Your Packing List for Reporting a Natural Disaster

October 15, 2014


Earthquakes, hurricanes, chemical spills and more: Natural (and unnatural) disasters intersect frequently with the environmental beat. And reporting from the scene of a disaster means taking particular care with what gear and supplies you bring with you.

Will there be power where you're going? Safe drinking water? Open gas stations? How will you file your stories if land lines or cell phone networks aren't operating?

“Assuming this is a domestic disaster, the play is usually to drive in from some distance away or to be operating in an area where you are working out of a car,” says photographer Andrew Cutraro, who has covered diverse crises ranging from war in the Middle East to tornadoes in the Midwest.

But journalists don't want to become part of the story they're trying to cover, according to reporter Scott Dodd. Dodd recalls how, before heading to the Gulf Coast in 2005 to cover Hurricane Katrina for the Charlotte Observer, he and a colleague crammed a car with as much canned food, extra fuel and bottled water as it could fit (on top of themselves, clothing and gear).

That said, for the paper's “Covering a Hurricane” tip sheet, Dodd and colleagues suggested that reporters try to eat one hot meal a day, and if possible land stories in the process. “In disasters, there's almost always a charity group or church feeding people if restaurants aren't open. Those are good places to make contact with people who can tell you stories, as well,” they wrote.

Use the following list as a starting point for creating your own beyond-the-basics packing list.

  • Appropriate gear: rubber boots, sun hat, dust mask, shoes with chemical-resistant soles, etc.
  • Reflective safety vest
  • Cold weather gear
  • Rain gear
  • Emergency blanket and/or poncho
  • Sleeping bag
  • UPF-rated sun-protective clothing
  • Underwear, plus extra socks and T-shirts
  • Blood donor card (to facilitate medical care if you happen to need it far from local medical records)
  • Health insurance card
  • Press credential, such as a business card or company-issued ID. Bring two if you can.
  • Assignment letter on publication letterhead (especially important for freelancers)
  • Cash
  • More cash
  • Multiple five-gallon cans of gasoline
  • Sufficient basic toiletries – toothpaste, deodorant, etc.
  • Sufficient prescription medications in labeled bottles, plus paper copies of prescriptions
  • Spare prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses, plus copies of those prescriptions
  • Condoms and/or other contraceptives
  • Sunglasses
  • Water disinfectant and/or filter
  • Bottled water
  • More bottled water
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wet wipes
  • Sunblock
  • Lip balm
  • Hand and feet warmers
  • Tampons or sanitary napkins
  • Well-stocked first aid kit containing: Adhesive tape, antiseptic cleanser, bandages, emollient eye drops, insect repellent and bite treatment, antihistamine cream or tablets, nasal decongestant, oral rehydration salts, scissors and safety pins, simple analgesic (such as aspirin or Tylenol), hydrogen peroxide and/or Betadine, alcohol, sterile dressing, thermometer, earplugs, antidiarrheal medication such as Imodium, anti-indigestion/heartburn medication, broad spectrum antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin, doxycycline (“Just start taking it as a prophylactic,” suggests Cutraro), anti-fungal powder or cream, sedatives
  • Pocketknife, or utility tool such as a Leatherman
  • Small flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries
  • Portable radio with extra batteries
  • Extra earphones
  • Plastic bags, Ziploc bags
  • Rubber bands
  • Notebooks, pens and pencils in a plastic bag
  • Pencil sharpener (pens won't write on wet paper. Pencils do)
  • Bottled water
  • More bottled water (did we say this already? maybe, but remember that this can make you friends)
  • Non-perishable foods that don't need cooking: Crackers, peanut butter, energy bars, apples, Cheetos, tuna packets, instant coffee, etc.
  • Can opener if you have cans to open (even if you don’t have cans to open, this, like bottled water can make you friends – and may get you fed!)
  • Disposable camera (in case camera batteries cannot be found or recharged)
  • Satellite/BGAN phone
  • Vitamin supplements
  • Digital recorder
  • Every possible charging and data cable for your digital equipment (and backups)
  • Power inverter to charge laptops, cell phones, and other gadgets from a car's 12v cigarette lighter. Cord to do same.
  • External battery for charging digital equipment
  • Extension cord
  • Small multi-outlet power strip
  • 100 feet of 550 parachute cord (for clothesline, lashing gear to car roof or backpack, etc.)
  • Gaffer's tape for fast repairs to tears in protective clothing or other gear; tacking down cables; etc.
  • Roll of toilet paper
  • Towels
  • Cooler to fill with ice

Adapted in part from materials created by the Charlotte Observer and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Emily Gertz thanks Michelle Nijhuis, Robin Mejia and Jennifer Cutraro for their contributions.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Fall 2014. Find all archived issues here.