Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Primer For Preparedness

Because of the interconnectedness of the various systems and their dependence on electricity any disturbance of the power grid can have very large far reaching consequences.  Additionally since the trucking industry is also computerized this could also effect our ability to resupply.  In fact any disruption in the various transportation systems whether it is from a grid down scenario; a natural or manmade disaster or even a truckers strike can also bring life as you know it to a grinding halt.  As the garbage mounts and utilities become unavailable simple things we took for granted quickly become survival necessities.  In a grid down scenario food, water, medicine, fuel, communications and cash will become scarce.  

One of the first things I noticed during the blackouts after Hurricane Andrew hit my hometown of Miami, Fl was the lack of available gasoline.  Gasoline stations are computerized and will not likely be working when the power is down.  A fact I was later reminded of during the blackouts following hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.  Despite the supposed emergency backups all gas stations were supposed to have after Hurricane Andrew, most were still unable to pump gas.  Those that where able quickly ran out.  As the tension mounted during those long waits in those very long lines, gas stations became very dangerous places to be.  Riots and violence become real possibilities as people get desperate.   Those in hurricane country know the wisdom of topping off their tanks prior to the storms.  Even in good times I would advise everyone to never let their tank drift below half a tank.

Food and water shortages are a given.  These are the first things we see fly off the shelves anytime there’s a credible threat of a natural disaster.  Panic shopping can deplete supermarket shelves within hours!  Because of the modern “lean manufacturing and production” practices you will rarely have more than 3 days worth of food in any supermarket at any given time.  The Japanese Kanban or “just in time” business model adopted by most U.S. business have really led to big profit increases during good times but if the resupply lines are ever disrupted we could be 9 meals away from anarchy! 
Power outages related to disasters may also disrupt water treatment facilities and sewer services leading to increased risks of water borne illnesses.  Diarrhea diseases common to waterborne illnesses increase anytime the municipal water supplies are compromised.  We saw this after the massive 2003 New York black out.  During these times orders to boil water are usually given out by local authorities.  When flooding occurs the problems become more wide spread as more water sources become compromised.  In the aftermath of the 2010 Haitian earthquake we saw a massive cholera outbreak.  This was the worst they’ve seen in over 100 years.  

Crowding which is common to populations displaced by natural or manmade disaster can further aggravate the situation since close proximity can facilitate the spread of disease particularly respiratory infections the second most common killer of people in developing countries.   Refugee camps are often hotbeds of disease as are jails and hospitals for these reasons.  Rodent populations which also increase in movement and seemingly in size immediately following will also lead to increased spreading of disease. 
Medicine is something that also stops flowing.   Pharmacies are also computerized and vulnerable to power outages.  An acquaintance of mine learned this lesson the hard way when the Veteran’s Administration hospital informed him they couldn’t give him his life saving liver medication.  This happened despite the assurances they gave him prior to the storm.  Even non-life threatening medicinal deficits can cause very dangerous situations imaging someone who is manic depressive, bi polar, or psychotic suddenly coming off their medication!  Now realize anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the population is on some type of psychotropic medication.  If you’re taking life saving medication it would be prudent to have a back up supply, just in case.  

Adding to the problem is the fact most of the methods of communications we take for granted will also go down.  In years past when landline telephones where common in every home, survivors could take comfort in knowing that those telephones operated on a different system and may still work even when the power goes down.  These days most people are doing away with these types of phones preferring to use only their cell phones.  Cell phone reception is very fragile and very vulnerable.  Lack of reliable cell phone usage is a common occurrence in many disasters due to either direct damage or overloading of the cell towers.  In years past I would text my loved ones at midnight on New Years Eve knowing that getting a call out would be impossible.  In 2011 I was unable to get my text out for hours do to the volume of texting that was occurring.  Still texting is worth a try, specially to someone outside the area.  Internet access is also something that can be very vulnerable.  If you have transportation available trying different areas till you can find wifi reception may give you the means through which you can send out an e-mail.  Message boards and blogs are often a great source for news and information. In fact even getting local news can be challenging.  After Andrew the best information was coming from stations which where from outside of our area.

Buying necessities after the fact can be difficult at best.  Many if not most businesses will not be able to operate because they are computerized and unable to function without electricity.  Those that can operate will most likely only be accepting cash.  If you can find someone willing to accept a check during a crisis consider yourself lucky.  Better yet cultivate relationships with those vendors in your area and you may improve your odds.  Getting cash from ATM machines may not happen if there’s no power and or they are damaged.  The banks in all likelihood would be closed.  Even if open it’s doubtful they would be of any use since they too are computerized and unable to operate without electricity.   Having an emergency stash of cash is probably a great idea.

While we could probably discuss many more “side effects” related to grid down scenarios I like mention just one more.  In wide spread disasters we frequently see a sharp increase in opportunistic crime.  A blatant example was the wide spread looting in Louisiana during the after math of Hurricane Katrina or the vicious attack on Reginald Denny the truck driver who was dragged out a beaten nearly to death by rioters during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. 

