Friday, January 29, 2010

Beating The Odds

It was 1976 when Randy Knapp and a couple of friends became trapped  by a winter storm on Oregon's Mount Hood. This is a popular winter climb can be deadly, both for the mountaineers and for the rescue teams that come to save them when they get in trouble. During this climb, Knapp and his friends took shelter in a snow cave, where they hunkered down and melted snow to keep from dehydrating. Thirteen days later they crawled out of their snow cave and climbed 500 feet to a ridge where they located a search team.

Fast forward to 1997 when Hurricane Pauline slammed into the coast of Mexico, dumping 16 inches of rain on Acapulco, killing several hundred people and leaving more than 300,000 homeless. Fifteen days later, a 32-year-old fisherman and his brother and niece were rescued. These three people had been stranded at sea during that entire time, surviving on raw fish and a bottle of water.

A few days ago, 17-year-old Darlene Etienne was pulled from the rubble of her collapsed home where she had been entombed for more than two weeks under tons of concrete. In 90-degree weather, no one expected to find her alive after so much time passed. But there she was, suffering with a broken leg and severe dehydration, but alive nonetheless, beating the odds by a getting a little water from a bathroom where she was trapped.

If there's a lesson to be learned from these stories it is to never give up. Find a way to keep going. Look for some way to obtain the little things that will keep you alive — water and shelter being absolutely critical. Use whatever method you can come up with to take care of the most urgent medical problems, even if it means just sticking your finger in a wound to stop the bleeding. Do everything you can to attract the attention of rescuers — make noise, create movement, use flashy or colorful stuff to signal. Keep going and never quit, because you too can beat the odds.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I see this morning that there is a mass exodus from Port au Prince, the capital city of Haiti that was virtually destroyed by the earthquake. Now two weeks after the quake, having exhausted all hope of rescuing any more live victims from the crumbled ruins of the city, hundreds of thousands of survivors are trying to escape to somewhere, anywhere, else. According to reports, these people don't even care where they go, they just want to get away from the city that now sits in ruins.

They've lost everything — homes, family members, friends, all their possessions. Many children that appear to be orphans may only be separated from their parents. But they don't know for sure. Nobody knows for sure. Some might someday be reunited with family, but others will not. But today, there is no way of knowing. It is chaos.

The problem with disasters is that nobody knows for sure when they're going to hit. So we tend to sit on our duffs, complacent in the day to day life of a normal society. Then one day, the world turns upside-down and we weren't prepared for it. We never formulated a plan, for example, to reunite family members who are in separate parts of the city when the crisis hits. So the kids don't have a plan in mind about how to find their parents. The school doesn't know how to put parents and children back together. Parents have no idea how to locate each other or the kids. Everybody just falls into a dazed survivor mode and waits for the government to come along and make it all better.

I hate to break the news, but that doesn't work. If you need evidence of that, just flip on the TV and watch what's going on in Haiti. Several governments from around the world, including the U.S. have rushed to the aid of the victims. But even with all that effort, there is desperation and chaos.

Here's the truth. Unless you have your own personal plan, you're probably out of luck. Do not expect the government or non-government relief organizations to be able to solve your problems. Here's what you need to do. I suggest you do it now, before some catastrophe catches you off-guard.

