Survival Close To Home

Be prepared for when a natural disaster hits

When you think about it, the chances of finding yourself in a true wilderness survival situation are fairly slim, even if you’re an avid outdoorsperson. In fact, you have a greater chance of getting caught in a natural disaster close to home. From hurricanes and blackouts to earthquakes and tsunamis, from pandemic and fire to extreme heat and cold spells, there are many ways that things can go wrong right in your own backyard.

Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.
Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo.

Life on this planet has changed and many are fearful of what disaster might await us around the corner. Survival methods don’t belong just in the forest. Survival is a state of mind and its concepts and methods play themselves out in everyday life. It may be fun to get a fire going with rock and steel while sitting around camp. It’s lifesaving to be able to get a fire going safely and managing it in your backyard when your entire city has been shut down for six weeks. That is urban disaster survival and it carries with it a far more ominous tone.

The reality is, preparing for urban disasters is deceptively simple and yet almost no one does. People feel sheepish. Maybe it’s just not cool. A little too geeky, perhaps? It’s too bad if these are our holdbacks, because when a disaster hits, being the one that is prepared will make you the most popular person on the blacked-out block. Preparation is the key, as it always is, when it comes to survival. But prepare for what? The list is getting longer: blackouts, freeze outs, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and perhaps now even the inevitable complete loss of internet and mobile phone connectivity. In the end, it’s simple: prepare for every possible disaster. This is not as overwhelming as it sounds.

When surviving a natural disaster, you should employ many of the same mental and psychological aspects as in wilderness survival. Stop and assess the situation, prioritize your needs. Recognize that you will go through the gamut of emotions, but do not panic. Where natural disaster survival differs from true wilderness survival is in the need to stay in touch with the outside world during the ordeal. If possible, stay in touch with media (likely through a rechargeable/hand-crank radio), if only to find out what else might be coming at you.

Although you can never plan on a disaster occurring, you can prepare yourself by keeping a few key items handy just in case. That’s why you need to get past the it-can’t-happen-to-me attitude and understand that disasters can happen anywhere, any time. Your home’s survival kit needs to be tailored to your region, and the events that are most likely to occur. I live in Ontario, so the chance of being hit by an earthquake is slim. However, there’s a good chance we could by struck by a big blizzard and subsequent blackout, which would mean I could be out of power, out of water (since I’m on a pump system) and out of heat. And if it was a really bad blackout, I could also end up out of food. Whatever you decide to put in your home’s survival kit, I would recommend you keep a one-week supply of everything. We tend to think we likely have all we need in our homes, but that’s not usually the case. This is why a separate system set up now and put away for a rainy day, so to speak, is a smart, proactive step to take.

Also note that people overlook the fact that if you are the types who go camping, then in fact all your camping implements can double as emergency supplies.

Home Survival Check List

Keep these in a plastic, waterproof type of container, such as a Rubbermaid tote

  • Axe and saw
  • Basic tool kit (hammer, nails, screwdrivers, pliers, adjustable wrench, screw-in hooks, etc.)
  • Belt knife (with sharpening stone)
  • Camp stove with all the necessary supplies
  • Cash
  • Childcare items (if applicable)
  • Clothing and footwear suitable for outdoor weather
  • Cooking containers
  • Duct tape
  • Emergency candles
  • Fire extinguisher
  • First aid kit and extra prescription medications
  • Flashlight
  • Garage bags – preferably orange
  • Lighter/matches
  • Multi-tool
  • Seven-day supply of meal replacement drinks per person
  • Seven-day supply per person of non-perishable food
  • Pencil/pen and paper
  • Portable toilet and sanitary supplies, tissue and wet wipes
  • Rope/parachute cord
  • Rubber gloves
  • Small shovel
  • Sleeping bags
  • Solar or hand crank-powered light/radio and cell phone chargers
  • Thermal blankets
  • Small tent and tarps
  • Water purification tablets
  • Five gallons water per person
  • Hand sanitizer or waterless soap

Additional useful items

  • Emergency plans, contact lists, meeting place information, etc.
  • Eyewear (extra glasses/contact lenses and cleaning solution)
  • Fishing and hunting equipment
  • Generator with extension cord
  • Light sticks
  • Pet care items and food
  • Portable heater
  • Rain ponchos with hood
  • Recreational items (board games/cards)
  • Siphon hose (rubber)
  • Smoke/carbon dioxide detector
  • Spare gasoline (for vehicle)
  • Wash basin
  • Water filter

