How Well Are You Prepared for a Major Disaster?

Are Your Prepared for a Disaster?

We have seen several significantly-damaging national disasters in the last 25 years—most recently, there were the downing of the twin towers in New York and the extensive devastation by Hurricane Katrina. Both of these catastrophes had major negative implications, not the least of which were the cost of repairs (when feasible), lost productivity, and the lost revenue from diminished tourism, cancelled entertainment venues, businesses permanently closed, etc. 

Beyond these physical losses, there was the loss of peace of mind--the knowledge or perception by most Americans that, somehow, we were for the most part immune to such unforeseen devastation.

 In spite of the bad repercussions, if anything good has come from these disasters it's the opportunity to learn and grow (however painfully). Accordingly, some of the questions all of us need to be asking include:

  • What have we learned that may help us to better survive such disasters in the future?
  • What can we say generally happens during these disasters and how is this knowledge useful?
  • How well prepared for such events is the country and the community we live in?
  • What are some specific steps that should be taken (before the next disaster strikes) that are feasible, realistic and affordable (especially for people on limited budgets)?

By knowing what generally happens during disasters, you can indeed take measures to protect yourself; you can also help your community and the country in general to be well-prepared (relatively speaking) for most types of catastrophes. You can help realize the latter by contacting government leaders and heads of disaster relief agencies, thereby possibly influencing them to have proactive measures in place before disasters strike.  

In designing these measures, everyone needs to pay special attention the following scenarios—most of which have generally been observed or experienced in past major national disasters (both here and abroad):

1.  Most major roads may become impassable. This is especially true if an evacuation is ordered or, what is more likely, people panic and attempt on their own to move away from the impacted area. As things stand right now, roads in most of our cities are poorly prepared to deal with any major outflow of traffic—they would be even less accessible if a significant part of the population all of a sudden decided to make a run for so-called “safety.”

To be realistic, though, there is no way that a panic can be avoided, especially in a large city.

 Some people can perhaps be educated to forego taking drastic unilateral action, thereby reducing the number of cars unnecessarily unleashed on roads, but what may be most useful in the long run is convincing government officials to provide non-traditional vehicles (such as motorcycle-type and air-borne conveyances—i.e., vehicles that may by-pass or get through barricaded roads) to emergency-aid personnel.  These vehicles would not be practical in helping to evacuate people but would make it possible for emergendy personnel to reach people in immediate need of attention. 

Right now, authorities rely on the break-down lane remaining open for such use but this option will most probably be abused by desperate disaster fleers; to be realistic, these lanes will also become impassable.

 Clogged-up roads will also impact other important things, such as delivery of food and other personal-necessity items--in other words, nothing would be coming in, unless it is air-lifted.

How will the government deal with overwhelmed roads—is there a plan in place in your local community? You have the right to find out what plans are in place. Beyond that, your best bet may actually be to stay put, unless you possess some means by which to get around hopelessly jammed traffic—i.e., horses, motorcycles, bicycles, in-line skates, snowmobiles or skis (in cold regions), etc. Living near the water may give you an advantage, if you own a boat.

2.  There will be riots, looting, and an increase in acts of violence. This makes a greatly-increased police presence crucially important. As was discovered during the Katrina disaster, though, some police personnel may leave in order to help their own families, or they may themselves be directly affected by the disaster, making them unable to fulfill their duties.

For that reason, all communities need to have auxiliary police units which can be brought into action at a last minute’s notice, and, in consideration of the fact that many designated personnel may not show up (after being notified, assuming that this is possible), the numbers to be designated as such need to be high; such persons, furthermore, need to be provided in advance with the necessary training and equipment.

For your part, you need to establish a plan as to how you will defend yourself, your family and your property, should the authorities not be available to assist you. This can be as simple as purchasing several weapons, including a gun or two.