  • Sit down with your family members and study a map of your city. Highlight the locations of your home, the schools your children attend, the place where you work, the church you attend, and anyplace else you regularly spend time (such as a gym, etc.).
  • Within reasonable walking distance from all of those highlighted places, locate an open area such as a park or open field where there is minimal potential for collapsed buildings, fire, or flood. So you're looking for a place with no or few buildings, with little combustible material, and a place that is out of the floodplain. You also want to avoid overhead powerlines. 
  • The open place will be a rendezvous spot. You should select a primary and then choose an alternate rendezvous spot, in case something prevents the use of the primary location. 
  • Now, using the map, plan logical walking routes from each of the previously highlighted places to your chosen rendezvous spots. 
  • Spend a day showing every member of the family the routes they would follow to move to the primary and secondary rendezvous spots. Drive the roads, and select alternate routes that could serve well if the primary route is obstructed. 
  • Talk it over and come up with a plan about when it is advisable to evacuate to the rendezvous spot. You don't want your children leaving school and heading to the rendezvous spot every time there's a noisy thunderstorm. The school might have a disaster response plan that is designed to care for the children until parents come to collect them. Work with the school to figure this out. But, if the school is destroyed and there is nothing but chaos, the children need to know where to go to meet up with the rest of the family. 
  • If possible (and if appropriate for the capabilities of your children), equip every member of the family with an FRS (Family Radio Service) 2-way radio that they can keep in a small backpack or bookbag. This is not a toy, and the children must be trained how to use it, and when. If a major disaster strikes, this will be the means of contacting each other while in the process of gathering together. 
  • Each person should have a very basic survival kit that includes a pocket rain poncho, signal whistle, signal mirror, and some bandaids. The parents should be able to put hands on a fully equipped 72-hour kit that includes shelter, food, water, medical kit, firemaking equipment, and other things spelled out in my archived post titled Grab and Go (posted on September 30, 2009).
  • The rendezvous spot may be nothing more than a convenient gathering place, and then you might need to move to a more secure location to set up camp. Or the rendezvous spot might be suitable as a camp location. That's for you to determine. 
This preparation will allow you to make the choice about setting up your own private refugee camp away from the chaos. Without a plan you are at the mercy of the situation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Lesson — They Can't Save You

"… death toll is estimated at 200,000 … 80,000 buried in mass graves … 2 million homeless."

Those are the reports out of Haiti, 9 days after the earthquake — but it's going to get worse. Some experts are predicting that, unless medical care can be delivered more effectively than is now being done, there could be as many as 20,000 deaths per day from disease and infection in coming weeks.

Make no mistake about it, there are doctors, nurses, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and all sorts of other medical professionals from around the world already on the ground in Haiti. They've been there for days. And there are supplies in abundance, mostly sitting in piles at the damaged airfield where they were dropped off by cargo planes. But the problem is that the supplies are not able to be delivered to the places where they are needed, and the doctors can't work miracles without the equipment and medicines they need to treat the injured and ill.

At one medical mission alone there are more than 500 victims in immediate need of surgery to save their lives. Ordinarily, the mission has a medical staff of 800, but many of them are missing following the quake. Not only that, but the mission is going to run out of food and water as well as gasoline to transport patients.

The U.S Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort has a dozen operating rooms and 1,000 beds, but it is already overwhelmed, as transport helicopters circle overhead waiting their turn to land and offload more victims.

Despite the worldwide effort, the "system" simply cannot get ahead or even begin to catch up with the need for help. And out of all this there are lessons for us to learn.

First — They can't save you. Expecting the government (or even the combined governments of the world) to save you during a disaster is like expecting the local police to save you during a rape. They can't do it. Oh sure, the police will show up later and take a report, but they can't save you from the crisis.

And the same goes for relief organizations. They can't save you from the disaster. They'll come later, maybe much later. But if Haiti and Hurricane Katrina and other such disasters are any indication, those who come to save you might not be able to reach you, or they might not have the equipment or supplies they need. The system becomes broken, totally log-jammed almost immediately. Transportation fails and cannot deliver supplies, lines of communication fail, food and clean water are nowhere to be found, electricity and other forms of power are gone, corruption and lawlessness prevail. It's like a quick trip back into the worst of the dark ages.

So the big lesson is that you must prepare to save yourself. Become trained in emergency medical procedures. Assemble a serious medical kit. Store food, water, medications, and other vital supplies sufficient to see you through the first 72 hours without outside help.

As can be seen from this disaster, 72 hours doesn't even begin to cover it. But at least is you can remain self-sufficient for the first 72 hours, that will give some time for rescue organizations to arrive and get their act together. Maybe. But I wouldn't bet my life on it.

