An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The preparation of the title means preventing, through deliberate foresight, harmful things that could happen in the future. We get our vaccinations and checkups to prevent illness. We keep our machinery in good mechanical order to prevent breakdowns. We train ourselves to be attentive, to avoid accidents and threats to personal safety. Shouldn’t we also prepare for future off-the-grid moments when our convenience, and even our necessities, are suddenly no longer available?
When disagreeable stuff happens in spite of our precautions, any severe effects, secondary problems, may still be preventable. Thus, at one level removed, the aphorism of the preface still pertains. If one can’t prevent the problem, at least prevent the most serious side effects. Such second-level prevention is accomplished through readiness. To get ourselves ready, we need to become aware, learn best practices, get organized, insure, acquire resources, join cooperatives, and plan responses.
We’ll be discussing preparedness here in the context of a force majeure disaster event. Such a major life event should offer examples of the benefits that accrue from all the small precautions we ought to be making in our every day lives. We will discuss solutions that are compatible with a shelter-in-place, community-based response, achieving safety and strength in numbers. Our readiness preparations will involve thinking through the possibilities, determining if there are cost-effective remedies, and installing any suitable protective equipment, procedures, and organization.
Personality and Preparation
People come in two basic types: those who concern themselves with the subject here and those others who don’t see any need to fix the roof when the sun is shining. Since my sun always seems to shine brighter after I have fixed the roof, I throw in with the majority view here, those of us who acknowledge the certainty that stuff happens. It’s going to rain. Our societal status quo is not immune to disruption. Services and even life support networks will be interrupted in the future. How well will we handle the outage?
There are other shades of personal philosophy that affect our attitudes and inclinations towards preparedness. Are we self-reliant or dependent; cooperative or every-man-for-herself; risk averse or come-what-may; build it back up or tear it all down and start over; make our world safe for the inattentive or train people to be more attentive?
I write this from the perspective of a clued-in, attentive (in my dreams), self-reliant, cooperative, risk adverse, keep it and fix it person. We should be in the majority, wouldn’t you think? Since we will necessarily spend life looking out for those other people (in both senses of looking out for), we are thankful that most people are adults and teach their children well.
Among the readiness practitioners, there exist further personality types, such as every man for himself. While their ‘get ready’ attitudes are commendable, these are not the actors we will emulate here. Such people seem to orient themselves as survivalists and think in terms of us vs. them. Also, grabbing a weapon and heading for the woods seems somewhat impotent as a strategy against cataclysm.
I add a section at the end to consider briefly the worst case imaginable, a long-term breaking down of society. But such considerations are out of scope here, because I consider such scenarios to be so unlikely and so potentially unpredictable in character that energy expended in preparing for them will not be wisely spent. In considering such extreme situations, I cannot fault those adopting the sunny day, head-in-the-sand outlook: it won’t happen to us.
Almost all our preparation energy will be directed to mundane, mainstream considerations of handling temporary disruption. These lessons learned should still be useful in any future cataclysm. But then sustainability additionally comes into question. Where will we get the stuff we need? That’s food for a different discussion.
This Side of Armageddon
We choose to address only problems we are likely to encounter in our lifetimes. We are not anticipating the end of society in the next fifty years (our children’s life expectancy). But a severe disruption to our comfort and convenience is rather more likely. We address the situation where a regional disaster cuts us off from services from several days to several weeks.
I write from the perspective of a homeowner. Renters, especially in large shared urban units, will have different concerns and solutions, which someone else will have to address. At a minimum, a tenant committee including the owner and manager would be necessary to plan the habitability and security of the shared premises. Then the community cooperation could proceed as with other residential areas.
Disasters involving only our own dwelling, such as fire, explosion, or tree fall, are not at issue for this discussion. Help will be readily available in minutes and these events will be insured against. Temporary living quarters are covered by insurance during rebuild. Other considerations of data backup and heirloom preservation need to be made to minimize loss potential. Prudent people are addressing these things in their life’s routine.
In our regional disaster instance there are two cases: our home remains habitable or not. In extreme disaster during which one’s home becomes no longer habitable, one should plan to shelter-in-place until transport can be arranged out of the disaster area; think camping out for a week or two. The cause of such a disaster here in the Pacific NW coastal belt would most likely be a magnitude 8+ earthquake. They seem to happen every few hundred years and its been over 300 years since the last one known.
Medical assistance may be the immediate need after such an event. Assuming any medical issues can be resolved, one then may arrange to leave the area and plan for the property recovery. Appropriate insurance and pre-planning can make this transition easier. Recovery should proceed as with any loss of dwelling, although much more slowly after a major disaster due to compromised access and competition for resources.
In a far more usual case, some smaller event will disable the house, but still allow it to be inhabited. Here in the Pacific NW, a severe winter storm, a moderate earthquake, or a terrorist attack have the potential to substantially interfere with our normal routine. As I write this, we have just experienced a two hour power outage due to gale winds. Here, weather provides a significant possibility of severed electrical supply and communications. Less likely but still a concern are major earthquakes and attacks that can also interrupt water and natural gas distribution.
In regional disaster incidents, food, water, and medical/energy services likely will not be available in a timely manner. Those with good foresight will have backup resources available to stand in until all normal services are again available. Plan for this to take from ten days to ten weeks depending on severity of the disaster. With modest preparation, a ten day hunker-down event will be a cake walk. But the cost of survivability measures increases substantially as the weeks pile up. After ten weeks, all but the most elaborate food and water stockpiles will be exhausted. This will likely signify a global rather than regional catastrophe. That’s off our current radar.