A rifle or a shotgun would be useful but a handgun is the most practical choice, preferably a semi or automatic weapon that is easy to load and can be fired multiple times before having to reload.  Other less dangerous weapons to keep on hand may include: 

  • Black pepper or mace
  • Flare gun (to summon help, even if not on the water, or as a last-resort makeshift weapon)
  • Swords and knives
  • Brass knuckles/knuckle dusters (can give smaller people & women a punching advantage, especially if an assailant doesn’t see this coming)
  • Nunchucks (may need training to use properly)
  • Stun guns (come in several sizes/power ratings & are easy to use and hide)        
  • Air rifles (can be loaded with tranquilizer darts, etc.)
  • Cross-bows; bows & arrows (ways to attack without making much noise)                                                                            

You can also play the role of a pacifist but do remember that loss of property is not the only thing to worry about.  Female members of your family may become victims of rape; looters may also threaten your lives, even if you are willing to part with your belongings or place of residence.  Is there a limit to what you will tolerate during a crisis? You need to answer that question before a disaster pays you and your family a visit.

3.  Martial law may be declared. Although there is, generally, hesitation in deploying the military to control civilian misconduct, this may be the only logical option if law enforcement is unlikely to be able to control a wide-spread situation, especially one that is may go on for a while, that will prevent people from getting basic things (like food, medical care, etc.), and that people appear to not be reacting very well to (such as by participating in riots or acts of violence). Perhaps one thing that the government can do to better prepare the military for this very likely scenario is by providing hands-on disaster management mock/practice training; the public, on the other hand, needs to make itself ready to accept this situation, should their governor or the president deem this necessary.

 If martial law is declared in your community, keep these suggestions in mind:

  • Try to cooperate with those agents who are appointed to maintain peace and restore order; remember that they may not be as diplomatic or patient as local law enforcement may have been;
  • Abide by any established curfews so that you are not confused for a looter or rioter;
  • Don’t participate in any public protests—it’s best to do this after the disaster has passed;
  • Don’t carry any weapons (especially visible ones) into any area patrolled by or supervised by armed government personnel;
  • Be prepared to leave your home, your belongings and even your pets should an evacuation be ordered and transportation is provided;
  • Don’t participate in any looting, vandalism or rioting; it’s easy to get caught up in what crowds may be doing but, after the conflagration, guilty parties may be prosecuted. You may also get shot unnecessarily.

You might also consider that martial law may be implemented as part of a major shift in political or legal structure in the country.  Some people, for example, fear that the US is steadily being turned into a totalitarian Police State; this perception is supported by many facts, including the passing of the Patriot Act (which, essentially, gives the government unprecedented limitless power over all citizens) and the blatant militarization of police departments throughout the country.

It's not inconceivable, if this agenda were true, that a major national disaster may be used as an excuse to implement permanent martial law in the US.  Maybe this is just an unfounded conspiracy theory but, if so, only time will tell; at any rate, what's wrong with preparing for worst-case scenarios?

4.  Food, and perhaps potable water, may become less accessible, which may precipitate rationing. This will be so if roads become disrupted (which is likely), food production and packaging facilities are shut down, certain foods are suspected of being contaminated, and local supplies are bought out too quickly by a fearful segment of the population. This last possibility is, in fact, the one that may disrupt the food supply the most, i.e., people who will go out and over-buy available food supplies, thus preventing others from getting minimum supplies.

Unfortunately, rationing may not come soon enough to prevent this, which is why people need to be educated on why food hoarding during a national disaster (while it may temporarily allay the fears of those hoarding) is a seriously bad idea. A better idea is to purchase (and put in a safe place) long-shelf-life foods and beverages before a disaster hits.

Such supplies should include:

  • Unflavored, non-carbonated bottled water
  • Canned goods
  • Nuts
  • Dried and canned fruit
  • Cereals (oat, rice, grits, cream of wheat, etc.)
  • Powdered milk
  • Baby food (can be consumed by adults, if necessary)
  • Military-style packaged meals
  • Seeds (possibly for a hydroponic indoor garden, if feasible)
  • Dehydrated/freeze dried packaged meats

Remember to allow for a means by which to heat or cook some of these foods. Beyond a camping stove of some kind, you should also have on hand:

  • Matches & long-nose lighters (best way to start a fire)
  • Tools, equipment & supplies for staying warm or cool (if in a hot area)
  • A generator (if feasible), with which to create your own electricity
  • Cooking fuel or material (coal, kerosene, chopped wood, etc.)
  • A good supply of garbage bags
  • Eating utensils (both disposable & non-disposable)
  • Cups and dishes
  • Cooking pots & pans
  • Candles, kerosene lamps and flashlights (for light at night)
  • Paper goods (toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)

These things need to be put aside before the disaster hits. They also need to be readily accessible but not too accessible to, say, someone who breaks into your home either while you’re still in it or away for some reason.