Plan an individual escape route to get you away from the center of population. It's the collapse of society and the hopeless coagulation of the populace that causes the major trauma after the initial disaster. After the ground has stopped shaking and the buildings have stopped falling down, the real problem is that there are so many people in need. They need food. They need water. They need sanitation facilities. They need medical care. They need shelter. And some of them might decide to victimize you to satisfy their needs.

If you can escape from the populace, you can avoid the spread of disease and the lawlessness that tends to run rampant in urban areas following a catastrophe. Set up a safe camp some distance away from the masses. Treat your wounds. Judiciously ration your food supplies. Lay low and conserve your energy, so you don't need to consume so much food and water.

Before a disaster, plan where you would want to set up this camp. Explore your area and decide on a couple of contingency plans to get you out of the city and to a safe location. Do all this in advance, so you don't have to start thinking about it in the midst of the chaos.

Of course, if there are life-threatening injuries that you are not trained or equipped to handle, you will need to seek out professional medical care. But do as much for yourself as possible. That will reduce the burden on the already overburdened relief agencies that are flooding into the area in an effort to help.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Looters and Violence

Forgive me for revisiting the situation in Haiti, but it just happens to be the most visible current crisis from which we can learn vital lessons about survival after a disaster.

The report is that the main prison in Port au Prince, Haiti's capital city, was so severely damaged by the 7.0 earthquake that more than 4,000 prisoners escaped into the city and surrounding areas. Life is tough enough on the streets of a city in crisis without introducing thousands of felons into the desperate population.

Truth be told, even in the best of times, not all the criminals are behind bars. There is always a percentage of the populace that is prone to thievery and violence. But when a disaster hits, looting, robbery, mugging, assault, murder and all manner of violence and theft take place. It just goes with the territory. And in a country such as Haiti, where corruption is prevalent in the government (maybe I shouldn't throw stones, since our own house is made of such fragile glass right at the moment), the public moral climate is so impoverished that a relatively high percentage of the population feels justified in taking what is not theirs.

Now, I'm not picking on Haiti. This happens in any society where there has been a loss of moral compass, and out own country is no different. You can gauge the integrity of the people by their actions during a disaster. The good people will be good. They will try to stabilize their own situation, and then look around and see if there is someone else in need whom they can help. The bad people will be bad. They will look around and see what there is to grab for themselves, and then will not spare anyone who gets in their way.

If you think I'm being overly dramatic, let me quote a report from "Some neighborhoods are creating their own security forces, forming night brigades and machete-armed mobs to fight bandits. 'We never count on the government here, never,' said 29-year-old Tatony Vieux in a hillside district where people used cars to block access to their street. In the sprawling Cite Soleil slum, gangsters are reassuming control after escaping from the city's notorious main penitentiary and police urge citizens to take justice into their own hands. 'If you don't kill the criminals, they will all come back,' a Haitian police officer shouted over a loudspeaker." (italics and bold are mine)

Now if that doesn't make you stop and take notice, I don't know what will. The police are telling the public to kill the criminals, because the police are not able to contain the situation themselves. In fact, more than 8,000 military troops have been brought in from other countries to help maintain order. That means a lot of money and energy is being wasted on security, because of the lawlessness of the people of Haiti.

I'm not saying the victims of the quake are criminals, but there is a high percentage of criminals among the populace. The sad truth is that a population in crisis will reap exactly what it has sown. If the society accepts a corrupt government, it will reap corruption. If it tolerates criminal activity, it will suffer lawlessness. If it embraces a lack of moral foundation, it will garner violence and hatred and greed and bloodshed. And when the disaster hits, all those characteristics are amplified. Normal everyday criminal activity evolves into a monster that will tear apart the society. When folks ought to be helping each other, the criminals and corrupt government officials will help only themselves.

