NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03: People wait in line for free gasoline distributed by the National Guard at the Armory on November 3, 2012 of Staten Island borough of New York City. (Credit: Getty Images)
The widespread devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and the mass human suffering that has ensued serve as powerful reminders of the importance of being prepared for the low frequency, high disruption events that sometimes throw our lives into chaos.
I became interested in disaster prep after surviving earthquakes in Seattle and Costa Rica. While those events were limited, I started thinking about “the big one” and what I would need to be secure. Only when you are secure yourself can you reach out to your neighbors and help them when the unthinkable happens. Below are a few of the most important things I have learned and a few products that everyone should have.
Humans operate based on a hierarchy of needs from the most basic for survival to quality of life issues. The most important needs for survival are water, shelter, fire/heat, security, food, sanitation and distraction. If you have at least a limited ability to meet these needs in an emergency, it could save your life and free you to help others.
Water is the most fundamental human need. Our bodies are mostly water and we each need a couple of gallons per day. The best source of water in a disaster scenario when municipal services are disrupted is your hot water heater. Most homes and apartments have from 30-80 gallons of fresh water in their heaters. If you know there may be a problem, fill your tubs before the event. This gives you about 60 gallons more per tub.
Every home should also have plenty of bleach. Sixteen drops of bleach in a gallon of tainted water will sterilize it in 30 minutes. Bleach is also essential to maintaining a sanitary environment. Remember, bleach will not clean chemically compromised water such as flood water. That water contains oil and other environmental chemicals, but toilet water, stock tanks, lakes, rivers and captured rain water can be sterilized in this manner.
There are no guarantees in survival. You should also keep water and other survival gear in your car in case staying at home isn’t an option. I include a tent, sleeping bag and a “crash bag” in my car preps. The crash bag includes necessities for up to a week of surviving…clothes, toiletries, first-aid kit, basic tools, lighters and a deck of cards.
For fire and heat, I keep small propane camp stoves and extra fuel (outdoor use only) in the car and the closet. I also invested in a portable solar power system (panel, inverter and storage battery) as well as 9-volt travel oven, coffee maker, lamp and heating pad. I know from camping that this little system (about $800 total investment) can keep me toasty in a sleeping bag as well as providing hot food and light in a sustainable way. It also keeps my phone charged.
How you approach security is dependent on your beliefs as well as the laws where you live. Personally I am armed to the teeth (Viva Texas!), but that’s not an option for everyone. Bear spray (Concentrated, long-range pepper spray), tasers, air horns, even a good machete can all serve to deter looters and help keep you safe.
The next most important need is food. The sad pictures of Manhattan residents plunging into dumpsters searching for food stand as stark reminders of the importance of food security. A number of companies sell freeze-dried emergency foods with a shelf-life of up to 25 years. Military surplus stores sell MRE’s (meals ready to eat).
Be sure to keep a month supply in your home and a week supply in your vehicle for each member of your family. I also keep a stash of non-perishable chocolate and some brandy. Not only do these little pleasures help keep spirits up, in a pinch they can be valuable trade goods.
In a mass casualty incident or one that compromises sewer and water service, sanitation becomes a pressing need. Be sure to have plenty of hand sanitizer, bleach, disposable towels and toilet paper. I also recommend keeping a bucket with a tight sealing lid that can be used for human waste. Remember toilets may not be functioning and if not contained and controlled, excrement can quickly become a serious health concern.
Most people describe the waiting and ensuing boredom as one of the most challenging aspects of disaster survival. You have no idea how long it will take to return to normal or for rescue to reach you. Be sure to consider distractions such as games, cards, and books when planning your preps. Don’t assume that you will be able to use your handheld or other devices. This is particularly important for parents of young children.
A few other items that I keep handy for emergencies include solar lights, a crank radio, heavy duty yard bags (for body and waste disposal), mouse and rats traps (food of last resort), a machete and a good hunting knife, antibiotics, a field medic kit, a book on primitive survival techniques, steel bottles (for boiling water), solar shower, and pet food. It is also a good idea to have some cash, even some silver, stored away for when the power is out and credit cards aren’t working, as was the case in much of New York and New Jersey after Sandy.
View of flooding in Rockaway, Queens. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
I also recommend putting your most valuable papers (diplomas, marriage license, passports, etc. along with some cash and zip drive of important files) together in waterproof plastic bags that you can quickly grab in the event you need to bug out.
Every family should have a communications plan, pre-planned evacuation routes, and a pre-arranged fallback location to meet up if communications is disrupted and your home is inaccessible.
This is far from a comprehensive list, but rather was written to get you thinking about your own needs. If you live in metro Portland or San Francisco, earthquakes are the most likely disaster. In the Mississippi Valley, flooding is the highest probability. In D.C. or New York, you should game out everything from terrorism to hurricanes to mass civil unrest.
Surveys indicate that less than five percent of American households have taken even basic steps to prepare for mass disruption. It’s up to each of us to make the decision not to be a victim when the unthinkable happens.
If you simply wait for the Red Cross or the government to rescue you, you are likely asking to suffer and possibly die needlessly. There are no guarantees, the most prepared person can drown in a storm surge, but some basic thought and investment can greatly improve your chances of not only surviving, but being an asset to your neighbors and community in times of trial.