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Issue 03/24/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 11

Catastrophe - Can You Survive
-by Kent Ballard

I don't like to be called a "survivalist.. To me, that rings of untrained and often poorly educated people who believe that a machine gun and a scary-looking knife will carry them through any regional or national disaster. Such people have watched too many Rambo movies, or worse, silly theatrical accounts of dinosaur-killing asteroids crashing into the earth. I've studied--and often lived through--widespread disasters where civilization simply slams to a halt for a matter of hours or days. In many parts of the world, it's stopped even for months. I never cease to be APPALLED at the lack of preparation so many of my countrymen bet every day of their lives on. I don't place that bet, and you shouldn't either. Disaster can occur anywhere, anytime, and you and your loved ones can find yourselves alone in a very hostile world in the blink of an eye.

The great earthquake and tsunami in Japan is the greatest devastation that country has seen since World War II. Nobody predicted it. Nobody saw it coming. But even now the aftershocks from the disaster are continuing. Both seismic aftershocks--and economic and psychological aftershocks that will leave an entire generation of Japanese citizens a changed people forever.

Without question, the best early coverage of the disaster was from the BBC News. They had continuous updates around the clock and frequent live newscasts that went all over the world via the Internet, radio, and television. This story will contain BBC news reports and Twitter feeds from those on the scene on Saturday, March 12th, the second day of the disaster on the American side of the International Dateline. All times will be in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). They will be used to illustrate the needs of ordinary people in the days following a national disaster. Why the SECOND day? Because when the disaster is ongoing, people simply react to get out of harms way and help those near them. On the second and following days, they've had time to think. And some will behave courageously and selflessly, others will be numbed by shock, still others will panic. And panic is contagious. It can spread like wildfire.

The length of time you will be alone and without any outside help will be determined by the scale of the disaster. When your car gets stuck in remote areas in sand or snow, generally someone will come along to help within hours or even minutes. After a major hurricane passes, don't expect any organized assistance from the outside for days to weeks. In the event of a "minor" nuclear exchange, help will probably take months or years to arrive--if ever.

With a little effort, and only a modest amount of money--but with a few hours of education--you can safeguard yourself and your family. Each car in your family should have a "road emergency bag," keeping emergency supplies in the trunk in case you're caught away from home when the sky falls in. This includes your children's cars, and all family members should be trained in the use of the contents. If they don't need them to save their own lives, they can be used to save others.

What you will need first in any disaster depends on your climate and what just befell you. In almost every case, your first need will be ordinary drinking water. This must be the starting point for any preparation you make. Only in savage winter climates would this come in second to the immediate need for shelter and only when you or a loved one has been seriously injured does it come in third.

Let's look at three different contingencies and the three different things you should have for each--the "road emergency bag," "the family bug-out bag," and "stay-in-place" home storage and how you can make these without taking out a second mortgage.

BBC: 0324 hours: “Michael Tonge, a teacher from Sendai, tweeted the BBC: 'Going to take a few days for things to get better. Still experiencing strong aftershocks. No trains running so many people stuck and sleeping rough in freezing conditions as had heavy snow storm just after quake when people running to go to evacuation points in park.'"

Do you know the average temperature when most people die of exposure? It's amazing. Most people who die of cold do so when the temperature is 47 degrees Fahrenheit. They've become lost or trapped, are usually soaked by cold rain, and find themselves without even a jacket or good sweater. The body sheds its heat rapidly when wet, and without proper clothing or shelter you can die at surprisingly high temperatures. If it's windy, you'll die sooner. Before you do, you will lose the ability to move to shelter and eventually fall into a drunk-like state where you even stop trying.

Shoestring budget solution: Go to a second-hand store (Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc.) and buy a warm, hooded coat that's a size or two larger than what you normally wear. This will allow you to put on any other clothing you might have under it for extra insulation. Never mind the color or style. If you ever need it, those will be the least of your worries. A pair of warm work gloves would be handy to stuff in the pockets, too. The store will have cleaned the jacket. You personally should waterproof it to turn away mist, rain, and sleet by spraying it with any of a number of waterproofing products available at grocery and department stores. The best I've found is a spray that waterproofs shoes. It soaks into the cloth, smells terrible for a day or two, but will repel water wonderfully. Hang it somewhere to let it dry and for the nasty smell to die. Set it aside while making the rest of your kit.

