Today I’m taking a slight detour around AGW, with a brief visit to one of my own personal hobby horses. I’d like to talk to you about disaster preparedness; why you should think about it, and some of the simple things you can do around the home that could, in the event of an emergency, just possibly save your life.
First, a few justifications. It’s a great temptation to regard disasters as things that happen only on the news, to people in far-off places like Pakistan, Haiti and Chile. This isn’t meant to be patronising: I have run into many people in my own country (invariably in the major cities), whose eyes glaze over should I dare raise the subject, and who clearly believe it’ll never happen here. As I write this, the main news stories in Australia concern hundreds left temporarily homeless by floods in Victoria and an earthquake in New Zealand. On Christmas Eve, 1974, the entire city of Darwin was flattened by Cyclone Tracy, killing 71 and leaving over 30,000 people without water, food or power. Hurricane Katrina, and the events in its aftermath, are merely the most visible reminders that, firstly, none of us are immune from potential disasters, and secondly, we would be naïve in the extreme were we to assume that, in the event of one occurring, the government will come running straight to our aid. No folks, as I have always said here, we have to be primarily responsible for ourselves.
For some people, the subject of disaster preparedness connotes the rather more specific issue of survivalism, which usually conjures up images of bands of right-wing nut jobs in camouflage fatigues and web netting, inhabiting armed compounds out in the Texas badlands and plotting to take over the country sometime after World War Three. Survivalism tends to revolve around longer-term planning in the event of a prolonged disaster and on many survivalist websites, you can indeed come across certain characters who are as disturbing as they are undoubtedly disturbed; I may address survivalism in a future thread, however today I’m covering something simpler, and far more practical. Regardless of your political leanings, or beliefs regarding such things as climate change, this subject is for you.
As to the causes of disasters, it really doesn’t matter much if the effects on you are the same, and you can pretty much take your pick, according to your tastes. Terrorism, nuclear war/accident, floods, bushfires, other natural disasters (climate-induced or otherwise), pandemic—it’s impossible to know beforehand, and largely irrelevant afterwards. But you can plan for them. As most of you reading this live in cities or their urbanized hinterlands, I’ll be gearing this advice specifically for those living in urban areas, not especially susceptible to floods, bushfires, earthquakes or cyclones.
Have you ever stopped to consider just what an artificial construct a city is? Prior to the Industrial Revolution, cities or towns existed primarily to service the surrounding farmlands, their size limited by the fecundity of the local soil and the sophistication of available transport systems. Seats of government tended to be located in the most fertile areas, enabling armies, business and public servants—in other words, a non-farming population—to be maintained. Forty thousand or so was the practical limit for the Western world, although a handful of cities in the East (and a couple of Western city-states) were able to grow much larger by dint of brutal emperors, sultans and princes embracing slavery, perpetual wars of conquest and horrendous squalor.
From about 1800 onwards, these rôles were reversed: cities became their own raison d’être, and the countryside now existed to serve them. By 1830, London had overtaken Beijing as the most populous city on earth, and only the second, after Beijing, to surpass one million inhabitants. The subsequent advent of railways, and later electricity and refrigeration, meant cities grew able to far outstrip their own ability to feed, water and power themselves, and dispose of their wastes. Today, there are nearly 400 cities or urban areas—70 in China alone—with populations in excess of 1,000,000, or 25 times larger than can comfortably sustain themselves from within. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, as cities are one of my personal bugbears, and I’m taking aim at them in an upcoming thread later this year. But the inherent unsustainability of cities is a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all who live and work in them; a fact, unfortunately, which only tends to become apparent when disaster strikes.
Let me give you a hypothetical scenario. Most Sydneysiders don’t realise this (because they’ve never looked at a map: the government knows it) but, surrounded on three sides by rugged bushland and the Hawkesbury-Nepean and Georges river systems, Sydney is singularly dependent on just five transport corridors for all land-based transport in and out of the metropolitan area; a terrorist organisation need only blow up nine road and rail bridges (plus a handful of smaller wooden structures) to cut all land-based access, personal and freight transport, in or out of Sydney. Were it to also destroy just twenty power transmission pylons, a dozen or so infrastructure and communication installations and a few airport runways, and the four-and-a-half million inhabitants of the Sydney Basin would be isolated: no food, water, electricity or communication, and no escape.
An organised and well-funded terrorist cell, after several years of planning, executes this attack at 2:30pm on a scorching Friday afternoon in February. Try to imagine what follows:
The first most people would realise something was wrong, would be when their homes and workplaces are blacked out. Television sets, phones and the internet being inoperable, those with car or transistor radios would start spreading the news by word of mouth, which wild rumour will quickly inflate to a mass panic. Traffic lights, petrol stations and public transport all inoperative, gridlock on all arterial roads, hundreds of thousands of workers unable to get home to their families or even get in touch by phone. Terrified householders descend en masse to the supermarkets in a frenzy of panic buying. Only, when they arrive, they find them darkened, checkouts inoperable, their employees having fled their posts. Looting begins immediately. In any case, with their just-in-time supply chain models, shelves and storerooms are immediately stripped of essentials like bottled water, toilet paper, tinned food and batteries. An overwhelmed police force, much of its command-and-control infrastructure out of action, finds itself completely powerless to prevent the stampedes.
