Urban and Suburban Preparedness, by ChemEngineer

A recent conversation prompted this article. It seems that friends in urban and suburban homes feel that there may be little hope for them in case of disaster, since they have no “retreat” set up in a rural area as a destination. This article points out similarities in all disaster preparedness, as well as possible differences in strategies and tactics to make surviving in urban and suburban locations more likely. None of these are new ideas, just slanted toward those who are urban/ suburban dwellers and that do not have a rural retreat location.

While not detailed in scope, below are several points to assist in preparedness for survival in urban/ suburban locations for those who cannot or will not choose to relocate to a rural existence.

  1. Attitude is Critical. As in rural retreating, or any other kind of survival situation, urban and suburban dwellers must adopt the attitude that surviving the bad time is an achievable goal, and whatever can be done to ensure survivability will be done. It may not involve acres of tilled soil or forests of trees, but in all except situations of total annihilation, people can survive in urban/ suburban spaces if properly prepared.
  2. Air. Three minutes without breathe-able air is a problem. Urban/suburban dwellers may find the air more polluted than the rural tribes from fallout, burning buildings, any number of hazards. Gas masks and adequate replacement filters can go a long way for personal protection, but also consider the sealing of your living space (the infamous “tape and plastic” that FEMA so indelicately told us to stock) as well as a filter and fan for incoming air to pressurize and provide air changes in a living space. Coarse filters (like bandanas or sheets) stretched over HEPA filters (second stage) with carbon absorption (third stage) can be found and assembled/ stocked now, so make a plan (actually, make 3 redundant plans) to make this happen. Think of the filter that the Apollo 13 astronauts put together to save themselves. It can be done. Even radioactive fallout will dissipate to livable levels within a couple of weeks, so if you are out of a blast zone (a typical nuclear device has a blast zone of maybe a couple miles in diameter… call that a worst case), this is not a permanent situation.
  3. Shelter. Three hours without shelter in some environments is a problem. Figure out where it would be best to shelter in place, whether that is your home (preferable, because all our preps will likely be there if we do not have a rural location already set-up), apartment, or someplace else (where we can stage and cache supplies). Urban and suburban environments place high value on “space”, so our homes and apartments will likely be our “space”. I have a friend in a major city that took the unused space in a hallway above the door frames, dropped in thick plywood attached to substantial cleats on the walls (attached to studs), and now has an “attic space” right there in her apartment. Do not become a refugee while searching for a better place, but have at least two other options for an alternative space if they become necessary. Don’t plan to live in a tent or “take to the mountains to live off the forest”. Bad idea. Apartment buildings that are 4 stories or more, and not tall enough to stick out or become outposts are good. Stay above the third floor for security (but get in shape, because that is a lot of steps, since elevators will not work). Do not become a refugee in any circumstance. Be somewhere familiar and set up a base. Clothes are included in shelter, so have some work clothes and boots that can last in a pinch, get gloves and backups, and cold/ rain gear for all. You probably already have most of the outerwear for your area.
  4. Water. Three days without water is a problem. Tarps for rainwater collection are your friend, but keep them as subdued as possible. Rainwater from roofs coming down gutters can be diverted to barrels or buckets. Keep Clorox Liquid Bleach in the laundry basket, and a couple under the sink. One gallon of bleach will treat thousands of gallons of water, making it usable. Add two drops per liter and let it sit for 30 minutes. Add more bleach if the water is cloudy. Liquid Bleach has a shelf life, but it is at least 6 months in an unopened bottle, so buy 3 or 4 bottles and be covered. One bottle of bleach may be the best dollar you ever spent. Powdered calcium hypochlorite is fine also, just takes extra steps to use it properly and will lose potency if not carefully sealed. Water needs to be located and buckets stored to transport it, or in suburbs, you can drill a “landscape watering well” with a removable manual pump-head. Urbanites, check roof drain locations and tap into them when needed. You cannot store enough water in a small apartment to last a year… for four people, that would be about 1500 gallons minimum. That is four pallets of water (40”x48”x48” tall) in those pallet-sized tanks, and it would need to be rotated if you kept it onsite. Put another way, it would take about 19 of those 80 gallon hot water tanks to hold this much water. The weight of 1,500 gallons of water weighs more than 10,400 pounds excluding the containers. Keep enough water on hand in 2 liter bottles discreetly hidden under the sink or in closets to use until you can tap into a water source. Locating water is a big deal, so start looking around now. Newer apartment buildings have fire water standpipes, some have tanks on the top floors. Figure out how to tap into those if needed. Take a plumbing class if you can’t figure out how to do a tap and run a hose and open/ close valves, but don’t actually tap it until the time is right..
  5. Food. Three weeks without food is a problem. Basic food storage for four people will take up a surprisingly small space. I do not mean the freeze-dried canned materials, nor am I talking MREs but you can certainly do both of those. I mean basic food, such as suggested in Ragnar Benson’s book, Urban Survival
    1. “5×50 pound sacks of sugar,
    2. 6×50 pound sacks of flour (or wheat to be ground into flour),
    3. 10×25 pound sacks of cleaned lentils,
    4. 10×25 pound sacks of split peas,
    5. 10×25 pound sacks of dried beans,
    6. 2×3 gallon jugs Vegetable Oil,
    7. 100 pounds of dried milk. “

