Jack’s Guide to Disaster Preparedness

The recent winter storm in Texas knocked out power and water for millions, killed dozens, and caused over a hundred billion dollars in damage. My primary feelings are concern for those affected and anger at leaders that left Texas unprepared. But in addition to that, there’s also the realization that crises can happen at any time, and like many I’m not ready. Given how bad the worst case scenario in LA could be, I decided to take this as a wake up call to do a little disaster prep. I figured I’d share notes on what I found for anyone else looking to do the same.

Types of disasters

If you just want to see what I stockpiled and why, skip ahead to “How to Prepare”. But I think a quick rundown of the types of disasters that Los Angelinos might face is useful- both to ensure the preparations are relevant to the most likely threats, as well as to drive home the seriousness of the potential disasters we might face.

Earthquake

This is probably the first type of disaster Californians think of, and for good reason. Its not just because California is very seismically active (thought it is)- its because geologists have found that the San Andres fault typically has about 2 inches of relative motion between the plates per year, which is released in large earthquakes around every 150 years, give or take a couple decades (we are dealing with geological timescales after all). The last major earthquake in that fault was in 1857 (164 years ago), so basically we’re overdue to release 27 feet of accumulated strain, which amounts to a quantity of stored energy that should result in an earthquake of around 7.8 on the Richter scale. This is the earthquake ominously known as “the Big One”. The predicted death toll is expected to be well over a thousand, and damages will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. It might be tomorrow or it might be in 30 years, but its only a matter of time.

Flood

Los Angeles isn’t know for rain, but when it does rain it can come all at once. The rainy season is in the winter, during which storms coming from the pacific can cause huge rainfall in small amounts of time. The most notable Los Angeles floods in the last century were the flood of 1938, which killed over a hundred people caused and over $1 billion in damage in today’s dollars, and the flood of 2005, which actually featured more rainfall than in 1938 but due to modern flood control resulted in only 17 dead and $300 million in damage. Keep in mind however that these were 50 year foods, and were by no means the worst nature can do. A 1000 year flood in Los Angeles would overwhelm all flood control systems and cause damage on the same level as The Big One.

Fire

California definitely has wildfires, and they’ve been getting worse as a result of climate change (though the state and federal governments also deserve blame for less than stellar forest management). I don’t live in a part of Los Angeles that faces wildfire risks (check that link to see if you do), but obviously I’m still at risk of a regular fire. Additionally, earthquakes can cause fires due to broken gas lines.

Extreme heat

The latest example of an extreme heat event in California would be the record breaking heat wave in September 2020. It contributed to California’s worst wildfire season, and triggered the first non wildfire related rolling blackouts in nearly 20 years. In addition to causing power failures, the heat itself can cause life threatening heatstroke.

Civil unrest

LA has been the site of some large riots, with the largest being the 1992 riots. To be honest I worry about this a lot less than natural disasters. While natural disasters tend to affect everywhere in a given area indiscriminately, riots endanger property more than people.

How To Prepare

Food

This comes down to how many nonperishable calories you have. My typical caloric consumption is about 1800 calories. As for the duration you’ll need to be stocked for, three days minimum is a common recommendation. I’m increasing that by a factor of three, so its super conservative for just one person, or enough for me to share generously with others in my area who need it. I’m conservatively assuming that my fridge and pantry are bone dry when disaster hits.

As for what foods, that’s up to you, but for simplicity I’m stockpiling bottles of Soylent meal replacement, canned chili, and ingredients for overnight oats (oatmeal, chia seeds, peanut butter, and the aforementioned Soylent). I have a sneaking suspicion that Soylent is just overpriced soymilk with a multivitamin mixed in, so you might want to just get shelf stable soymilk instead.

  • Food items in my stockpile:
    • Soylent, two 12 packs (9600 calories)
    • Tub of oatmeal (4500 calories)
    • Jar of peanut butter (2500 calories)
    • Chia seeds (4500 calories)
    • Canned chili, six cans (2000 calories)

This comes out to a grand total of around 23,000 calories.

Water

The rule of thumb is one gallon per person per day. Since I’m shooting for nine days of supplies, I bought eight one gallon water bottles. All that Soylent has over a gallon of water in it, so I’m set. If you’re worried about BPA in the plastic seeping into the water, make sure to get water in containers that are BPA free. Like the food, I’m being conservative here by ignoring the pitcher of tap water I keep in my fridge.

Power

You can probably stretch a full charge of your cell phone for a couple days if you set it on battery saver and don’t use it, meaning for a nine day span 10000 mAh would probably be enough. In practice I’d prefer more than that because with a lot of time to kill I might want to use my mobile device for entertainment. In the end I’m settling for a 10000 mAh portable charger that’s stored with a full charge in the cupboard with the rations, plus a 3000 mAh charger I leave in my car’s glovebox. For a little more charging I can use whatever juice is in my laptop, and I can charge my phone in my car. If you really wanted to leave nothing to chance you could get a portable solar powered charger, but given that I have enough power for critical tasks, I opted not to get one.

