Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Weather Forecasting

When the weather turns nasty, it can trap you right where you stand, and it can kill you unless you're aware of what's coming and able to take the proper steps to save yourself. So it’s important to keep a weather eye on what’s happening. You might detect significant local atmospheric activity that has escaped the attention of weather forecasters.  

As you watch for signs of bad weather, what you are looking for are cloud patterns and movement. The atmosphere is made up of gigantic air masses that differ from one another in temperature, pressure and humidity. Interaction between these air masses results in changing weather conditions such as cloud formation, precipitation and wind. Clouds are the biggest clue to the type of weather that is coming. The three primary types of clouds that we will discuss here are cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Watching the progression of cloud evolution gives clues about what’s coming. 

Cumulus clouds are the puffy ones. They are the most unstable type of clouds and are often associated with cold fronts or air rising over mountains. The puffiness indicates that there is some degree of upward movement (a rising air mass), causing air to climb to a colder altitude where the water vapor in the air condenses and “grows” the cloud at the top. A bunch of little cumulous clouds scattered in the sky like so many sheep on a pasture don’t pose a threat. But when cumulus clouds bunch together into a huge mass, or grow into towering monsters, a thunderstorm (or worse) is possible. Cumulus giants can spawn sudden downpours, lightning and thunder, violent wind, flashfloods, hail, and tornadoes. This is especially true when warm/moist air collides with cooler/drier air along a frontal boundary.

Stratus clouds form shapeless solid layers of overcast, leaving a gray, dreary sky. If there is a lot of light penetrating the stratus layer, it probably isn’t dense enough to produce much precipitation. You might get the odd shower, but it takes a cloud thickness of 4,000 feet or more to produce steady rain. But if the clouds become dark and low, expect showers or drizzle. Stratus clouds don’t result in sudden and violent downpours, the way cumulus clouds do, but the rain can continue steadily for hours or even a couple of days, so there is still a danger of flooding, especially if the ground is rocky or already sodden.

But there is the potential for a hidden danger with stratus clouds, because you can’t see what is happening above them, when you’re standing on the ground and looking up. It is possible that a giant cumulus formation is above the stratus layer, so be alert to the possibility of violent weather, even if things look pretty benign from below the cloud deck.

Cirrus clouds form so high in the atmosphere that they are made of ice crystals instead of water vapor. These wispy clouds (sometimes called Mares Tails because of their shape) don’t cause rain, but they can foretell the coming of a warm front that brings precipitation. If stratus follows cirrus, and if that stratus evolves into a thicker and darker layer, expect rain. How quickly the rain comes depends on the speed that the front is moving.

Clear blue sky doesn’t necessarily mean everything is hunky-dory. If a high-pressure system moves in and pushes a low-pressure system out of the way, it brings clearing skies — but it might also bring strong and gusty wind as the pressure between the two systems attempts to equalize. Trees can be knocked down and tents blown away under clear, blue sky. 

By tapping into the available weather information and keeping an eye on the sky, you can make better judgments about what kind of weather to expect.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Location, Location, Location

You know what they say about real estate — there are only three things that you have to keep in mind. Location, location and location. 

Well, the same thing applies to the little patch of real estate where you set up your shelter. Except that I'm going to give you five important points to keep in mind, instead of just three. And my five are all different. Each one is essential to your safety and comfort while living in a survival shelter. Some are related to natural hazards or nuisances that you need to avoid. One point is related to getting yourself rescued, and one is related to your comfort while in camp. 

Before building your shelter, pay attention to the following:

• Look down — You’re looking for ants, ground-dwelling wasps, or other insect colonies that may already inhabit the construction site.

• Look up — You’re looking for wasps or beehives, as well as for widow makers (branches that can fall out of an overhead tree, or rocks that may slide off a hillside or cliff). You’re also looking for evidence of water that might stream over the edge of a cliff during a night storm.

• Look around — Check the area for snake habitat, scorpions, spiders. Make sure your shelter site isn’t in a drainage that could fill from a distant storm and wash you away in a flash flood.

• Try to locate your shelter where it may easily be seen by search and rescue teams. If possible, place the shelter within easy access to firewood, water and food supplies.

• Take advantage of existing shade in hot weather, open exposure to the sun in cold weather, natural windbreaks, etc.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Shelter In Place

Word out of Japan is that an elderly woman and a teenager were rescued from their collapsed home 9 days after it was damaged by the earthquake. That brings up a couple thoughts I'd like to share.

In a catastrophe, two scenarios develop. One is that you must evacuate, the other is that you can stick around and "shelter in place." Shelter in place is the term used when the building you're in when the crisis hits is suitable for your occupancy and there are no circumstances absolutely requiring that you evacuate.