BBC: 1207 hours: Voice of America's Steve Herman tweets: "In Fukushima-ken. We have 3g mobile sig but no interent access. Most places have no water..."
BBC: 1355 hours: "At least 1.4 million homes are without water following the quake, according to government officials. 59 water trucks have been sent to the worst-hit areas. Some 3 million are without power and utility companies say it will take some time to restore supplies."

BBC: 1446 hours: "In Fukushima residents are lining up in town centers to collect drinking water as helicopters airlift the injured to hospital, Reuters reports."

But this was the center of a high-population area. If you live in the suburbs, or worse, on a farm, how many water trucks do you honestly expect to be dispatched to you? And what if the roads are choked with debris or scoured off the face of the earth altogether?

You could buy several cases of bottled water. But be smarter than that. Bottled water costs too much. I consider it one of the biggest rip-offs to the consumer today. Despite the sparkling scene of a wilderness waterfall or arctic glacier on the bottle, the fact is most bottled water is simply city tap water, bottled in a factory, and given someone's idea of a refreshing label. Then they slap an utterly ridiculous pirate price on it. People buy millions of bottles every year. Save your money and make your own.

Interestingly, it is possible to sterilize plastic water and soft drink bottles. Use your own if you have any, but feel safe in collecting from others too. Ask your friends to set them aside for you. Sterilize the bottles by rinsing them thoroughly several times. Then fill the bottle to one-third with a mixture of water and UNSCENTED bleach, about 30% bleach, the rest plain old tap water. (Scented bleach has nasty chemicals you don't want to ingest.)  Cap it tightly and shake the daylights out of it for a minute or so. Wash the outside in warm, soapy water with a little bleach in it too. Make sure to wash the caps as well. Rinse very well in clean water and set aside upside down on a towel to dry.

You can make two kinds. One for vacations, daily use, or road trips. Simply sterilize any one liter or two liter bottle and put it under your faucet, fill, and cap it tightly. If you're going camping or on a road trip, freeze the bottles for double-duty in your food cooler. And keep those extra dollars in your pocket. But we're talking survival situations here, and that type of water storage is different.

You want a biologically-protected water. This water will be stored for very long periods of time, perhaps years. You'll need sterile containers and you will need to prepare the water to be microbe-free. Here's the way I do it, and it's economical. In the long run, it's even safer than commercially-bottled water. Keep your two liter soft drink bottles after they're sterilized in a clean, unused plastic garbage sack. And don't let the word "garbage" disturb you. New plastic sacks are sterile when opened. When the sack is full, clean off a spot on your counter and get to work.

I use two-liter soft drink bottles. When I set up my "assembly line" I have the empties on one side of the sink, the full ones on the other, and periodically haul bottles in and out so things don't become too crowded. Take a sterilized bottle and fill it half full of tap water, then using an eyedropper (available at any drugstore), put exactly four drops of unscented bleach into the water bottle. Then fill up the bottle from the tap, using the water to mix the bleach in, then crank that lid on tightly. If you wish, you can label the bottle with the date on which you bottled it. What you should have when finished is a bottle of water that smells slightly like pool water. The chlorine in the bleach will kill microbes, and you MUST store the full, clear plastic bottles away from sunlight. Mine are in my basement, but the floor of any closet would work just as well. During our power outage after a tornado whipped through my area in 2004, my wife and I drank water that we had bottled in 2000, four years earlier. And I gave away several gallons to neighbors until our power--and water pumps--came online again four days later. You can eliminate most of the chlorine smell by pouring the water back and forth between two containers, or simply pouring a pan full of it and allowing it to "air" for a couple of hours. It'll still be fresh and safe, provided you don't drop anything in it.

