Lessons from Irma: 3 Overlooked Skills Needed in A Natural Disaster
By Joel Graves, Co-founder of American Survival & Former EOD Naval Special Warfare
Natural disasters affect millions of people worldwide regardless of age, race, or gender. Regardless of the expensive gadgets you have invested in, Nature has a great track record for teaming up with Murphy’s law and anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, throwing our fancy gadgets and best laid plans out the window.
Surviving a natural disaster and bushcraft or wilderness survival skills are two different worlds, there are times the two can intersect. In wilderness survival, the common mindset is to do more with less and shed modern conveniences for primitive skills. That may not be the best approach for the average family though. In times of crisis, the comfort and safety of your family is always top priority. This is where that line blurs.
My personal experience of enduring several hurricanes with my family has taught me some valuable lessons in this area. Most recently, we experienced Irma while my wife was about to give birth to our now 10-month-old son. This made evacuation complicated at best and a complete no go.
Lesson learned: Sometimes life does not let you evacuate, so don’t let that be your only plan. Have a back up.
To make matters worse, my family had already arrived to meet our new son and got stuck in the storm, spending the rest of their “vacation” in a house with no power, no air conditioning, and more bodies than usual adding to the heat.
With the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey still fresh in everyone’s minds and media hysteria exacerbating the situation, supplies flew off shelves earlier than expected. I had a small emergency kit, but was not anticipating spreading the supplies across visitors as well. As I searched stores for additional water rations, there was nothing left on the shelves.
This is where I had to start blurring the lines between bushcraft and emergency survival to make the best situation I could for my family, which brings us to my top 3 overlooked skills needed in a natural disaster.
SKILL 1 – HOW TO SHELTER COMFORTABLY
I am not one to ask for help if I have the means to do it myself and so it would have to be a pretty desperate situation if you found me in a group shelter. Once a disaster strikes, essentially taking you off the grid could you sleep outside comfortably?
As I mentioned, we survived IRMA in one piece, but a house without air conditioning in the September heat of Florida can be stifling and nearly impossible to sleep in…now add house guests to that equation. Some situations, like we saw this past year in Houston and Puerto Rico, are far worse leaving no houses or belongings for people to go back to. So whether it’s for comfort or last resort, sleeping outside comfortably is a skill you need.
September in Florida is hot, muggy and buggy, but if you understand the principles of shelter (check out our tarp class) you can sleep nice and cool in the southern heat. A hammock shines in these conditions. The most common mistake I see is putting a tarp to low to the sleeper. You would not believe the change in temperature if you maximize the loft of your rain cover and capitalize on air flow. Tarps trap a lot more heat than you think. Add to your tarp shelter a bug net and hammock (or a hammock with a built in bug net) and you can sleep much more comfortably than you can indoors. Someone is going to comment…buy a generator. That’s a great contingency, if you have the means. But as mentioned earlier, after a hurricane people are often left without homes or their generators in tact. So always have a backup plan for your backup plan.
SKILL 2 – COOKING WITH FIRE
Electric is down and you’re going to need to prepare food, can you? I was able to secure some propane tanks before Irma’s landfall, but we were not sure how long we would be left without power and supplemented it with good old fashioned firewood. As an added bonus, my three-year-old had a blast picking up sticks with daddy and it took care of our yard clean up after the storm. (Get some fire skills at an upcoming class.)
Another overlooked part of this skill set is PRESERVING MEAT. I am a hunter and have a deep freezer full of meat. I could not possibly eat all of it at a moment’s notice. Most people would resort to eating what they could and letting the rest spoil. Our ancestors would be shaking their heads. Prior to refrigeration, Americans still had copious amounts of meat. Sure a generator and an electric dehydrator are way easier and convenient, but you always need a plan that doesn’t rely on electricity. Learn to make jerky and your family can be feasting on jerky that is better than anything you could buy, while the grocery stores throw away their entire inventory of meat, because it took ten minutes for the back up generator to kick on.
SKILL 3 – PROVIDING CLEAN DRINKING WATER
There are lots of simple, cost-effective methods for doing this, obviously having water rations is great planning, but even those eventually run out. The common recommendation for water is a gallon per person per day for at least 3 days. If possible, I’d store enough for 2 week. For my family that is 12-56 gallons of water, depending on how prepared I want to be. That takes up alot of space.
In the event of Irma, I tried to acquire more water but the mass hysteria had the shelves emptied well before I could take action. And don’t expect to just fill a 55 gallon drum full of water, seal it up for five years and it to be good to go when you need it. Water procurement is an area that a lot of my students struggle to grasp, and for the sake of the article I won’t get into too much detail. Depending on the devastation, boiling is not always the end all be all answer to safe drinking water. Neither are activated carbon filters. Distillation is by far the safest option when hazardous waste and chemicals could potentially be in natural water sources. Many a moonshiner has snuck around in the dark and attempted distillation without electricity. Most of the fancy stuff out there isn’t accessible to the common man, but if old Popcorn Sutton could fashion a distiller out of copper sheet metal, I’m sure the average household should be able to improvise something.
The key to making these tips work, is to acquire the skills and materials in advance of a natural disaster. If you wait until disaster strikes, you’ll be left wanting.
I cannot stress enough heed evacuation warnings. It is always better to be safe than sorry. But think for a moment, if you no longer had a home to return to? Or, like in my case, if you could not evacuate, what happens then? Be prepared to take care of yourself and your families. Don’t simply rely on a system, because systems break, as we continue to see time and time again. I’m thankful I had the skills that I needed to keep my family comfortable during Hurricane Irma. Having a newborn is stressful enough, add a hurricane, mass hysteria and limited supplies…that’s enough to make you mad. But once the danger was over, we actually enjoyed the time we spent disconnected from the distractions of being plugged in!
If your interested in learning more we would love to train with you. You never know how it can fit into your life. We even have a weekend class on this subject. I do my best to give sound advice and give you these back up skills and marry the survival world with the natural disaster preparedness world. Check out our Natural Disaster Class here.
Disclaimer: Various agencies like FEMA, CDC, Ready.gov put out great information on disaster preparedness. We are not negating any sound advice and if you have the means to evacuate, you should follow the directives of the emergency services and local governments.