The case in Japan is not what I would call sheltering in place, but the damaged residence did provide adequate shelter to keep these two alive for 9 days until they could be rescued. I must point out that this structure was damage by the earthquake, not the tsunami. There is no way to shelter in place when a tsunami is sweeping through the area — higher ground (or levels of a building above the waterline) must be reached.

I haven't seen photos of the building where these two were rescued, but my mind conjures scenes of rubble (probably because that's the kind of footage the media is providing) in which the two were trapped.

Still, there is a point to be made that even a badly damaged structure might be useful for shelter from the elements until the situation can be improved. Of course, if the structure is likely to continue collapsing around you, it is not a safe place and must be evacuated. But if the structural damage has settled and there is little risk of further collapse, perhaps it can be used to shield survivors from wind, rain and snow or hot sun.

Short of having the damaged building fall on you, the real shelter-related risks to survival are exposure to the elements. So being able to stay dry and out of the wind are two priorities. I remember seeing images of homes with blue tarps stretched over damaged roofs after hurricanes, and this same concept might apply after an earthquake. So a big tarp can be a valuable addition to survival supplies, because it might be used to help you shelter in place even though your home has been damaged.

A tarp, some rope and tent pegs are also useful if you have to evacuate. With a length of rope stretched between trees or other anchors to form a ridgeline, the tarp can be used as an emergency tent to get you out of the elements.

Before deciding to evacuate (unless there is a compelling reason - like a tsunami), consider the possibility of staying put and sheltering in place. You have a house full of resources to use, if that situation is possible. But if you decide that evacuation is the best course of action, do it early to avoid the rush.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hostage Part 3

Well, we've talked about avoiding a hostage situation, but what if the worst happens and you end up being taken? How are you going to survive?

According to Cameron Gamble, a veteran instructor of the Air Force SERE (Search, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school, you need to put yourself through a 3-phase situational assessment process to avoid what he calls capture shock. The assessment goes like this: try to determine 1) who has me? 2) what do they want? and 3) how far are they willing to go to get it?

If your captors are local punks out for some kicks by stealing your car for a joy ride, that's a different scenario than if you are carjacked by a bunch of armed bank robbers on the run from police. So first figure out who the captors are, what they want and how far you think they're willing to go to get it. That will help you determine your course of action.

Randy Spivy conducted hostage survival training for Department of Defense personnel. He also promotes a 3-stage strategy, based on the letter C — calm, connect, and capitalize. To quote him, "You want to be a calming influence, maintain our composure, and don't do anything to escalate the tension. If they say don't look at them, don't look at them." As the hostage crisis wears on, the captors might become bored and receptive enough for you to try the next two steps — connecting and capitalizing. Connecting means that you make yourself appear as a person, not an object. See if you can find some common interest to talk about with your captors — your family, recreational activities, hobbies. By doing this, you're engaging in a reverse Stockholm Syndrome, making yourself appear to be likable. Hopefully, they won't injure or kill you if they like you as a person. The capitalize phase is when you encourage your captors to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Express your confidence that everything is going to work out okay. Topics to avoid are religion, politics and economics, unless you are positive that you can connect with the captors by agreeing with them on those subjects.

When it comes to physically engaging the enemy, you need to be sure you have an absolutely clear motive. If they're holding a gun to your wife's head and you know for certain they're going to pull the trigger, that's when you have no choice. If you fight back and your wife is killed, the outcome is no worse than if you had just sat there and watched her die without lifting a finger.

In a hostage crisis, there may be a time to fight, or it may be better to keep everything calm by cooperating with the captors. You need to assess the situation and figure out what to do and when to do it. Make the right choices and you might live. Make the wrong ones, and people are probably going to die.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hostage Survival

Continuing the previous discussion about piracy — being taken hostage whether at sea, in a public place, in your own home, or even in a car-jacking situation — the first issue is about how to avoid that situation in the first place. There are steps you can take to avoid being taken hostage:

  • The simplistic answer is don't go where hostage situations occur. Face it, there are some places that are more dangerous than others, and you need to recognize the risk factors involved in places you go. At sea, it's anywhere within 500 miles of Somalia. Car-jacking is more likely to occur in certain neighborhoods. Don't wander around in seedy parts of town. Just don't go there. That's the easy part. But when it comes to being taken hostage in a public place or even in your own home, the unfortunate fact is that criminals have been known to hit posh hotels, fast-food restaurants, and residential homes in every kind of neighborhood. So you are somewhat limited when it comes to simply avoiding bad places. But use your head and stay away from places where trouble is likely to come. 
  • Make yourself a harder target. Lock your doors and windows day and night. That goes for the vehicle and the house. Don't provide easy access. Make it hard to get to you. 
  • Be ready to roll. If you're in a public place, position yourself near an escape route. If somebody come into the room brandishing a weapon, burst out of the escape route as quickly as possible before the bad guys have a chance to take control of the room. Just fly out of there instantly. If the bad guys want to control the room, they probably won't chase after you and risk losing everybody else. 
  • Be constantly aware of what's going on (situational awareness). If something doesn't feel right, get out immediately. If it turns out that you were wrong, don't worry; it's better to suffer embarrassment than to suffer at the hands of criminals.
  • If someone you don't know approaches your vehicle while you're sitting at a stoplight or intersection, roll up the windows and lock the doors. Be ready to jump on the gas pedal and take off. If a bad guy reaches through your window, floor the gas pedal. If bad guys surround your vehicle, run over them. It's your life to save, so you better be ready to do whatever it takes. But don't just sit there and let them take you without trying to escape.
  • If you are armed, you need to decide if getting in a gun battle is going to make things better or worse. For example, if I were alone I'd be more prone to engage the enemy than if my wife and children were in the room with me. It's up to you to determine how much potential collateral damage you are willing to risk. 
If you are taken hostage, you need to figure out how to survive. We'll deal with that next time. 