Maybe this should be a wake-up call to all of us to put our own house in order. It's only a matter of time before we face crises of our own, and if we don't want to go through what we're seeing in Haiti, maybe we should prepare ourselves. We can start by discarding the corrupt and criminal elements from all levels of our government, establish a judiciary that is not afraid to eliminate criminals from our society, and set our feet again on a foundation of moral principles. It's been way too long. Way, way, way too long.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Problems With Disaster Relief

What's happening right now in Haiti should be a lesson for all of us. Disasters don't happen only in poor, underdeveloped countries. Massive natural catastrophes occur all over the United States. I'll mention just a few.

Remember the historic San Francisco earthquake and fire that virtually destroyed the city and killed an estimated 6,000 people. It brought that whole society to its knees. More recently in the same area the Loma Prieta earthquake caused $6 billion in damage, although the death toll was only 69.

Southern California was hit by a 6.6 earthquake in 1971 that collapsed freeways, destroyed two hospitals, a major dam, and pretty well strangled the population for a time. Then again in 1994, the 6.7 Northridge earthquake clobbered the southland to the tune of $23 billion in damages, 57 deaths and about 12,000 injured. More than 100,000 homes and businesses were damaged.

Remember Hurricane Andrew and the $25 billion in damage that it imposed on Florida and Louisiana? And one that will never leave our memories is Hurricane Katrina that caused $84 billion in devastation, killed nearly 2,000 people, and left folks homeless and hopeless for years afterward.

I bring up those historic disasters as a reminder that Americans are vulnerable to catastrophe right here at home. These events don't take place only in distant lands. And as we analyze what is happening in Haiti in the aftermath of the quake, it's possible to see a common problem with disaster relief no matter where it happens.

The problem I'm referring to is the delivery of relief supplies to the survivors. When the landscape is torn up, whether by an earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, or acts of terrorism, delivering food and water and medical supplies and personnel to distribute all of it becomes an enormous problem. No matter how much stuff is available to relieve the suffering, if you can't get it to the people in need, the disaster only becomes worse.

How can a disaster get worse just because supplies are delayed? What's going on in Haiti right now is an example of what I'm talking about. Survivors are turning from being grateful just to be alive to being angry because there is a delay in the delivery of relief supplies. CNN this morning was broadcasting video footage of clusters of Haitians venting their rage because the government had not yet delivered food and water or other supplies. There are reports of looting and violence, and the problem is only going to get worse.

Relief organizations have begun flowing supplies into the country, but the problem is that the airport and roadways are so broken up that transportation of the goods is going to take a while to get all the way to the people in need. Meanwhile, the folks who are suffering have no idea about the problems being faced by those who are trying to come to their aid. So the anger grows, looting increases, violence evolves into food riots, and delivery of supplies becomes more difficult and dangerous.

One official who was trying to distribute food to a small crowd of about 30 victims quickly ran out of supplies. What he noticed was that young men were pushing the elderly, women and children to the back of the crowd — forcing those who needed help the most to be the least served. That was with only 30 people involved. Imagine what's going to happen when the number is in the hundreds or thousands.

Such is the nature of the aftermath of a disaster. Desperate people do desperate things. They behave in a manner that they probably would not under normal circumstances, pushing each other out of the way to get what they want, mobbing delivery vehicles, stealing and even killing to satisfy their own perceived needs.

So how can you avoid a situation like that?
  • Have your own emergency supply of food, water (and/or water filter), medicines, and other necessities so you don't have to depend on a relief agency. Store these items in a place where you can retrieve them fairly easily even if the building collapses. An out building will present a smaller pile of rubble to dig through than the main building. A portable 72-hour kit is a good place to start, then expand your inventory in case there is a long-term crisis. 
  • Promote this concept among all your friends and family members. The more people who are self-sufficient, the less burden there will be on relief organizations. 
  • Stay away from crowds. Don't become part of the mob, and don't even put yourself in a position to be in their path.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Earthquake and Long Term Health Disaster

The earth shook for maybe a minute. That was the longest estimate I've heard so far. A minute is a long, long time for an earthquake, because usually they hit and run in a matter of a few seconds. But this one in Haiti apparently took its time, staying long enough to really tear things down. But still, it was only a minute and then it was over. Right? 