And now that you know how to do that, it's imperative that you make and store a seemingly RIDICULOUS amount of  treated water. Many, many bottles of it. Under normal conditions, one adult will consume a gallon a day. That's two two-liter bottles right there. You should consider adding a third for minimal washing and hygiene, and to wash a dish or two daily. You don't want to use mud puddle water for that. It must be clean too. And believe me, for home storage, for your family, you can never have too much clean water. Never. Figure how many people you need to provide for and how long you want to provide them with water. Do the math, then make about half again more bottles than you think you will need. You'll find uses for them.

If push came to shove, yes, you could collect buckets of rainwater or take them out of a river, lake, or pond and strain them through several layers of clean cloth, then boil them. If you do, add two drops of iodine or four of bleach to kill the few microbes that even boiling won't kill. In a widespread, major disaster you could use debris from buildings for your fire. But--what if your outside water supply is polluted with chemicals? Boiling and straining will not remove these. And what if it's not exactly safe to be outside for long periods in your area? (Mobs, gangs, looters, fallout, etc.) Wouldn't it be much wiser to prepare beforehand and stay in your dwelling?

If sheer logic doesn't convince you to do this, how about something much darker?

BBC: 1257 hours: "Peter Old, of search-and-rescue society RapidUK, told the BBC's World Service that while most people think of tsunamis as made of water, by the time the wave reaches inland, it is more like a mudslide. 'Those people that would have been on the ground are likely not to have survived, ' he said,"

You've seen the films. They would have been ground into hamburger. Dead bodies and parts of dead bodies, both human and animal, rapidly begin to decay. Any that are mingled with any water supply or hordes of insects will result in some of the worst of mankind's old killers, cholera, typhus--including typhoid fever--and dysentery. Modern chemistry and hygienic procedures save us from them, but they're still out there, still as deadly as they were centuries ago. You can even become infected by dipping a cut hand into soiled water, or searching through debris and picking up contaminated objects. And if you do, you'd better pray there's an operating,  well-staffed hospital you can somehow make your way to, one with multiple antibiotics still in their stocks. Without that, your death will be slow, degrading, and agonizing. Think it over, then start saving those pop bottles...

BBC: 1151 hours: "Damian Grammaticas has just arrived in Sendai. He says there are truly astonishing scenes of devastation at the harbor, there are shipping containers that have been swept inland and smashed against buildings and trees and rubble strewn across the streets."

BBC: 1157 hours: "More from Damian Grammaticas in Sendai. "The streets are covered in mud that was swept inland. There are dozens and dozens of cars that were carried along, twisted and turned and crushed by the wave. The gas and water have been cut off, fires burning are close to the seaside, and locals say hundreds of people died in this area."

No roads. They were obliterated in many areas by the tsunami and in others by the earthquake. This would be a very bad time to realize you were low on groceries and had to make a run to the store.
BBC: 1609 hours: "The BBC's Rachel Harvey in Sendai: It is a very patchy picture--in the center of the city there is power, traffic on the streets, but the shops are mostly closed and the place feels eerily quiet. If you drive out of the center, there are areas in complete darkness. There are huge queues at every petrol station that is operating. I spoke to one man who said he had been in that queue for five hours. Now the station is rationing fuel to 20 liters per vehicle."

You can freeze to death in minutes. To die of thirst takes about three days for the average adult. Healthy adults can go six, perhaps up to eight weeks without food. But what about your infant? What about your three year old daughter or pregnant wife? What about those with special dietary needs? You need food, but all about you is devastation. No stores are open. Perhaps they no longer even exist. And you have no way of getting to a store outside the emergency area. No fuel, and no roads even if your vehicle is still operating. No electrical power, land lines are severed, and cell phone towers have collapsed everywhere. You're on your own...and getting hungry.

That is no time to start thinking about the unthinkable. The time for that is now, when you can do something about it.

