The Basics of Disaster Prep

Or, How to Prepare without Being a "Prepper"

This past weekend, I was invited to join a friend and his neighbors to discuss the fundamentals of disaster prep. I joked with them that I don’t know why they thought of me as I don’t have some kind of disaster prep credential.

Realistically, I have thought quite a bit more about this topic than the average person — especially the average person in the city I currently live in. This city is rather safe from natural disasters and even social unrest. I told the attendees that disaster prep is less about being the guy in your basement with 15,000 rounds of ammunition, 50 pounds of gold, and a Ron Paul banner and more about having the competence of a Boy Scout. And that disaster prep can mean being prepared for social unrest but it can also mean simply being prepared for losing power for two weeks.

For these specific people, I was actually very optimistic about their ability to manage survival for two weeks of some kind of unrest or disaster. They live in a close-knit neighborhood with a lot of other families and numerous people there have important niche skills like first aid, ham radio experience, hunting, and some own guns. While I think it would be ideal to be in a community like this in the country, being in a community like this period is more than most people can say

In 2015, I lived in Charleston, SC when Hurricane Joaquin swept through the region. The downtown flooded, food stopped showing up at grocery stores, and many folks were without power for 4, 5, or even 6 days. I had to flee town to Atlanta to a friend’s friend’s place. Had I not had that place to go to, I likely would have had to have gone even further to find a hotel with availability. I was not prepared for that scenario and it convinced me that I needed to be prepared for similar scenarios going forward.

The below is a short set of notes I wrote for the conversation — it’s very basic and likely could use some refinement, but I thought it would be interesting to share for you here.

To the discussion, I brought a BIC lighter and a 2021 USA road atlas for demonstrative effects. It’s too easy to get caught up buying fancy kits or weird survival! gear when in reality, you need to know how to use analog tools like a road atlas and the best tools will often be the simplest like a BIC lighter. You don’t need to break the bank to be prepared.


Being Prepared - Basics

So you want to be prepared. Congratulations! This is the first step towards capping your downside in the unlikely but totally devastating possibility of societal collapse, instability, riots, or other social unrest.

This short document will walk you through some of the “Preparedness 101” recommendations that I’ve developed over my years of increasing paranoia about being prepared. Remember, the point of preparation isn’t necessarily to do or find things that are currently useful -- it is to cap your downside in the unlikely possibility of utterly devastating events. You can think of preparedness like life insurance.

This guide will walk you through what you need to think of from a 30,000 foot perspective and what you need to order as soon as you go home. There are numerous “preparedness” scenarios for which you can be prepared, but we want you to have the bare minimum to navigate the base and most likely scenarios.

30,000 Feet: Preparedness, not Preparation

The motto of the Boy Scouts includes “BE PREPARED.” I want you to think about preparation as if you were embarking on being a Boy Scout (indeed, if you were actually a Boy Scout, many of the skills you learned through that program will come in handy). You want to be well-rounded enough that no matter the serious upheaval that comes your way, you will feel at least “prepared.”

Being prepared doesn’t mean being an expert. It means knowing enough to navigate your way through instability and not (and this is the important part) necessarily rely on another person.

In other words, consider Heinlein’s line from Time Enough for Love:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. (Emphasis added.)

As such, being prepared does not require you to become an expert in any one specific area. It just requires you to be competent enough to navigate a series of fundamental problems you may encounter during a period of increased social upheaval or instability.

Be prepared for two weeks of independent survival. 

Social Upheaval: The Breakdown of Bonds

You should think about any period of social unrest as being a general breakdown of artificial social bonds that hold polite society together. Governance is, loosely speaking, social bonds at scale. In un-scaled communities, governance is taken care of by neighbors and extended family (think of the night watchman neighbor or the uncle who keeps the peace in a small village). At scale, we hire people to help with these kinds of things. We hire policemen, utility workers, truck drivers, supply chain managers, grocery store employees, and so forth.

Social unrest cuts these artificial bonds. The police don’t show up when you call them because they’re overwhelmed. The truck drivers don’t appear at the grocery store because there’s no fuel for trucks. The food doesn’t stay on the shelves because intermittent electricity spoils that which requires refrigeration, and so forth.

So the very best thing you can start with to be prepared -- beyond basic supplies preparation (below) -- is to develop strong social bonds. Get to know your neighbors, have a plan for what to do if things get rough, have people you can call upon to help you with food, safety, childcare, and health most basically.

And as a general rule, forget about the lone prepper stereotype from zombie apocalypse movies. Nine times out of ten, you’re going to want more people around you, not fewer.

