Monday, November 12, 2012

Preparedness and Surviving Urban Natural Disasters

So, as many of you know if you have been watching the news, we got hit pretty hard here on the northeastern coast by hurricane Sandy. Some areas fared better than others. For those of you who are not familiar with the area, the southern part of NY, where the storm hit is comprised of a set of islands. Next to them is the NJ coast. While most of NY state is sheltered in the mainland, this southern tip, as well as the coast of NJ are very exposed.


Manhattan, Staten Island, and Long Island are part of NY State. I have separated them in the above map because they are often referred to by name in the news. Long Island is where I live.

In the days before the hurricane hit, mandatory evacuation orders were issued for a number of the lower elevation areas. I know that at least in Long Island, the National Guard cleared out certain area. I think that is a large part of why casualties from the storm were relatively low.

When the hurricane hit, the areas at lower elevations were flooded immediately.

sandy_flood (1) 


The New Jersey and Long Island power grids were hit particularly hard. I think they estimate that about 90% of both areas were left without power.


Even Manhattan, which is relatively sheltered, and which has underground utility lines which are protected from the winds, lost power. The lower third of the island was left in the dark.



In this area, most people commute into the city for work. Some travel by subway from the surrounding boroughs like Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Others like me travel by railroad from Long Island, New Jersey, Staten Island and the upper parts of New York State. Almost all of those trains enter the city through tunnels, which were completely flooded by the storm. That stopped almost all service in and around the area.


The above picture shows a subway station a few days after the storm. The rails above ground were obstructed by fallen trees.


It is now two weeks later, and a lot of areas are still without power. Gasoline immediately became a scarce commodity. The tankers that deliver the fuel were not able to dock because of the storm damage, and supply was cut very short.

From a personal stand point, I was not in an evacuation area. Even though I am close to the coast, I am higher up in elevation, so I did not get any flooding. I did however immediately loose power. I was without electricity, heat, or hot water for about two weeks, about November 9, 2012. It was another few days until I got back my internet and phone service, so I can make this post. I was lucky that there was no physical damage to the building where I live, even though my area was hit pretty hard.

Now, I usually don’t post much about prepping, even though I know I have a good number of readers who are interested in that sort of thing. The reason why I do not write about it, or participate in similar forums is that I find that most prepping that is done is not in touch with reality. Prepping seems to immediately elicit concerns about world ending events, collapse of the government, or a zombie apocalypse. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with preparing for the absolute worse, I think quite often the preparations made are so extreme that they become inapplicable in the most likely scenarios for which you would be needed.

Another reason why I don’t write much about prepping is that I apparently take for granted a certain degree of prepping, which has recently become clear to me other people do not do. I grew up in Eastern Europe. Not having services is not something that shocks me. Not having heat, electricity, hot water, or even water for that matter, is not unusual to me. Neither are lines for food, fuel, and everything else. I guess, I always have that in the back of my mind, so I am minimally prepared both with provisions, as well as psychologically.

So, what did I do for the storm? Well, I tend to keep a lot of dry food at my place. If I am careful, I can stretch it for at least a few weeks. I also usually have about ten (10) litters of water that I store in case the water shuts off. I am also lucky to currently live close to a lake from which I can filter water. I have the usual supply of candles, flashlights and batteries for when the power goes out. I also have sufficient clothing and blankets to keep warm. I think people preoccupy themselves too much with heating their house. You will be surprised how well you can survive at low temperatures as long as you have a good routine going. In case my cooking gas goes out a have a while gas stove, with fuel for a few weeks. It also runs on gasoline if need be. The only thing I had to do before the hurricane was fill up on gas.

Now, I don’t actually consider that prepping. I don’t even particularly organize any of my things in any “kit” form. I just know where things are, and what I need to take if I have to evacuate. If I had to leave, the main gear that would come with me would be my backpacking gear, plus a few other items.

What I did once the power went out was to get into a routine, just like you would on a long camping trip. You keep everything organized, you don’t waste resources, and you make sure that what needs to get done each day actually gets done. Since I didn’t lose my cold water supply nor my cooking gas, I was in very good shape. The biggest problem became the boredom. There just wasn’t enough to do.

Keeping the above background info in mind, there were a few things that I found very useful. Some of them I have reviewed here, other I have not.

The first thing was a lighter/matches. Of course you need them to light candles, but also, most gas stoves use an electric spark to ignite the gas. Without electricity, you need to use a lighter or a match to light the gas much like you would a camping stove. Make sure you do not let out too much gas before striking the match.


