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  • Thinking About Disasters

    October 26th, 2017
    There are a lot of things that could go wrong that aren't very likely but would be pretty bad, and where planning ahead seems like it could be helpful. These are things that are either so sudden that you wouldn't have time to deal with things then (house fire, volcano) or so widespread that demand for the sort of things that let you adapt skyrockets (flooding, heat wave).

    For preparing for these there are kind of two categories: predictable and unpredictable. Hurricanes or tornados are good examples of the former: there are enough of them that we know what these look like, we know what regions are most affected, we know how much warning you tend to get, we can look at how the responses to past ones have gone well or poorly. Then there are things like pandemics, succession crises, or nuclear attacks where it's much less clear what to go on.

    For the predictable risks, I think it's worth thinking over the general categories and considering how applicable each one is to your situation. Something like:

    • Flood
    • Heat Wave
    • Fire (residential, wild)
    • Earthquake
    • Volcano
    • Hurricane
    • Tsunami
    • Tornado [1]
    • Blizzard
    • Utlity loss (power, water, gas, ?)

    Several of these wouldn't be that bad on their own, but could be bad in combination. And they're not always independent: a massive heat wave could lead to power outages.

    How bad they are varies a lot by person: if you need an electric ventilator to live then a power outage is very dangerous, while for most people it's more of an inconvenience. If you have allergies then it's more important to have your own food. Our family is pretty lucky here.

    Living in Somerville (Boston) the main risk I see is fire: we live in a very dense residential area with highly flammable buildings. I've made sure we have fire extinguishers around the house, especially in the kitchen, and I'm going to think more about the best way to have a second route down from our third floor. In general, though, this is a good place to live from a natural disaster perspective: most kinds don't tend to happen around here.

    For unpredictable risks it's a lot less clear. There are people who get really into planning, especially planning what happens if civilization completely collapses. I don't think collapse is that likely, combined with not thinking I can do very much to improve that case with modest effort, so that's not what I've been focusing on.

    While there are lots of ways things could go wrong, the situations where planning seems most likely to help are:

    • Something goes wrong where we need to stay inside our house.
    • Something goes wrong where we need to go somewhere else urgently.

    Staying inside would be a good response to a pandemic, nuclear strike, civil unrest, or a lot of other things. The main limitation in that case is water: we already keep a lot of food on hand [2] and our house already has the other things we need on a day to day basis. At one gallon per person per day and a lot of people in the house a two week supply is bulky but not that bad to store in the basement. These product suggestions seemed reasonable.

    Going somewhere else would be a response to the house being on fire, some sort of urgent evacuation, or other hard to predict things. If we don't have time to pack then having a backpack ready to go could make a big difference. I'm still not sure what exactly is worth packing, but I have a tentative list. [3]

    There are also general factors that seem useful: getting along with neighbors, being in good physical shape, being handy and practicing using tools, knowing your way around, having housemates, not having addictions, medical skills, etc. I don't think any of these are worth doing just for the benefits during disasters, but it seems like they should push for more on the margin.

    It's hard to figure out the right amount it's worth thinking about this sort of thing: some thought seems very much worthwhile but it also looks like it can easily be a large time and money sink.

    [1] Tornados are very small compared to the size of the country, and there aren't very many of them, so they only kill ~80 people a year. This is a tiny risk of death, and looking at maps even in the highest-risk parts of the country they're not a major risk. So still take tornado warnings seriously, but it seems like other risks are much more worth planning for.

    [2] We don't have a car so we tend to buy in bulk and then rotate through purchases. A lot of things keep a long time and don't mind basement storage.

    [3] Food bars, water bottle, life straw, salt, hand sanitizer, diapers, wipes, rubber gloves, cold weather gloves, sun hat, winter hat, scarf, mylar blankets, sunscreen, caffeine pills, ibuprofen, antibiotics, ear plugs, dust masks, plastic bags, zip ties, duct tape, rope, rubber bands, tinfoil, multitool, matches, chargers, pennywhistle, glasses, photocopies of documents, a little money. Other suggestions? Having it be light is important.

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