Prepping Matters: Prep For Secondary Disasters

Dangers of Secondary or Cascading Disasters

The whole idea behind prepping is being prepared for disasters.  The word “disaster” conjures up images of hurricanes, floods, wildfires, explosions or anything that suddenly, and tragically disrupts the normal flow of our daily life.  While those events are terrifying, they often are not responsible for most deaths.  Experts call these events initial, or primary disasters.  What happens next is what causes the most trouble.

Let’s look at a hurricane as an example.  Most people who live in hurricane prone areas are very familiar with preparing for them.   They know how important it is to have several days, even weeks worth of food, water, and other supplies stockpiled.  If a hurricane only lasts for a day, why the need for such a stockpile?

With the damage that comes with severe storms, our lifestyle is interrupted.  Streets are covered with debris, so trucks can’t make deliveries to stores.  That means no food on store shelves, possibly for weeks until the streets get cleaned up.  If you had to live for two weeks with what you have on hand today, how would life be?

Now imagine that the electricity is out, and over the radio (you have a battery powered radio, right?), they announce the public water system has been contaminated.  The water may still be flowing, but it will make you sick.  They have issued a boil notice, or worse, a “do not consume” notice.  You are already in a bad situation.  The last thing you want is to get sick and have to go to the hospital (which is already overcrowded).

It could be a week after the primary disaster, and you could still be dealing with several other disasters that happen as a result of it.  These are known as secondary, or cascading disasters, and in many ways, they are more dangerous than the primary disaster.  Here is an example of this concept:

Cascading Disaster Flow chart


In the scenario above, there is a massive flood. Let’s pretend that we were lucky, and there are no deaths as a result of the flood.  However, look at all the things that were disrupted because of the flood.  Although there were no deaths, the hospital is overwhelmed by injuries, near drowning victims, and people who are medically fragile.

The city still has running water, but no electricity.  Unfortunately, the water is contaminated by sewage.  The city has issued a “do not consume” notice, but there are hundreds of people who did not get the message.  They come down with severe diarrhea, and vomiting which puts them in danger of dying of dehydration.  The hospital gets a new wave of sick people who drank the contaminated water.

The city has set up an emergency shelter in the gym of the local high school for people who have been flooded out of their homes.  The gym is so packed with people, you can’t even see the floor.  After three days, several people are ill with cough, body aches, and a high fever.  It is flu season, and since there were so many people sharing the same space, everyone in the gym has been exposed.  Because of the lack of resources, especially clean drinking water, those with high fevers need medical help.  So they go to the hospital.

At this point, the hospital is overwhelmed. They are short on staff.  There are just not enough doctors and nurses to take care of the high number of people, and some die in the waiting room, or outside on the curb without getting any help.

The food supply is interrupted.  Store shelves are empty.  A disaster relief organization rolls into town with food and supplies, but people are panicked, hungry, and exhausted.  Fights break out, and a few people get trampled in a stampede.  More people need to go to the hospital.

There are many other hazards that could happen as a result of the primary disaster.   Some cannot be controlled, such as weather, but for many, the chaos can be minimized, or even prevented.

This is Why Prepping Matters

Look at the chart again, and you will see “Lack of Preparedness” as a contributing factor.  By not being prepared, we make a bad situation worse.  On the flip side, being prepared can help, or even prevent some of those secondary disasters.  Let’s re-imagine the scenario through a preparedness perspective.

This area is prone to floods, so the city emergency management team develops a public education plan to help citizens be more prepared.  The local CERT team helps organize and promote the education campaign.  They teach their family and friends the importance of being prepared by having enough food, water, and supplies to help see them through the next disaster, as well as “bug out bags” in case they do need to evacuate their homes, and go to a shelter.

They encourage everyone to get a battery powered radio so they can receive announcements about the safety of tap water.  By doing this, and by having citizens stock up on bottled water during the flood season, they significantly reduce the number of people who will show up at the hospital for drinking contaminated water, and dangerous dehydration.

Local CERT members and Red Cross volunteers lend support to the hospital and emergency responders by performing triage and first aid to victims, which helps make the process more organized, and saves time.  The doctors can focus their attention on who needs help the most.

At the shelter, volunteers help organize the situation, establishing sanitation routines, and putting up flyers as reminders that good hand washing prevents illness.  They set up separate areas for people who are sick.

Along with the water stockpile, citizens are encouraged to stock up on at least a week of food to feed their family.  Next time, when disaster relief rolls into town, the people are much more calm, and even help to distribute supplies in their community.

