Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 Nov

How to Survive a Natural Disaster

With one of the biggest storms – Sandy* – in recent history having just ravaged the eastern seaboard of the United States, bringing flooding and power outages and downed trees and the kind of awe-inspiring displays of raw power that only Mother Nature can bring to bear, I got to thinking about Primal disaster/emergency preparedness. Obviously, regardless of the lifestyle habits we subscribe to, we’re subject to the same basic concerns as anyone else: food, water, warmth, light, shelter, entertainment. The food we eat is gonna look different, and we might try to look at the bright side of being without power, but not much else changes.

Food? Yeah, it’s important, but this post isn’t about food. And anyway, a couple years back, I published a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving the apocalypse, and despite the humor, the recommended non-perishable foods and drinks from that post are still solid choices. The only items I’d add would be canned seafood beyond just sardines – like tuna, salmon, oysters – and kale chips. Because kale chips are that awesome. Oh, and try to get everything in BPA-free packaging. Avoiding endocrine disruption may not be your first priority in a disaster situation, but it can’t hurt.

I won’t go into the standard disaster preparedness checklist. That’s pretty basic stuff that you can find anywhere. Everyone knows the material items they’ll need to survive, the things you can buy at the store and keep in your basement or garage and forget all about until the day arrives. But in the event of a real disaster, whether it’s modern fast zombies, old school shambling zombies, or an unprecedented subtropical storm, there is one essential – and totally Primal – factor that many of us are in danger of overlooking:

The importance of having people nearby on whom you can rely (and they you).

In my experience, most discussions about disaster preparedness overemphasize the individual aspects of survival. You’ve got your bug out bags, your go kits. You’ve got your fantasies of building underground bunkers capable of withstanding a direct hit from a nuclear weapon, amassing as much ammunition as you can find, stockpiling an arsenal that would put Michael Gross from Tremors to shame, and lining your property with machine gun nests, bear traps, and a moat full of great white sharks, piranhas, and salt water crocodiles. Ultimately, these folks are assuming the worst – not just of the situation, but of the people around them – and end up preparing to face the coming onslaught all by themselves. It’s important to be self-reliant, but is it enough? Is it even possible? Are you prepared to move that fallen tree blocking your front door all by yourself? What about the extrication of your living body from the ruins of your house – think that’s a one man job? Can you wrap wounds, set bones, and fashion slings? Do you have carpentry, hunting, and masonry skills? If not, you might want to think about having a group of people upon whom you can rely (and vice versa). You might want to think about obtaining the one resource you can’t simply buy and store in your garage (without going to jail, that is): friends.

Friends can help each other hunt, forage, and garden. Ten pairs of hands (or guns, or minds, or sets of legs) are better and far more effective at doing the things required for survival. Ten guns can defend better than one gun. Ten pairs of hands can chop more wood, carry more water, build more things, and pull more weeds than one pair of hands. Ten minds can come up with a better solution for water purification or shelter fortification than one mind. Ten sets of legs can cover more ground and find more survivors and food than one set of legs.

We all have friends, of course. But in today’s world of Facebook, Twitter feeds, message boards, email, and mobile phones that allow instant connectivity with anyone and everyone anywhere, our friends often live far, far away from us. Or perhaps across town, which doesn’t help us if the roads are blocked and our cars are underwater. For friends to be helpful in disaster recovery, they need to be close. What about our neighbors – the people who we do have at arm’s reach? These are the people who will be able to help us when disaster strikes. These are the people with whom we’ll be able to share supplies and divvy up responsibilities. However, research shows that these people are increasingly not our friends. We might share casual words on trash day with them, but we probably feel awkward asking them to feed our cat and water our plants when we’re away.

When life is going as planned, strangers are fairly civil to each other. You bump into someone in the mall accidentally, you apologize. You see someone coming up behind you as you enter the bank, you hold the door open. This is basic common decency. Easy stuff. But when the world is falling apart around you, what do you do? Your innate sense of preservation kicks in. You grab your kids, your spouse, call your friends, your parents, and stuff the cat into a pet carrier. In other words, you don’t even have to think about saving you and yours; you just act. This is an incredibly Primal response.

When you expand your circle of “yours” to include the people who live around you – and they expand their circles to include you – everyone looks out for everyone. Everyone’s better off. Most importantly, each individual person is better off, because if you’re the unlucky one whose ceiling fell in or whose canned goods were washed away, your neighbors are that much more likely to pull you out and invite you in for some canned tuna and water. And you’re more likely to do the same for them. The beauty of it is that because these are now your friends that need help, you don’t feel “put upon.” You want to help them, because, well, they’re your friends and that’s what friends do. That’s what a tribe does.

