A Renter’s Guide to Surviving Severe Weather

After a year of climate extremes, our Environmentalist from Hell finds hacks for folks who don’t own their homes.

An electric fan sits by gold window curtains with a green botanical print. Rays of sunlight pass through the window.
Photo by Akshar Dave via Unsplash

Even if you can’t afford costly emergency kits, there are many low-cost options to help you prepare for future crises.

In this global pandemic, too many of us have been left to fend for ourselves, whether to find at-home Covid tests, hunt down a pharmacy with vaccines in stock, work for low wages on the front lines without paid sick days, or deal with multiple climate emergencies.

Over the last eight months in Vancouver, BC, I’ve experienced a heat dome, flooding, air quality issues from wildfire smoke, a tornado, and a long stretch of unusually cold and snowy weather. None of these extreme weather events were common 15 years ago, but now they happen often. I recently joked to a friend that I’d like to go three weeks without a climate disaster in my province.

I’d like to go three weeks without a climate disaster in my province.

In response, I’ve been investigating how we low-income renters can equip our homes without going broke. My friends who work in emergency preparedness sometimes quip “your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency on my part.” But given that many people can’t afford a $200 earthquake kit, it’s a bit harsh. Still, there are many low-cost solutions and plans we can make to prepare for the crises hurtling our way.

The first step is to find out what kinds of emergencies are likely in your area. For me, it’s heat domes, snow storms, flooding, wind storms, and earthquakes. The main impacts I need to prepare for are extreme temperatures and the loss of power for a few days.

Make a plan

If you’re lucky enough to live with other people, you need to plan together. If a disaster happens when people aren’t home and phone infrastructure is down, you’ll need a designated meeting place — likely your local disaster refuge, like a community centre. Heaven forbid you have to leave your region like residents of Lytton, BC, did after it was levelled by fire. But in case you do, choose a meeting place outside your city in case you cannot return home. In preparation for disaster striking inside the home, discuss an evacuation plan and drill it every 6 months.

Assemble a disaster supply kit with as many things on this list as you can afford:

  • 2 litres of water per person for at least three days
  • Food that won’t spoil
  • A flashlight
  • A radio (battery-powered or wind-up)
  • A first aid kit
  • Important documents (copies of IDs, bank account and insurance info)
  • Cash

Locate safe places in your home for different types of disaster, such as an earthquake, tornado, or other extreme storm. Determine the best evacuation routes from your home. Get trained in first aid and CPR.

I’ve assembled an emergency kit over the years, including: a solar powered radio with USB port to charge my phone, mylar emergency blanket, whistle, matches, water purifying tablets, flashlight, small first aid kit, energy bars, toilet paper, and $100 cash in $10 bills. Stashed away in my pantry are 10 litres of water — which need to be replaced because I’m sure the plastic has leached into the water by now.

Tips for extreme heat

I’ve never felt as unsafe in my apartment as I did during the 2021 heat dome. I asked the internet how to keep my apartment cool, and — surprise, surprise — not every suggestion worked. But a few things did.

It’s important to block sunlight from entering through windows. Unfortunately, I used a dark cotton cloth that absorbed the heat. This summer, I will buy a few dashboard sun-reflectors and emergency blankets, which I will jury-rig to the inside of my windows (shiny-side out) to reflect sunlight away.

If you can buy proper blackout curtains, their tight weave means sunlight and heat bounces off them. They’re also a great investment because they insulate your home in winter. Alternatively, you could invest in heat-blocking window film.

When it does cool off at night, open your blinds and windows to let the heat out and cool air in. Of course, this only works if it is cooler outside, which wasn’t the case during BC’s ungodly heat dome — in that scenario, don’t be afraid to use the stove exhaust fan to get the hot air out. You can also avoid creating extra heat by unplugging appliances and electronics, (just not your fans or fridge). Air-sealing is helpful year-round, so filling small cracks between windows and the walls is a good idea.

For someone like me who has nowhere to install a heat pump but needs help buying an air conditioner, there’s no public funding.

If you can find an air conditioner in the off season you’ll save some money. According to nerds on the internet, you can also make your own with a styrofoam cooler, one or two dryer vents, a fan, and some bottles of ice. It might look sketchy, but apparently it works.

Be sure to keep yourself cool by drinking lots of water, not exercising, spraying yourself down, and applying cold compresses. I made the mistake of taking a very cold shower — it shocked my body, and made me nauseated.

If all of this fails, take advantage of a cooling centre near you, or go to a mall with air conditioning. Of course, during a pandemic you’d also have to assess your risk-tolerance for being around other people inside.

Tips for extreme cold

Every year, hundreds of people die trying to keep themselves warm. The US National Fire Prevention Association states that 81% of deaths from home-heating fires involved space heaters — and more than half of all home-heating fire deaths were caused by blankets or upholstered furniture being too close to heating equipment and catching fire. Think it’s safer to use an appliance that’s by default far from your blankets? Like, say, the oven? Think again. If it’s a gas range, that oven heat could come with a side of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Just like with staying cool, blackout curtains are helpful, and hardware stores sell window insulation kits you can install with the help of a hair dryer (don’t ask, just trust the process). Should the fancy kit be too expensive, you can weather-seal your windows by filling in cracks with caulking. And don’t forget the cold can get in through the front door too. Whip up a draft guard by sewing a tube of fabric and filling it with sand or dried peas.

Do you have hardwood floors? Rugs help insulate. In a dry climate, putting bookshelves against outside walls can help, too. (Wet-coasters like me might unfortunately encourage mould this way. Ew.)

My favourite cold-weather hack is a hot water bottle. They cost just a few dollars, and are an awesome way to warm up your bed before climbing in. Just make sure you have a cozy or towel to wrap around it so you don’t burn your skin.

Weathering the storms of climate change

It’s awful that low-income people have to manage these things on their own. Public funding is typically available for owners to insulate their properties or install more cost- and energy-efficient heating. In BC, for example, there’s a C$6,000 subsidy for homeowners to install a heat pump, and the federal government will even kick in an extra C$5,000. But for someone like me — who has nowhere to install a heat pump but needs help buying an air conditioner so I don’t die this summer — there’s nothing.

We need our governments to provide financial support to prepare for climate emergencies before they happen, not just respond to them. We need programs that provide money or tools needed for preventative actions, while there’s still time. The cost of inaction will be many lives. Surely saving them would be worth funding a few air conditioners.

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