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Organization and Preparation are the Keys to Surviving Disasters

Whether it is a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, fire or blizzard, all these weather disasters have one thing in common: They all take innocent lives.

I watched as Hurricane Harvey rolled over the Houston area and Hurricane Irma destroyed parts of Florida. Then, it was Hurricane José making its way up the East Coast, swerving out to sea just before it plowed into the Northeast. Then, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico dealt with the severe devastation created by Hurricane María.

When the flood waters are up your knees is not the time to start making a plan.

These recent disasters were just the hurricanes. What about the massive forest fires in the West and the Northwest and tornadoes in the Plains and the Midwest—not to mention the deadly earthquake in central Mexico? Whether it is a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, fire or blizzard, all these weather events have one thing in common: They all take innocent lives.

If you can’t get to the airport due to flooded roads, it is obviously not a viable way out.

This home in Texas was flooded with about 4 feet of water because of the heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey.

None of these events is particular about whom they kill. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, or young or old. These events will kill anyone, especially those who are not prepared with a survival plan.

Don’t say, “It can’t happen to me,” because it can. According to the Texas Division of Emergency Management, Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed an estimated 185,149 homes. The Texas Governor’s Office stated that more than 42,000 people were still in shelters after the storm had passed, and, according to the Texas Energy Department, some customers would be without power until as many as 21 days after the storm.

Notably, 120,000 residents in Beaumont, Texas, were without water—many for two or more weeks—and this is just a small part of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Emergency workers walk a street in what is left of part of Big Pine Key, Florida. This is a good example of where plan A (bugging out) was the best choice.

In Florida, Hurricane Irma made landfall on a Sunday and knocked the power out to 6.2 million homes. A week later, about 40 percent of the state still lacked power. The Keys were the first hit. A week later, they still had no power, fuel to run generators, water or communication with the outside world (this information was according to officials in Monroe County, Florida).

Traffic is backed up in Houston, Texas, as people flee before the arrival of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane María slammed into Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. Six weeks later, 70 percent of the island was still without power. The island was also running low on fresh water, food and fuel to run generators.

Aid is slow to arrive for a few different reasons, but damage to the seaports and the airports have made it very difficult to get supplies to the people who need it. These people are looking at months before there is any sense of normalcy. I will bet many of them thought it couldn’t happen to them or that they could get by with the supplies they had on hand.

The time to make these plans is now, when times are good, and not just prior to something happening.

Before you go out and dig some sort of expensive underground shelter and fill it full of “new and improved” special “survival food,” understand that it doesn’t need to be this way.

Survival comes down to having a plan. A plan can be changed, but it does no good if you don’t have one, update it and follow it.

Downed trees and power lines on Marathon Key, Florida, remain in place days after the weather cleared. Situations such as this can be very dangerous and severely delay help from arriving.

Getting much-needed fuel on Big Pine Key. This man’s generator will keep running for another day—but will everyone in the long line behind him be as lucky?

When it comes to making a survival plan for disasters, don’t rush simply to get it over with—but don’t wait until the last moment either. When the flood waters are up to your knees is not the time to start making a plan. Always have two plans: plan A and plan B. Plan A is “Bug Out.” Plan B is “Hunker Down.” Each one is different and has its own pros and cons.

Bug Out

It is not always possible to see an issue coming, but with today’s technology, it is getting so that storms can be pretty accurately predicted days—sometimes, even weeks—out. This gives you time to review your plans and prepare to put them into action. When it comes to severe situations, it is always best to err on the side of safety and get out if you think you need to.

It’s “cash only,” along with purchase limits on some items, almost a week after the storm passed through Puerto Rico. However, some people were finally able to begin restocking supplies.

Using a map, plot out two or three escape routes. You never know when one of the routes could be blocked with downed trees, power lines, flood waters or just crammed with other people trying to do the same thing as you. Know where you are going to run to and how to get there. Don’t rely on your GPS to get you there.

GPS units have been known to be wrong. They are only as good as the signal they get, and, like any electronic device, they can fail. Keep a list of friends to call in different areas along your routes whose homes you can stay at, if necessary.

