Preparing for the Worst
The Modern Survival Guide #83
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And one of those views is that we in the modern world have a tendency to be unprepared to survive disasters. That’s a dangerous trap to fall into, because no matter how safe we think we are, disaster is always on the horizon.
I know, I know, that sounds paranoid. It’s true though, because fundamental survival is about three things: food, water, and shelter. The first two points are very, very fragile under the right circumstances.
We live in an era of just-in-time food delivery, and most of us are heavily dependent on having a grocery store nearby with full shelves. We’re also heavily dependent on electricity for food storage. If the power goes out and the roads get cut off, a lot of the food preservation strategies we rely on very quickly go up in smoke. Disruptions in the food supply chain to major cities, along with major disruptions to electrical power, are extremely dangerous. This is why state governors tend to declare an emergency pretty quickly after large natural disasters — a bad hurricane is a perfect storm, if you’ll pardon the pun, to put a lot of people in danger of starvation.
On the water side of the equation, it’s not an exaggeration to say that water is life, and hot water is civilization. And as goes the electricity, so goes the water, especially in rural areas. It’s also an issue that we are increasingly reliant on well water and water treatment facilities — it’s not a good idea to just take a drink from most American rivers! On average, a human being can survive about three days without water. That means having clean water in an emergency situation is an extreme priority. Again, this is why emergency declarations come so quickly after major disasters.
Now with that being said, there’s no cause for panic. The survivalists are not correct — despite the fragility of our food and water supply systems individually, we have a lot of redundancy and a lot of resources to throw at problems. The world is highly unlikely to end tomorrow, or the day after that. There are simply too many people, with too many resources, with too much of an interest in maintaining our civilization for it to fall overnight.
What there is cause for is prudent preparation to survive a period of a week or three without access to clean water or food supplies. That’s what’s needed to survive most disasters and/or get to a place where the support mechanisms of modern society are coming back online.
Preparing for anything more than that simply isn’t an ideal use of resources, because any disaster that removes food and water for more than three weeks is an instance of social collapse, and prepping for the end of society is prepping for Armageddon. If the world ends, having an extra three weeks of food just means you starve three weeks later. There’s a different script for surviving Armageddon, and it’s expensive and time consuming for something with such a low risk of occurrence.¹
Surviving for a couple of weeks breaks down into a couple of different scenarios: being able to button down in your own home, and being able to get out while the getting’s good. We’ll cover these situations and explain what might prompt them in the remainder of the article.
Preparing for At-Home Camping
Fortunately, we live in a time where surviving for three weeks without electricity and water isn’t that big a deal. Fundamentally this becomes an exercise in camping in your own house.
So let’s start with the basics: the Rule of Three² tells us that we need to prepare to store three days of water at minimum and three weeks of food. So if we’re prepping for three weeks without food, why only prep for three days without water? Well, the short answer is that water isn’t particularly scarce in the US — but clean water from natural sources is. That means that your water preparation can be more about filtering and treating water, or buying bottled water, and less about stockpiling it.
On the other hand, food should be stockpiled. You generally have to forage, hunt, or grow food in order to get more, if local shelves are empty. That’s gonna be a little tough in cities, and requires specialized skills anyway. So instead you should focus on stockpiling non-perishable food, because supermarkets tend to sell out very quickly in disasters. You should also focus on eating all the ice cream as soon as you lose power, because ice cream.
Stockpiling food and water should focus on the following points:
Stored food should be canned, freeze-dried, or hermetically sealed if you’re storing dry goods. All of those options are easily available to anyone who can visit a Walmart. Some considerations:
- Canned food should always be cooked to mitigate the risk of botulism poisoning (and other bacterial or viral contamination, but botulism is the most dangerous). Never use canned food if the can is bulging or if the smell if off when you open it. Do not store canned food if the can is bulging or heavily dented; replace it.
- All canned foods have an expiration date, and it’s a pack of lies. It’s just there to get you to replace the product. Canned products will last years past their expiration dates; see the previous bullet to determine if you should use any given can or not.
- Remember that freeze-dried meals are, well, dry. They will require water to re-hydrate them and make them palatable. This can impact your water usage calculations.
- Remember that most recipes involving dried grains (flour, rice, oats, etc.) also require water, milk, or eggs. This can impact your water use calculations and, naturally, your recipes.
Plan your food storage around your daily dietary requirements. You should aim to meet or exceed daily caloric requirements for each person in your household, while meeting as many of the vitamin and mineral requirements as possible. It won’t kill you to not get your full magnesium requirement each day, and you won’t get scurvy in three weeks. That being said, modern packaged foods can easily meet daily nutritional requirements with little effort on your part.