The government’s response is sadly predictable. Competent only in the acquisition of power, petrified at the prospect of losing control, they turn to their senior public servants designated to take charge in times of civil emergency. In former days, these were highly skilled professionals, trained in emergency management, selected for their competence and entrusted with wide-ranging plenipotentiary powers in such situations. But now these, too, are mere political appointments, incompetent dunderheads like this one, and find themselves in completely over their heads. Faced with a real, live emergency in which those around them are looking to them to roll up their sleeves and lead, as opposed to merely preside, their shortcomings are immediately apparent to all. Panic-stricken, with no idea how to even assess the situation, let alone respond, they inform their political masters that they are powerless to act. And that’s when the trouble really starts.
Meanwhile, with no electricity, water reticulation and sewerage systems are out of action. After about 36 hours, sewer mains start backing up into the homes of all low-lying areas, rendering them uninhabitable. In the stifling heat and with a lack of clean drinking water, disease quickly becomes the main killer. Local emergency volunteers establish makeshift morgues in fields and parks; health concerns and the sheer scale of the task quickly compel them to bulldoze bodies unceremoniously into the ground, without the benefit of service or even formal identification. Desperate residents fall to looting to gain whatever they need. Inevitably, opportunists emerge to take advantage of the situation, robbing appliance stores, car dealerships, whatever they can lay their hands on. Social problems long festering beneath the surface, particularly in the south-western suburbs, explode as gangs roam the streets, settling old scores with impunity, invading and robbing homes more or less at will.
Within the metropolitan area, there are perhaps 72 hours worth of fuel reserves, and no more than twice that of food and many medical supplies; such is the reliance on the supply chain from without. Airborne supply drops on suburban sporting fields by the air force cannot begin to meet a fraction of the population’s need; preventing stampedes at these supply drops becomes the only effective contribution the police force can offer. Temporary replacements to even a few bridges are weeks away, as are sea-borne relief supplies. Were the terrorists to include a further nine bridges spanning Sydney’s internal waterways on their hit list, transport by road is reduced to a few secondary, two-lane roads, dramatically slowing the distribution of relief supplies. As thousands of house fires in the suburbs, and dozens of bushfires on the periphery blaze unchecked, with the death toll climbing into the tens or even hundreds of thousands, social order breaking down, a terrified and incompetent government declares martial law…
You are a resident somewhere in the middle of all this. What are you going to do?
If the scenario I have described above sounds a bit far-fetched to you, start watching the World News each evening. Or substitute earthquakes or swine flu for terrorists. The fact is, a year never passes without disasters on this scale occurring somewhere across the planet, and the fact they are rarely visited upon English-speaking white folks is as much a matter of good luck as it is good management. Sooner or later, disaster will strike your country, and possibly the area in which you live. To assume otherwise is to live in a dream world.
That’s why you should think about disaster preparedness. Now here’s what you need to do.
Make a Plan
Well, duh. To be more specific, make two plans. One to stay put in your home, and one to leave. I’ll outline what you need to do for each. Discuss them with your household, now. Trying to figure this stuff out out on the fly, after disaster has struck, is impossible and too late in any case. I know it’s like making a will—something you’d rather not think about—but you’ve read this far down, so stay with me here.
Stay or go, there are some things you need in common. The first is a transistor radio. In the event of a disaster, it’s quite possible that electricity supply is cut off and your TV and internet won’t work, so the radio is how you’re going to find out what the hell is going on. If you’re out and about, you’ll hear all kinds of rumours, and believing and acting on the basis of these may well get you killed; so it’s important to have a working radio, to at least find out what the official government line is. I’ve actually got a nifty Chinese-made, wind-up rechargeable one I picked up for a couple of dollars at my local Chickenfeed (Tasmania’s bargain-basement variety retail chain store). Know the frequency of your designated emergency broadcaster. Here in Australia the government-run ABC network fulfils the emergency broadcasting rôle, and (despite their long-standing bias in political reporting) is one of the few things they do really well. In the wake of last year’s Black Saturday bushfires, the ABC was one of the few parts of the government response that came out of it with any real credit. In the USA, try here. In Britain, here.
The second thing you’re going to need is clean water. Sounds obvious, but if power is out, or pumping stations otherwise rendered inoperative, you had better have a supply on hand. Shrink-wrapped slabs of bottled water are cheap and easy; filling old plastic drink containers is even cheaper. If you’re staying, you’ll need at least 20 litres per person, per day. Jerry cans are best for this; you can pick them up cheaply at your local Homebase (UK), Home Depot (USA) or Bunnings (Aus). If you’re leaving, plan on carrying 3 litres of drinking water each in your backpack.