Research even shows that in real life disasters, it’s not the government aid, the fire trucks, or the emergency responders that really help people survive in the immediate. It’s the friends, the neighbors, the community. It’s Paul from next door who you let borrow your tool set last year who’s going to pull you out of your collapsed kitchen, not the anonymous emergency responder coming from fifty miles away. A government worker isn’t going to know how many people live in the house across the street, nor will he know whose room is whose; you will. The official response is important, but we can’t rely on it (or ourselves) for everything.

Daniel Aldrich, professor of public policy at Purdue, has made the study of post-disaster resilience in communities his focus. After living through Hurricane Katrina shortly after moving to New Orleans, he noticed that the most successful pockets of the city were the ones with the strongest social ties. The federal response to the hurricane’s aftermath was infamously inept and initially nonexistent, and the folks who knew and liked each other survived and rebuilt their communities faster than the folks who had fewer ties, making this a prime example of the power of community, or what Aldrich calls social capital (PDF). The same held true for communities struck by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake, and, I’d imagine, the many thousands upon thousands of tribes, neighborhoods, communities, towns, city-states, and enclaves hit by floods, fires, famines, pestilence, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters throughout history and prehistory. Why else do you think humans are social animals? Why else would the tribal structure have been evolutionarily preserved if it weren’t helpful for survival?

So, folks, if you want to survive the next disaster, make friends with your neighbors. Get to know them. If you have a lemon tree, take a paper bag full of them over. Have a block party. Throw a barbecue. Pet their dog, feed their cat. Get yourself a tribe.

What do you think, folks? Do you know your neighbors?

*To all my east coast readers and anyone else affected by the recent storm, our thoughts are with you.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I don’t know my neighbors, but my brother does. Of course, I’m there only 2 days per month. My community is a mobile one. Truck drivers go out of their way to help each other and fellow travellers. I keep a back-pack stocked and ready to go in case of emergency (earthquake, flood, marshall law, emp blast, etc). I have friends and family all over the US to rely upon, should the need arise. I have had first aid training and, thanks to BP, I am fit enough to save myself and others. Community is important, but its important to be able to contribute. I wouldn’t want to be a burden.

    TruckerLady wrote on November 1st, 2012
  2. We experienced this first hand in the Queensland floods in 2011 (Australia). We didn’t have power for 6 days, which is probably a good deal shorter than what NY will have to deal with after Sandy.

    I can tell you from experience, whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, once the power shuts down and your home/community is damaged, instinct puts you out there. You go looking to see if people are safe, and they come to see if you’re safe (even if they didn’t know you very well). You both ask if you’ve got enough food, especially where children and the elderly are concerned.

    The best thing we all discovered was rustling up community resources. We made sure everyone in the street was taken care of, then those who didn’t have children to care for, went out to volunteer in the wider community.

    I was able to get into town after a few days (as the roads were all chopped up) and when shop assistants knew what area I was from – one of the flooded ones, they literally gushed with how glad they were I was safe. They were complete strangers, and I couldn’t help by cry once I left the store.

    It’s remarkable the love and community support that comes out after a natural disaster. I feel for those affected by Sandy, as I know it’s going to be a tough few weeks (and then months) ahead.

    I can talk in hindsight because of our experience, but it’s another matter when you’re still feeling raw, immediately after the destructive forces of nature hit.

    Community is the balm of life. :)

    Chris wrote on November 1st, 2012
  3. Well, since I can wrap wounds, splint fractures, have carpentry and masonry skills, can hunt, fish, farm, can and preserve food… my family is screwed if anything happens to me!

    ssn679doc wrote on November 1st, 2012
  4. Great post, lots of food for thought.

    Michelle wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  5. Really nice and informative post, that too in the onset of SANDY, the disastrous cyclone. Keep on writing. Love your blog.

    Winster Grandey wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  6. Great post! We moved to new neighbourhood 2 years ago and got a puppy. On our previous street, we only talk to 1 neightbour (who was constantly gardering outside). With the dog, I now know the morning and night routine of the entire street, all the kids’ names and most of the neightbours. What a difference! It’s nice to have a ‘reason’ to interact with people, especially when you’re naturally an introvert.