Start Prepping Today

I hope you see the importance of being prepared for disasters. Even prepping in small ways can make a big difference.  Being involved in your community is tremendously helpful, and part of being a good citizen.  For more information on how to get involved in your community, visit my post about joining CERT.

Please explore my other posts, where I go into several topics in more detail.

Follow me on Facebook, and encourage your family and friends to start prepping too!


Prepping Kids Matters

An Oncoming Storm

I knew this weekend we could expect a severe thunderstorm.  I was ready for it:

  • I have at least 3 days of food and water for my family
  • I have a first aid kit, and I know CPR/First Aid
  • I have a weather radio, and flash lights in case the power goes out

I was up at 8:30, and checked the weather.  The forecast said we could expect severe thunderstorms around the afternoon.

Normally, Sunday is the day that I do laundry and other housekeeping.  I realized that if the power does go out, I will not be able to do laundry, so I got an early start.

I was feeling pretty good about myself for being proactive.  Not having clean laundry is not a disaster, but it is certainly demoralizing. With thunderstorms, we often lose power, and I wanted to get as much done before that happened.

As I got a head start on my house cleaning, I noticed it got darker outside. At 10:00 am, it looked more like night than day, and the sky had a swampy green hue (a danger sign for tornadoes). The wind started picking up, and I heard an odd crackling thunder in the distance (I am no stranger to thunder/lightning…this sounded different).  The storm came earlier than I expected. My NOAA weather radio rang out with a tornado warning alert: “Take cover now”.

I put down the laundry.  Calmly, I woke up my kids.  “Tornado warning” I said.  I told them to grab their blanket, and come to the living room.  Since I have already established a tornado plan with them, they know the drill.  I switched on my HAM radio to the NOAA weather frequency (same as the weather radio, I’m practicing with my HAM radio).

By the time they got to the living room, the tornado warning was cancelled.  It passed that fast.  My son joked that he woke up “for nothing”, and I reminded him to be thankful it was for nothing.  Things could have gone rather differently if a tornado passed over us.

Tornado Warnings in Red
Radar snapshot.  Areas in red are tornado warnings

Play the “What If” Game

Since they were up, and we were all huddled together, I used this as a teaching opportunity.  I posed several “what if” scenarios, and asked what would they do.  “What if I am at work when a tornado happens?”  “What if the apartment is unsafe, and you must leave?  How will I find you?”  We have talked about this before, and I was surprised when my son gave answers that he came up with on his own….things we have not talked about.

We live walking distance to 3 schools, so the obvious answer is that if home is unsafe, go to a school.  But when I asked him where he would go if home is destroyed or unsafe, here is how he answered:

Him: “I would go to the grocery store” (which is a block away)

Me: I was surprised at this answer, and said “why not the school?”

Him: “The doors will be locked”

I explained that in a disaster, the schools are opened as shelters, and would be the best place for him to go.  Since I volunteer with CERT, I explained how the community will get organized to deal with the disaster, and that would be the best place for him to go.  If he is wandering around, he may expose himself to secondary disasters from debris, downed  power lines, flash floods, etc, and that he would not be safe.  Furthermore, if he is alone and gets himself in trouble, there will be no one there to help him.

I realize how important it is to continually and periodically practice drills, and revisit the plan often, because while it is clear to me, it may not be clear to them.

As I was walking my son through the “what if” scenarios, I asked him “What if the streets are covered with debris?”  His answer:  climb over it.  No!  There could be so many dangers with that (puncture wounds, falling, and downed power lines to name a few). “Ok, then, I would cross over the creek.”  No! With the storm, there could be risk of flash flooding, dangerous debris hidden under the water, or downed power lines nearby.  These dangers don’t reveal themselves until it’s too late. So crossing through the creek is not an option.

It was good that we were going through this mental exercise, because it was making him think critically about the situation.  He walks to school every day, but after a disaster, it would be entirely different.  It is far better to go through this critical thinking process when he is well rested, well fed, and calm, rather than in a disaster where he may be scared, panicked, distraught, and just not thinking clearly.

Delusional Ideas About Surviving

Going through this exercise was good for me, because I learned something about my son.  He is a teenager, and likes to play video games.  He likes games and movies that involve being the hero, or “toughing it out” in extreme survival situations.  Perhaps these movies and games primed his mind towards a fantasy notion about surviving a disaster.  He envisions himself performing gymnastics, and “beating the odds” like the heroes in his games, but real life does not work that way. Often with surviving, the best solution is the least dramatic one.

