By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Most often, we live in a warm cocoon of predictability. Unfortunately, natural events or manmade disasters can change our lives in seconds.
We have a moral and ethical responsibility to ourselves and our families to plan for the unexpected. Most of us do not have the resources necessary to fully insulate ourselves from potentially hazardous situations, but we can certainly ensure that we and our families are far better prepared than those who choose to do nothing.
For many years, my personal motto has been “plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised if it does not occur.” Worst-case scenario planning must include both natural and manmade catastrophes and emergencies.
Natural disasters run the gamut from forest fires in the West to tornadoes in the Midwest to destructive hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy along the Gulf and East Coast. Manmade catastrophes can range from temporary loss of electrical power to nuclear meltdowns.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina killed at least 986 Louisiana residents. Approximately 600,000 households were still displaced a month after the event. In New Orleans, 134,000 housing units were damaged. Total losses from Katrina were approximately $135 billion.
In contrast, at least 147 people died during Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the heavily populated New York-New Jersey area in 2012. The estimated damage for the area was roughly $97.7 billion. Some 200,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. At one point, almost three million people in New Jersey were without power and over 100 million miles of shoreline beaches were severely eroded.
What Can We Do to Prepare for Emergencies?
Many Americans seem to believe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is going to arrive at their front door with food and other necessary emergency items within a few hours of a disaster. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
We can plan on outside assistance arriving only after the critical 48- to 72-hour post-event period. During that time, many things can occur. It is up to us to ensure we survive during that crucial period. For planning purposes, we need to remember the following major necessities: water, food, heat, light and shelter.
Water is a far more critical need than food. Learn the Rule of Threes:
- You can live three minutes without air.
- You can live three days without water.
- You can live three weeks without food.
These are approximations and will vary due to climate, one’s physical condition and other natural and personal factors.
There are several methods for obtaining potable water. You can store it ahead of time or you can use a filtration system to obtain potable water from contaminated sources. You can also boil water. However, boiling water requires the use of scarce fuel resources, so it is not recommended.
Generally, FEMA recommends storing one gallon of water per person and pet per day. That amount could be inadequate because water is also needed for other basic requirements such as hygiene and cooking.
A better rule is to store three gallons per person and pet per day. For a family of four with one dog, that would mean 60 gallons. Store the water in the coolest and driest place in your home or shelter.
A second alternative is to purify the water using one of the many modern devices available at stores that cater to “preppers” or outdoors enthusiasts, such as fishing and hunting suppliers.
Common household bleach is also good for purifying potable water. Use one-quarter teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water. Mix thoroughly and let the water stand for at least 60 minutes before drinking.
Note: Neither bleach nor boiling will remove all chemical contaminants. When you use either purification method or if the water is cloudy, filter the water first. There are many water filters on the market, including those made by the Swiss firm Katadyn. An interesting idea is filtering water via ultraviolet light, using a purification device made by Camelback.
We can last far longer without food than most of us think we can. The good news is that freeze-dried food items developed for the military, backpackers and the NASA space program make it simple today to obtain and store high-quality food for extended periods of time from companies like Mountain House and Wise. Families in the military could also utilize the military’s Meals Ready-to-Eat, often just called “MREs.”
The three major requirements these emergency foods must meet are long shelf life and little or no cooking. They should also accommodate special dietary needs.
Freeze-dried food often comes in handy plastic containers and is not expensive. For example, a Wise 72-hour food ration pack for a family of four is approximately $230. Survival foods can have a shelf life of 25 years.
Keep in mind that freeze-dried foods require water for preparation. You should ensure you have an adequate water supply to cover this additional requirement.
It is important to calculate beforehand how many calories you will need per day in a survival situation. One way to calculate this is to use the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). The BMR can vary widely among individuals. The website Your Safety Place has tips on how to calculate your BMR needs.
Heating requirements will vary depending on the season and your geographic location. We live on a ranch and have a high-efficiency woodstove and a fireplace. There are also all sorts of heaters on the market, but unless you have a generator and sufficient fuel, do not rely on electric heaters.
You might want to consider kerosene or propane heaters, which can be purchased in hardware stores or places that sell farming and outdoors supplies. Remember that kerosene and propane are both dangerous fuels and can cause death from carbon monoxide if they are used in poorly ventilated areas.
Always have survival blankets on hand that are aluminized on one side to conserve heat. They are available from a variety of places, including The Sportsman’s Guide.
For those who live in desert regions where it can be cold at night, hypothermia is an ever-present concern. Wool blankets and high-quality sleeping bags can be dollars well spent in emergencies.
Alternative lighting is essential to compensate for power outages. A portable generator of sufficient wattage to run necessary household lights and appliances is the most effective way to power lighting and save food supplies.
Generators typically use gasoline and must be placed in a well-ventilated area. Do not wait until an emergency to check and test your generator, especially if it has not been used in a while.
Lighting today is available in a wide variety of styles and types, everything from kerosene lanterns to high-quality crank-generator or solar-operated lanterns. If you are using battery-powered lighting, be sure to keep extra batteries on hand and change them often.
Good flashlights are also essential in the critical 72-hour emergency window. Do not depend on cheap flashlights. Invest in a sufficient number of high-quality LED flashlights.
Companies like Pelican Products and Maglite make reliable and relatively inexpensive lights. A good idea is to purchase what are called “tactical” lights. They are typically rugged and will withstand hard use.
Kerosene storm lanterns also provide reliable and high-quality light. Like all petroleum-based products, kerosene storm lanterns can be a fire hazard and should not be used in closed areas due to their noxious fumes. Aladdin makes outstanding kerosene lights that can do double-duty on camping trips. These lamps are not cheap, but they will last a lifetime.
Another great lighting idea that is cheap and durable are hiking candle lamps from UCO Gear. They are compact, provide good lighting for small areas, are well built and fold into a small nylon case. These candles can be purchased with a citronella impregnation that can also be used as a mosquito repellent. They can also be bought with an optional reflector.
While it might seem old-fashioned, it’s still a good idea to always keep matches on hand, especially waterproof lifeboat matches that will ignite even when they are wet. You can also use the ubiquitous Bic lighters (buy several) or even electronic fire starters to light grills or wood fires.
Shelter in an emergency often means remaining in place in your home or apartment. But what if your residence is flooded or destroyed?
The second best option, if it is practical, is to relocate to another suitable (and defensive) structure for the duration. As those who have served in the military know, a high-quality tarpaulin can become a good makeshift shelter for a short time.
Heavy-duty canvas tarps are available from farm supply companies. The oilskin tarp from Tentsmiths is expedition quality and waterproof. Tents can range from medium-quality standing room 10-foot-by-10 foot models sold by Sportsman’s Guide to high quality mountaineering tents like the yurt and expedition tents from Shelter Systems.
Providing the essentials for yourself, your family and your pets must be based on your budget, climate, season and other factors unique to your situation. In the end, the most important survival tool you have is your mind and the ability to think creatively.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army Captain, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.