Communication

Be aware that in an emergency you might not be able to make calls. First, cell towers may be damaged, and second, in times of crisis there’s a huge surge in calls that will overwhelm the network, at least temporarily. Fortunately your cell phone can do a lot of other things in addition to connecting to cellular phone networks and wifi networks. Most android phones also contain a built in FM receiver. Make sure you have a set of wired headphones, since the phone uses this as the antenna. Obviously cars have FM radios as well, but I’d rather be able to listen to music, news, and emergency broadcasts without spending all day in my car.

During hurricane Irma, walkie-talkie apps like Zello were widely used to communicate due to their ability to work over 2G network infrastructure. But since then 2G networks have been sunsetted in many places (including North America), with 3G on its way out as well. What’s likely more useful are apps that create what is known as a mesh network– a network consisting of mobile devices that relay messages across them without using cell towers. The best known app for this is FireChat, which became very popular among protesters in Hong Kong in 2014.

Medicine

Make sure you have plenty of any medication you need, since in an emergency you might not be able to restock it. The other thing you’ll want is a decent first aid kit. Federal requirements for workplace first aid kits are defined by ANSI Z308.1. While your first aid kit doesn’t need to follow this specification, personally I think their class A first aid kit establishes a nice baseline for what a basic first aid kit should include, and it costs less than $30.

Human waste

If running water is unavailable making your flush toilet unusable, the basic options are to make a pit latrine in a private yard if possible (you will need a shovel), or to defecate in a five gallon bucket with a kitchen trash bag in the bucket to capture the waste. Be sure to have a lid for the bucket to contain the smell when it is not in use. In either case you’ll need toilet paper. Typically one roll will last one person for four days, So I’ve set aside three rolls in my stockpile.

Weapons

You do not need weapons. In all my disaster preparedness research I have yet to see a single guide that includes firearms (and some suggest not to have them). If you’re planning to use a gun to get supplies in the event of a disaster, well first, you’re a terrible person for robbing people in their most desperate hour, and second that isn’t necessary because the entire point of preparing is to make sure you already have the things you need. If you think you’ll need a gun for protection, that’s only slightly less pointless- reports of looting during natural disasters are like poisoned Halloween candy- a persistent fear that has essentially no basis in reality. And if you absolutely need some kind of defense, get decent locks or a dog, both of which (unlike a gun) offer passive protection and don’t increase your likelihood of being shot.

Entertainment

Its likely you’ll have time to kill, so you’ll want some distractions that work without power. Playing cards and board games are great for this, as well as physical books. A well stocked e-reader is also a good thing to have- it can store tons of books and lasts for weeks with a full charge. And they’re pretty affordable- used e-readers are available on ebay for around the cost of a couple hardcover books.

Information

Its easy to become accustomed to having all information at our fingertips, but in a disaster that might not be the case. Be sure to document any information you might need in a place you can access it in an emergency, like important addresses or phone numbers or the locations of nearby clinics. I opted to store this stuff digitally on my laptop.

Transportation

Most of this preparation assumes you’ll shelter in place during an emergency, or if you go anywhere it will be on foot. Make sure to wear good footwear (preferable waterproof steel toed boots) if you go outside. A bike is also a very useful form of transportation since its human powered.

Lighting

In the event of a power failure you’ll need light sources. Its good to have candles and battery powered lights on hand.

Fire prep

Its a good idea to have a fire extinguisher. If you live in a second floor apartment you might want to invest in a rope ladder for escaping out a window. You might also want a fireproof safe to protect documents. For protecting my documents, I mostly depend on digital copies redundantly stored on external hard drives and cloud storage.

You should also buy a gas valve shut off wrench, and store it close to your home’s gas valve. They’re available for less than $5 from any hardware store. In the event of an earthquake the wrench is used to shut off gas to the house in order to prevent fires. Note that the valve can only be returned to the on position by a technician from the gas company, so the valve should only be turned off in emergencies.

Preparing your home

Be sure to secure items in your home to protect against falling. A good rule of thumb is to anchor anything that’s center of mass is higher than half of its smallest footprint dimension. And make sure you have basic cleaning supplies like a broom and dustpan to start cleaning up, so you don’t need to wait for help in a place filled with broken glass.

Training

In addition to having the thing you need, there are skills you might want to have as well. Chief among these are how to take cover in and earthquake, and first aid.

Insurance

If you’re a renter or a home owner you have renters insurance or home insurance respectively. Be aware of what your policy covers and what it doesn’t. It probably excludes earthquakes and floods. Be aware that flood risks are often not properly communicated when homes are sold, and flood plain maps may be misleading. Do your homework to determine your actual level of risk, and prepare accordingly.

Evacuation prep

So far everything I’ve listed here assumes you’re going to ride out a storm, but its possible that it will be necessary to evacuate. here’s a list of things you’ll want to take with you if you need to leave quickly and don’t know when you’ll be back:

  • Important documents like IDs
  • Money (credit cards and cash)
  • Items you want to save (photos and mementos)
  • Toiletries/clothes/other necessities

Review and Restock

The things you stockpile might last a long time, but some of them do technically have a shelf life. Its a good idea to review your disaster plan on an annual basis, and replace anything close to expiring when you do. For the stuff that’s close to expiring, use it for meals at home, or better yet take it camping. Its designed to be nonperishable and easy to prepare, so take this as an opportunity to go on a trip, practice some survival skills, and celebrate another year without needing your disaster preparedness kit.

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