5.  Local tap water may become contaminated. Especially if flooding takes place, there is a good chance that your local source of water may become unsafe, either temporarily or for a long time (especially if some kind of nuclear, chemical or bioterrorism event takes place). In some cases, you may be able to heat the water in order to make it potable (as in the case of e-coli contamination) but it’s best if you have a substantial amount of bottled water stashed away; you can also treat water with things like iodine or bleach tablets and you can filter it with a good water filtering system/device. 

A three month supply would be acceptable and 6 months’ even better, but remember that water isn’t only necessary for drinking and cooking; in other words, don’t underestimate how much water you will need in an emergency. It may not be a bad idea to calculate (before a disaster hits) how much water each member of your group will realistically consume in a day, week, a month, etc. The quantity in question should include bathing (even if using small amounts), shaving, washing clothes by hand (if necessary), watering plants (preferably the edible kind), etc. 

6.  Local healthcare facilities may be overwhelmed. Consider that you may have to do without medical care for a time. As such, put away adequate quantities of emergency medical supplies, such as Band-Aids, gauze, hydrogen peroxide, iodine, rubbing alcohol, tape, Q-tips, antibiotic cream, Mylanta, Kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol (anti-diarrhea medicine), vapor rub, stitching needles & thread, antihistamines, pain killers, thermometers, a stethoscope, prescription medicines, burn ointment, splints (for broken bones), smelling salts, an epinephrine stick (in case of a severe allergic reaction or anaphylactic shock), Benadryl (for mild allergic reactions, poison ivy, motion sickness, insomnia, etc.), a hot water bottle, laxatives, vitamins, cough drops & syrup, etc.

If you haven’t already, take some basic medical skills courses, including First Aid, CPR, AED certification, etc. Also purchase and keep handy quick-reference First Aid books. These usually contain lots of pictures, use easy-to-understand language and utilize outline-style written formats (making it easier to find quickly the steps you need to follow).

7.  The 911 emergency systems may not be available or long waits for service may become the norm. Unfortunately, too many people in developed countries have developed the mentality that help is only a phone call away. That simply won’t be the case during any major emergency. Even if they had enough personnel (which is highly unlikely) to handle all the calls coming in, there is the chance that phones or computer systems may be down for a while.

Depending on the disaster in question, even cell phones and computers may become useless, especially if, say, WWIII breaks out. When WWIII breaks out (and it’s just a matter of time), it’s very likely that most satellites will be shot down and destroyed. In that event, all major world communication networks will come to a startling halt (since all are tied to these satellites).

If nuclear weapons are used, furthermore, the EMP effect will knock out not just satellites but most electrical appliances and devices within large blast radiuses. Consequently, the world may, over mere hours, be pushed back into the Dark Ages—this time, literally. Many, if not most, electronic devices will stop working. This will, of course, throw the world (and the hitherto-isolated community you live in) into overwhelming chaos.

Under those circumstances, it won’t just be 911 services that will be down but many other of the conveniences and luxuries we have all taken for granted for too long.

 This means that you and your neighbors will have to be your own police, fire-fighters, healthcare providers, etc. These services may in time be restored but, if the disaster is big enough and involves substantial numbers of participants, you may not have access to such services for a long time to come. When order is restored, in fact, the world you find yourself in may require you to become much more self-reliant than most people have to be these days.

8.  Electricity and other utilities may be cut off or interrupted, perhaps for a long period of time. Among other things, this may result in having to discard most if not all of your perishable food. This is one reason why, in most case, you cannot depend on perishable foods during a major disaster.