Hundreds of people wait in line to use the ATM outside of a bank in Caguas, Puerto Rico, on September 29, 2017. After Hurricane María, cash will be king in Puerto Rico for quite a while. Without power, credit and debit cards are worthless. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/ The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

If you do decide to run toward safety, don’t wait until the last minute. Be proactive. Don’t wait until the order to evacuate is given. By that time, it might be too late. As an example, look at what happened in Florida as people tried to flee the Keys.

Make sure the gas tank is full. Bring extra food and water and any medications you need. Don’t forget the family pet, and make sure you have plenty of food and water for it, as well.

Hunker Down

Maybe you decided to ride out the event, or maybe Mother Nature made the decision for you. If you are staying, you need to be prepared and have a plan that covers many of the things in your bug-out plan, along with the concerns you could face while staying at home: Will you include others in your plan? What backup energy, water and cooking options will you have? What do you need to do to prepare your house for the coming trouble?

A patient receives her dialysis treatment at HIMA San Pablo Hospital in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in September 2017. With her usual treatment center down and little gas in her car after the storm hit, this woman was unable to get dialysis for a week and feared she would die. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The time to make these plans is now, when times are good, and not just prior to something happening. Planning ahead, while not always fun, will allow you to acquire supplies you prefer a little at a time and avoid the mad rush, as well as price-gouging.

Checklists

To be viable, plans A and B both need to have checklists. These can be divided up into “must-haves/dos” and “should-haves/dos.” The list of items is not as extensive for Plan A as it is for Plan B, but there still is a checklist.

“Plan A” Checklist

Resourcefulness is key to survival, as shown here: This woman is collecting water from a natural spring created by a landslide.

Must-Haves/Dos

  1. Plot an evacuation route that includes several ways to get to your destination.
  2. Make sure your vehicle is kept in good working order and is ready for the conditions you’ll face on your route. Breaking down en route to safety puts both you and others in danger.
  3. Keep the gas tank full and all fluids topped off. You never know when or where you will find more.
  4. Bring water and food for both you and your pets.
  5. Pack a comprehensive first aid kit and know how to use its contents.
  6. Accumulate some cash. Your credit and debit cards will probably do you no good during a serious emergency. Banks will be closed, and the machines won’t work without electricity.

Should-Haves/Dos

  1. Prepare a fully stocked bug-out bag for each person and pet.
  2. Prepare communication devices in the form of cell phones, laptops or tablets, FRS, GMRS or ham radios. Make sure batteries are fully charged and that you have extras or rechargeable batteries.
  3. Carry multiple means of self-defense and be prepared to use them.
  4. Prepare sleeping gear, such as sleeping bags, air mattresses, sheets and pillows.
  5. Keep everything in one location so you can grab it quickly when needed.

“Plan B” Checklist

Help finally arrived in the Florida Keys after residents went a week with nothing.

Filtering water using the Sawyer Mini is pretty quick, convenient and safe.

The Midland E+Ready Emergency Crank Radio uses solar power, rechargeable batteries or crank power to stay connected, even when there is no power. In addition, it can charge your phone and other small devices.

Generators are great. Just be sure to keep them properly maintained, have plenty of fuel to last the duration of your emergency, and only run them outside.

This Solo Stove uses bio-fuel, sticks, twigs and other bits of combustible matter, which will probably be plentiful after a serious emergency.

Must-Haves/Dos

  1. Make sure your structure is sound. If something is broken, fix it now.
  2. Stockpile things such as empty sandbags and sand, rock salt, firewood and other materials that suit the emergencies you’re planning for. They will be in short supply as a credible threat approaches.
  3. Remove unnecessary hazards from the area around your home. Clean gutters, trim overhanging branches, take down questionable trees and clear flammable debris near the house.
  4. Stock up on food and water. While FEMA subscribes to a three-day supply, consider storing at least double that. Better yet: Build a 10- to 30-day supply, depending on your location and the events you’re preparing for. (Key West was without supplies for a week or more, and it will be months before parts of Puerto Rico are back up and running.) Have the gear and fuel necessary to heat water and cook.
  5. Prepare water-purification devices. Whether it’s a stove you can boil water on or one of any number of quality water filters and purifiers, a quality filtration system is good to have—whether you are on municipal water services or have a well.
  6. Pack a well-stocked first aid kit and know how to use it.
  7. Prepare some sort of communication devices. A fully charged cell phone is a must, although it might not work if the towers are damaged or the network has lost power. FRS, GMRS and ham radios make good backups in these situations, depending on the terrain and distance to those with whom you need to communicate. You should also have a crank-powered weather-band radio (such as the Midland E+Ready) so you can listen for additional warnings and other news.
  8. Keep fresh batteries for all your devices.
  9. Prepare a means of defending what is yours—the possibility of looters increases the longer the situation continues.
  10. Accumulate some cash. In the short term, cash is “king,” but only use it for necessities.

