Thursday, December 31, 2015

Disaster Preparedness Part One: Assessing the Risk

Part of "being a man" involves taking care of your tribe. This series will explore the topic of disaster preparedness. Sometimes bad, unexpected shit happens. Most people rely on others to get them through any hardship. Just watch the news. How many times do you see a disaster situation and countless people paralyzed with fear or completely incapable of fending for themselves? One of my goals as a man that's working to get better at being a man is avoiding that common scenario.

Years ago when I lived in Michigan, I developed a "what if" plan should we ever experience any sort of unexpected disaster. I liked to think of it as insurance. Having grown up in a rural area miles and miles away from any town, I fully understand the need to be able to handle your own shit. If we ever needed services like police, fire, or ambulance, the response would take at least 10-20 minutes. 

My plan at the time wasn't very elaborate and consisted of making copies of important documents and storing them in a remote location, having a three day supply of food and clean water, and making sure we had a healthy supply of flashlights and batteries. It was Michigan; the biggest dangers we faced were prolonged power outages from snow storms or the possibility of a tornado. 

When Shelly and I left Michigan to travel around the country in an RV, we went through many different geographical areas. That variety provided a bit of a challenge, but the RV itself was great. If a disaster was predictable (like a hurricane, severe thunderstorm, snow storm, flooding, wildfires, civil unrest... whatever), we could simply move. Some of the unpredictable events, like earthquakes, were okay, too, because the RV was designed to be tossed around. About the only two disasters we couldn't prepare for would be a tornado or volcano, and the latter is almost always predictable. 

When we settled in San Diego, we still lived in the RV for a year. All the same rules applied; I wasn't especially concerned because we could escape in our self-contained, well-stocked living unit. About two years ago, we moved into an apartment. In true procrastinator fashion, I'm just now reformulating my disaster preparedness plan for our new situation. In this post, I'll outline exactly what I'm doing to prepare. 

Some Facts About San Diego

The first step in developing a plan is to assess the area. San Diego County is a huge metropolitan area with a population of around 3.2 million residents, making it one of the ten biggest cities in the United States. There are six international airports within 100 miles, and two ports of entry into the US. There are a myriad of military bases and installations in the area, including the home of the Navy's Pacific fleet. There's also a decommissioned nuclear power plant north of the city, which is significant because they buried millions of pounds of nuclear waste along the shoreline.

As far as climate, San Diego varies from pleasantly mild to hot depending on the time of year and location. The farther you travel from the ocean, the more variable and extreme the weather gets. The northern part of the county is somewhat like an arid Mediterranean climate, whereas the south and east parts of the county are more like a semi-arid steppe. The whole area only receives about 10 inches of rain annually. 

Another consideration is the possible evacuation routes. San Diego is pretty much in the same boat as Los Angeles. It's a densely-populated urban area surrounded by fairly rugged mountains, then hundreds of miles of brutal desert. There are really only three major highways out of the area, and two lead north to Los Angeles. There are ten or so other possible routes, but all are two lane highways that twist and turn through mountains. Imagine 3.2 million people all fleeing using the same highway and having nearly zero infrastructure capable of handling such a large number of displaced individuals. Those few desert towns ain't gonna be able to handle millions of ill-prepared, panicked people. Depending on the reason for evacuation, that could be very problematic, and will alter my plans a bit.

Possible Disasters

The next step in the plan is assessing the probability of possible disasters. This is accomplished by looking at the incidence of past disasters, then looking at other possible disasters that may not occur regularly, but are still possible. Here's a run-down for San Diego county.