All of this adds up to a pallet (40”x 48”) that is about six to seven layers tall… a total of maybe 5 feet tall, and a lot less money than you think if bought in bulk. Think of a big closet for storage, or the “apartment attic” described before. Even small apartments have closets and under beds or inside couches to place the materials. Rotate it out, of course. Now, this list of basics will allow survival with basic nutrition, but you want to do more than survive, you want to thrive, so… Many more things can be stored for long periods of time. Every trip to the store, add a couple of items and you will be amazed how quickly it accumulates. Add bagged rice, boxed pasta, all varieties of canned stuff (condensed soup, canned meat, canned tuna, canned salmon, canned butter, canned pasta sauce, canned veggies), spices, tabasco to give it all some kick. If you are hungry, the pallet of nutrition will get you and 3 other people through a year while you grow things in any available dirt, whether that is a container, on the roof, on the fire escape, in a window box, or in the flower bed. Also, urban living will support pigeon roosts on a roof or an attic or a shack out back (15 pigeons will give 2 squab per week indefinitely), maybe rabbit hutches out back or on a roof (3 does and a buck will give a 2 rabbits per week indefinitely). Traps for other assorted protein. Ponds and waterways in the city surely support at least snapping turtles which are not half bad… cut off the head, pop open the bottom shell, clean them like any animal, season the water with some spices of your choice, boil them up… tastes like chicken.. Canada geese are a poo-dropping pest now, but can be had easily in nearly every city and suburb in America with rocks or a bolo (three lengths of paracord and three weights on the ends). Learn to butcher animals quickly and efficiently, don’t be squeamish. Take a class, learn the basics. Survival and Preparedness Stores are popping up like mushrooms and offer classes in many different skills..

  1. Fuel. To cook food or to keep warm, we need long-storing fuel. Suburbanites can drop a 1000 gallon propane tank (where regulations allow), hide it, and be set for a year of cooking and house-heating using those little infrared propane heaters that do not need permanent vents or electricity.  Space is a little more difficult for apartment dwellers, but the little 25 pound propane tanks can go almost anywhere. Get a fill valve to fill the smaller tanks, and attach the infrared heaters on top and cook/ heat from them. Electricity can be provided by solar PV generators, or if you want to use precious fuel to make electricity, diesel or propane-converted generators can be pretty small anymore. Noise from these is a concern, but can be muffled or directed upwards to make them less rackety. Find the plans for the mufflers, and learn to weld at the same time. Those ubiquitous suburban golf carts make dandy electrical storage devices. Wire your genny or PV panels to them to charge, and you have deep-cycle 12 volt power to feed an inverter to get 120 VAC. You will lose some efficiency, but you can get the power that you need. Take a class, learn electricity at the same time. This is not even including wood stoves that can burn everything from newspapers to phone books to broken furniture to coal from a seam in a road-cut, asphalt from roads, 2×4’s from collapsed buildings, even wood from real trees! Venting is important, some of these things make acrid smoke, but heat is heat. If you have a rock/ brick fire ring outside for cooking, get a Dutch Oven on feet. It can make anything from bread/ biscuits to soup beans to roasts to serving as a water-bath canner. Get a bunch of matches, butane lighters, and fire-steels (they backup each other) to get the fuel burning.
  2. Medical. Same as rural retreat planning. Get yourself trained, get family trained, and get the supplies organized in multi-level a kits. Wound Care Kit, Upper Respiratory Care Kit, and Bowel Care Kit. Take that Emergency First Aid course from the Red Cross or the Survival Store. Your needs and mileage will vary, but is the same as for a rural retreat.
  3. Sanitation. Learn to process your own wastes, whether that is an outhouse privy with a bag of lime to keep it civil, or a cat-hole. I would keep as much ground clear as possible for growing things. Do not slight the way that wastes are processed. Disease springs from untreated wastes. Take care of it, get it buried if there is ground suitable for that, or burned if you want to use precious fuel.
  4. Security. You will need the same weapons in an urban/ suburban situation as well as a rural situation. These can be as simple as a .22 rifle and pistol for taking anything from the size of a rat up to the size of a bad-guy. Keep it simple, and keep a couple thousand rounds of .22 ammunition in the same place. It will only take up a space 4”x4”x4” for over 500 rounds of .22 Long Rifle, so do the math. Do not doubt the lethality of a .22 round at short distances, but have multiple backups in necessarily larger calibers if you can afford it. Consider any of the common Battle rifles (5.56/ .223 or .308) and 12 gauge shotguns (with ammunition and magazines) for as many as you can afford. Knives, we gotta have them, so get some with backups. Get a radio that runs off rechargeables, a walkie-talkie for every member (and backups). Secure the lower ladder on the fire escape for apartment dwellers. If things get bad, I doubt that the Fire departments are going to be issuing tickets for non-dropping lower ladders on our fire escapes. We don’t want visitors coming up that way.
  5. Planning Every excursion out of the shelter should be planned and staffed, with full knowledge of security, and be sure that the mission is worth the risk. Keep quiet, and keep light discipline by closing curtains and maintaining low profile. Cooking odors go a long way, keep lids on when cooking, and doors closed if possible. Keep flashlights, rechargeables and batteries, and backups. You can never have enough flashlights. Finally, find like-minded folks in your area. Visit a Survival/ Prep store and talk to the folks there, buy supplies there, and take classes there. You’ll get a lot of information and be able to cultivate friendships before trouble starts, so you can help each other when things go bad. We cannot go it alone. Strength in numbers, security in numbers.

Yes, it will be tough to survive in an urban or suburban environment, definitely harder than being 20 miles from a town in a hardened structure, well-watered, raising your own food on 40 acres with a mule, munching on your five years of stored food, and taking shifts in strategically placed LP/OPs, but it is do-able. Don’t be overwhelmed, just eat the elephant in small bites. Take classes from community colleges, Survival/ Prep Stores, Red Cross or CERT organizations.  Nearly all events are survivable, with the right mindset, training, and preparations.