Pack Your Memories Into Your Disaster Bag

This April, when a 1,000-year storm drenched South Florida, my father and older sister were among the thousands of people abruptly hit with severe flash flooding. They made it out physically unscathed, but many of their possessions were reduced to waterlogged piles of debris. Among those ruined mementos were sets of baby clothes, which my sister had painstakingly preserved for the future but forgotten during the rush of the flood. More than half a year later, she’s still grieving them. “Stuff is stuff,” she told me. But those pieces of clothing had been in the family for decades; she had worn them, and so had her 2-year-old. She just wished, she told me, that she could have held on to those outfits, “and my daughter could have had them for her kids.”

The “rain bomb” that displaced my family from their damaged rental homes was amplified by a warmer climate. Climate change is likely making storms wetter and more frequent, and in coastal hot spots across South Florida, where drastically rising sea levels are driving tidal flooding, a sudden storm can easily become a disaster. Extreme hazards such as these are a by-product of the planet’s unprecedented pace of warming, which could change where and when wildfires, floods, and other catastrophes strike and how they overlap. These events affect millions of Americans—roughly one in 70 adults has been displaced by a hurricane, flood, or other disaster event in the past year, per the latest U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey data.

People living in hurricane or earthquake zones have long been taught to be ready for the worst, but these new threats make “all hazards” preparedness that much more important for everyone, no matter your location. Emergency-management guidelines in the United States already include recommendations for every household to keep a supply kit on standby, with a more compact version that can be mobilized in case of evacuation. Both should contain emergency medications, copies of identity documents, food, water, and other essentials. “What you put in those ‘go bags’ are the items that really are essential to you,” Sue Anne Bell, a researcher and nurse practitioner who specializes in disaster response at the University of Michigan, told me.

But in talking with experts about disaster preparedness, I was surprised to find that recommendations on storing personal possessions in those bags are basically nonexistent. That necessities come first makes sense: These items can make a life-and-death difference in moments of crisis. But ever since members of my immediate family were displaced, I have started thinking about a third way to prepare for the uncertainty of extreme weather and the disasters that follow—what I like to call my “climate carry-on.”

This bag can now be found, zipped up and resting on a shelf in my bedroom closet, ready to be wheeled out if the need arises. In it, I have stashed away some of my most prized personal objects: photos of loved ones swaddled in pieces of clothing inherited from relatives who have died; a tarnished ring, priceless to me alone; a stack of journals teeming with childhood ramblings. All are relatively small physical mementos that I consider my most indispensable belongings. All are things that I’d like to one day be able to share with a family of my own.

Most of the advice about preparing for an extreme-weather-related calamity is extremely practical, for good reason. “First and foremost, we need to safeguard our lives,” Fernando Rivera, a professor at the University of Central Florida who studies the sociology of disasters, told me. Bracing for the realities of recovery—grabbing physical copies of identity, medical, employment, and financial documents to help with disaster assistance and insurance claims—comes second. But survivors of climate disasters can benefit from preserving other meaningful parts of their life too.

[Read: Tiny climate crises are adding up to one big disaster]

Bell told me that losing a home and certain possessions can affect a survivor’s well-being throughout the recovery process. In a small, qualitative study about supporting elderly patients through a disaster, the in-home caregivers she interviewed described the stress and personal devastation their patients experienced from those losses after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. “There’s a kind of trauma that comes along with knowing everything you’ve worked for in your life is something that you no longer have,” she said. That can affect “their larger health trajectory, as they’re trying to recover from a disaster in advancing age and feeling like they’re starting over.”

Although it varies person-by-person, life changes after disasters do cause grief that can manifest in health complications, Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a psychologist and Georgetown University professor who studies the effects of trauma, told me. And if these hazards put someone in a state of chronic stress, they can lead to serious physical health problems, including cardiovascular dysfunctions and cancer. “Extreme trauma and loss from a disaster, that’s a given,” Dass-Brailsford said. In the immediate aftermath, a person’s focus is typically on physical safety and navigating any remaining threats; the interwoven mental- and physical-health effects usually come later. “Once that’s done, and you’re settled down a little bit, the enormity of what happens then strikes people,” she said—problems such as headaches and stomach issues can suddenly flare up terribly, as she’s seen in her own patients.

Losing personal property and, for those permanently displaced by a disaster, the place they live, can mean that survivors fare worse psychologically, according to Dass-Brailsford. She was a Hurricane Katrina first responder: “I remember walking through the rubble, looking at things that were lost during the storm, and wanting to pick things up and save them,” she said. She remembered thinking that “this is someone’s treasured object, and it was just now going to be sent to the dump.”  

Some may balk at the suggestion of packing away belongings that they’d rather see every day. Precautions like this can seem unnecessary—and it’s easy to tell yourself you’d move quickly enough to save what matters in case of a crisis. But although we may feel we are ready for an unexpected disaster event, that perception can often be far from reality, Bell, the University of Michigan disaster-response researcher, told me. A 2021 study she led found that, even for the basic steps of all-hazards readiness—having a stocked emergency kit, having conversations with family or friends about evacuation plans—people believed they were more prepared than they actually were.

[Read: Hurricane Otis was too fast for forecasters]

When measuring well-being after disaster or success in recovering, the focus is on quantifiable indicators, Sara McTarnaghan, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute who studies resilience planning and disaster recovery, told me. Disasters can put people in debt, or land them in the hospital. But, she said, hazard preparation shouldn’t just consider those tangible aspects of recovery. “As people, we’re often boiled down to those financial resources,” McTarnaghan said. When I asked her how people could better prepare for other types of loss they might experience, she stressed the importance of mental health, which climate-hazard-recovery processes tend to put less emphasis on. Reminding people that sentimental belongings—whether a photograph, a figurine, or an item of clothing—matter too could be a small stride toward helping them recover emotionally after a disaster.

Of course, the objects that would be most meaningful to save will differ from person to person. And that’s probably one reason it’s harder to find guidance about selecting and storing personal property ahead of a calamity, McTarnaghan said. Thinking about this question at all is a good first step. “I absolutely encourage the reflection of some of the more personal and sentimental pieces that also lead to loss for individuals,” she said.

Because searching for those items really isn’t what anyone should be doing in the rushed moments before evacuating, or as they start to shelter in place. No one should prioritize personal memorabilia over their own physical safety. Think of a climate carry-on as an optional supplement to a disaster kit and go bag. The latter two reflect the things we can’t live without; the first, the things we’d rather not.

Still, creating a climate carry-on isn’t a bad idea, Rivera, the UCF sociologist, said. He has thought, too, about the possibility of a communal repository, where things that matter to people could be stored and easily accessed year-round, further encouraging community-wide hazard resilience. “Individually, you never think that you’re going to be in that situation,” he said. But climate change is that much of a threat, becoming all the more real in our daily lives. Some of us will end up in that very position, forced to swiftly determine what we consider irreplaceable.

My dad never fathomed he would be displaced by a flood until he was watching the waters rising around him. “As the water increases, you have to, right away, rationalize what is important and take it from there,” he told me. If he could go back in time and pack a bag full of memories, he would stuff it with objects that are now lost: a collection of books he’d kept with him for decades and photo albums of his parents, his brother, and his sister, all of whom he’s lost. But of course, not everything can fit. He was thinking, too, of a rug worn down by multiple countries and moves, and a box of schoolwork and memorabilia handcrafted by my siblings and me.

“I saved a good amount,” he said. “But the rest of it? It’s gone. And you have no choice but to move on.”