  • Water Curtailment - Water in San Diego is a fickle mistress. Only about 15-20% of the water used originates locally via reservoirs, water recycling, and a new desalination plant that opened in Calsbad. The rest comes from Northern California and the Colorado River. To compound the problem, we're in the midst of a severe drought. Given we get so little rain and have very little access t water supplies, we're uncomfortably dependent on others to supply our water. Over the three years we've been here, our water supply has been shut off about twenty times (all due to local not regional issues.) Because of the regularity in a loss of access to water and the potential for a catastrophic interruption in the entire county's water supply, this is the number one priority in my plan.
  • Wildfire - Pretty much the entire county is a tinder box just waiting to ignite, especially during the dry season from May to about December. The area has experienced a few severe fires over the years. We were present during one of the major events, which happened in May of 2014. There were two major fires less than a mile from our home. They cancelled schools because of the possible danger of fires. Like water interruptions, wildfire danger factors heavily in my plan.
  • House fire - This one gets surprisingly little attention from doomsday planners, but statistically is the most likely. 
  • Home invasion - This isn't a major concern mostly because a) we live in an apartment in an RV park that has multiple gates and two security doors, b) we don't have anything worth stealing (yay thrift store shopping!), and c) there are a lot better (and easier) targets all around us. Still, it's worth considering. 
  • Flood - Flooding is less of an issue for me personally; we live on the second floor of a building on a hill. Still, the occasional heavy rains can cause severe flooding, but it only lasts for a few hours before the excess water runs out to sea.
  • Earthquake - San Diego, like all of California, has a higher-than-average risk for earthquakes. However, the danger is significantly less than other areas like LA and the Bay Area. Earthquakes are probable, but due to excellent building codes, not likely to cause widespread destruction.
  • Tsunami - Like the flooding issue, this isn't a problem that would affect our home. We live about 700 feet above sea level. Still, a tsunami would wreck havoc for the coastline, which would impact us indirectly. 
  • Hurricane - The odds of a hurricane hitting San Diego is extremely remote given the ocean currents drive cold water from the Northern Pacific and the different directional wind patterns at high and low altitudes tend to sheer storms before they make landfall. Still, it's possible a very weak hurricane could hit. Storm surge wouldn't be a huge issue, and winds wouldn't be ridiculously strong. But the rain... that could do some serious damage. 
  • Severe thunderstorm - The threat of severe thunderstorms (and lightning, hail, and tornadoes) are improbable, but not impossible. Still, the same weather effects that insulate us from hurricanes also insulates us from severe storms. Having come from the Midwest, the threat of severe thunderstorms is not a concern.
  • Prolonged power outage - Back in 2011 (before we lived here), electricity to the entire county was cut off due to a problem at a substation. It only lasted around 12 hours for most people, but the stories I've heard are... troubling. Back in Michigan, it wasn't unusual to lose power for days at a time. Everyone was prepared and life went on as normal. A lot of people here simply panicked, lost their shit, and had no idea what to do. And it only lasted 12 hours. If the power supply were ever interrupted for more than a day or so here, given the reliance on electricity and lack of preparedness, I think pandemonium would break out. Preparing for no electricity is easy. Preparing for other people? Not so much.
  • Pandemic - There's a lot of people and goods traveling through San Diego. That, coupled with a large population, means the area is especially susceptible to the fast spread of contagious diseases. 
  • Terrorist attack (Biological agent, dirty bomb, EMP attack, fuck with water supply) - I don't worry about isolated terrorist attacks like that which happened in San Bernardino recently, mostly because it's such a statistically-insignificant danger. I'm more concerned with a major terrorist attack, especially one targeting our fragile water supply. Even though it's extremely unlikely, an electro-magnetic pulse attack (EMP, the result of a nuclear explosion, which destroys electronics across a widespread area) is pretty damn scary. In an instant, all electronics would cease to function from our phones, computers, radios, and televisions to our cars, boats, and airplanes. We would have no electricity, no water, and no sewage. It's scary enough to compel me to plan enough non-electronic redundancy into my plans to cope with such an event, most of which would be the same planning for an electricity outage.
  • Nuclear attack - Like the other items towards the bottom of the list, this is extremely improbable. However, San Diego IS home to a ton of military targets including the Navy, has a lot of long runways (destroying runways destroys our air superiority) and is an important port. In the event of a nuclear war, San Diego's getting hit.
This isn't an absolutely comprehensive list, but it does cover most of the probable events. Some events that aren't covered, like an asteroid hitting the Earth, would be pretty similar to some of the others.


This is the basic information I need to start building my plan. I know the basics of the area and the most probable disasters we'll face. In the next part, I'll discuss the formulating on the plan and the first steps of the actual preparedness. In future sections, I'll talk about adding to the plan to make it more flexible and the process of actually testing the plan. 


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