SURVIVAL COMES DOWN TO HAVING A PLAN. A PLAN CAN BE CHANGED, BUT IT DOES NO GOOD IF YOU DON’T HAVE ONE, UPDATE IT AND FOLLOW IT.

A cache of supplies should be stored in case of a natural disaster. Supplies should include—at a minimum—a flashlight, backpack, batteries, water bottles, first aid kit, lantern, radio, can opener and masks.

The author’s BlackHawk backpack with removable medical kits for emergencies

This stash of propane bottles for the author’s camp stove should last about one month.

Mountain House five-day food supply. It’s a good start—but, as we have seen, it may not be enough.

Have a means to defend yourself, know how to use it, and be aware of the laws regarding ownership and use.

Should-Haves/Dos

  1. Acquire a power source. Power will be down. If you have a generator to at least keep the refrigerator working and the heat on, you are good to go.
  2. Prepare extra fuel. Generators will only work if they have fuel. Again, plan for the power being out for at least a week.
  3. Have a supply of rechargeable batteries and some portable solar panels (such as the Bushnell PowerSync or a SunJack) so you can keep batteries charged.
  4. Meet with neighbors you can trust. Discuss plans about working together. There is safety in numbers, and you can share resources. Another possible benefit is that you might be able to increase your purchasing power when buying larger volumes of supplies.

Food and Water

FEMA says you should plan to have 1 gallon of potable water per person per day of an emergency situation. I have three or four cases of bottled water on hand at all times. Then, when a storm is predicted, I will start filling 1-gallon jugs and my two 5-gallon Reliance water containers with clean water. During the storm, while I still have running water, I will fill the tub. There is no such thing as having too much water.

When it comes to making a survival plan, don’t rush simply to get it over with—but don’t wait until the last moment either.

Food should be in the form of nonperishable items such as canned or freeze-dried food. Besides boxes of Paleo Meals to Go and Mountain House Meals, I also have canned meat, fruit and vegetables. Cereal is always good to have on hand, too.

A Texas National Guardsman delivers food and water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Also keep in mind that fresh or frozen meat, prepared foods, eggs, milk and everything else in your refrigerator need to be kept cool or cold. Plan to eat those foods first so that if the power goes out for any length of time, they won’t be lost. Also keep in mind, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Collecting Supplies

Collecting supplies for a “just-in-case” situation can be a daunting task, especially if you are trying to do it all at once. It is even worse, if not impossible, if you wait until the last minute to do it.

Do yourself and your wallet a favor: Spread out this task over time. Whenever you go to the store, pick up a couple of extra cans of food, an extra box of cereal or another case of water. You will see that over time, your supplies will grow—and you won’t blow your budget doing it.

This Florida resident was living in his car but is now being evacuated. This is a good example of the reason you need a good escape plan.

If major disasters like a storm is predicted, decide which plan you intend to use, review the appropriate checklist, and pick up those other things you are missing. This way, you are not wasting time and you are prepared to act, no matter which plan you are using. Don’t rely on being able to pick up those last few things at the store on your bug-out route. All that does is add risk from additional exposure to panicked people along the way.

On Your Own

In addition, don’t count on any level of the government to be there to rescue you when things go bad. As of this writing, it has been 45 days since Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico, and over 60 percent of its electricity-generating capacity is still offline.

The three-day plan is a decent start. However, as we have seen, it doesn’t really give you much of a safety net for surviving many emergencies and disaster scenarios. It’s entirely possible that you could be on your own for a week or longer.

Those who have a realistic plan and are prepared to follow it will make it through virtually any bad situation in much better shape than those who weren’t prepared. The choices are up to you—today. Make the right ones now or suffer the consequences later.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March, 2018 print issue of American Survival Guide.