When we think of survival and disaster preparedness the images most people conjure up are basically rural. Preparedness is all about being ready to harvest the essentials from the land, and there’s a distinct echo of pioneer families about it all. But is this realistic? The latest figures, from 2015, show that 82% of Americans now live in urban areas. If you’re one of them, being ready for the worst brings a whole new set of challenges with it.
In rural America space equals time. People are more spread out, and that buys time in all sorts of ways. Civil disorder will take longer to spread, giving you time to prepare. You probably stockpile essentials anyway, rather than buying them a few times a week from the convenience store, so you have at least some reserves to fall back on. In a city it’s different. You’re in close proximity with thousands or millions of other people, and things are a lot more precariously balanced. If the SHTF in a city it’s going to do it fast, and you need to be able to react fast to stay ahead of events.
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If law and order is falling apart around you, and you’re trying to work out what to do, it might be too late already. You’ve lost the initiative and you’ll really struggle to get it back. Preparedness is always a benefit in a survival situation but it’s vital for urban residents. Here are some of the key things you need to work out in advance:
If disaster strikes when your family are all together that’s great – but what if it hits during the day, when people are scattered at work and school? Your first priority is getting yourself and your loved ones together, so you can look out for each other and start working on whatever you plan to do next.
Work out, along with your family, what everyone should do if the world suddenly starts ending. Make alternate plans to fit different circumstances. Say it’s a Saturday night and your teenage kids are hanging out with friends. What should they do if a riot breaks out – head home, or hunker down where they are? You need to know where to look for them if they can’t call you – come up with a short list of meetup points that aren’t on the list of places to avoid (we’ll look at those later).
During the day a good plan is for any family member who’s at home to stay there; kids stay at school, and any adult who’s at work should pick the kids up before heading home as well. Agree the basics with everyone, then look at alternatives – what if the school is evacuated?
Keep in touch
In any crisis situation, you can’t rely on cell phones; a power outage can kill the infrastructure they rely on. The same goes for a lot of modern landlines. If your phone service is over VOIP then it’s going to die the instant the power goes down. An old-fashioned phone plugged into the wall socket is different; it’s powered through the line, not your domestic electricity. If you have a traditional phone you can keep talking to anyone else has one, as long as the exchanges are still running.
Urban dwellers don’t have the self-sufficiency options available in the countryside, but you need some basic resources to keep you going in the initial stages of a crisis. Make sure you have at least three days’ worth of food and water stored at home – and that means food that doesn’t need electricity to prepare. Also stockpile a good first-aid kit, flashlights and spare batteries, and other essentials.
A lot of city residents don’t have cars; if you’re one of them, when it’s time to head for the hills you’re going to be on foot for at least the first part of the journey. Make sure you have good walking boots or shoes, outdoor clothing and a pack that can carry all your essentials.
If you do have a vehicle, keep it as fully fueled as you can at all times. Don’t drive around until the low-fuel light comes on, then look for a gas station. Instead, top up the tank every time it falls below ¾ full – and keep a reserve gas canister in the trunk, too. That way, if you need to move you’re ready to just load up and go.
Next, know where you’re going to go. Maybe you drive around the city every day, but that’s not the same as trying to drive out of it in an emergency. Some routes that flow freely are going to be blocked solid. Look for escape routes that stay clear of places to avoid (we’ll get to those soon) as much as possible. Try to move along residential streets, especially suburban ones – they’re less likely to have crowds.
Watch for check points – places where movement is channeled into restricted routes. Those routes will grind to a halt as soon as someone has a breakdown or accident, and that’s going to happen – panic attracts trouble. Look for less constricted ways out. For example, if you live in north San Francisco your closest ways out are the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. Guess what? They’re everyone else’s closest ways out too, and they’re going to get choked quickly. Instead, turn south and head for San Jose. It’s more distance, but there are a lot of roads; if one’s blocked, just back up and find another.
When you decide it’s time to leave the city your priority is to get out. The direction you leave in doesn’t matter much; if conditions are going downhill you just want to leave. Plan a couple of routes in different directions, so you can adapt to the situation – if there’s a major problem on the east side and your main route goes through it, you can just use one of your alternates and go one of the other directions instead.
Drive your routes regularly enough that you can navigate them flawlessly and stay up to date on any changes – you don’t want to find unexpected roadworks when you’re trying to leave in a hurry.
There are some places that you should steer clear of as much as possible in an emergency. They’re likely to be over-run by panicked mobs or under attack by rioters – or even terrorists. When you’re arranging places to meet up, or planning safe routes, look out for these unsafe locations.
Obviously, if a place is on this list, don’t decide you’ll meet your family there. It goes a bit further than that though. Try to avoid intersections that have one of them, because those locations will probably attract trouble and could easily be blocked. As far as you can, don’t even pass by one if you can help it. That won’t always be possible, but do your best. Anyway, here are the top trouble magnets:
- Government offices. Whether they’re besieged by protesters or setting up for a state of emergency, these are locations you should stay away from if possible. That includes city hall, the police station and military bases. The government isn’t just something people will focus their discontent on; it’s a terrorist target as well.
- If you have a life-threatening injury or illness get to hospital as quick as you can. Otherwise, stay clear; it’s likely to be over-run with desperate people.
- Grocery stores. A crowd trying to panic-buy food can turn ugly in a hurry. If you need food, look for small convenience stores in residential areas. Safeway is likely to be packed and tense.
- Gas stations. People wanting to get out of the city will be filling their cars. Because yours is already full you can stay away from these potential flashpoints.
- Public squares, parks and gardens. These are basically riot farms. Worried people gather in them, rumors and complaints spread, and next thing you know an angry mob is rampaging towards city hall.
- Transport hubs. Airports, rail links and coach stations will attract desperate people trying to get out. They also attract terrorist attacks. Stay away; you’re better walking out through the back streets than taking your chances in a panicking mob.
As I said at the beginning, urban survival does have its own challenges. Preparedness will take the edge off them, though, so it’s worth putting in a little effort. It doesn’t take much; occasional chats with your family, a few extra grocery items every week to build up stores, a sensible approach to keeping vehicles fueled and the occasional drive out of town. It won’t cost you much time or money, but when seconds count it will give you a huge head start.
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What items do you think you’ll miss the most when the SHTF? What would you add or remove from this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!
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