If you have the luxury of knowing in advance that a disaster is going to occur, fill your bathtub with water, as well as any other sink or receptacle you can find. Believe it or not, this is routine at our house when bad weather comes, and it has paid off more than once. A backcountry, hand pump-water filter (not the cheap one that sits in a pitcher in your refrigerator) is a good thing to have if your supply becomes tainted, even if you’re getting your water from a nearby river or lake. You should also remember that the water in the back of your toilet is perfectly drinkable, as it comes right from the tap and never contacts the bowl itself. Ice that you’ve left in your freezer is also another potential (though admittedly limited) source.

Whether you’re in a cold climate or not, you may well need a fire source to cook and keep warm. Making a fire will not be an issue, since there should be lots of fire-starting materials on hand; the trick comes in keeping the fire in a safe place. The only safe place to make a fire to keep the inside of a house warm is either in a wood stove or fireplace. Fuel-based space heaters are also good back-ups in cold climates. An electric stove can be used for heat (if you have electricity), but you need to be extremely careful, particularly if there are small children around. Don’t ever use your gas stove to heat your home.

Most natural disasters will leave your home intact. If that’s not the case, you need to look at the world through different lenses and try to improvise shelter, whether it be your car or a tent. If you don’t have anything like this on hand, you’re right back to finding shelter with the same methodology as you would in a wilderness survival situation. You have to make or find one that’s going to keep you warm and dry, and protected from the elements. Look at everything around you and decide if it’s better used as a survival item than, say, a couch. In cases of your cherished memorabilia, you need to get over the squeamishness of destruction, because if it’s a choice between your life and the memorabilia, then the memorabilia has to go.

In most cases, you will likely have a refrigerator full of food, all of which begins to spoil once the power goes out. You can preserve meats by using various drying methods, such as making jerky. You can also take fish such, as salmon, and cover it with lemon juice, which slightly cooks the meat and preserves it for at least a few more days. Be sure to eat the perishable foods first.

The decision whether or not to travel after a natural disaster is as critical as in the wilderness. If you are considering moving, the first thing you need to do is make sure the route is free of dangers and hazards. If you’re not listening to the radio and decide to drive to the next community, then you’re not going to know that a river has broken its banks upstream and is flooding the highway. Or worse, about to flood the highway right after you have attempted to travel on it. When it comes to navigation, the GPS units – particularly those found in vehicles – are a godsend, particularly when it comes to locating street addresses. After Hurricane Katrina, many of the street signs were wiped out in New Orleans. I went down to meet a woman and talk about her experience, but she had only given me her street address, not particularly useful when there are no street signs. Luckily, the GPS unit in the car led me right to her house. In these situations, it helps to recognize that the disaster may have created dangers all around you, both seen and unseen. Think like a firefighter and address the risks of gas, glass, fire and wire:

Gas

Check if there’s any kind of gas leaking in your house, such as natural gas or propane. Try to shut off the main valve into the house only if you have experience or training in doing so. If you suspect a gas leak, do not start a fire in your house and leave the house if possible. If you must remain in the house, keep the windows open for maximum ventilation.

Glass

Check for broken glass throughout the house and clean up as necessary. This will help prevent accidental cuts and potential infections in what might be unsanitary conditions.

Fire

This is one of the greatest dangers you’ll face. Check for gas leaks, oil tank ruptures and other types of leaks.

Wire

The electrical side of things pertains to the potential for fire, but not exclusively. Check for exposed, live wires in the home, particularly if you have small children.

Since weather may well be the cause of the natural disaster, stay in touch with the outside world for weather updates. Weather will largely dictate the extent of your survival activities; you also need to know if weather is going to exacerbate your problems.

Although you may not think you need it in a natural disaster, the ability to make an effective signal is also important in these circumstances, too. People are often trapped after natural disasters and need to signal for potential rescue, which is bound to come. But if it’s a situation where you’re trapped, then you definitely want to let people know where you are and how you are.

We used to think the world was becoming safer. Now, however, it seems the opposite is true. Remaining complacent, when you could otherwise easily prepare during the halcyon days, is a risky way to be. Put the odds in your favour and prepare now for what, it seems, is inevitable.