What we've done when we had a little extra money is go to a stock up-type store and simply buy cases of canned goods; vegetables, canned meats, powdered milk, non-refrigerated packaged meals. Sometimes just a case of corn or peas a week. Sometimes half a truckload. We stuff the cases under our beds. And don't think merely of food. Feminine products may be needed in your household. Powdered baby formula. Toilet paper. Paper or plastic dishes and bowls to save water for cleanup. Batteries--and lots of them. Garbage bags, which have scores of uses. Salt and pepper, plus other spices to make drab meals more tasteful.

But you can't carry all that in a "road bag." So you go to the basics. Let's make our road emergency bag now. For a permanent addition to your car's trunk you need some type of container. You can go fancy and buy a nice, heavy nylon zippered bag with suitcase handles and a shoulder strap, one of those kinds that have a dozen separate zippable pockets. Or you could be smart and buy something that would not be as noticeable in a crowd of panicked people if you find yourself afoot. Who would steal a diaper bag? Or an old suitcase? Or a gym bag? Cut a length of rope to tie through the handles and you have a shoulder strap. You'll also look like a bum, but in some situations that's desirable. People fleeing on foot from a disaster area won't be as prepared as you, and panic is a dangerous thing. If they think you have food, water, a first aid kit, and other essentials they might decide they need it worse than you do. But who--even if panicked and dangerous--would try to take an old faded diaper bag?

Inside you should have four two-liter bottles of treated water. This will be heavy, so make sure you rig up a shoulder strap. For food, a human being can live a LONG time on peanut butter and crackers. Peanut butter contains as much protein as meat and you'll get your carbs from the crackers. Don't buy the pre-made kind. Simply toss in a small jar of peanut butter and fill a few old Pringles cans with round crackers to keep them from being crushed to powder. Candy that will not melt in a hot car trunk is good too. The sugar will give you needed energy and calories. Folks with peanut allergies can substitute canned meat products or cans of tuna--all high protein.

You should have a city and state map folded up in the kit. A compass. Two flashlights and extra batteries. A home-made first aid kit in some kind of waterproof container. Don't go out and buy any pre-made kit. They're overpriced, bulky, and don't contain everything you might need. My personal first aid kits are made from military surplus .30 caliber ammunition boxes. They're practically indestructible and can hold a surprising amount of gear. Mine are painted gloss white with a bright red cross on each side, but you don't have to do that unless you want to. And they'll fit into a gym bag or diaper bag, anything of that size.

You know those dandy bandages that feel like gauze but sticks to itself? Sure, you can buy them in drug stores, but if you go to any farm supply store where they sell odds and ends for livestock and horses, you can buy even wider rolls, with more feet of bandage per roll, and get them a LOT cheaper. They're still sterile, and if you want you can even get them in different colors. I used to keep a whole bottle of hydrogen peroxide in my first aid kit--until the first winter came. Then the peroxide froze solid and burst the container inside my kit, ruining everything. Instead of hydrogen peroxide, go to a drug store and buy the house brand of "antiseptic wound wash." They won't freeze. I know, because before I remade my kit I bought a bottle and tested it. Several days in the freezer and it didn't become solid. Or, you could simply buy a bottle of Listerine brand mouthwash, the slightly rusty-colored kind that's the original type. Have you ever read a bottle of Listerine? It says you can use it as mouthwash, of course, but the first word under the big brand name is "Antiseptic." Cuts, puncture wounds, scrapes, anything that needs washed out, wash it with Listerine. I don't own any stock in their company and no one paid me to say this. But Listerine is an extremely powerful antiseptic and if you're wounded and the local hospital is rubble, it can save your life. The rest of the items in your first aid kit are common-sense things, Don't forget a good pair of scissors and tweezers.

Four or five road flares should be in your car's survival bag. These can be used for signaling, light, warning others of danger ahead, but I think the greatest use for them is starting fires. I once started a campfire in a driving rain with a road flare just because a guy told me it was impossible. I knew better, and proved it. There was no dry tinder anywhere. It had rained in our camp all night and was raining buckets the next morning. Sitting in the tent, I jokingly said we should start a fire to have something warm to eat. One thing led to another, and just to show my scoffing friend I dug around in my pack, grabbed a road flare, and went out into the downpour as my buddy peeked through the tent door, laughing at my foolishness. In twenty seconds I was soaked to the skin.