If all else fails, or you have more money than space, buy MREs. They are expensive compared to canned goods, but they will reliably keep a person alive, and they’re shelf-stable for decades.
Food should be consumed in order of perishability. First clean out your fridge, then start on your stored goods.
A rough back-of-the-napkin water calculation for one person’s clean water use is as follows:
- 1 quart per day for personal toiletries (brushing teeth, washing hands)
- 2 quarts per day for drinking water (this may scale up in high temperature areas)
- 1 quart per day for cooking
You should also have at least one gallon of grey water³ on hand per day for washing dishes, one gallon for bathing, and two gallons of grey water per day for flushing toilets. An easy way to achieve most of that goal, and create a supply of water for purification later, is to simply fill up a bathtub with water if you suspect you’re about to lose your water supply. If you can’t fill a bathtub, filling a kitchen sink and cooking pots (or other large containers) is a backup option.
Some additional considerations:
- Do not use plastic containers to store water long-term. Plastic has a tendency to degrade at the microscopic level over time, releasing carcinogen microparticles, and that’s not a healthy situation. It’s easy enough to find glass or metal containers, so use those if you can.
- Water does not go bad. You can fill up once and use it years later with no ill effects aside from a stale taste.
- Try to find a container with a spigot. It’ll make it easier to control water flow for uses such as hand washing and teeth brushing.
- Have a water filter on hand, with enough replacement filters to last for at least a month’s worth of use. Make sure you know whether your filters have an expiration date, and replace them as necessary.
- Have water purification tablets on hand, with enough to purify at least a month’s worth of water. Use the clean water guidelines above to make that calculation. Make sure you know if the tablets have an expiration date, and replace them as necessary.
- You will not be taking showers or baths when the water is out. Go ahead and resign yourself to sponge baths now so you don’t have expectations later.
- Find a source near you for grey water. In most parts of the US, that’s going to be a stream or river. Once you run out of water in your home, this becomes your source. Purify any water from a grey water source before using it for cooking or drinking. In some parts of the country you may not have a stream or river available; increase your stored water requirements accordingly.
- If you need to purify grey water for drinking and cooking, run it through a filter, then boil it, then use a water purification tablet. If that sounds like overkill, there is no overkill, there is only fire and reload when preventing dysentery. Don’t go out like your Oregon Trail character. Kids, look it up on YouTube.
If you follow these guidelines there should be little need for water rationing. You should never ration drinking water — don’t flood yourself, but drink when you feel thirsty. It’s counter-intuitive, but many a hiker has been found dead from dehydration with half a canteen’s worth of water in their pack. If you must ration water, ration bathing water first, followed by dishwater, followed by toilet water, followed by water for toiletries, followed by cooking water.
Other Necessary Items
Once you have your food and water storage sorted out, there are a few other things to keep in mind:
- Fire: Fire is one of our oldest tools, so make sure you have a way of producing it. Matches, lighters, flint and steel, whatever.
- Camping Stoves: It’s worth your while to buy and store a small camping stove and enough fuel to run it for a couple of weeks. This will primarily be used for cooking and boiling water.
- Flashlights/Camping Lanterns: No power means no lights in the dark.
- Batteries: No power means no outlet charging. If you want to keep using your phone or other electronics, have a battery backup. Also keep batteries on hand for flashlights.
- Toilet Paper: Listen, in any disaster scenario toilet paper is basically gold.
- Heating/Cooling: If you have a fireplace or a wood stove, maintaining a wood stockpile is always useful as a backup heating/cooking solution. Also having a hand fan, battery-powered fan, or evaporation-based cooling pack on hand can be lifesaving in high heat conditions.
- Cleaning Wipes: It may be better to use these for cleanup tasks rather than cut into your water supply.
- Radio: A small emergency radio will allow you to keep track of what’s happening around you. This may mean the difference between staying put and running for the hills.
- First Aid Kit: A lot of natural disasters come with accompanying risk of bodily harm. Be prepared to patch yourself up.
- Entertainment: A pack of cards, a good book, and a couple of board games will help pass the time.
Once you have your food, water, and other necessities taken care of, you’re probably in a pretty good place to wait out a few weeks’ worth of disaster recovery. The next section will cover what to do if you can’t stay put for that long.
Preparing to Get Out of Dodge
Sometimes hunkering down and trying to ride out a disaster isn’t the best plan. If the flood waters are rising, or the wildfire is shifting your way, camping in your house becomes a losing proposition. To paraphrase the old joke, if you get hit by a Volvo thrown by hurricane-force winds, it doesn’t matter how many sit-ups you did that morning. You are not tough enough to survive everything Mother Nature can throw at you.
