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...
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
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
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
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