But I gathered tiny twigs and once-dry weed stems, all of them dripping with water, and made a nice pile of them. Then I got larger twigs, broke them off to the length I wanted, and made a second pile. Finally I gathered larger branches of proper firewood size. I got all the little stuff piled on the bottom, then placed the next-larger pile atop it. Then I popped the cap off the flare, lit it, and jammed it up under the tiny stuff. Flares are made of magnesium. The lighted tip of one burns at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit--hotter than kerosene, hotter even than gasoline. The tremendous heat dried then ignited the kindling, and as the flame grew I patiently added more small sticks, then larger ones. Eventually the fire became self-sustaining and began to make hot coals. By constantly and carefully feeding the fire, in ten or fifteen minutes I had a respectable campfire going in a hard rain. If you slide off a mountain road in the winter, or get lost hiking in chilly weather, knowing that could save your life.

In my little adventure, it won me a case of beer and some serious bragging rights.

There are several types of flashlights on the market now, and available through the Internet, that do not require batteries. Put a regular flashlight (and an extra set of batteries) in your glove box and one of these others in your car's survival bag. If you must abandon your vehicle, take both. Ground cloths and plastic tarps are reasonably cheap and flatter than a book when still in the package. Put two in your car's kit, along with a couple of those silvery Mylar "survival blankets." Remember, if you need to use them, turn the most shiny side inwards towards your body. It'll reflect your body's own heat back to it. Not as good as a heavy sleeping bag, but much lighter. For those in winter climes, I'd suggest spending some money and carrying a good brand-name sleeping bag in your trunk that's rated to zero degrees or even colder. Never lay on the bare ground if you're trying to sleep. Put a waterproof ground cloth or tarp under you. The difference it makes in keeping your body warm is amazing. Also, if you'll toss in a few yards of clothesline, light rope, or even heavy nylon string you can make one tarp into a ground cover AND a lean-to, giving you some protection from the elements. A couple extra pairs of warm socks is a good idea for your kit, too, as well as some sensible walking shoes. Boots are better still. Also add a small box or package of tissues, which can be used for anything from cleaning rain off your glasses to toilet paper.

In severe winter weather, NEVER abandon your car unless it's absolutely necessary to do so. It might be stuck, it might be out of gas, but it's the best shelter you have. Hunker down, bundle up, and wait for help. Setting out afoot in a driving blizzard has killed many a professional explorer. And you're probably not one of them. Instead, tie a brightly-colored cloth or tape a chemical light stick to your car antenna. This will draw attention to any snowplows or rescue services coming through.
Remember, in any widespread emergency one of the first things you'll lose is the electrical grid. That also means power to cell phone towers. Your whiz-bang 4G cell phone that will do anything except make breakfast will be useless dead weight as soon as cell coverage drops out. Even to this day, many people keep a roll of quarters in their car survival bag. The pay phone isn't completely dead yet, and you may stumble across one that still works. They operate on a different power system and it might have survived. Also carry a small transistor radio that will pick up National Weather Service broadcasts. Even better, buy one that's a genuine survival radio, one which is powered by a hand crank. These too are available in stores and on the Internet. Many people don't know this, but the National Weather Service Radio System--in times of widespread emergency--will also become a news service, giving rapid updates on whatever situation that has befallen your area, places to go for emergency shelters, gathering points for refugee pickups and other important information. And in most cases, you will hear these reports the same instant the local authorities hear them.

Families are told to decide on certain meeting areas in case "home" isn't there anymore. This is a good idea, but you might be far away from your secondary meeting point. Or bridges you need to cross may have fallen. The car bag is designed to keep you going for two days, more if you stretch it. If you normally drive with more than one person aboard, make two car emergency bags, at least that contain water, food, and other personal necessities. (No real need to carry two radios, for example--unless you break one.) And remember, when looking for economical, rugged, and extremely tough gear, an Army surplus store is your best friend. You can usually buy the "P-38" can openers there for fifty cents or so, among with many other handy items. Buy several and put them in all your survival gear. You can even put them on your key ring. They're tiny, but will open any tin can regardless of size.