    Jo wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  7. Great post. This is a wake up call to all of us socially isolated modern people. I’ve already started up saying hi to people, difficult when you’re not used to it. (I know!) Many people do not acknowledge greetings and some are downright hostile. But others are friendly and those are the ones I could take the next step and stop in my walk long enough for a conversation. Baby steps like my walking program was post surgery.

    Coleen wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  8. amazing. another example of why Mark and BP aren’t BS.

    Khainag wrote on November 2nd, 2012
  9. After the New Zealand earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 one University student, Sam Johnson, started up the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) which utilised Facebook and other media to co-ordinate thousands of university students to help with the manual shoveling of liquefaction off people’s properties (and many other tasks). What those students did was incredible and changed the perception many older people had of Uni students, from the beer drinking, partying types to hard working awesome volunteers. Take a look at their website, maybe someone could do the same for the Sandy victims.

    Sandra from NZ wrote on November 3rd, 2012
    • To add to my post above, the SVA just held a concert with many top bands in Christchurch but there was a catch. You couldn’t buy a ticket, you had to do a certain number of hours volunteering to get a ticket. Another great idea, I think.

      Sandra from NZ wrote on November 3rd, 2012
      • That is a good idea. I used to wash dishes at a resource center for poor youth. It was normally a staff job but if I did it and occasionally did some sweeping they’d give me bus tickets.
        Sometimes I’d take them to the city square and sell them to people waiting for the bus at a discount price. Everybody won.

        Animanarchy wrote on November 9th, 2012
  10. So what I like and at the same time don’t like about all your advice is that we should really know this stuff.

    And I don’t like that we need to be reminded of it over and over again!

    But the PB guidelines are going back to the basics – like get some natural light each day, move your body, etc. – We should know this stuff! I am just like everyone else who needs the reminder.

    So this particular post hit a nerve because I always felt like I lived in the crappiest neighborhood where no one knows each other, and no one makes an attempt to know each other. After reading this post, I got up off my a$$, made a sign-in sheet and walked around the neighborhood and got everyone’s information.

    People actually thanked me for doing this!

    I came home, typed it up, emailed it out, hand delivered it to a lady who doesn’t have a computer, and everyone’s happy.

    Really? It was so easy to do. And it should have been done YEARS ago.

    Thank you, Mark. For reminding us of the little easy stuff that we should already be doing!

    Julie wrote on November 4th, 2012
  11. I just got power back this evening and including my neighborhood from Hurricane Sandy.

    And I definitely agree with this blog post.

    I agree that a community (friends and or neighborhood) helps rebuild after a disaster.

    This past week, I noticed my neighbors ran out of gas for their generator and saw them chopping wood for their fireplace. I offered them half of wood from a fallen branch that fell in front of my yard. The owner was grateful that I would offer half of wood, but declined stating that his son-in-law brought over more fuel for the generator. I could tell he was grateful for the offering.

    A close community like this helps rebuild faster.

    Now I got to talk to and help another neighbor who has a fallen tree in their yard. It’s a great way to build a relationship and gather firewood for the next storm! 😀

    Chris wrote on November 4th, 2012
  12. How do you survive an Obama re-election? Lock and load, move to Texas. This nation is finished.

    Dusty wrote on November 7th, 2012
  13. I’ll probably post this link under the next Weekend Link Love but it suits here. It’s a list of useful things to have and Macgyverisms to make.

    Animanarchy wrote on March 7th, 2014
  14. Katrina was the disaster that first got my attention and I have been following them since. I find it scary that so few people take this seriously enough to put together even a basic Plan! Keep up the GREAT work!

    Jeff Morris

    Jeff Morris wrote on March 15th, 2014
  15. Yeah, I totally agree that friends definitely play a big roll in an emergency situation.
    We once had a fire in our house and somehow my older brother got trapped between the fire while we were all running outside. One of our neighbors, who is a very old and close friend of my father(=he didn’t know about the fire because he was out of town), got tired of waiting for the fire department to arrive so he decided to take a risk and try to save my brother.

    Luckily they made it, but if our good old friend hadn’t helped my brother he would probably be dead now.

    By the way, here is a quick recommendation regarding surviving natural disasters. I accidentally stumbled upon this free audio series that talks about how to survive natural disasters like Sandy, Ebola, Tsunamis and others. Pretty cool stuff. Check it out here:

    Thank you Mark for this insightful article.

    Bogdan wrote on November 23rd, 2015

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