So instead of "lessons learned", I'm offering you a "lessons I hope you learn" post. If you're an e-e-evil survivalist-type, then much of this may be old hat. If you aren't, then this is a very basic primer. There are some links on the left that can guide you to more detailed information, or as always, Google is your friend.
These are relatively unordered. I have tried, to some extent, to keep like subjects together.
- You may not have advance warning that there is a disaster coming. Even if you do, you may find yourself in a situation where you aren't able to make last minute preparations. Prepare ahead. If you wait until the last minute, you'll find yourself among the hordes stuck at Walmart, Home Depot and the grocery store. Given that people will tend to get panicy during this time, these are not good places to be.
- You must keep sufficient food, water and medications on hand for emergencies. FEMA, the American Red Cross and others have long urged people to keep 3 days worth of supplies on hand. This is insufficient for any major or widespread emergency situation. As we've seen from Katrina, it can take more than 3 days for any sort of outside help to reach you (assuming it ever does). You should consider 7 days of food, water (for both drinking and personal use) and necessary medications the absolute minimum to keep on hand at all times. If possible, you should keep 30 days on hand. (A year is better still. Who know how long until you can resupply?) Remember the food and water needs of your pets as well. As a corollary, be sure to have at least 2 can openers and a way to cook or heat your food (you'll be amazed how many people will forget these). If you can't store enough water, buy water filtration devices and know where the closest sources of water are.
- Half = Empty. Never let the gas tank on any vehicle get below half full. How many of the people left in New Orleans could have gotten out of town if they had a vehicle with a half tank of gas?
- Have plenty of extra cash on hand, in small bills. When the lights go off, most places won't take credit cards, debit cards or probably checks.
- During an emergency situation, personal hygiene counts. You have to maintain a level of personal hygiene sufficient to keep you from getting sick. While you probably will not be able to bathe each day, you must do everything you can to keep clean. Baby wipes work in a pinch; there is also a larger version meant for bed-ridden folks. Additionally, you aren't a wild bear--you do not urinate/defecate any place you please. A 5 gallon bucket, a salvaged toilet seat, a large box of kitchen side trash bags and a gallon of bleach will handle the situation. Double bag it and store it in a trash can for future disposal. If you're female and of a certain age group, you're going to have some...special needs. Those needs may not be current, but they may be current before things are back to normal. Items to meet these needs should to be kept on hand.
- If you're well-prepared for emergencies, you must be either A) ready to share with all comers or B) ready to defend yourself from all comers. If you choose to share, expect to be out of supplies and faced with angry have-nots very shortly. If you choose to defend, be prepared to frighten, intimidate and possible kill angry have-nots very shortly. Defense will mean guns, plenty of ammo and several people to assist you. How many combat effectives do you have in your home? Is your home defensible? How much ballistic protection does it offer? Most importantly, can you pull the trigger?
- If you have elderly family, friends or neighbors, how far are you willing to go to help them survive? Decide this now, not then, and stock supplies accordingly. You may need to plan on moving them into your home for the duration in order to simplify helping them out. That easy 5 minute drive to their home may turn into a day-long combat patrol in a hurry.
- Don't count on a period of time before social order begins to break down--or for it to break down at all. Many survivalists will tell you that in a major emergency situation, you'll have 48-72 hours before there is a widespread breakdown in social order. Maybe, maybe not. In New Orleans, it took less than 24 hours. In Mississippi, there was no widespread breakdown in social order before outside assistance began arriving. Whether or not social order breaks down, how much it breaks down and how long it takes to break down is a function of the socio-economic makeup of the area, population density, actions (and exhibited competency) of local officials in the immediate aftermath, nature and size of the disaster, inflow of refugees from even worse-hit areas, the actions of individuals to defend themselves from predators and the how fast outside help arrives. Know your local area and those who live in it.
- Outside assistance will be slower in arriving than you might hope. It will also be variable in quantity, quality and availability, and it may not be what you need when you need it.
- If the disaster is bad enough or widespread enough, outside assistance may never arrive. Yes, it could be that bad. What would you do?
- Expect humanity and inhumanity to exist side by side and in unexpected places. Things will be weird all over. Be ready for this and prepared to react according to the situation.
- You do not want to be a refugee. See the New Orleans Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center for details.
- If you evacuate, do it on your terms, not the government's. If you are evacuated by the government, what you take with you will be strictly limited. You will not take your pets, you will not be allowed a weapon to defend yourself, medications may be confiscated and baggage will be limited. If you chose to evacuate, you should make decisions on what you take and where you take it--not a government bureaucrat.