Beyond that, seven days’ supplies of whatever you need to survive: medicines, toiletries, non-perishable food, a couple of changes of clothes appropriate to the season. Try to find a wind-up recharger for your mobile/cell phone, as the restoration of the cell tower network is likely to be a priority in the wake of any disaster (a lot of government departments now rely on them completely for day-to-day communications). To plan beyond a week gets us into the realm of survivalism which, as I said above, is a topic for another day. So here are your options:
Staying put in your own home is always the best option, unless there are genuine reasons to believe your home is in imminent danger. Fire and flood are the main factors here, and in the wake of the Black Saturday fires the Victorian state government has been forced to re-think its long-standing stay-or-go policy (forced in part, I observe, by control freaks who want to be able to make binding decisions regarding my family’s safety on my behalf. But that’s another story). For most of you in urban areas, not particularly low-lying and flood-prone, these are not major considerations. So staying put is probably what you’ll need to do.
The best way to think about this is, ask yourself: if electricity and water were cut off to my home, what would I need inside to be able to lock and bar the front door, and not come out for a week?
Water, obviously. A few jerry cans out the back somewhere, replenished once a year, is all you need. Unless you live high up, consider installing a cut-off valve in your sewer line, for the reason I explained above, and be prepared to dig a pit toilet in your back yard or make other arrangements.
Tinned food is another must, and while you don’t need to go overboard, just picking up a few extra tins of beans, vegetables, stews and other high-nutrition foods when you’re at the supermarket and they’re on special, is all you really have to do. Rotate them, so that you use the oldest ones first and always have a stock set aside. Packet soups, powdered milk (skim only—full-cream milk powder has a limited shelf life as the fat content turns rancid) and tinned fruits are also fine for this purpose. A spare tin opener packed away with this stock is a small investment that could well pay off big-time. Unless you have a barbecue and fuel (and I don’t advise outdoor cooking in your back yard in the wake of a disaster—I’ll explain why another day) a small butane camp stove for use in your kitchen is also handy to have, unless you’re prepared to survive on cold baked beans for a week. And don’t forget about the dog.
Heat. Depending on the season and where you are, you’ll need to consider how you’ll keep warm, particularly at night. Layered clothing (beanie hats, thick socks and gloves) and spare blankets are the best bets here, and I’m fairly sure most of you are well-supplied already. Unless you have solar panels, you won’t have hot water, so bathing may become a rather bracing experience. To conserve water, stick to sponge baths only, but having said that remember that personal hygiene is paramount if you want to avoid disease. On that score, make sure you have decent supplies of soap and disinfectant and that your first-aid kit is up-to-date and in order.
What’s that you say? You don’t have a first-aid kit? Or hold a recognized first-aid qualification? Read my blog’s motto. Or else put your trust in the government.
Light. Personally, I’d like to recommend you get a diesel generator which could power your lights, hot water and refrigerator for a few days at least, but this is really in the realm of survivalism, so plenty of candles (plus matches or lighters), torches and lanterns are the go. Again, a couple of wind-up rechargeable ones are a good idea, and can be obtained cheaply just about anywhere. One important point about candles: if you’re not used to using them, remember that having a naked flame in your home is potentially extremely dangerous: position them so they are no-where near anything flammable, and will not start a fire even if they fall over. Keep curtains and shutters, particularly on street-facing windows, drawn at all times.
The only way you should consider leaving your home as being preferable to staying is if:
Your home is in imminent danger, as I described above.
You have somewhere to go to that is clearly safer than where you already are, you have the means to get there and you know the way. If I had a dollar for every friend or family member who’s airily told me, oh, if the big one ever really did go up Ozboy, we’ll all just head on down to your place, I could probably retire today. Well, I tell them, firstly, if the big one ever really does go up I’m dropping a tree across my driveway, covering up my front gate with bushes and setting the dogs on anyone who sets foot on the place, and secondly, what makes you think you’ll all be able to hop in the car, fill up with petrol and drive all the way down here? In a genuine civil emergency, it’s quite probable public roads will be off-limits to private vehicles, or cut off by the disaster, or gridlocked by everybody else trying to escape at the same time; petrol/gas stations will be closed, or faced with long queues even if open. In short, to head for the hills simply won’t be an option unless you’re well-prepared, ahead of the crowd, and lucky.
You go early. Again, waiting till the last minute to escape is almost always a worse option than staying put. You risk being caught in a stampede, panic or gridlock, and the figures show that your chances of being killed increase dramatically.
These factors often won’t be up to you; disasters sometimes strike with no warning (as in my hypothetical scenario above), but you will need to think them through now, realistically, and make a judgement call when the time comes.
That’s about it for the moment. Thanks for reading, and I hope it may prompt you to at least think about the issue, and make some basic preparations that could well save the lives of you and your family. Pray to God it never happens to you, but if it does, at least you will be ready.
The more I think about it, I probably will do a thread on longer-term survival issues sometime soon. This is a more complex and somewhat philosophical subject, so I’ll need to do a bit of research first. I’m away next week, but will try to post something if the open threads start getting too long.