After Disaster – Surviving The Urban Wilderness

After the Disaster of hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, mud slides and other disasters, those who survived the original event found themselves faced with another disaster: an urban “wilderness” without running water, sanitation, electricity, groceries, and in many cases without their normal shelter from the elements of sun and rain, heat and cold. This article is far from a full discussion, but offers some ways you can help yourself and others when the unthinkable happens. In California we’re overdue for a massive earthquake that will run through the most populated areas of major cities. There’s no more “IF” Just “when.”

In the days after the Katrina hurricane, the damage was not over. Broken levees did unimaginable destruction to many cities, and people were literally tossed out into the floodplain unprepared. Perhaps what shocked me the most was the fact that several hundred people died needlessly from dehydration and related problems, simply because they did not have enough clean water to drink. There was plenty of water in every home before the storm hit, and there were several full days of warning that the storm was coming. They could have prepared by drawing up drinking water into bottles, buckets, and other containers; it would have been easy to do. But they didn’t.

They died because they didn’t know what to do, and because they expected plenty of outside help to come and save everybody. Tragically, we now know that didn’t happen, and even if it had, the sheer numbers and logistics (no way to get in except by boat, for example) would have made it impossible to do enough, fast enough, to save everybody.
The saddest part of this is that even though many people would have been lost no matter what, these few hundreds didn’t have to be. They could have saved themselves with just a very small amount of effort, if only they had known.

Where I work we take disaster and human suffering very seriously. We believe that whatever can be done, should be done, to prevent it whenever possible. In this article we will not be looking at what went right or wrong in Katrina, or any other disasters that have already passed – we will look at what we all can do to help ourselves survive not only the next disaster, but also its aftermath. We will look at simple, basic needs, and ways to meet them in the “Emergency Urban Wilderness.” These ideas are by no means complete; just the barest essentials of information and do-able actions that all of us need to know in order to survive not just the disaster, but also the difficult and dangerous days that will follow.

1.Water. The number one, most important physical need to sustain life is plain clean water. The human body is made up of about 80% water, and every single cell of the body must have enough of it at all times. Through natural things like sweating, breathing, and passing off the body’s waste products, some water is being lost all the time. It must be replaced and replenished by more water, usually by drinking liquids. However, liquids like fruit juices, colas, and sport drinks don’t do the same job that water does, and may actually worsen heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

When body fluid levels get too low (called dehydration) a whole variety of problems can be set in motion – decreasing the amount & consistency of your blood, and unbalancing essential nutrients and electrolytes. This can cause weakness, dizziness, rising body temperatures, and may even set off some types of heart dysrhythmias. Water is life-giving.

It must be CLEAN. Dirty water carries diseases that cause diarrhea and vomiting, which cause or worsen dehydration and over time can eventually bring on severe weakness and even death. What to do instead: Put up and store clean water in sturdy plastic (not glass) containers in your home, car, workplace. Use 2 drops of chlorine bleach per gallon to disinfect tap water for storage. Later on if you do have to use some water you’re not sure of, you should boil it first before drinking it or using it on any open cut or scrape, since infection can enter that way too.

2.Shelter. Having some protection from cold, heat, and wetness helps prevent many problems associated with post-disaster conditions, such as hypothermia (loss of essential body-core heat) and hyperthermia (heat exhaustion and heat stroke). Shelter location should be an open area away from tall buildings with glass windows, or any structure or large tree that may fall onto you. When you look for a location, remember to look up. Perhaps a parking lot, or an open park with only small trees, and cooking grills. NEVER light any fire, stove, or grill INSIDE a closed space, tent, or shelter! There is the danger of fire, suffocation, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Kinds of Shelters: Tents are great if you have one, but you can also make a simple shelter out of a tarp, blanket, or plastic garden sheeting thrown over low shrubs or bushes, then crawl in underneath. Living plants have heat of their own, which helps you stay warm. You can buy “tube tents” for yourself and each of your family members. They are simply a plastic tube about 6 feet long, just wide enough for one person and a sleeping bag. Most surplus stores have them. Or you could make a “clothesline tent” by tying a rope between two objects (the “clothesline”) and then throwing a tarp, space blanket, or heavy plastic sheeting over it and staking the corners to the ground. Just like you did in the back yard when you were 10 years old. An excellent source of ideas for more emergency shelters can be found in the Boy Scout Handbook, available for free at your local public library.

3.Personal Protection. In cold or cool weather, keep warm and dry. Wear layers, Cover your head, hands, and feet. Wool is best if possible, because it still keeps you warm even if wet. If you don’t have gloves, put socks on your hands. If you don’t have a hat, cover your head with a heavyweight paper bag or thick plastic granny scarf (NO PLASTIC ON CHILDREN! – because it is a suffocation hazard). To sleep – dog-piling, invented by our caveman ancestors, is an effective way to share warmth. Make a mat of dry leaves, newspapers, or branches UNDER you to insulate you from the ground cold.

Rain protection: If you don’t have a raincoat but you do have heavy plastic garden sheeting (a roll should be kept in your First Aid kit) Just cut a piece about 8 to 10 feet long (twice the height from your neck to your knees) and about 6 to 8 feet wide (twice the length from your neck to your hand). Then cut a hole right in the middle and stick your head through. Instant Parka!

In very hot weather, try to work in the coolest time of the morning and evening, and rest in the hottest part of the day as much as possible. Use light colors for your clothes and tents, because they reflect light and so don’t absorb heat. In cold weather, just the opposite. A dark-colored tent will gather some heat to last after sunset.

4.Food. This is the least important thing the first few days. Though uncomfortable, a normally healthy person can survive for up to 3 weeks without food, and still fully recover with no permanent damage. (But remember you can only go 2 or 3 days without water.) So when you put aside your emergency drinking water supply, also put aside some canned and packaged foods that can be eaten without cooking. Canned beans, vegetables, meats and fish are good, and powdered milk too, especially if you have kids. Great are mylar-wrapped nutrition bars like granola bars and “Cliff” bars. Make sure you’re not just getting candy or cookies with an athletic-sounding name. Read the labels. Date everything with a magic-marker, and every few months, replace your stashed food with new, and then of course, eat the older ones you take out.

5.Keep well, Keep safe. It’s extremely important to get enough rest and sleep, even in a disaster, to keep your strength going. Drink water, and eat at natural times if possible. You may be tempted to just keep working, but if you do, you will inevitably burn out, and fatigue will greatly increase your risk of accidents and injury. Work with a group, and tag-team frequent time-outs for everyone for rest and water. Watch for signs of fatigue or heat exhaustion in each other.
Keep yourself as well and as safe as you can; that is an important responsibility. You can’t help anyone else very much if you get injured or weakened by dehydration yourself. Always put your own safety FIRST, and that’s how you will be most able to help others.

For more information read “The Days That Follow: Environmental Hazards of Heat and Cold, and Infection Control and Sanitation” in the book: Disaster First Aid – What To Do When 911 Can’t Come. For other practical ideas about wilderness survival, read The Boy Scout Handbook and similar resources in your public library.