Thursday, 13 December 2012

Emergency Preparation, Part 2 – what I am doing – Bugging In

In my last post I talked in a fairly abstract way about emergency preparation, and promised that next time I'd get more specific. It has been a long time since that post. The last few months have been the busiest season for my printing and sign business and in the garden, so there just haven't been enough hours in the day. But beyond that, this is a huge subject and, I have found, quite hard to compress into a reasonable amount of space.

But it's past time that I made a start, and I'll do that now by talking about the threats that I am most concerned about and the preparations I've done and plan to do. I'll limit this discussion to the short term issues and to threats that I am actually facing personally. I live in a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Huron and I work at home, so my situation may well be different than yours. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I hope my thoughts on the subject may be of some help to you.

Despite long term plans to the contrary, I still own and drive a car. This is a pretty dangerous activity and liable to lead one into emergencies. Back in the summer I was involved in a collision and it brought home a few things that I hadn't been taking quite seriously enough. There isn't much use in having a cell phone for emergency use when driving if you leave it at home on the kitchen counter. And it's not much good having a nicely typed up list of one's medications and surgeries if, when you get to the hospital, you remember that you have neglected to print the list out and carry it with you.

The good news is that I survived with no more than bruises and scrapes. But it does make clear that thinking and studying about emergency preparation is not too effective if you don't actually follow through and do something about it.

Money. Practically speaking, this is very useful stuff. In the short run, having some can solve a lot of problems, even in emergencies, and there is no doubt that to be cut off from access to one's money can constitute an emergency. During my lifetime, access to the money one has in the bank (and credit from the bank) has become much easier, largely due to debit and credit cards and the ready availability of electronic transactions. Now one can live for weeks at a time without ever touching cash. But the financial system and the electronic communications systems that it relies on are a prime example of complex infrastructure that can fail.

In 2008 the world's financial system experienced extreme stress. Some banks actually failed, others tottered on the brink. Despite all the attempts since then to patch the financial systems back together, it is still in pretty rough shape. Current economic and financial troubles in Europe are enough to make anyone nervous. It seems more and more likely that they will not be successfully resolved and that a crash far worse than 2008 awaits us. If the bank you rely on fails, in the short run you aren't going to be able to access the money you have on deposit. In the long run, deposit insurance may come through and save at least some of it, but what are you going to do in the meantime?

A sufficiently large solar flare, the detonation of a nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere, or perhaps even a clever hacker could knock out communications over large areas of the planet, wreaking havoc in the financial system. Even localized power or communications failures can stop your credit and debit cards from working.

So, cut off from savings and credit, how long will it be before you find yourself in desperate straits? Out of groceries, gasoline, other necessities of life? So I like to keep some cash on hand. For obvious reasons I'm not saying how much or where it is stashed, but it is readily available in an emergency. So far, it's only been used to buy milk during a power outage, but it is there if we need it, and at today's interest rates it wouldn't be earning much in my savings account anyway. Reserve cash is useful if one looses one's job or the monthly pension payment doesn't come through. If you are already living on a tight budget it can be hard to accumulate much cash, but you are even more likely to need it and a cash reserve (even a small one) can make a big difference when you are in a tight spot.

Bugging in. In survivalist terms, I'm planning on "bugging in" rather than "bugging out". That is, I intend to weather out most emergencies that may come along right here where I am, rather than seeking refuge elsewhere. So I'm concerned about the supply of utilities to my house and the flow of vital goods to this moderately remote town. And it seems that energy, once again, is the crucial resource – in this case electricity and transportation fuel.

Energy. Strangely, natural gas isn't available in this area, so when we built this house in 1982, we chose electric heat. I worked for the provincial electric utility and felt better about paying my own wages than someone else's, so to speak. Our house is very well insulated, the cost of power here in Ontario has stayed relatively low, and outages longer than a few hours have been very rare, so this hasn't seemed like too bad a decision. So far. But it does look like we can expect more trouble ahead, what with global warming/weirding bringing more and nastier storms our way and reduced maintenance budgets leading to more frequent equipment failures in the local grid and slower response to those failures.