- Have copies of all important papers, bank account numbers, address books, etc. in a handy place so that you can grab them quickly on the way out the door. Better yet, scan it, burn it on CDs and stash copies with trustworthy friends and family in geographically diverse areas as well.
- Let common sense and past experience be your guide on the decision to evacuate or hunker down and ride it out. If you live in an area below sea level and a Category 5/4 hurricane is bearing down on you, evacuation is probably a smart play. If you live 40 miles inland in an area not prone to flooding and have a substantially constructed house, you might want to hunker down instead. Listen to the weatherdroid, government officials and your gut, but make your own decisions.
- If you think you may have to evacuate--ever--know your routes out. Routes, plural. Have at least three separate ways to get out of Dodge. Try to use secondary roads, not Interstate highways. Also know how you're evacuating--will you drive your car, ride with friends, walk? This is important to know well before you need to leave.
- Consider where you would evacuate to if you ever needed to evacuate.Take this opportunity to talk to family and friends who might give you shelter. "Hey, if a killer hurricane comes along, would you mind if I crash at your place? I'll bring my RV, food, etc.--all I need is electricity, water and sewer." Have this conversation now, and work out with those who will be taking you in what you need to bring, how long you can stay, how bills might have to be split and so on. I'd suggest having several such conversations with people living in geographically diverse locations. Be prepared to reciprocate with those folks--they may have a disaster in their area, and need your help.
- If you decide to hunker down and ride it out, expect people to try to rescue you. As far as they're concerned, if you're in a disaster area, you must need rescuing.
- If you decide to hunker down, keep a low profile. It will protect you from predators, those who were unprepared and expect you to care for them, and potential rescuers.
- You may need rescuing from the rescuers. It's an unfortunate part of human nature that when we're given authority, it tends to go to our heads. You may find yourself in a situation where your erstwhile rescuers are going to rescue you whether you need it or not. They've come a long way to help you, and you...will...be...helped. You may even be threatened. Determine now what your reaction is going to be--do you hide from rescue teams, go with them if coerced, or resist--and how hard do you resist? (9/12/2005 edit: In light of the confiscation of legal firearms in New Orleans by police and National Guard troops, this take on a new level of importance.)
- If you are rescued after a disaster, your pets will be left behind to fend for themselves. There are groups who go to disaster scenes and rescue pets, but I wouldn't bet my pets lives on this. This fact may have a bearing on whether you want to be rescued at all.
- Tarps, tools and rope. You may need all these, plus other similar items, to temporarily repair damage caused by the disaster. Be prepared to repair holes in the roof and broken windows or doors. Two specialty tools you may need are a "street key" to turn off the water at the meter and the appropriate wrench to turn off natural gas or propane.
- Generators draw attention. They're noisy and things are lit up. You will draw the attention of everyone within earshot. You may will need to be prepared to defend yourself if you chose to use a generator. If you decide to use one, try to use it during the daylight hours.
- Lighting. You'll need something for general purpose illumination, something for task lighting, and perhaps something for longer range, such as a spotlight. Don't forget spare batteries, fuel, etc..
- Stay in touch.Have at least a battery-powered radio and TV and spare batteries. You will also need short range radios for communications between family and neighbors. CB or FRS/GMRS radios will do, but have plenty of batteries and remember that anyone can listen in on what you're saying. If you are an amateur radio operator (a "ham") be sure you have the equipment to run without grid power.
- Keep a positive mental attitude. Everything around you has went to shit--you can't let your attitude go there as well. It is an absolute imperative that you must keep a positive outlook. It's going to be incredibly difficult, but look for positives in everything. Sure, you house is gone, but you just found the family photo album. Keep that positive attitude, and half the problem is solved.
- Have backup plans. Have backup plans for everything. What happens if you're going to evacuate and the roads are completely clogged? What happens if it floods in an area that doesn't normally flood? What do you do if you run out of food and water? What happens if you get caught short on supplies? Have backup plans for everything. Working them out now is much simpler than it is during an emergency.
If you've never thought about this sort of thing, now is the time. I especially urge you to prepare if you have children or others who depend on you. If they depend on you, that makes you responsible for them. Take your responsibilities seriously.
I'll probably be adding to this for a few days yet. If I do, the final version will be reposted.
Edited 9/7/2005 @ 3:13 PM: changed title and introduction
Edited 9/12/2005 @ 1:30 PM: updated due to event in New Orleans
Edited 9/15/2005 @ 2:10 PM: various small edits
Edited 9/19/2005 @ 11:06 AM: further small edits