You can add, alter, and modify your car bag to meet your personal needs. The important thing is to have more on hand in the event of an emergency than an empty hamburger sack and some old gum wrappers in your car. Something you've given thought to. Something you have seriously considered. Something you will need.

This goes too for the family-sized "bug-out bag," a larger and better equipped version of your car survival bag. Forest fires, floods, large dams breaking, and a host of other disasters can force you to flee your home on a moment's notice. Do you live downwind of a large factory that stores toxic chemicals? Is there a nuclear power plant in your vicinity? Until it was recently decommissioned, I lived about 25 miles from the U.S. Army's Newport Chemical Depot. Many years ago the United States decided to eliminate all nerve gas bombs, artillery shells, and all manner of hideous chemical weapons from its arsenal. There were no more toxic substances on the planet. You could survive a brief brush with plutonium or uranium, but VX nerve gas would kill you in seconds. All of America's nerve gas stockpiles were destroyed at the Newport, Indiana facility and it took them decades to do it. Periodically we'd get a pleasant, colorful pamphlet in the mail reminding us that we were in death's path if there was any leak or accident at that plant. They had pretty pictures and drawings and were designed to keep you aware without scaring you silly. But everyone around knew that if an F-5 tornado would hit the place, probably every living thing in the western third of Indiana would die. That's why we have two military surplus gas masks in our closet now. Interesting conversation pieces...
In short, there is nowhere we can call completely safe. Not your huge cities, not my beloved forest. You can die in any environment.

In any such emergency, having your "bug-out bag" well thought out, assembled, and stored where you can grab it in an instant is imperative. You probably won't have time to grab this and that and worry about Grandma's quilt or your CD collection. Your life in such an emergency depends on your preparation--and sheer speed in evacuating your home.
You'll take your car. If you own a pickup truck, take that. Anything that is four wheel drive or all wheel drive is preferable over anything that's not. During this time, neatness does not count. You'll shovel your spouse and kids in on top of your family survival kit and, if wise, stick to the back streets and roads. How you will save that desperately needed time is by preparing--NOW--for any worst-case scenario. Again, you'll need water, water, and more water. You'll need pre-packed containers of rough-wear clothing for everyone in the family and a couple of bags of disposable diapers for while you're on the run if you have an infant. After that, you'll switch to rewashable cloth diapers until outside civilization can fight its way back into your area. You'll want to have very warm but inexpensive blankets (Army surplus stores carry them from all over the world.) Sleeping bags are better, and both are the best. You'll need food. Remember the K.I.S.S. rule here--keep it simple, stupid. In pre-packed bags, all stored in the same place, you'll want heavy canvas or nylon bags full of prepared bottled water, peanut butter, crackers, baby formula, hard candy, maps, toilet paper, compass, powdered milk, and all prescription medications your family takes. All of them, every pill in your house. Anything that you cannot pack away, ready to grab, toss, and run with in a moment's notice should be written on a list and that list should be safety-pinned to the top bag in your gear. And an empty bag should be next to it so you can sweep the contents of your medicine cabinet into it without thought.

Wise people will talk this over repeatedly with the whole family. Wiser people will even make annual drills in loading the vehicle. Speaking of vehicles, we all need to stop for gas now and then. You may not have that opportunity when sirens go off and every TV and radio station is screaming at you to get the hell out of Dodge immediately. It's pretty pointless to go to all this trouble and preparation only to pull out onto the street and realize your gas gauge is sitting on empty. Since we need to buy gasoline anyway, and since it's dangerous to store except in specialized containers, store it in the one that came with your car. Every time your vehicle reaches 3/4 of a tank, stop and fill it back up. You'll have to buy it sooner or later anyway in routine daily driving. Why not buy it and keep it in the car, topping the tank off frequently instead of always driving home on fumes? Remember, no electrical power means no pumps will operate at the gas stations. It won't be available at any price, and the station owner will probably be gone anyway, the doors locked, the place shut down. I know, I know, it goes against the grain of Americans to think they cannot buy gasoline whenever they want to, despite the awful cost. I'm the same way. But use logic here. Where else would be a better place to store gas than the very place you will need it? Keep your tank full. It costs no more in the long run.