 During the black outs following Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma my “resort style” condo community was left completely unsecured.  The security gates had been left open and the security guards wouldn’t return till after power had been restored.  I was informed later this was for “safety” reasons.  To make matters worst the majority of the property was empty, as most of my neighbors had evacuated.  Fortunately nothing worst happened but I couldn’t help but think this would have been a burglar’s paradise.  Security is a very real concern any preparedness minded person should consider.  During the chaos of such events the normal emergency response systems are stretched very thin.  Response times will be painfully long if they respond at all.  Remember even in the best of times when seconds count help is only minutes away.

By now you should be getting a very clear picture of what you should be doing to be better prepared to face the many challenges you could be facing.  Now many people already practice some level of preparedness.  Think about it most have some type of insurance whether for their assets or their health.  Many put aside a little money for a rainy day.  Most households may even have a first aid kit.  What I am very surprised at is that it usually stops there.  The average person doesn’t even have the FEMA recommended 3 days of food and water stored in their homes.  Even worst many think a higher level of preparedness may be considered paranoia and may even fear being ridiculed for contemplating such things.  This is a stark contrast from the way people lived as little as 80 years ago.   Of course now the largest populations live in cities and see little need for such things.  Those living in remote areas or areas with extreme weather know the wisdom of being prepared but unfortunately the average urbanite has forgotten this.  

So where is someone looking to become more self-reliant supposed to begin?  I suppose that would depend on the circumstances they anticipate, but would begin by storing some non-perishable food and water.  How much food?  That again would depend on the anticipated situation.  After Hurricane Andrew we spent nearly a month without electricity and under a boil water order.  My minimum storage would be 1 month’s worth for every member of your group.  Still the 3day minimum suggested by FEMA would be a great start.  Gradually building from there wouldn’t be too difficult or even expensive.  Since you would be buying proactively you will have the opportunity to take advantage of sales, discounts and coupons.  A very useful practice for collecting food for storage is a method I learned from my mother.  She would double or even triple up on foods we normally eat every time there was a sale.  Twofers (two for one’s) and bogos (buy one get one frees) are great opportunities to stock up.  Since these where foods we normally ate anyway they would get rotated out as we ate them satisfying the survivors maxim “buy what you eat and eat what you buy. 

Canned foods are a great start.  Beans and rice are great staples for the survivor’s larder.  These items store well for long periods of time even without refrigeration.  They also do wonders for increasing the macro nutrient ratios of your food preparations. Don’t forget to include condiments (pepper, salt, sugar etc.) in your preparedness efforts as they can add flavor varieties as commonly eaten foods become bland to the palate. 
For longer-term storage dehydrated or freeze dried foods can provide food stores, which may last decades if packaged and kept properly.  There are many companies that sell these types of foods.  Many wholesale clubs are now catering to this market.  Many are not only offering canned foods but even survival buckets for long-term storage.  Another great resource for this type of canned foods is the LDS canneries.  They have the additional advantage of being more customizable since often you are allowed to can your own there under the guidance of experienced canners.  Another advantage is that they are often the least expensive option short of doing your own canning at home

Canning and bottling your own food for storage is a great option if you have the skill and time.  There are a great many great books and videos on the subject.  The LDS canneries occasionally give classes on this subject as well.  The materials can easily be found in many grocery stores, super markets and even some hardware stores.  Food dehydrators are also easily found in many of those places and can be purchased quite inexpensively.  Usually ranging in price from as little as $50 up to several hundred dollars.
 Another great way for creating long-term food stores is to package bulk grains, beans and other staples in mylar bags in an oxygen free environment in order to kill any bugs which may already be in those foods.  Creating an oxygen free environment is as simple as adding oxygen absorbers before sealing the bags. You can further protect your stores by placing the bags in food grade buckets with lids.   This will protect your food stores by further maintaining a constant positive environment for your food and also by preventing rodents and similar animals from chewing into the bags.  These buckets can be purchased in hardware stores but a more cost effective way is to go to your local restaurant or baker and ask them for the one’s they will be discarding anyway.  Another method that just uses buckets is described in Ron and Karen Hood’s excellent video titled Urban Master.  They use dry ice to push the oxygen out.  Simply put some dry ice into the bag between a few layers of food and allow it to evaporate through out the day.  Place the lid lightly on top of the bucket to allow the oxygen and carbon dioxide to escape and seal it once the smoke from the carbon dioxide is exhausted.