To a certain extent we are well prepared for power failures. We have flashlights, candles, a Coleman lantern, a Coleman stove and catalytic tent heater and a couple of gallons of Coleman fuel on hand. We also have a carbon monoxide detector and we open a couple of windows when we use any of the Coleman appliances indoors. It's not recommended, I know, but so far there have been no problems and no hint of any carbon monoxide accumulating. I also make a point of going outdoors to refuel the Coleman appliances – we have the liquid fueled variety and that stuff is deadly flammable.

But if a power outage lasts longer than 24 hours we are actually quite vulnerable in several areas. In the winter, heating becomes a problem. In summer, and to some extent even in the winter, the food stored in our freezers is definitely at risk.

A wood stove was in the original plans for our home, but what with one thing and another, it has never happened. Currently the place where it was supposed to go is being used to store paper for the printing business, which is hardly compatible with a wood burning stove. When we wrap up the business in a few years, the stove will be among the first additions. In the meantime rather than just saving for this addition, we may actually buy a stove and chimney parts as the money becomes available and set them safely aside until they can be installed. I have a suspicion that at some point wood stoves are going to get very popular in this area and hard to find, as well.

It is probably well within my skills as an electrician to set up some solar panels and a battery bank and inverter that would supply enough power to keep food frozen in our freezers. Though from my fairly extensive experience with battery banks, I have to say I'm am not too thrilled with the prospect. They are expensive and have a distressing short lifetime. A generator is tempting, but also expensive and requires a lot of maintenance if it is to be relied on. And of course, gasoline may no be readily available during an emergency.

But there are some other less obvious impacts of a long term power outage. Beyond electrical power, the other two main utilities we rely on are water and sewers. Both are dependent on electrical power to function.

I think for most people a failure of the sewer system is pretty much unthinkable. Yet every time there is a power outage longer than an hour or so, the town sends a vacuum truck to a location about a block from us and starts sucking something out of an access port. Sewage does not flow uphill by itself and evidently it wouldn't take long for it to start backing up. I hope they keep the fuel tanks on that truck topped up and that some thought has been given to refueling it when the power is off. That is a surprising weak point in many emergency plans.

We have a bucket, a bale of peat moss, a spare toilet seat and a sheet of plywood waiting to be turned into a composting toilet, (a la Jenkins). But I really should find the time to do it when I can use a power saw, rather than cutting that plywood up by hand. Plans are available here. Note that the length of the legs may have to vary according to the height of buckets you are using. In the same vein, we keep a generous store of toilet paper on hand. There are alternatives, but no one I know personally wants to discuss them.

Water treatment and distribution is vulnerable of several fronts. Electrical power is needed to operate the treatment plant and pump water around. Supplies for the treatment plant arrive here via diesel truck on the highways, with only supply for a week or two in stock at any time. And already we have had one occasion when the lake got so rough that the particulate matter in the water overwhelmed the treatment plant and we were advised not to drink the town water without boiling it. The municipality provided bottled water free of charge, that time.

So having some water on hand and facilities to filter lake water sounds like a good idea. We have a 60 gallon water heater and I flush it once a year or so. If we loose town water pressure, we've got 60 gallons to work with. Of course, if town water becomes contaminated, the water in the heater tank will be contaminated too. So we store a couple of 5 gallon plastic carboys full of water in our basement. I also have on hand filters and parts to build a water filter similar to the Berkey or Doulton/Berkefeld ones, using a couple of food safe 5 gallon buckets, which I also have on hand. Another case where I need find a little time to put the filter together before we find ourselves in need of it.

Water can also be treated using bleach. We make a point of keeping a jug of bleach on hand. Instructions here

Food, etc. This brings me to the question of how things get to our little town. The answer is almost entirely by highway, in diesel fueled trucks. And pretty much everything is delivered on a "just-in-time" basis, with only a very few days stock kept on hand locally. Apparently this reduces inventory cost for the businesses involved, constituting a more efficient use of their money. But as always, an increase in efficiency mean a decrease in redundancy and the ability to respond to emergencies. If trucks can't reach our town for even a few days, we're in big trouble.