Keep a road atlas in every car, and teach everyone in your family who can read how to use a map. Your nice little talking GPS unit might not be broadcasting. Listen to the radio for advice where to head. If they don't offer any yet, listen for where the greatest danger is and move away from it. Calculate how far your loaded car will go on the gasoline you have in the tank at that time. And remember, you and your family are human. You're susceptible to panic. Fight this at all costs. Panic is contagious--but so is courage. Keep your voice moderate. Don't scream at the kids. They'll be scared enough as it is. If your spouse shows signs of becoming irrationally frightened, calm him or her using your normal voice, perhaps even touching them on the arm or shoulder. For every family that evacuates an area, the ones most likely NOT to make it are the ones who will panic. You may not FEEL courageous, but if you pretend to be, others will find strength from that. And eventually so will you.

Have at least three possible destinations in mind, places where you believe you will be safe. Friends and family come to mind here. If none are within range, or if those areas are in danger too, consider a state park. If push comes to shove, you can hang your hat at a roadside rest stop or large truck stop for at least a few days, as long as it's out of the danger area. And while you're driving, keep in mind that local, state, and federal agencies are already formulating plans--or already have them in place--that will do their best to feed and shelter as many as possible. Keep that radio tuned on. The disaster--whatever it is--will be changing constantly as new  information comes in. Things might not be as bad as were originally thought. It's possible you could even return home in a day or two. The better informed you are, the less you will worry. Solid information is a panic-killer.

This brings us to what is known as "shelter in place." Perhaps the emergency is of such a nature that the safest place is inside your own home, and fleeing would be the worst thing you could do. If possible, it's the best choice. You'll be in familiar surroundings and therefore more calm. You'll have all those cases of food under your beds and jugs of water and be able to ride out the storm where your family will be most at ease.

You'll still need a few specialized things. Assume no water comes from the taps. That means you can't flush toilets either. Pretty soon you'll have to dig a latrine somewhere, preferably out of sight and smell. You could buy one of those camper chemical toilets, but they only last so long before needing to be emptied. If all else fails, place a heavy-duty garbage bag under your toilet seat and carry out the waste. You don't want that in your home, especially in a hot climate. If you have no oil lamps, buy a few and several bottles of lamp oil. They're decorative in normal circumstances and irreplaceable when the power goes out. If you need to heat your home, close off all non-living spaces and camp out in one or two rooms. Consider the wide variety of kerosene heaters available. Kerosene isn't nearly as dangerous to store as gasoline. Kerosene also burns nicely in lamps. If you're a camper, you're aware of the several tent heaters that operate off of small one-pound bottles of propane, and that adapters for twenty pound tanks are easily available. I've heard of families huddled together in the same room for two or three days with mere candles for light and heat. They were chilly and uncomfortable, but they came through it with all flags flying. You'll also need some way to cook food. There are scores of different kinds of camping stoves. Personally, I have a Coleman Dual-Fuel two burner gas stove that folds up to the size of a briefcase.The nice thing is that it will run on Coleman fuel (white gas) or regular unleaded gasoline. But in a pinch, don't forget the tiny backpacker's Sterno stoves and the cans of jellied fuel that burn in them. They're economical, take up very little space, and can heat a can of beef stew as nicely as a three thousand dollar kitchen range.

Any natural disaster can kill you. So can falling off a ladder or slipping on a banana peel. But there are unnatural disasters which can be deadly too. Remember, for over a decade I had many tons of the most wicked nerve gas on earth as an unwelcome neighbor. And there are other unnatural disasters too.

BBC: 0023 hours: "People living within a 3km (two-mile) radius of the Fukushima-Daini nuclear plant are told to evacuate, the AFP news agency reports."