For those anticipating an apocalyptic scenario having a seed bank of heirloom seeds may be a valuable resource.  These are the open pollinating variety of seeds that produce a plant capable of further producing plantable seeds.  This will ensure the survivor has a means of growing food once his or her stores have run out.  For those anticipating this type of scenario to stored food amounts should allow each member of the group to eat for 18 months to 2 years as this is likely the amount of time for severe depopulation to occur.  The common template for developing food stores to get one through such scenarios would be to have 3 months to a years worth of regular canned goods and other non perishable staples in rotation followed by 18 months to 2 years worth of long term stored foods and an heirloom seed bank.   Of course since a single disaster can possibly destroy your food stores or gangs of desperate starving people can steal your foods it would probably be a smart idea to not keep it all in one place.  Having several food stashes in your home isn’t a bad idea specially if they are hidden.  A thief satisfied with his newfound food may overlook other stashes.  Having multiple locations and even caches outside the home can further protect you from loosing all your stores at once.  I know several urban survivors who keep some supplies including food and water in public storage places for these very same reasons. 
Growing your own food even during the good times is a great skill to have.  You’ll develop very useful skills while eating healthy truly organic food.  People in rural settings have the advantage in terms of space but almost anyone can grow something, even apartment dwellers.  Urbanites with their own yards would do well to look such techniques like square foot gardening and the various methods collectively known as permaculture.  Apartment dwellers with balconies should look into container gardening and vertical gardening.  Even those without balconies may still be able to grow at least some herbs or indoor plants which may be useful.  Of course there’s always guerilla gardening in wastelands.  

Water storage is actually the most important storage need since you’ll only survive days without it.  Additionally many of your food preparations may need water to prepare them. FEMA and the Red Cross recommend you store 1 gallon per day per person.  The easiest way to do this although expensive is to simply buy bottled water.  If you choose this method, a smart strategy is to buy a variety of container sizes.  They range from the large 5 gallon bottles commonly used for water machines to bottles as small as a few ounces.  Having this variety will increase your storage options.  Water storage can be a great challenge since it’s bulky and heavy.  At over 8 pounds a gallon a 5 gallon bottle will weigh in at just over 40 lbs.  A 50 gallon drum will weigh in at over 400 lbs! 

With water at a little over a dollar a gallon at the time of this writing, many of you may wish to go a less expensive route.  Bottling my own water is the method I’ve chosen for this reason.  It is as simple as repurposing some old soda bottles or similar containers; cleaning them, and filling them from the tap.  Do not use the thin plastic milk bottles with the handles on them.  They leech a lot of plastic into the water giving it a terrible plastic taste and tend to leak when stored for long periods. 
The technique I use when preparing bottles for storing water is to thoroughly clean them out with soap and water.  Then fill them up with water and add 1 teaspoon of plain common household bleach per gallon.  Shake it up and then let it sit for an hour or so then drain and refill.  Be sure to let the water run over the threads and the cap when draining.  This second step is very important in order to ensure there isn’t any sugar left in the bottles that may be inviting to bacteria.  I like to rotate my water stores every couple of years.

Since we already mentioned how important water is and that it may be challenging to store in large enough quantities.  Having alternative sources for procuring water is an extremely important consideration.  A tried and true method is to harvest the rain.  Those living in houses can simply have their rain gutters drain into 50 gallon drums.  Be sure to routinely clean off your roof to minimize the volume of leaves, bird poop and other contaminants that may accumulate there.  Apartment dwellers have a bigger challenge.  Those with balconies can try to rig up temporary rain catching systems using aluminum rain gutters but the volume will be much lower.  Those with access to the roof can use buckets and similar containers to catch rain.  I plan on using two inflatable kid pools if I ever to catch water.

Urban wells can also be a great source for water.  Wells are often over looked because most people tend to think of well as the old brick ones you threw a bucket into.  A modern urban well needn’t be much more than a pipe and a pump.  In fact most of them will go unrecognized for what they are since they don’t look much different than the outdoor spigots commonly seen in back yards.
Yet another resource for water in an urban environment is the water in the house or apartment itself.  Many homes will have 40 or more gallons of water in their water heaters and several more gallons in the pipes.  Also lets not forget the 3 to 5 gallons in the toilet tank (not the bowl!)  To access the water from the pipes you first need to close off the water main to prevent your water from becoming contaminated if the municipal water supply may become contaminated.  Next open the highest faucet in the house till you get a small drip.  The open the lowest faucet in the house and let it drain out.  Have several containers ready so as to not waste any water.  If you are planning to use your water heater as a source of water it is extremely important that maintenance it regularly.  An unmaintained water heater will accumulate oxidation and other filth making the water much more difficult to process if you could make it potable at all.  To access the water turn off the breaker, release the steam using the steam release valve usually at the top of the unit and open the spigot to drain.  Be sure you know what you are doing here because a mistake can scald you severely!  Many experts have said the water in your toilet bowl is safe to drink.  I would still disinfect it since it’s so close to the bowl.

Even if you have all your preparations in place do not forget you can give yourselves a couple of extra days before you have to tap your stores by maximizing the efficiency of your refrigerator.  Something I do before a pending hurricane strike is to maximally fill my refrigerator with frozen water bottles prior to turning down the temperature to its coldest setting.  I start by freezing 2 liter bottles and then moving them down from the freezer into the refrigerator once frozen.  Then I will fill the freezer with small 12 to16 ounce water bottles.  By eliminating any dead air spaces you will make your refrigerator much more efficient allowing you to keep your perishables fresh for a couple of days longer than if you hadn’t done this.   Having a thermometer in your refrigerator is a smart idea since this way you will know for sure once the temperature inside has reached room temperature.  This is when spoilage begins.