Here's a link to a discussion of this in more detail, including a report produced by the American Trucking Association as a warning to government officials about how bad an idea it would be to shut down truck traffic in emergencies like rioting, epidemics and so forth. In this area, I am more worried winter storms, fuel shortages or rationing and the inability of the whole system to cope with high fuel prices. Storms regularly close the highways hereabout for a few days at a time. So far the plows have always made it through (and the trucks behind them) just in time to restock the shelves of the grocery stores. But what if there is no fuel for the snowplows?

It wouldn't take much to change our current "next day delivery of anything you can dream of" to irregular delivery of the bare necessities. Trucking is currently done on a for-profit basis and as fuel prices have gone up the trucking business has become less and less profitable. This is already pushing shipping prices up, stressing a system that doesn't have a lot of slack built into it. At some point this may lead to disruptions in service like trucking strikes or enough trucking companies going out of business so that the system no longer works smoothly.

Medical supplies, food, cash and fuel are the most immediate concerns. My response is twofold: first to store enough of what we need to see us through short term emergencies and second to find and encourage local suppliers.

So, we try to keep our prescriptions filled before they run out, we have a few weeks supply of food and other household necessities in the house, we keep the car at least half full of fuel and, as mentioned earlier, we keep some cash on hand.

Food storage is an important enough concept that it deserves a little more attention. I am definitely not suggesting you order a year's supply of freeze dried emergency rations that you can leave stashed in a safe place for when they may (but hopefully won't) be needed. Aside from spending a lot on something that you hope not to use, this is a bad idea on many other levels, especially when there is a viable alternative that is a good idea on many levels. I come from a farming background – it was only a couple of generations ago that my ancestors grew most of what they ate. Each summer they grew enough to last until the next summer. Much has changed since then and now it is almost frowned upon to have more than a few days of food in the house. This strikes me as nonsense – there are all kinds of benefits to having at least a few weeks of food on hand. I am talking about "stocking what you eat and eating what you stock".

There are many benefits to this sort of food storage. Buying in bulk costs less, you can take advantage of sales and better prices on whatever is in season. Having ingredients on hand to make almost anything you might want at a moments notice is pretty convenient. It can also be thought of as an investment against rising food prices. If you buy food now that you'll need in a few months when the prices are a few percent higher, you have saved the difference, with a rate of return that is often higher than the banks are paying. A well stocked pantry provides some security against job loss or unexpected expenses. And of course it provides security in the case of emergencies which interfere with the food supply.

We started at this by keeping one extra of everything we use regularly and restocking when the last container is opened. This means we never run out of anything when the stores are closed. Then we added more when things were on sale.

This sort of food storage leads naturally to growing some of your own food and sourcing much of the rest locally and when it is in season. We are in the middle of a major agricultural area, so it seem that finding local sources of food would not be too difficult. But most of the food grown here is shipped out of the area for processing before it ends up back in our grocery stores, so this isn't as simple as it might seem. Part of the battle here is learning how to cook from "scratch", using basic ingredients as they come from the garden or farm, and having the equipment needed to process and preserve some of these ingredients yourself. More details on this in future posts.

In addition to all of this, there are some threats to the structure of our home that do concern me. Floods aren't a big worry in our present situation – we are close to the lake and there is enough slope so that water flows past us rather than accumulating. Nor are earthquakes a major concern, but tornadoes and fires are unfortunately a realistic possibility. But this leads us to the idea of actually having to "bug out" -- in some situations you can't cope by staying at home and fending for yourself, mainly because your home itself is threatened. There may be no alternative but to leave.

That, however is a subject for another post, and one that will be some ways down the road, since I am still struggling with everything that is involved in bugging out. For now, there are a few more things I'd like to say about bugging in.

Emergency response organizatiosn in both Canada and the U.S. advise us to have a battery operated radio to keep up with the progress of events during an emergency. We have one that includes a hand cranked generator as well as batteries and has a flashlight built in. AM, FM and a couple of short wave bands. I am not really too impressed with its performance, but it will bring in the local stations, and work when there is no other source of power, which is what we need.

