not broken, you could still use your toilet by pouring wastewater into the toilet to cause it to flush. Otherwise, there are a variety of toilet alternatives, such as hospital porta-toilets, and compost toilets.

A simple toilet seat that fits over a 5-gallon bucket is perhaps the easiest low-tech toilet alternative. Contents are then bagged and discarded or buried.

Though there are many possible alternatives to the standard indoor flush toilet, the practicality may depend on how much yard space you have.

This sink was set up outdoors for washing. Its wastewater is recycled into the yard.

A simple solution is to get a hospital portable toilet and use it if your flush toilet isn’t working. The contents can then be bagged or buried in the yard. To save money, there’s no need to buy a new one at a medical supply store. Simply shop around at yard sales or thrift stores. Most people buy these only if they have an elderly family member, and once that individual dies, they just give the toilet to a thrift store. I have purchased these for as little as $5 to $15.


“Medical emergencies could be common,” warns Balaa, so she suggests that everyone maintain a simple first-aid kit to deal with cuts, burns and abrasions. Most of the contents could be purchased at a dollar store, and Balaa highly recommends that everyone take an emergency first-aid course with the Red Cross.

This Dietz oil lantern cooker provides light and a way to heat your food when the grid goes down. Any time you can combine multiple functions, especially where the expenditure of energy is concerned, is a big bonus.

Don’t get your medical information from YouTube. Take the Red Cross course and take a renewal class every few years.


Everyone these days washes clothes with an electric washing machine and electric or gas dryer. Well, just about everyone. Have you ever driven through rural Ohio or Pennsylvania where the Amish live? Clothes are washed by hand, often with the help of various tools that you can find in a Lehman’s catalog. And they dry their clothes – even in winter – on “solar clothes dryers” – clothes lines!  You can do the same.

“Balaa suggests that every household store as much water as possible, even in areas where it doesn’t seem like water will be an issue.”

Every now and then, practice washing and drying your clothes the old-fashioned way.


“We should never be complacent here in L.A.,” says Balaa, “because an earthquake and other disasters could strike at any moment. But if we get to know our neighbors and all work together, we might all be able to survive such an emergency with strength.” If prepping becomes part of your daily routine, it becomes easier to integrate preparedness into your budget and lifestyle.

Dolores Nyerges shows a solar shower, an excellent option for heating water during camping or home emergencies.



Earthquakes have no season and strike with little to no warning.


Though there is no season for floods, most occur in relation to exceptional snow melts and high rainfall, and after wildfires where the groundcover has been burned.


The official Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season is from June through the end of November. The eastern Pacific hurricane season runs from mid-May through the end of November.

Man-made Disasters and Emergencies

These threats have no seasons, so you need to stay alert to the news and be aware of potential social and political friction points in your area, such as court cases and elections.


Tornadoes can occur at any time but the peak tornado season for the Southern Plains is from May into early June. On the Gulf Coast, it is earlier during the spring. In the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest, tornado season is in June and July.


These may occur after an earthquake, near the shorelines up to thousands of miles from the quake.


These can occur anytime when conditions of low humidity, low precipitation and high availability of combustible brush are present and are most common in the western part of the U.S.  Typically, they peak in the late summer and fall.


American Red Cross
Find out where you can take an emergency first-aid course in your community.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Learn different ways to make water safe with “A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment Technologies for Household Use” treatment/household_water_treatment.html

Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)
CERT builds essential skills and capabilities among volunteers to prepare for and respond to any disaster. There are CERT programs in all 50 states and many tribal nations and U.S. territories.

The Federal Emergency Management Institute offers information and training for individuals and communities.

Lehman’s for a Simpler Life
(800) 438-5346

National Severe Storms Laboratory

Neighborhood Watch
Learn how to participate in the program that began in 1972 with funding in part by the National Sheriffs’ Association.

This Los Angeles-based nonprofit has been teaching survival education since 1971. Earthquake-preparedness seminars and other seminars are scheduled throughout the year.
(323) 620-4720


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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