Ecocentric

So You’re About to Get Hit By a Hurricane…

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Hurricane Irene’s cone of uncertainty is getting downright scary. The Category 3 hurricane has already slammed the Bahamas, and the latest forecasts have the storm missing Florida but running into the North Carolina coast on Saturday, before continuing up through Washington, New York and New England. That could mean heavy wind and rain hitting the most densely populated part of the U.S.—a formula for destruction and disruption, especially since New York hasn’t dealt with a major hurricane since Floyd arrived in 1999. The governors of New York and New Jersey have already declared states of emergency as they prepare for the Wrath of Irene.

So, aside from venting your fear on Twitter, how should East Coasters prepare for a hurricane? Your first priority should be to find out whether you live in an evacuation zone, which will depend on how vulnerable your neighborhood is to possible storm surges and floods. New Yorkers can actually enter in their address at this website and find out whether they live inside an evacuation zone. The closer you are to rivers or the sea, the higher risk you’ll face for storm surges, so use your judgement. While at this point no one can predict exactly how strong Irene will be or where it will hit, forecasters are not screwing around—this has the chance to be a historic storm. Obviously if you’re traveling by car, make sure you have plenty of gas in the tank.

More from TIME: Hurricane Irene Bears Down on the U.S.

As you decide whether or not you need to evacuate, put together a Go Bag for each member of your household—a pre-prepared packet you can grab and go at  a moment’s notice. It should include copies of all important documents—passports and proof of address—preferably in a waterproof container. Keep extra sets of your keys, $50 to $100 in cash and your credit cards, a flashlight, a first aid kit and bottled water. And this is especially important—make sure you have any medication you need, enough to last several days if you can’t make it back to a pharmacy, along with detailed information about your dosages and your doctor’s contact information. Think of it this way—if something happens, your Go Bag should be able to speak for you.

Make sure you have emergency supplies on hand—enough imperishable food and water to last for a few days, should things get bad. How much? The government suggests that you have at least 1 gallon daily per person, for three to seven days. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go out and buy that much bottled water. If you’re like me, you have far too many half empty plastic bottles strewn around your house. Fill them up from the tap before the storm hits.

Photos from TIME: Hurricane Irene

As for food, keep enough to last three to seven days, and make sure that it won’t go bad soon. So cans, cans, cans—along with a can opener that doesn’t run on electricity. (You don’t want to experience one of those horrible, Twilight Zone-like ironic fates.) You might want to pick up paper plates and utensils, in case you’re not able to wash your dishes for a few days. Try to stock up on food that doesn’t need a lot of preparation—there’s no telling whether you might lose gas supplies for a few days and be unable to cook. (Or course, you can also get a portable camping stove if you really want to be prepared.) If you have very young children in your household—or elderly relatives—make sure you stock up on food they can eat. And don’t forget pets—I just bought a 5 lb. bag of kitty litter for my  cat because there’s no way I’m ensuring a historic hurricane with a full litter box.

Whether you stay or whether you go, secure your home to minimize any damage. That means you should bring inside any garbage cans or other light objects that might become flying missiles when Irene and her 90+ mph winds come to town. Turn off any propane tanks, and anchor any heavier outdoor items. Shutter windows securely and brace your outside doors. Inside, place your valuables—including computers or anything else expensive that might short out—in waterproof containers, or at least plastic bags, and keep them away from windows and above the floor.

More from TIME: Is Irene Just the Start of a Bad Hurricane Season?

You can find additional tips from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over here, and from New York’s Office of Emergency Management. Two things to remember above all: if you decide to stay put, make sure you have enough of what you need to stay safe and healthy for several days on your own. If the evacuation order comes down, be smart and heed it—this is one of those cases where it really is better to be safe than sorry, especially if, like many people in New York or New England, you don’t have a lot of experience with hurricanes. Above all, remember what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would tell you: Don’t Panic.

And carry a towel.

More from TIME: Does El Nino—and Climate Change—Really Cause Civil Wars? 

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME

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