It should be obvious by now that I am mainly concerned about fairly short term emergencies which leave our response infrastructure intact, though perhaps swamped. We are going to see more and more of these as climate change worsens and I think each time, we'll only manage to put things part way back together, leading to a continuous slow decline. But for now the official word is that you should be prepared to be on your own, without help from the authorities, for as much as 72 hours (3 days). Looking at the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, that seems ridiculously optimistic. I would say prepare for two weeks are the very least.

Let's suppose for a moment that you've just lived through a disaster, you didn't panic (too much), you found your preparations to be reasonably adequate, and now you are checking around to see what help you can be to your neighbours and your community. There is a large body of mythology, perpetuated by the mass media, about how people act during disasters. Based on that, you may be concerned about looting and other chaotic, selfish and violent anti-social behaviours, but studies of actual disasters show that the opposite is usually true – ordinary people work together with a great deal of resourcefulness and altruism to respond to the challenges they encounter.

You may have noticed that I don't seem too worried about the ravening zombie hordes that seemed to be a major preoccupation of survivalists. They do make great plot devices for apocalyptic stories, but have little basis in reality. Unless, of course, you live in an area (probably a large city) where society is already largely broken down. If that is the case, a move might be something to think about before it is too late.

Of course the effectiveness of your own response will depend on the skills you have and tools and materials you have on hand. It always shocks me to realize, after having spent most of my life around farmers, construction workers and maintenance people, that most people don't even have so much as a multi-tool in their pocket, and wouldn't know what to do with one if they did. I suppose this is rather harsh, but the good news is that good tools and information on how to use them are readily available today.

There are a great many emergencies that can easily be coped with if you have the tools and materials needed. Some of these things are so useful that you should consider carrying them with you pretty much all the time. Others you should have ready in your car and home. I would encourage everyone to become more familiar with tools and the things that can be done with them. Learning to use you hands can be very rewarding in normal circumstances and can make a huge difference when the chips are down.

Everyday carry. On my keychain is a tiny red LED flashlight, powered by a coin sized lithium cell. Very useful, although it does have a tendency to get turned on accidentally while being carried around and before long the battery is dead. In my pants pockets I carry two folding, lockback knives: a 3.75" Gerber Gator and a smaller knife with a 2" blade. The larger of these is affectionaltly known as my pocket machete – it is big enough for heavy work. The smaller is kept very sharp and used for more delicate jobs. Also in my pants pocket are kleenexes (I suffer from allergies) and a pack of dental floss. the latter is great if you have something stuck between your teeth, but also useful if you need some string.

In my jacket pocket is a multitool, a small flashlight, a loud whistle and a waterproof container of matches. My multitool is a Gerber and if I had it to do over again, I'd get a Leatherman Wave with the set of screwdriver bits that is available for it. I've looked around for for small multi-bit screwdrivers, but never found a set that was light enough to carry in a pocket.

I have small knapsack which is full of useful items that I carry on hikes and take with me on car trips out of town. This is not the classic bugout bag, in that it is pretty light on water, food and shelter. But it does contain a compass, signal mirror, fire starting supplies, rope, string, first aid supplies, a screwdriver with a selection of bits, a plastic poncho and a plastic emergency blanket, a pad of paper and some pencils and pens. Just things I don't like to be without, that help in coping with the various situations one find oneself in.

In the back of our car there is an ice scraper/snow brush, a shovel, an axe, and a box containing booster cables, windshield washer fluid, emergency candles, a couple of blankets, several cloth wipers, and some rope. And before we set out on a trip of any length we make sure to have a generous supply of water with us.

As for the tools and materials you might want to keep around the house, well, the scope is so wide that I hardly know where to start. Basic mechanical, carpentry, plumbing, electrical and gardening tools, for sure. Spare parts for things that wear out regularly. Nails, screws, glue, caulking, tape, lumber and plywood, copper and plastic pipe, plastic sheeting, tarps and so on. It all depends on your skills and ambition.

These certainly aren't authoritative lists of what you need, but I hope it will give you some ideas. You will have noted that a gun does not appear anywhere on these lists. In fact I do not own a gun and don't see the need for one. Of course, this is Canada. Maybe things really are different in the States, but even there I have to question the national obsession with firearms.

On that note, I think it is about time to wrap up this post. Below a some links to resources that I can highly recommend.

The is the second post in a two part series: