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Stock up on food and proper storage, cooking tips

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Before a disaster, it is vital to know what kinds of foods and drinks you should store. Without proper preparation, a fully stocked kitchen could quickly turn into a collection of inedible and undrinkable items.

Optimal ways of storing drinkable water include purchasing bottled water and/or filling clean containers with tap water, non-perishable items are a no-brainer, but the best piece of advice is to stock up on things you normally eat (e.g. dried fruits, crackers, peanut butter, jelly, dried corn, rice and dry pasta). This makes it easier to rotate the items so they don’t sit and expire.

When food turns dangerous

Taken from HECO’s "Information Handbook for Emergency Preparedness," which adapted material from "Food Safety During and After a Power Outage," from the state of Hawaii Department of Health.

Q. Is food in the fridge safe during a power outage?

A. Yes, as long as the power is off for no more than four hours. When in doubt, though, throw the items out! Bacteria that causes food poisoning cannot be detected by sight, smell or taste. Try not to open the refrigerator door, but to keep the contents as cool as possible. Each time you open the door, you are letting warm air in and cool air out. Throw out anything that may have been contaminated by the juice from dripping raw meat. Some food will have to be discarded if the outage lasts for more than two hours. This pertains especially to perishable food items such as the following protein-rich products: meat, poultry, fish and eggs.

Q. What can probably be kept unrefrigerated, in a cool place, for a few days?

A. Fresh, uncut fruits and vegetables. Check them to make sure they remain firm. Toss them if they become slimy. Other items include dried fruit, fruit juices, and opened jars of jam, jelly, ketchup, mustard, pickles, relish and barbecue sauce.

Q. How long will frozen foods stay frozen in the freezer?

A. It depends. If your freezer is jam-packed with food, they might stay frozen for one to three days. If you have a half-full freezer, maybe one day. The more food you have in your freezer, the better. Another factor is having a well-insulated freezer, which will keep the food frozen longer.

Q. What if a frozen-food item has thawed out completely, but still feels cold?

A. Refreezing food that has thawed can be done in some cases, but the food quality will decline. You should cook and consume the food item as soon as possible. If you cannot detect any ice crystals, do not refreeze vegetables and seafood. Do not refreeze ice cream and frozen dinners.

Q. What if the food smells but looks safe to eat?

A. Do not try to test it further by tasting it. Food spoiled by food-poisoning bacteria cannot be detected by sight, smell, touch or taste. It is far better to play it safe and discard questionable food items, than to run the risk of food poisoning.

Additionally, make sure to keep it to foods that don’t need to be cooked. After all, fuel and power may not be available during emergencies.

And while each family is different when it comes to what constitutes an adequate amount of food and water, Maria Lutz, director of Emergency Services for the American Red Cross, Hawaii Chapter, recommended "seven days’ worth of food, water or resupplies."

"Ideally, you’ll want long-lasting, non-perishable food that requires no heating," added John Cummings, public information officer for the state’s Department of Emergency Management. "Local favorites such as Spam, Vienna sausages and sardines work great."

Despite Hawaii experiencing various natural disasters in the past, not everybody is prepared for the mischance of a hurricane or tsunami. "We’ve had three evacuations in the last three years, so I’d say most folks are well aware," said Cummings. "But we could be made more aware."

As soon as a disaster is forecasted, most general goods stores and markets will find themselves swamped with customers. Thus, to avoid the stress of long lines and low inventory, start stocking up before the next disaster strikes.

Here are other things to consider:

» Perishable foods’ longevity can be extended during a power outage. By keeping your refrigerator and freezer doors closed, food stays cold for about four hours. Refrigerators should be kept around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. According to FEMA, 25 pounds of dry ice can keep perishables stored in a 10-cubic-foot freezer frozen for up to four days.

» Cooking is possible during a power outage with gas stoves. FEMA suggested unconventional cooking sources, including candle warmers, chafing dishes and fondue pots. Canned foods may also be eaten straight from the can.

» In the event of an evacuation, it is easy to forget that one has a stash of supplies. Make sure your supplies are easily accessible within the home. "You could use a rolling bag to store your supplies, making it easy to move," explained Cummings. "Supplies should be stored in a dark part of the house, avoiding direct sunlight." Moisture should also be avoided, since it could lead to mold and spoiled items.

» Regularly check long-term supplies to ensure they are still edible. Rotate items annually to avoid expiration. An easy reminder would be to check supplies as disaster season approaches every year. Allow enough time before a disaster to replace any possibly perished, spoiled or broken items.

» If more containers of food and drink are opened than needed during a disaster, Cummings suggested using them to supplement other foods. For example, if more dried fruit packages were opened than needed, the dried fruit could be added to another person’s cereal. Make use of plastic containers and bags to collect leftovers.

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