So let’s start with conditions for leaving. Here are some situations where you should not try to ride out a disaster:
- If you are in imminent life-threatening danger: Do not try to ride out major floods, wildfires, or category 5 hurricanes. Do not remain in a damaged building after an earthquake. Do not try to hold off mobs of zombies by yourself. If you are in obvious, imminent danger, your stuff is not worth your life. Get out.
- If you are sick or injured: If you require immediate care of any kind, or if you require regular access to medication, do not try to ride out the disaster. Get out if you can, and get to someplace more stable.
- If you do not have supplies: If you haven’t stocked up, don’t try to ride out a major disaster. You will simply become a burden on emergency response personnel.
- If you have dependents or pressing business elsewhere: If you have to take care of someone else who is somewhere else, or your business requires you to be elsewhere, do not try to ride out a disaster. Go where you need to go before the disaster hits (assuming you can see it coming).
Assuming you have the resources to get away, the best solution is usually to drive your own car out of the disaster area. That does a few good things for you. You don’t have to buy tickets or fill out rental forms. You can drive wherever you want, without relying on transit hubs. You can sleep in a car if you have to. And you’re removing a valuable piece of property from the path of the disaster, which also has the capability to transport other valuable pieces of your property.
So, drive if you can. The ideal scenario is to drive or secure transport to a friend or relative’s house someplace out of the disaster area, and impose on their hospitality until it’s safe to go home. The non-ideal scenario is to go to a hotel out of the disaster zone. The very much non-ideal scenario is that you take a bus, rental car, or plane to a hotel. All of these scenarios are still better than staying in the disaster zone if you have to leave. You can pay off debt on your credit cards. That’s a better outcome than losing your life.
When preparing to leave a disaster zone, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Pack clothes and toiletries for a week. Any longer than that and you’ll be taking multiple items of luggage, and you may want to put things other than clothes in the car. If you need more stuff, you can buy it at your destination.
- Pack food and snacks for a couple of days. That should be enough to get you out of the disaster area.
- Remove all the money, small valuables, and important paperwork from your home. Cash, jewelry, titles, and birth certificates all go in bag in your car. Looting often follows in the wake of a major disaster, so take the things you want to keep.
- Do not take furniture or large electronics. They’re bulky and the electronics make your car a target. If it can’t fit in a bag, it doesn’t go in the car.
- Have a few gallons of gas on hand to go in the trunk. Don’t assume that gas stations will be functional in the disaster area.
- Pack everything you can from the “Other Necessary Items” section. Because you never know, and almost everything in that section could come in handy in certain circumstances.
- It should go without saying, but put people in the car first, then see how much room you have for baggage. Also, put your people in as few cars as possible. It’s safer to have everyone in one car with their luggage on their laps then to spread your people out over multiple vehicles.
- If you must take multiple cars, make plans for a rendezvous point for each day. Never assume that you’ll be able to stay together in transit; make sure you know where you’re meeting up.
- Check the road status before you leave. Make sure you can get where you’re trying to go. If you can’t get where you’re trying to go, go somewhere else. It’s better to end up in a hotel vs. a relative’s home rather than getting stuck overnight on the highway.
Ok, that was more than a few things. The point, though, is that if you have to get out of Dodge, get out of Dodge. And don’t come back until the disaster has passed and basic services are being restored. If you do not have resources to get away, your best bet is to revert to stockpiling supplies — canned food is cheap, and the rest of the stuff can be sourced a piece at a time over however long it takes.
Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst
Last but not least, remember: hope is not a strategy. If you catch yourself saying something like “Gosh, I hope the hurricane goes the other way,” and you’re sitting in its predicted path, you’re doing it wrong. Hope gets people killed during disasters. Do not make plans based on hope. Figure out your risk, prepare, and act. If the best outcome happens, yay. Otherwise, you’re far better off preparing for the worst. Worst case scenario, you’ve spent some money and you’re that much more prepared for the next disaster.
¹You may need to adjust the three week time estimate based on location, though. Puerto Rico was a good example — it takes longer for emergency supplies to get to some locations, like islands.
²The Rule of Three is a survival guideline that goes as follows: a person can survive three hours without shelter in adverse conditions, three days without water, and three weeks without food.
³I’m categorizing water as: clean water, grey water (water that isn’t clean but can be purified), and black water (water that would require industrial treatment to be purified, e.g. sewage).