Had my gas been out as well, I would have relied heavily on my white gas stove, a MSR Whisperlite International. I have a good supply of white gas, but it can also run on gasoline and other fuels. If you are forced to use gasoline, select the one with the lowest possible octane.


The next thing was a large candle. It is a good way to save your batteries. I have one of those candles that come in a jar. I would light it when the sun went down, and use it for light. It is not bright enough to do any work by, but it provides a good amount of background light so you don’t bump into things.


Along with that a good head lamp is extremely useful. I was given one by Omaha Knife for testing purposes before the storm, the Fenix HL30 R5. It is a serious headlamp. While a little on the heavy side for an occasional backpacking headlamp, it did great in this role. It has a maximum output of 200 lumens, which is enough to light up just about anything. It also has a computer chip which regulates the battery use. This gives it a much longer battery life than a regular headlamp of flashlight.


Warm clothing was also very useful. The temperatures weren’t too bad, but even so, being well dressed kept me warm. An extra thick blanket or two will also be of great help. In cold weather, much like when camping, you need a routine, and you need to know exactly what you are doing and my so you don’t waste heat. When you get out of bed, and what clothing goes on and when has to be thought out and done systematically. If you do that, you can live perfectly fine at relatively low temperatures.


I also found great use for two other items, which I did not expect. They were the Goal Zero Nomad 7 solar charger and the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus rechargeable battery pack. They were both on loan to me from Omaha Knife for testing. They were instrumental in keeping my phone charged (phone these days incorporating GPS, internet, email, etc). I didn’t expect that because this was a whole set of issue that I did not foresee. There were no smart phones when I was younger in the old country.


For when I had power back, but no internet access, an app for my phone (Android) called Easy Tether Pro allowed me to get internet access on my computer through my phone. It is an easy way to eat up your data plan, but it is a good capability to have. It allows you to tether both wifi and 3/4G.


There were however some things that I did not have that I wished I did.
The first was a few jerry cans. It would have been great to be able to fill up with some extra gas so I don’t have to worry about it. Unfortunately, I did not expect that gas will be in short supply for such a long period of time.


Another thing was a small radio. It would have been good to be able to listen to the news to see what’s going on. This is definitely something I should have had, but didn’t.


I could have also used a good detailed map of the area. I am so used to using my phone for navigation when driving, that I was not prepared having to do it without my phone. A good map would have been very handy. I was okay this time, but I need to get one.


And that’s about it. As I mentioned before, the rest was just boredom. When power went out, I started eating the food I had in order of what would go bad first. Deciding what to cook any particular day became the highlight of the evening. The rest of the time during the day was split up between chores and trying to recharge my phone so I have some means of communication and information.

Earlier I mentioned that one reason I don’t talk about prepping is that I think a lot of prepping is so extreme that it is not applicable to “normal” disasters. Even though most of the region was without power for between one and three weeks (and more in some smaller areas), I did not have to defend my food supplies from roaming gangs of armed mercenaries /zombies. As bad as things got, civilization did not fall apart. I have seen things get much, much worse in Eastern Europe, and civilization still didn’t collapse. In fact, it is the need to participate in civilized society during disasters that requires the greatest preparation. I think that is what I didn’t expect myself. I knew I would be fine living in my building until things were back to normal. I never had any worries about that, and was prepared accordingly. It was the need to keep in communication, follow the news, find out if and which trains are running, that caught me off guard. If it wasn’t for the fact that I accidentally had the Goal Zero Nomad 7 and the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus with me, things would have been much harder. With those devises, supplemented by my car charger, I was able to keep my smart phone operational, which gave me access to news, communication, navigation, etc, at least in theory.

As much as the side of us which likes to prepare wants us to think in terms of us living either in this society, or in some Mad Max post apocalyptic alternative, the more tangible reality is that disasters will happen, and a week later your boss will expect you to make your way to the office. Your car will get swept away by a flood, and your worry will be how to contact GEICO for the insurance check. The world moves on, and being prepared to do so after or during a disaster is the hardest and I think most important thing for which to prepare.

Anyway, that was just my experience in this one particular situation. I had it pretty easy, so there isn’t much I can tell you in terms of how to survive. Others have written much more on the issue and are more qualified to speak on the subject.

I want to thank all of those who have been trying to get in touch with me. I appreciate your concern and support.

No comments:

Post a Comment