Defense: Home & Personal

One of the first things that comes to people’s minds in terms of preparing for any breakdown of social order is guns. But people overcomplicate this (gun aficionados don’t help here, with YouTube videos like Ten Guns You Need This Year!).

Simply put, you need something that will keep you and your family safe.

If you are uncomfortable with guns or are uncomfortable with having them in your home due to small children or somebody in the household, strongly consider making sure that one of your neighbors is comfortable with guns. 

Then consider ways you can minimize making yourself and your family a target in times of social unrest. Avoid anything flashy that would make looters or those who are desperate want to engage with you.

You may want to consider a dog. There are upsides and downsides to dogs -- they’re costly, take up space, must be trained, and mean you then need to prepare dog food and a plan to transport the dog if you need to flee. But they are also excellent home security accessories if you are inclined towards home ownership. 

If you are comfortable with gun ownership, don’t get too caught up in debates over The Best Gun You Can Have For X Purpose. A semi-automatic long rifle can double for home defense and hunting if necessary and is often easier to use than a shotgun (for some entertainment, look around for YouTube videos of women using 12 gauge shotguns vs. AR-15s after comments made by a prominent politician some years ago). Ammunition is often more expensive for semi-automatic rifles, though. .22 longrifle ammo is usually affordable and sufficient for basic defense and hunting needs if you are truly in a pinch. 

This is a very basic set of recommendations. It’s easy to write a series of essays on this topic alone. Happy to engage further on it privately.

Health & Wellness

This one is relatively simple.

Know how to dress basic wounds and have the supplies to do so. A family first aid kit is a good place to start, plus some rubbing alcohol. I recommend getting CPR certified, as well.

Have extended supplies of your prescription drugs on hand.

Food & Utilities

Have some basic preparation for food supplies if there are supply chain breakdowns, utility collapses, or anything that would prevent you from going to the grocery store to get food and then store it in a refrigerator. You want to have at least 2,000 calories/person/day. So for a family of 4 over two weeks, you’ll need 112,000 calories on hand.

Costco and Sam’s Club both sell emergency food kits. Probably good to get these. Also get rice, coconut oil, grains (oatmeal), and proteins that store easily.

Learn how to do basic hunting, fishing, trapping if you can. A good AR with lots of ammo can substitute for a hunting rifle if you need it but ammo is expensive.

Alcohol would likely be helpful in a period of supply chain collapse, at least for bargaining needs. You may want to consider stockpiling cheap alcohol that stores well, like vodka and whiskey.

What about chickens? During 2020, a lot of people expressed interest in getting chickens and growing their own little victory gardens. The reality is that if you live on a plot of land in a city, you’re probably not going to be able to farm enough calories to sustain yourself and your family for an extended period of time. A single egg is only ~50-70 calories and chickens are themselves calorically expensive. You’re better set storing extra shelf-stable food and checking it at least twice/year to keep it up to date.

Cooking: Do not forget about cooking needs. Do not assume utilities will remain on, even gas and clean water (clean water is a distressingly fragile supply chain). Get a supply of gas and burners on hand. Basic camping supplies will suffice for at-home and on-the-go.

The Nitty-Gritty: Your Personal Preparation Kit & Home

Go-Kit: 

  1. Guns

    1. Handgun

    2. Rifle

    3. Shotgun

  2. Ammo

  3. Food & Water supplies

  4. First Aid Kits

  5. Radios

  6. Flashlights

  7. Lighters

    1. BIC lighters

  8. Batteries

  9. Gas or Generators

  10. Maps

    1. Local and national

    2. Escape routes -- remember that highways will be crowded

  11. First Aid Kit

  12. Medicine & Prescription Drugs

  13. Entertainment

  14. Bible

  15. Legal documents

  16. Cash

  17. Alcohol

At Home:

  1. Guns

  2. Ammo

  3. Food & Water Supplies

    1. 15 gallons/person/two weeks

    2. Berkey Water Filter

  4. Backup energy

    1. Generator

      1. Fuel

    2. Solar if applicable to your area

    3. Batteries

    4. Lighters

      1. BIC lighters

  5. Medicine 

  6. First Aid

  7. Entertainment

  8. Religious Items

  9. Legal documents

  10. Cash

  11. Alcohol

An excellent source for extended material in this topic is ThePrepared.com. 

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any follow up questions. I do not attest to be an expert on this matter but do believe that anybody can be moderately well prepared with just a few hours of focused attention on this matter.