My friend Steve raced over the ridge toward a sky filled with smoke. When he topped the summit and headed into the valley, he stared in horror at a wall of flames consuming his town. It looked like a war zone after a bombing strike. Blackened skeletal remnants of houses stood amid smoke rising from piles of glowing ashes. Dead trees extended charred limbs as if issuing a mute cry for help. Somewhere in the chaos were Steve’s wife and children, and he had no way of knowing their fate.
That’s the essence of survival in an urban environment. The place is crowded with humanity running to and fro trying to escape the crisis, and some of them might belong to you. Turmoil surrounds them, and they are all terrified. You might not even know where they are, but the chaotic scene convinces your mind that they are all in serious trouble and need help. It can turn your heart upside-down in a split second, spawning a sense of despair and panic. With lives on the line, this is not a time to be unsure of what to do.
In many ways, trying to stay alive and keep your loved ones safe in an urban disaster can be more difficult than survival in an empty wilderness. There are extremely serious hazards that threaten our survival in “civilization” that are not a factor in the wilds, and understanding these challenges can make all the difference.
One of the primary challenges in an urban survival situation is a direct result of the masses of unprepared population that are suddenly without the normal services they depend on — food, water, shelter, medical care, communication, transportation.
When the system breaks down, some people become like a deer caught in headlights; they just stand there and stare, not knowing what to do, hoping for someone to come along and save them. Others face even greater danger, as panic sweeps through them like a shockwave, sending them running aimlessly toward exhaustion and despair, and often into injury and death.
After the immediate and perhaps short-lived physical dynamics of the initial calamity — be it an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood, tornado, tsunami, etc. — have ended, the residual impact on the populace takes over and continues the carnage. It’s what follows the storm or the fire or the quake that is the real monster that swallows up huge populations in utter ruin.
Unlike a wilderness survival incident in which one person or perhaps a small group of individuals is involved, an urban survival situation can affect millions of people and destroy everything for hundreds of square miles, resulting in billions of dollars of damage. But, believe it or not, the worst is yet to come.
Even though the earth has stopped shaking, the floodwaters have subsided, the wind has stopped howling, the smoke has cleared, the sun is out and a gentle breeze is blowing, the wreckage left behind will last for a long time. Broken sewer pipes, contaminated water systems, downed power lines, crumbled buildings, homes flattened by trees, cars strewn about like broken toys, collapsed bridges, toxic waste flowing through the streets, disease, injury, and the dead and the dying and the homeless — that’s what is left behind for survivors to deal with. And it might be a long while before anyone comes to help you.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Although we can’t stop natural or manmade disasters from happening, we can reduce the prolonged human suffering if we take some proactive steps. If we’re willing to become educated about the nature of the challenges that follow urban catastrophes, and then follow up with individual planning, and preparation in our own homes, the panic can be averted, at least on the personal level.
If we extend that effort to our neighborhoods and then to our communities, so much the better. By doing that, we take ourselves out of the category of being part of the problem that needs to be solved (part of a populace that needs to be rescued), and places us in a position to be part of the solution.
There will always be those who fail to make preparations to be self-reliant during a crisis, but at least you can do something to make life more manageable for yourself and your family when the worst happens.
Because you are reading this today, you are taking a positive stride forward in your personal education and preparation for keeping yourself and your family safe during tragic times of catastrophe.