I won’t go into how entertainment might give kids the wrong idea of what surviving is about, but I do offer this caution:  This is why it’s so important for us to talk to our kids about this stuff.  My son may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors because it is the “brave” thing to do, rather than making the safe choice which will keep him alive.

Even with survivor shows, we see these so called “experts” taking unnecessary risks in the name of survival.  That’s done for entertainment value.  If they showed what it is really like (sitting by a campfire hours on end, bored to tears), nobody would watch it, and there would be no show.

I offer this as a word of caution.  This is only my experience with my kid, and I am not suggesting that all kids share this survival fantasy, but if mine does, I suspect others do also.  Another reason to talk to our kids.

Safety is Number One

Our conclusion was that the school only makes sense if he can get to it safely.  Although the school makes the most sense, if he can’t safely get to it, he needs to find the next best thing..  Maybe in the end, the grocery store is the safest place to go.  So while we do have a plan in place, we have to make decisions based on the circumstances.  In the end, it all comes down to safety.

It’s a scary thought to think of my kids being on their own in a disaster.  But I have greater peace of mind after I have had these kinds of talks with them, and gone through some exercises.  I feel better knowing that they know what to do.

Make It Fun

There are some great resources to help with teaching your kids about disasters.  is a website designed to teach kids how about the common disasters for their area.  They even have an interactive game called “Disaster Master”.  Older kids might think it’s lame, but it is a good starting point, and it gets the point across.  My son said he prefers a live, hands on “simulation” experience.  So I may surprise him with a disaster drill in the middle of the night one day!

I think the key to teaching kids is to keep it fun.  If they see it as another chore or duty, they will be less receptive to hearing what you have to say.  Emphasize the importance of the matter, and that they may save lives one day by what they learn.  But mostly, this should be a bonding activity, and not something they come to dread.

Get Them Involved

One of the best ways to teach something is to make them responsible for it.  The more involved they are, the more they will learn. My daughter learned a lot about nutrition and meal planning when I put her in charge of meals for a week.  While meal planning is not rocket science, she quickly realized how much work goes into it, and how much there is to consider.

Depending on their age, assign them something to be responsible for. For example, if you live in an area where you may need to be evacuated (wildfires, hurricanes), everyone can be responsible for their evacuation pack (often called a “bug out bag”  or “BOB”.  These can be kept in their closet, or under the bed.

You provide them with a checklist of items that needs to be in that bag at all times (change of clothes, water bottle,  etc.) Periodically, call the family to a meeting with their bags, and do an inspection.  Put someone in charge of a “family” bag that has copies of important documents (insurance, birth certificates, Social Security Cards, etc.) as well as a first aid kit, and other items your family might need if you had to suddenly evacuate.

Let Them Take Charge

They say the best way to master something, is to teach it.  As you practice drills, and it becomes clear that they understand, put a child in charge of running the drill for the family.  Let the student become the master.

Being in charge is an eye opening experience because they are not mindlessly going through the motions. They have to think about it.  This takes the experience to a whole new level.

Also, it may be the case one day where the child is the one in charge in an actual emergency.  How many times have you heard stories where an adult was unconscious, and a 5 year old called 911?  Someone taught them that.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Kids practice fire drills at school several times a year.  They don’t stop after a certain grade level, and say “well, seniors don’t have to do the drills, because they already know”.  No, we practice regardless, because in an emergency, we will be panicked and forget what we “know”, but we will not forget what is a habit.

If we are in the habit of grabbing an emergency pack from under our bed during evacuation drills, we won’t have to stop and think about where it is kept when the time comes.

If we are in the habit of watching the weather for warning signs, we won’t be caught off guard when the alert comes on to “take cover”.  We will already be ready.

If we are in the habit of going through the thought process (like in the “what if” game), we will already have the right answers in our head when faced with that situation.

This kind of automatic reaction only comes with repeated practice.

Don’t Procrastinate

One of my favorite prepping quotes is from Cody Lundin’s book When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need To Survive When Disaster Strikes. He says “It’s too late to read the book on how to swim when the boat’s going down”.  That is the essence of prepping.  It is too late for me to try and teach my kids how to respond to a disaster when the disaster has already hit.  I may find myself unable to lead them, and they may find themselves on their own.  That is a horrifying thought.  The only way I can give myself peace of mind about it is to teach them now.