FEMA’s emergency recommendations assume that victims of a natural disaster in America will receive organized assistance after three days. That clearly doesn’t always happen. No matter how many days or weeks worth of supplies a family sets aside, some situations leave people with nothing, immediately. The recent tsunami in Japan hit with only nine minutes of warning. Firestorms, nuclear accidents and flash floods could all happen here and leave people no choice but to leave everything behind.
If you’re faced with total disaster and no rescue in sight, there’s still a way to get by. Get over the shock and get to work quickly because you won’t feel stronger later. If you’ve trained in genuine survival skills, you’ll figure something out. Attack basic problems first: Shelter, Water, Fire, and Waste Disposal. Gather food as you find it, but food is the least of your problems.
One of the best primitive survival shelters for wilderness situations also adapts easily to urban debris construction. Lash together two posts — pipe, 2×4’s or strong tree limbs will do — with whatever wire, cordage or vines you can find. Lean a longer pole over the upright V and jam the bottom ends of all three firmly into the ground. You now have the basic framework of a debris hut. Line the floor of the hut with something firm enough to keep you off the ground and lean debris against the frame to form walls. The more layers of debris you add, the warmer and drier the structure becomes.
In the woods you’d use limbs leaning against the frame to support piles of dry leaves heaped over the shelter, and then lay more limbs on top to hold it all in place. A debris hut made from urban wreckage won’t look as pretty but with some stacking practice it works. Dry grass or dry leaves stuffed into a wilderness shelter add insulation and padding — urban debris could yield all sorts of useful items for bedding. Corrugated cardboard is one of the best — several layers provide plenty of insulation and a little bit of cushioning, as well as a custom-fitted door to seal the hut against cold at night. Interweaving branches and stuffing leaves in the gaps creates a practical doorway in wilderness construction.
Making Clean Water
Photo by compujeramey
In urban disasters most water you find will be undrinkable without treatment, but in buildings which are still standing, there should be some water left in pipes. Collect the water from a faucet at the lowest level of the building. Hot water heater tanks should hold gallons of clean water even if they’re buried in a rubble pile. Leftover urban water goes away quickly, though, and you’ll need wilderness skills to locate and purify more.
Distillation pits yield drinkable water even if all you have is damp soil. You’ll need a collection container with a wide mouth for catching drops, a plastic sheet, and the willingness to dig a deep hole. A pit about two feet in diameter and two feet deep should be enough. When you’ve finished the distillation pit, set the open container in the bottom center and lay the plastic sheet over the top. Weigh down the edges of the sheet with rocks or dirt and set a small stone on the sheet directly above the collection container. Moisture which evaporates from the earth walls of the pit condenses on the plastic sheet and drips into the container. Distilled water collected with clean materials should be safe to drink.
Collecting rainwater should be self-explanatory — use whatever clean debris is handy to funnel runoff into a container. The chances are very good that you’ll contaminate rainwater during collection, so you’ll need to purify the water before drinking. Even when it doesn’t rain, dew should be available for an hour or two in the early morning. Sponges made from clean cloth soak up dew from stones, sheet metal, cars, and anything else cold enough to condense water from the air. Squeeze the water into your container and keep working. Dew provides a lot of water but it’s a lot of work to gather it. If you sleep past dawn you’ll miss most of the day’s crop.
Even drips and seeps count as water sources. A steady drip from a rock ledge might yield a gallon of water over the course of a night, and water below ground will gradually fill a hole dug in the wet soil.
Purifying water starts with simple filtration. If you’re collecting from a pond or stream, you’ll get cleaner water if you dig a pit beside the water and let water seep into the hole. The ground filters the worst organic pollution out. Pouring water through the cleanest piece of clothing you have screens out the big stuff. Settling removes finer particles. After a few hours without disturbance murky water clears — pour off the cleaner water without stirring up the muck on the bottom. The water still isn’t clean enough to drink. Water purification tablets help. The CDC recommends treatment with unscented bleach — 1/8 tsp per gallon if the water’s cleared, and twice that if the water is cloudy. Mix the bleach with the water and let it sit for half an hour before drinking. Bleach treatments won’t kill all water-borne pathogens but do improve water quality. Boiling is the preferred sanitation method.
For that, you need fire.
Photo by Lunchbox Photography
Civilization doesn’t truly get rolling again until survivors harness the power of fire. Fires may be uncontrolled after disasters — creating any sort of spark or flame could ignite flammable gases and liquids lingering in wreckage. High ground well away from debris fields should be a safe place for a campfire. Don’t build fires in low lying areas where gases might settle and build a wind break so embers don’t set the area ablaze.