Hardly. The quake itself is only the beginning. People crushed by collapsing buildings comprise only the leading edge of the death toll.  Over the coming months, survivors of the quake will face the devastation that will be caused by disease. Here's what Dr. Manny Alvarez had to say about it. He's the spokesperson for health issues on 

"There will be significant long-term health effects that this earthquake in Haiti will bring. Even before the earthquake, Haiti’s public health status was under terrible strain. Haiti still has significant problems with clean water, and dealing with certain diseases like malaria and Dengue fever. With further destruction of the water supply, the people of Haiti are going to be at increased risk of developing gastrointestinal diseases, food poisoning, as well as worsening of injuries sustained by those in high-risk groups like children and seniors."

When a water supply is broken up during an earthquake, and the sewer system is breached by the shifting ground, and the two mingle — you can imagine what will happen. Even in a highly developed country with adequate resources, this kind of destruction can take weeks to repair. Drinking water becomes unavailable very quickly, maintaining good hygiene is almost impossible, and disease spreads like wildfire.

But in a place like Haiti, where government resources are in virtually nonexistent, where medical care is unavailable, and where a huge population lives in poverty even on the best day, this is a total disaster. Those who survived the quake but were injured are going to face the potential for serious infection. And without the ability to treat those injuries, the death toll will continue to rise.

The way I see it, shortage of drinkable water and disease are going to be the two biggest survival issues. The earth has stopped shaking, but the worst is yet to come.

How can you prepare for something like this?
  • Be aware of the risks of natural disaster in your area. Earthquake is only one of many calamities that can happen. Do a risk analysis for your area and prepare appropriately. 
  • Store drinkable water in a location that won't be totally destroyed by a quake. A small storage shed  might be better than storing the water supply in a larger structure, because even if it collapses it will be easier to dig through the rubble and retrieve your supplies. 
  • Get as much first aid training as possible so you can be at least somewhat self-sufficient in treating emergency medical problems. 
  • Have a comprehensive first aid kit stashed in a location that will be easy to reach even if the building is destroyed. 
  • The same goes for food — have at least a 72-hour supply of foods that need almost no preparation. 
  • With all the shelters knocked down, it is a good idea to have emergency shelter and other supplies available. A tent, sleeping bag or blankets, camp stove, flashlights, stuff like that.
  • In the tropics (or even the subtropics) mosquito netting and insect repellent are like pure gold. Analyze the needs for your particular area and make preparations now. 

Earthquake and Tsunami

Today's 7.0 earthquake in Haiti caused massive damage, and the death toll is predicted to be enormous. Because Haiti is on an island in the Caribbean, there was some initial concern about the potential for a tsunami. In fact, the U.S. Geological Society (USGS) issued a tsunami alert soon after the quake, but that alert was quickly cancelled. Why? To answer that question, we need to take a look at the relationship between earthquake and tsunami. There is no doubt that an earthquake can cause a tsunami, but in order to do so the conditions must be right.

First of all, if the quake is to directly generate a tsunami (not as a secondary effect from part of a mountain sloughing off into the water and causing a big splash), the temblor must occur beneath the water. The sudden shift of a tectonic plate in relation to its neighboring plate can send an enormous amount of energy up through the water column above the sea floor. I say CAN because not all plate shifts create an energy release in the right direction to displace the water.

The recent quake in Haiti took place on the island, not in the water, and as soon as USGS realized that they cancelled the tsunami alert.

So how bad is it in Haiti today? There is some speculation that there will be a death toll in the hundreds of thousands. The primary cause of the death and injury is poor construction of buildings, using unreinforced adobe and masonry that shatters, crumbles and collapses during a quake. By comparison, wooden structures, being more flexible, usually withstand the shaking better than rigid masonry. In Haiti, the catastrophic collapse of structures included hospitals, schools, hotels, government buildings, businesses, and residences. Victims trapped by the collapsing rubble had no time to escape, and very little chance to survive.