Having 300 pounds of frozen meat, for example, might see you and your family through a long period of trouble but only if you can find some way to keep such food preserved. Even having a good generator on hand may not be enough to guarantee that this type of food will be around, especially if looters come by and haul it away (with your permission or without it).

As a general rule, protecting (such as by hiding) perishable food is more difficult than protecting non-perishable foods (which can be, for instance, buried where looters/thieves may not easily find it).

The best way to protect yourself against this rather troubling problem is by investing in at least one good generator; actually, you should consider also having a backup unit—maybe a smaller one. These units may be used to power things like a small fridge, lights, heating units, fans, electric stoves, etc.

You can also use solar panels to capture some energy in the day time that will benefit you at night. There are also human powered devices (such as in-place bicycles) that can be used to re-charge electrical equipment.

9.  Most local businesses may have to close, either temporarily or permanently. This means that you can’t plan to pick up what you and your family will need during a disaster. That includes important things like candles, batteries, rope, duct tape, cooking supplies, tools, etc. You need to buy these things ahead of time and put them in bins labeled “emergency supplies.”

You may not think of everything but, at the very least, it will prevent your having to run out when panicked crowds hit the streets. Your best bet will be to stay with your family until some sort of order is restored.

At the very least, these closings mean that you will have to change many of your daily and weekly routines. It will also mean that what you have in your premises at the time of the disaster will have to see you through, perhaps for a long time. In other words, you may not be able to take broken appliances in to be fixed; you may not be able to buy new clothes; you may also find it hard to “eat out”; etc.

10.  Help may be slow in coming from the government; in fact, it’s best if you don’t count on it, at least not right away. Without question, one of the reasons Katrina was so devastating was because many people assumed that the government would be coming to their rescue soon. Well, that “soon” turned into days, then weeks and, ultimately, months.

Eventually, the government did show up, but, in many cases, private disaster relief agencies and church groups got to victims first. Part of the reason things didn’t work as expected was the fact that many local emergency personnel left their posts, probably to deal with their own personal/family needs.

As for the federal government, more specifically FEMA (the government agency most responsible for disaster responses), well, it dropped the ball in many different ways. Some people say it was because Michael Brown, the head of FEMA at the time, didn’t know what he was doing—how could he, basically having been appointed, according to some disaster management experts,  to do a job for which he was 100% unqualified?

But there was more than one person to blame. As a general rule, most governments are ill-prepared for disasters. One hopes that the US government learned from its mistakes but, since these instances of negligence and incompetence seem to be the norm, in the eyes of some, at the federal level, it’s safe to say that the same mistakes will probably be made again . . . and again, and again . . .

This means that, when it comes to major disasters, you can’t always depend on the government, either locally or nationally. This does not mean, however, that the government won’t, eventually, provide some help. But, until the government gets there, you will most probably be on your own. To that end, have a plan to set in motion should a disaster occur.


Major disasters are part of life. They will happen—it’s a matter of time. This does not mean that you should lose any sleep over this certainty, especially if you take the time to prepare for these events.

Preparation starts by putting aside the things that will be needed when a disaster hits. Secondly, establish some “what if” scenarios for which you come up with answers before something happens.

If you are unprepared when a disaster hits, you may live to regret it—assuming you survive the onslaught. Being prepared, on the other hand, doesn’t guarantee you won’t face struggles; it does mean, however, that the next disaster that comes your way may not devastate your life (and your family’s) as badly as the lives of the other people who were caught off-guard.  

Copyright, 2015. Fred Fletcher. All rights reserved.

References & Resources

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1/15/2023 5:00:00 AM
Fred Fletcher
Written by Fred Fletcher
Fred Fletcher is a hard working Consumer Advocacy Health Reporter. Education: HT-CNA; DT-ATA; MS/PhD Post-Graduate Certificates/Certifications: • Project Management • Food Safety • HIPAA Compliance • Bio-statistical Analysis & Reporting • Regulatory Medical Writing • Life Science Programs Theses & Dis...
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