TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter October 2011

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Unnatural Disasters

The end of summer brought hurricane/tropical storm Irene to the Northeast and treated us to a rather unpleasant stretch of days. While some regions were truly devastated, most escaped with only minor damage and inconvenience. The Urbach family experienced a 5 day blackout, but we were well prepared, and just did a little "indoor camping." Once power came back on, the experience prompted me to update an article on disaster preparedness I wrote several years earlier. September's issue focused on assembling the items you need to cope with a disaster. If you missed the article, a reprint is here.

Since the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks has just passed, I thought it'd be appropriate to also update some info on coping with that type of "unnatural" disaster. However, please understand where I'm coming from. I'm not a worst-worst case scenario kind of guy. I believe you shouldn't live your life in constant fear that something incredibly horrible is about to happen. Nonetheless, the world *is* a dangerous place...

Likely Threats
The threat of a rogue nation or terrorist organization unleashing a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack is ever present (although, in my opinion, unlikely). I believe it's far more probable that we'll continue to experience a series of terrorist attacks using conventional weapons and explosives. These will be awful, but at least the casualties will be localized. Not so if a weapon of mass destruction were unleashed; of course, the impact would be widespread and the probability that you'd be directly affected considerably higher.

These are the facts (from the California Department of Public Health):

"Chemical agents are poisonous gases, liquids or solids that have toxic effects on people, animals or plants. They can be released by bombs, sprayed from aircraft and boats and used to contaminate the air and food and water supplies. However, they are difficult to manufacture and to deliver in quantity. For example, the Pentagon estimates that a ton of Sarin gas would be necessary to produce 10,000 casualties. Biological agents are organisms or toxins that have illness-producing effects. Biological agents can be dispersed by aerosols, animal carriers and through food and water contamination. Again, they are difficult to manufacture and to deliver. The Aum Shinrikyo cult, which attempted a major Sarin gas assault on the Tokyo subway system, had millions in funding and a sophisticated staff, yet was unable to produce a biological weapon after five years of trying. Nuclear agents are substances that generate harmful radiation. Particularly worrisome are 'dirty bombs,' which use a conventional explosive to disperse nuclear material. However, please bear in mind, nuclear devices and materials are closely monitored and difficult to obtain."

What To Do
Even though it's unlikely for the reasons stated above, a chemical, biological, or dirty nuclear attack is possible, and may come without warning. However, you can get some advance notice by watching nature's signals. If you see a dead bird, that's an ominous sign. Birds are very sensitive to toxins and are usually first to die. Small animals like cats succumb next. If you're suspicious, get indoors quickly. Seal off doors and windows with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Don't forget to also seal off vents (cooktop hood, bathroom exhaust, clothes dryer, etc.), through-the-wall air conditioners, fireplace flue, and hearth. You may or may not be able to get up on your roof to seal off the plumbing vent stacks up there. If you don't, then you'll need to cover all your sink, shower, tub, and washer drain holes. This is a lot of work, yet must be done quickly if you suspect the air outside has become contaminated with a biological/chemical agent or nuclear fallout. Some people will create a "safe room" and retreat to it instead. This is usually an interior room that can be sealed tightly. If you have a full basement, this can be the best place. You may be able to seal its perimeters better than in other locations in your house. The important thing is to remain inside until the worst has passed. This may not take long. Most particulates will be blown away and poisons diluted by fresh air in a matter of days. But there are important exceptions. Depending on the nature of the nuclear event, contamination may be virtually permanent. Anthrax spores can remain alive and deadly for years. However, we're approaching worst-worst case thinking now… and I don't want to continue that line of thought.

Public Warnings of Imminent Disaster. Aside from what you personally observe and experience, there four ways you may be alerted to a catastrophic situation:

  • Warning sirens or horns. In my area, the same sirens used by volunteer fire departments also serve as disaster warning devices. Instead of intermittent blasts used by the fire department, the sirens would sound continuously in the event of a civil warning. Of course, these outdoor warning systems may not be of much use if you're indoors and can't hear them.

  • Emergency Alert System (EAS). I'm sure you've heard the tests: "If this had been an actual emergency…" on radio and broadcast TV stations. One day it may be for real.

  • Announcements over cable television. In some areas, cable TV companies are equipped to relay emergency announcements. However, if you lose power to your home, you're out of luck. Even if you hook up your own emergency generator to power your set, the cable company's pole amplifiers and such will be knocked out of service and no signal will be delivered.

  • Residential route alert. Police cars, fire department vehicles, or military vehicles equipped with public address systems may travel through your neighborhood to notify people of an emergency situation, but don't count on it.

Is it Safe to Stay?
After a natural disaster or massive explosion, you should evaluate the structural integrity of your home. If you're unsure whether it's safe or not, you may need to evacuate. Unfortunately, if the event was severe enough to damage your building, it also probably made the roads impassible (buckled pavement, fallen trees, downed electric wires, flooded, etc.). Regardless, the roads are probably gridlocked with people trying to escape. In this situation, you're probably best "camping out" in your backyard or in an auxiliary structure like a garage. Here's how to tell if a building has sustained major damage: stand back and take a good look at the walls, ceilings, and floors. Thin cracks usually aren't serious, but large cracks, broken beams, significant distortion (buckling, twisting, etc.), new gaps, and open spaces aren't good signs. Listen for creaking or cracking noises, indicating potential collapse. If you're in serious doubt, get out quickly. If you decide to stay indoors, sweep up broken glass and try to make the environment as safe as possible, particularly if you have little kids around.

Gas Masks
I only mention gas masks since many people wonder if they should buy them. I don't own a gas mask and have no plans to acquire one. While it's true that the right kind of mask… with the right kind of filter… worn at the right time… can protect you from some bio or chem agents, that's too many variables for me. In the event of an attack or incident, I doubt I'll have the mask with me, have the correct filter for the agent I'm being exposed to, or be able to keep it on long enough to do any good. Filters are the weak spots of masks. They're highly specific to the exposure, have limited shelf life, and don't last very long in use. Also, many agents that attack by being inhaled are also absorbed through the skin. Unless you also have a protective "bunny suit," why wear the mask?

Going to Extremes
There are extreme people called survivalists. Their entire lives revolve around planning how to eke out an existence in a post-Armageddon world. They're definitely worst-worst case scenario kind of guys. One hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction are the people who totally deny the possibility that tomorrow could be any different than today – or think if a major disaster does occur it's "game over" anyway, so why bother with any kind of preparation? Well, I'm not ready to pack up and move to a mountain cabin in Idaho, nor am I ready to give up without a fight. So, what does the reasonable person think and do? I believe, as with so many things in life, the middle path is best. We look to those on the lunatic fringe to establish the extremes, and then define our position somewhere in between. I don't want to live a life engaged in constant survivalist fantasies, nor am I comfortable with the do nothing option. Therefore, I've prepared a disaster survival kit (details published last month). Here's the link to an action checklist you can print out and use to develop your own customized plan. Feel free to modify it to suit your personal situation and needs. However, I do ask that you recognize the futility of assembling just a few convenient parts (like duct tape and plastic tarps), as a feel-good measure. And please remember: the most valuable possession you'll have in any disaster situation can't be found in any hardware store or supermarket. It lies between your ears. Keeping a cool head and knowing what to do is *the* key survival asset.


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