According to historic records, the deadliest quake occurred in 1556 when a powerful earthquake hit Shansi, China, killing as estimated 830,000.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Depriving an individual of sleep is a psychological technique used by interrogators when trying to break down an enemy and get him to spill his guts. Knowing that, it is easy to understand why sleep deprivation works against you in a powerful way when you're caught in a survival situation.

It's a fact that if you are not able to get enough sleep, your judgement will fail. You'll be unable to make good decisions in a timely manner, and that might lead to your making a bad situation even worse. The stupor that accompanies sleep deprivation leaves you incapable of logical thought. You won't be able to plan your strategy or carry out necessary tasks. For example, too late, you might decide to get a signal fire going … after the search helicopter already passed by and prompted the idea.

But it isn't only judgement that suffers from loss of sleep. Dexterity fails quickly. You might not be able to manipulate the fire starting equipment. Physical strength vanishes, and along with it goes the will to live.

On the other hand, if you are able to get sufficient rest, your mind will remain sharp, reflexes will be quick, and you'll be able to carry out survival tasks. This is why it is so important to make camp early, settle down before the sun sets, get a fire going, eat something, drink plenty of water, and make a comfortable place to sleep. Hunger, dehydration, exhaustion, and miserable conditions all impact your ability to sleep. And while you might think that sleep is a distant priority when compared with shelter, fire, water, food and signaling, they actually all work together to give you the best chance for survival.

Make sure you get adequate rest. Don't work yourself to exhaustion. Guard your energy jealously, and expend only enough to accomplish necessary work. Slow down. Sleep.

Friday, January 1, 2010

When Short is Long

Remember the tale about Little Red Riding Hood? In a hurry to get to Grandma's house, she took a shortcut through the deep, dark woods, where she bumped into the Big Bad Wolf. The perfect beginning for a survival story.

Well, things haven't changed much. Today we have folks (who represent Little Red Riding Hood) all in a hurry to get somewhere and willing to take shortcuts through Big Bad Wolf country to get there.

What the heck am I talking about? Well, for one, I'm talking about Jeramie Griffin who loaded his family in the car and headed off across the Cascade Range, taking a shortcut to "grandma's" house (actually to his in-laws' house) for the holidays. He programmed the brand new GPS that he had received for Christmas to take the shortest route. And in no time flat, the Big Bad Wolf showed up, the role being played by deep snow that stuck the car and left them stranded overnight. And wouldn't you know it, they had an infant along and ran out of baby formula. When the situation started looking grim, they filmed a good-bye video.

But they were not the only Little Red Riding Hoods out there. Three Portland, Oregon residents and their small dog pulled a similar trick while using their GPS to locate a hot springs along a snow-covered forest road in the southern Willamette Valley. After they got stuck, they walked 17 miles trying to find a spot where they would have cell phone coverage so they could call for help. When rescuers found them, they were exhausted, hypothermic and had no survival equipment with them. Can you say the word LUCKY?

And, of course, there was the couple I wrote about a couple of days ago who suffered a similar situation because they relied on the GPS to get them safely through to their destination.

I don't know how many ways I can say this, but the GPS has no clue about road conditions. That's your job to figure out. Don't just plug in "shortest route" and then follow the digital voice while it tells you to turn left, turn right. If you do that, you are turning over to a bunch of diodes the responsibility for your life, and that of your family or friends or pets that are traveling with you.

Shortcuts are sometimes the longest way to go. Not only shortcuts in a travel route, but shortcuts in all aspects of survival. Take the time to gain knowledge, obtain experience, increase good judgement, develop skills, and carry the right equipment. Take time in your planning and execution, so it comes out right.

Happy New Year to these surviving families. May things go better for you from now on.