Monday, March 7, 2011


There's been a lot of talk lately about piracy on the high seas. Last year, pirates highjacked 53 ships and held nearly 1,200 hostages for ransom. This is a deadly game that has been going on for a long time in some parts of the world, but the reason the chatter about it has ramped up in the last little while is because of recent attacks on privately owned sailboats with families aboard. Up until recently, it's been rare for pirates to attack these types of boats because they've concentrated primarily on container ships and oil tankers that can bring a high ransom.

Most hostages are not killed, because the pirates are only interested in collecting ransom to release the crews and ships being held. But, last month 4 Americans on a sailboat were murdered by Somali pirates. And within days of that tragedy, a Danish vessel with a family of 5 (3 teenagers) and 2 additional crew was taken by Somali pirates. Why? Private sailboats are not worth much ransom, and most cruising families don't have much money back home to buy their release — so why the sudden interest in highjacking these boats and crews?

My guess is that the game is simply ramping up. The pirates, rich from the millions they've collected (one south Korean tanker company paid over 9 million dollars for the release of one of their ships), and facing almost zero resistance, they're just starting to knock off any boat that's in the area for the fun of it.

The big question is, how do we stop this kind of activity? My answer is to take the fun out of the game. Eliminate the reward and escalate the downside for the pirates. Actively hunt down their mother ships that send out the small, fast attack boats, and sink those mothers — along with everybody onboard.

This is nothing different from gangs taking over neighborhoods on land. And you can either surrender to them and let them run wild and get away with murder, or you can make it so dangerous for them to operate that they go someplace else. Now I have to admit that I am a "take no prisoners" kind of guy, so I'm not prone to catch-and-release. Read into that whatever you want, but my personal belief is that when criminals make that career choice, they also choose the possible consequences. So I'm not going to lose any sleep over being the delivery system of those consequences.

Piracy on the high seas has its counterpart on dry land. Home invasion is the same thing — so is general hostage taking in public places. This kind of thing is becoming more prevalent these days, so my next message will be about how to avoid and/or survive being a hostage in your own home or somewhere else.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Let Someone Know

John and Patricia Norvell sat trapped in their Jeep Grand Cherokee for 4 days, hoping each day that someone would come along and rescue them.

Their survival ordeal began when their Jeep slid off the snow-covered forest road new Mount St. Helens and ended up stuck in the borrow pit running alongside the road. Over the next 4 days, a couple more feet of snow fell and the overnight temperatures dropped into the teens. The Norvells weren't prepared with sleeping bags or extra food and water. According to the report, the only food they had was a bag of jelly beans, and their water came from melting snow. To stay warm, they ran the engine only a few minutes at a time so they wouldn't run out of gas. To top it all off, nobody back home had a clue where to look for them.

It wasn't until the middle of the week when family members dropped by the Norvells' home and discovered that the cats hadn't been fed. That's when relatives alerted authorities. One family member said, "No one had any clue. Normally they tell you, 'hey we're going to drive to the beach today, or we're going to go here.' They had talked about maybe going to the seaside or Port Angeles. We called every hotel in Port angeles. It was a dead end everywhere we went."

The Norvells tried to call their family earlier in the day before they got stuck, but there was no cell coverage where they were driving. After continuing up the forest road for a while, they decided to turn around. That's when they got stuck.

At one point, Patricia decided that they needed to hike out, but John felt like they should stay with the vehicle where it provided shelter and some warmth. Good decision John!

After their rescue (by some folks who just happened to drive by and spot their vehicle buried in snow), the Norvells made a list of what they wish they had with them. On their list were a shovel, food, and more water. I might add to that list a sleeping bag for each person, and signaling equipment better than just a cell phone.

But the biggest lesson of all is about the importance of letting friends and family members back home know where you're going and when to expect you back. That alone might have shortened the Norvells' adventure significantly.