BBC: 0914 hours: "Japanese authorities have extended the evacuation area at the Fukushima-Daini plant...to 10km..."

BBC: 1023 hours: "Japanese authorities are extending the evacuation zone around the two Fukushima nuclear plants from10km to 20 km, according to local media."

BBC: 1427 hours: "More than 300,000 people have now been evacuated from homes in northern Japan and that number will rise as the government increases the exclusion zone around the Fukushima nuclear power plant, Kyodo reports."

This article is not a debate about the pros and cons of nuclear power plants. The timeline above simply shows that if things go wrong at them, they can go from bad to worse to terrifying in very short order. When I read that Japanese nuclear agencies were telling some people to stay in their homes and not go outside or attempt to evacuate, I knew it could only mean one thing. Some of the smoke in those ventings and explosions carried radioactive particles. In other words, fallout.

In another article about surviving different kinds of disasters, one author said, "If you're prepared up to and including the point of nuclear war, you're as prepared as you're going to get."

Do you remember what I said about educating yourself on survival? In the case of nuclear fallout, be it from a power plant coolant failure or a terrorist "dirty" bomb, if you're an American you damned well better educate yourself about it because no one else will. I began reading about it almost fifty years ago, and no two books or articles seemed to be saying the same thing. Part of that was Cold War hysteria, part of it was sensationalist writers, part was pro or anti nuclear propaganda, and part was because even the people who built nuclear weapons didn't know themselves. But while the United States gave little more than lip service to "civil defense" for a few years, and then dropped even that pretense, the Soviet Union was spending billions of rubles on seeing that their population was as educated as possible and they built massive, well-stocked shelters across their nation. They often seemed to be less assured than we were about "mutually assured destruction."

Finally someone on our side actually had an attack of common sense and commissioned a team to learn what--if anything--the average American could do to protect themselves in the event of a "nuclear exchange." It was led by Cresson H. Kearny, a scientist with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They published his findings in 1979 (updated in 1987) in a book titled "Nuclear War Survival Skills." You can buy hard copies of this book at many sites on the Internet, but also the book can be found--in full--online at  http://www.oism.org/nwss/

If you never read anything else this month, go online and read Chapter One of that book, "The Dangers From Nuclear Weapons: Myths and Facts."

What is says, pretty much, is that everything you know is wrong.

I'll leave it at that. Any attempt at even a brief outline would run far too long for this article, and probably confuse you to the point where you'd throw this entire paper away. Let's just say there are things we have been grossly uneducated about almost to the point of criminality. You'll see no TV specials about this. It won't be bantered about on talk shows or radio programs. You can only learn this by seeking out the information and educating yourself.

In any event, the release of even small amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere is considered a major disaster. And like other disasters, there are steps the average person can take to protect themselves. I can only plead with you to read this and learn them. For example, you could sit in your front yard and allow the fallout to pelt down on you, or you could go in the house. The difference that alone makes in your chances of survival are simply staggering! But no one ever taught us that. No one underrates the dangers of a nuclear accident or considers it a minor affair. But to go beyond the scope of this article, which is making basic survival kits to see you through several days of natural disaster, you'll have to earn it. You'll actually have to be willing to learn. It can be done, but how many will do it?

As for survival kits, any good bookstore--plus scores of websites--will have much more detailed information. Your life is worth learning how to protect. No one article can cover everything. Do you live in desert country? Are deep snows common in your area? Is most of your driving rural or urban? Do you live in areas prone to flash floods? Think about where you do most of your driving, and give serious consideration to what you would need to survive in that environment for a couple of days. You could carry all this around for years and never need it. If so, consider yourself blessed. You've led a lucky life. Or you could need it tomorrow morning--and need it desperately.

I've never needed so much as a little self-adhesive bandage strip from my personal first aid kit. But six years ago when I came upon a car that had flipped over on its roof in a very rural area, I used that kit to make a difference for the occupants. Okay, so maybe you won't save your own life. But other people's lives are important too, and when you least expect it you may be called upon to save someone else. Do it. It'll make you feel good later.