Financial Considerations of Disaster Readiness
The completeness of any backup plan is a function of available funds. As with an insurance plan, we buy as much as we think we need, limited by what we think we can afford. In the case of stockpiling, the space we have for storage is a further limit. The cost variables are the duration of the off-grid time we plan for, and the level of services we want to provide during that time.
While we are planning for a rare one-time event, some or even most of the resources we acquire will be multi-use and can serve us during ordinary living as well as during disaster support, making easier a justification of their cost.
It probably makes sense to limit planning to ten weeks off-grid, for more than that is not logical from an experience and cost-benefit analysis. As a guide, our total preparation cost is ~$2K. One could spend much more, but probably not much less.
In 2002, Congress (it was still functional back then) created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by rolling up 22 separate agencies into a single entity. DHS is now the largest Cabinet-level federal organization with 240K employees. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now sits under DHS. FEMA is the source of our federal disaster preparedness and relief guidance.
Communications is a FEMA focus. FEMA has been tasked to support a capability to communicate the President’s words to 90% of the American adult public within 10 minutes of an alert status being raised. Such an alert capability has been around in some form since the 1951 implementation of CONELRAD broadcasts on AM frequencies 640/1240 kHz. Through the ensuing decades, warnings were expanded to the television waves via the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) alerts sent over TV broadcasts on public UHF/VHF frequencies. FEMA’s Emergency Alerting System (EAS) has succeeded EBS.
In 2006 , the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (iPAWS), a FEMA-led standardization and extension of EAS, was turned on. This has been a slowly evolving program, probably a fine example of the limitations of federal inter-agency bureaucracy to accomplish anything complex in a timely and fiscally responsible manner. (If you are skeptical of my assessment here, just glance at FEMA’s National Disaster Recovery Framework to better understand the depth of callous incompetence festering within our federal government. We deserve better.)
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Department of Commerce, various telecommunications industry groups, and DHS’ technology directorate each have a finger in FEMA’s iPAWS pie. iPAWS is implementing Communications Alerting Protocol (CAP) on its Open Platform for Emergency Networks (iPAWS-OPEN).
In mid-2012, the first iPAWS capability went live. Since then most of us have been able to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) via the iPAWS Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). The alerts pass through our cellular carriers to our mobile phones, similar to an SMS message, but at no cost. Alert sources are POTUS (Presidential alerts to the public), FEMA-associated operational centers (regional warnings of hazardous situations), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (severe weather alerts and other hazards), and local law enforcement (Amber Alerts). So far, CMAS has been utilized to alert regarding the Boston Marathon bombing, Hurricane Sandy, and others.
Our professional emergency responders will inevitably be overwhelmed in a large disaster. FEMA is assisting communities with a model for bottom-up disaster response. Community volunteers will be needed to assist with all manner of support roles that will enable professional first responders to concentrate on their high skill-level tasks. Under sponsorship of FEMA’s Citizen’s Corps, volunteer Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) will fill the support and coordination roles. CERT training is widely available to the public.
The prime insurance decision is whether to self-insure or enter the insurance market. The correct answer is almost always a combination of both, depending on our financial threshold of pain and our risk tolerance. For our Pacific NW area (on high ground), earthquake insurance or an umbrella disaster policy are the likely market choices. Whatever one decides, the time to act is today, not tomorrow.
The Global Meltdown
Others envision a grander scale disaster than the ones considered above, and they plan accordingly in their quest for disaster readiness. Imagined causes for cataclysmic disaster could be use of WMDs, abrupt climate change due to asteroid strike or vulcanism, or cyber attacks that succeed in crippling governments and creating global financial chaos.
Those who prepare for such mega-disasters typically envision periods of lawlessness; self defense enters into the preparations. Food scarcity in urban areas may prompt large scale conflicts. Many of these actors plan to escape to the ‘comfort’ of the wilderness, which they believe will ensure their survival for a while; hence the term survivalism. Some will have built and stocked rural retreats far from urban areas.
The variables involved in mega-scale disasters create a total lack of predictability regarding the situation on the ground at any place and time, rendering sophisticated readiness training moot. Thus survivalists embrace a minimalist plan for living off the land, supplemented by stockpiles of food. They envision a life style that rewards self reliance, emulating our frontier life of two centuries ago.
Planning and training around such scenarios can provide undeniably enjoyable entertainment, and actual training in living off the land is valuable as a character builder and life invigoration exercise if the time is available and the need is present. One’s time is not wasted in contemplation and training for such scenarios, to a point.
I see two cautionary issues, though. Total commitment to survivalist strategies at the expense of more mainstream shelter-in-place readiness preparation may be costly, as retreat is not necessary or desirable for most disasters we will ever encounter. Also, the rural areas may not be any safer than urban areas when lawlessness reigns, due to reputed existence of hard core survivalists, our rural off-the-grid militias.
Just as with urban gangs, these will contain people for whom living off the land is synonymous with taking what you want by force. Territorial disputes between these gangs, and personal disputes among gang members over resource sharing, suggests a period of man-made instability and treacherousness on top of the problems the disaster itself will have imposed. That’s not an idyllic picture.