Without matches or lighters many people won’t be able to get a fire going, but urban wreckage provides many potential fire-making tools. Salvage a battery from any electronic device, strip a couple of pieces of wire, and unless the battery is totally dead you can short the terminals briefly to create a hot spark. That spark won’t ignite just anything, but a dry piece of cloth dipped in any flammable fluid like gas, kerosene, or alcohol lights easily. Make sure you don’t try that anywhere near the source of that flammable liquid.
In wilderness situations, a notch board and fire drill or fire saw can generate enough charred wood dust and heat to create a coal, but only with the right materials. Both the notch board and drill must be bone dry — if you’re camped near a river you’ll need to head for high ground to find that. Pick fibrous, not resinous wood, and use a notch board of softer wood than the wood for the fire drill. Bow drills seem like an easier approach but don’t waste your shoestrings on one unless you know what you’re doing. If you’re truly without tools it’s possible to break a rock against another rock and do the notch carving with a sharp chip. In an urban setting, broken glass ought to be anywhere. Wrap a piece with cloth for a safe grip and it will handle small slicing tasks.
A hot spark from any source can set off fine dry tinder like cotton wool. If you have a piece of dry cotton cloth to shred or scrape —like the hem of your blue jeans — you can quickly make a cotton ball. If you have a first aid kit handy, check for alcohol pads and use them instead — they burn briefly with a hot blue flame. Once you do get a fire going, make more tinder. Set a strip of cotton cloth on fire and stamp it out. Keep it dry until the next time you need to start a fire and then throw a spark on the charred end. Blow on the coal gently and steadily to start the flame. Charcloth was a standard tinder in pioneering days, as common as matches are today.
Once you get the fire going it’s possible to truly sanitize filtered or settled water for drinking. If you’re lucky enough to find a metal pot or clean food or soda can, it’s easy. Without a metal pot to set on the coals it’s still possible to boil water, but it’s tricky. Native Americans boiled stew in hollow wooden containers or even tightly woven waterproof baskets. Instead of setting the flammable containers on the fire, savvy cooks heated dry fine-grained rocks red hot, picked them up with wooden tongs, and dropped them in the cooking basket. Two or three hot rocks boils the stew. Choose the wrong sort of rock — coarse grained and damp inside — and you could just make exploding rocks.
It’s possible to use the same concept and boil water in a flammable container like a plastic drink bottle or even a waxed paper bag or waterproof carton, but without the rocks. Keep the fire small and don’t get the container too close to the flames. Water in the container keeps the vessel below 212 degrees F and prevents it from burning. Don’t boil water in ordinary glass bottles. Different parts of the glass heat at different rates and eventually the glass container shatters.
Boiling filtered or treated water for one to three minutes creates safe drinking water. Pouring clean boiled water into a dirty container creates undrinkable water. If you have no other way to sanitize vessels — no soap and clean water and no chlorine bleach — boiling water in them is the next best thing. After you boil the water for three minutes, take the container off the fire and cover the opening. Residual heat helps sanitize the inside.
With clean water you can survive for a month even with no food to eat. Without water you’ll last a week or less and be dysfunctional for part of that week. Even if your sanitizing methods aren’t perfect, you’ll have to drink water.
Toilets are no joke when the plumbing stops working. Ten thousand people jammed into a group shelter with six toilets that don’t flush create immediate trouble. People cling to old habits far longer than is sensible. If the flush toilet doesn’t flush, find a different solution to the waste problem.
In traditional village life toilets may be as simple as an area on the outskirts of town where no one goes except for that reason. That’s not the best way to handle communal waste, but it keeps feces out of the living and sleeping areas. Outdoorsmen usually resort to the cathole latrine. Scoop a shallow trench a few inches wide, a few inches deep and about a foot long and squat over it. Bury the results, including whatever you used for personal cleanup. If possible, set a rock on top so animals won’t dig up the mess. Mark it with a stick, so others won’t dig in the same place.
One step up from the cathole method, the pit toilet or “short drop” provides sanitary facilities for about a week but requires better tools. Even a small hole dug several feet deep will contain the waste generated by a few people over a period of several days. In between uses, cover the opening with something solid to prevent insects from spreading the contents to other parts of camp. Punch the hole with a steel digging bar; a handy piece of strong pipe; or if you’re lucky enough to have the perfect tool, a clamshell posthole digger.
The Things You Forgot
Preparing for an emergency by stocking everything you could possibly need for any situation isn’t completely practical. You’ll always forget something, lose something, or simply be unable to take everything with you when you have to leave. Survival skills don’t get left behind, and a capable person with a sharp knife or even a shard of rock can create a basic camp outfitted with all the essentials. If you can take only one thing, take a good knife.