People often ask me, “What’s the single most effective thing that I can do right now to prevent myself from being killed in a disaster?” I say, “Go camping”! … And I’m not joking.
Why is that? Why do I say, “Camping is the single most important disaster drill that Americans could undertake”? It’s because, disasters (like the old real estate adage) are “all about location, location, location”. It is most often because of our location at the time that we are exposed to dangerous hazards during a disaster. In hurricanes and floods, the most dangerous hazard is that of deep, moving water. In tornadoes, we are exposed to debris hazards driven by high winds. In industrial accidents, we’re exposed to chemicals or radiation. So how do we avoid this exposure? We leave!
But when we leave our homes abruptly and under duress (we call this displacement in the disaster “biz”), we may expose ourselves to another set of potential health hazards. So, we need the knowledge, skills and abilities to leave our homes in times of danger (otherwise known as “evacuation”) and to do so safely. For that we need practice.
Let’s see, we need to practice leaving our homes and providing for our own food, water and shelter for at least a few days…. Wait, that sounds like camping!
When we study the health problems that occur as a result of disasters, we see that there are two main clusters of consequences that affect our health:
Exposure to the hazard
Loss of shelter
The first cluster of consequences occurs as a result of being exposed to the disaster hazard itself. For example, people become ill when they are exposed (or in close proximity) to hazards such as: the wind in a tornado, the water from a flood, or the shaking from an earthquake.
The second cluster of consequences occur as a result of losing our shelter – being displaced from our homes.
Most people recognize that first cluster of consequences – those illnesses and injuries that occur during the disaster impact itself. However, fewer people appreciate the impact that being displaced from our homes has upon our risk for becoming a disaster casualty. If you don’t have your home, you lose more than just your ability to shelter. You lose your ability for food preparation, safe storage, and those kinds of issues as well as water. Safe water is not only important for drinking, but also cleaning. Doing your dishes, taking showers, washing your hands, all those things affect our health. You also have less personal privacy, less security, and less control over your options for decision-making. So when we are injured and lose our home, we can see a cascading effect. Both of these clusters result in morbidity (injuries and illnesses) and also mortality (or deaths).
But what if I told you that camping could protect you from both? Camping can prevent you from being exposed to the hazard and it can protect you from those health hazards that occur when you lose your home to a disaster.
First let’s talk a little bit about the root causes of why people get injured in disasters. It has to do with hazards, exposure and vulnerability. “Hazards” are dangerous things that can affect our health. People are “exposed” to hazards when they are in close proximity to them. People are said to be “vulnerable” to these bad health effects when they are susceptible to them. Some people may be more vulnerable than others. For example, For example, people that have difficulty with being mobile may have a greater challenge during a tsunami evacuation.
So our goal is to address these root causes of illness and injury. In doing so we want to avoid the hazards, the exposure and vulnerability. Camping does all three.
One of the most important things that you can do to prevent yourself from being injured or killed during a disaster is to evacuate from the danger zone. In the case of tornadoes, this evacuation may involve simply moving to a safe area of your home (preferably the basement or a comparably safe shelter). However in the case of large-scale disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, chemical spills and terrorist attacks, many times the best course is to leave the area completely.
This means packing up your things on short notice and leaving home for several days. In public health, we refer to this evacuation as a “population protective measure”. In other words, this is the main activity that we (as public health and public safety officials) would want you to perform in order to protect yourselves and your family. Rapid evacuation could someday become a critical step in saving your life. If we place this in terms of our newly learned definitions, evacuations help us to prevent your exposure to hazards. This addresses the one key cluster of health effects related to exposure. No exposure = no injury.
But what about that second cluster of adverse health effects (those associated with loss of shelter)? As I noted earlier, this cluster is associated with hazards that we may become exposed to because we no longer have access to adequate shelter, water, food and sanitation. But the very definition of camping involves providing for your own shelter water food and sanitation. Most of us see this as a pleasurable recreation rather than catastrophic challenge. But if you do see camping is a challenge, now is the time to change that.
Now is the time to set the following goal:
“Within one year from now, I will camp overnight in a remote location at least 25 miles from my home.
With that goal in mind, I would ask you to perform the following 10 activities when you accomplish this goal.
First, get a buddy.
- You can’t beat the buddy system for safety and efficiency. (This also extends your challenge to another human whose life could be saved). Including your entire family is even better – and more fun!
Send/receive an evacuation message to/from your buddy (without warning)
- Demonstrates the ability to receive and understand emergency communications
Depart home within 30 minutes of the message transfer
- Demonstrates that you have made a list and packed materials in advance
- This also limits the amount of stuff that you can take with you. Ideally you should take only what you carry on your own back. If you cannot carry this yourself, ask another person to go with you to assist (as your bearer so to speak).
Call a third party to communicate your whereabouts as you travel
- This is an essential part of any travel and communications plan. The fact that you’re calling a third-party also get you and your buddy a way to communicate with someone else when you may not be able to communicate with each other (due to disaster-related communications problems)
Meet your buddy at a campsite and build shelter, a wash basin and toilet
- Demonstrates that you have identified the campsite in advance and discussed its location.
- Also demonstrates that you have a tent or know how to build an expedient shelter; have thought about how you would actually wash utensils and bathe during this experience; and have knowledge of sanitary practices (and tools) needed for an outdoor toilet
Build a fire and heat a simple dinner. Keep the fire going and then cook breakfast
- Building a fire sounds easy, and yet many experience campers can share with you a good story of difficult fire-making on occasion. It takes knowledge and practice. The same can be said for maintaining a fire
- Of course cooking on an open fire (or coals) may be a treat for some people yet a unique challenge for others. This is another important skill to learn since your meals could depend upon it.
Pack up and go home
- Once again demonstrating the portability of your evacuation
- I’d also like to encourage you to “take only photographs and leave only footprints” during this step.
Call a third party to communicate your whereabouts as you travel
- Once again, not only a good rule for highway travel but also an important part of disaster communications plans
Get together with your buddy and discuss lessons learned
- Yeah, it was all fun. But what did we learn? What can we do better?
Share these lessons here in the comment section under my blog
- We would all love to hear of your experiences!
There is also something remarkable that happens when you go camping. Your body becomes more resilient. And through this growing resilience we become less susceptible to many of the hazards that we face in disasters. Thus the very act of camping helps to make us less vulnerable to disasters. How so? Most notably, camping is a very active endeavor with plenty of bending, and stretching and walking and carrying. Camping is exercise and exercise makes you less susceptible to limited mobility and the types of chronic diseases so frequently associated with disaster deaths. In addition, the exercise makes you more able to go camping again. Things get easier. You become stronger, more nimble, smoke and drink less, become more confident and more mobile.
Camping is also a great social event. It’s a great way to get to know people, to share, to build social networks that become so important during disaster crises. Camping builds our skill set. Like children learning to ride a bike, we learn the best ways to staying dry in the rain, or warm in the cold. We first learn to improvise and then progress to improve and sustain each of our own rather unique and ingenious “wilderness hacks” and then we pass them on to others.