The Likelihood of Man-Made Disaster, by William Crosby Prentice

Introduction, Scale

I think you will agree that you will get the highest returns from your preparation investments when you make those decisions based on the relative likelihood of a range of SHTF scenarios.  Unfortunately, the probability of many SHTF situations is very hard to determine, and will end up being a judgment call.  However, there is some information out there on the likelihood of certain events that qualify as SHTF.  This information allows us to at least calibrate our judgment calls on the likelihood of certain events, enabling us to refine our gut feelings. In doing so, we will look at a wide range of potential events, which would run the gamut of being the victim of a crime to the potential for a worldwide astrophysical cataclysm.  The scale of a potential SHTF event obviously has an impact on the probability, and in ways that might not be intuitively obvious, but will at least give us some sort of basis for a planning-level judgment. 

Personal SHTF Events
As shown in Table 1, based on crime statistics from calendar 2010, the probability of your being the victim of any crime is about 3.3%, and the probability of becoming a victim of a violent crime is about 0.4%.  On average, in the USA, your chances of being murdered is less than 5 thousandths of a percent.

Table 1 – US Crime Rates – 2010


Per 100,000


Total Crime



Violent Crime



Property Crime





















Vehicle Theft

























Compare this to other personal SHTF events, shown in Table 2.  Note you are a little over four times more likely to become a crime victim than you are to die from any cause in any given year.  You are more likely to die of an accident than you are to be raped and/or murdered.   If you go to Yellowstone, you are five times more likely to be attacked by a bear than you are to be hit by lightning while you are there.

Table 2 – Estimated Rates of Other Personal SHTF Events


Per 100,000


US Deaths, all Causes – CDC



Heart Disease – CDC



Accidental Death – CDC



Being in Car Accident



Struck by Lightning



Yellowstone Bear Attack



Police Misconduct – Total Pop



Police Misconduct – Adult Pop



Incidence per 100K LEO



Active Shooter



Military Action, Iraq  KIA







I took some flak for my last essay in SurvivalBlog for suggesting that Unlawful LEO Activity, or Police Misconduct, was something to actively consider as a threat.  First of all, I am biased in favor of law enforcement in nearly all respects – I have nothing to prove to anyone in that regard.  That said, the probability of your being involved in an event in which you become an alleged victim of police misconduct is about one-half of the probability of your being murdered, based on statistics compiled by the Cato Institute.  If you are a law enforcement officer, the probability of your being involved in an incident in which police misconduct is alleged against you is a less than one percent.

Keep in mind that these are averages and for the USA only, and rates will vary dramatically by geographic locations, and would also be highly dependent upon behavior and the situations in effect at the time.  Even though overall crimes rates have been falling, and fell in 2010 as compared to 2009, the crime rates, including violent crime, in those cities with the highest rates, actually increased, resulting in a substantial and increasing variability by location. For instance, it was reported this summer that the murder rate in Chicago – at about 19 per 100,000 population (or 15/100,000 depending on the source) – is presently four times that of New York City and twice that of Los Angeles.  Depending on where you are, what time it is, and what you are doing, the probability of your becoming a murder victim in Chicago might even be higher than that.

Local variations are significant.  In 2010, the average murder rate in Los Angeles County was 6.28 per 100,000 population, about 30% more than the average for the nation as a whole.  Within Los Angeles County, the murder rate for Compton was 25.92, and the murder rate in Inglewood was 18.24.  By contrast, the murder rate in San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was 1.4, and that for the New Orleans area was 20.

That might seem pretty high, but the murder rate in Caracas, Venezuela recently was reported to be as high as 200 per 100,000 population, and apparently 90 percent of those murders go unsolved.  The murder rate in Honduras is over 90, and that of Mexico overall is only 22.  However, the murder rate in the Mexican state of Chihuahua is 111, and that of Ciudad Juarez, in Chihuahua across the Rio Grande from El Paso, was reported to be over 220 in 2010.

Black Swan Natural Disasters
In a very useful 2011 document, the firm of Ernst & Young defined a Black Swan Event as being one that occurs unexpectedly and unpredictably, develops rapidly and lasts for a period of up to several months, are catastrophic in scale and broad in scope, present hazards beyond immediate financial risks (loss of life, health, environmental damage), involve significant asset damage/losses, and require corporate/government resources to resolve.  The document lists 21 such events that have happened in the past 40 years, including such events as Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Andrew, the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, the Earthquakes in Haiti and Sichuan, China, and the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks.  In going through the literature, I believe that I can come up with another 20+ instances of similar magnitude during the same period, which means that a Black Swan Event is likely to occur somewhere in the world at least once a year. 

The question from your perspective is how likely such an event is to strike in your area, such that it effects you.  That is a question that the insurance industry has been attempting to resolve for many years.  We know that hurricanes like to hang out in the Caribbean, the Southeast United States and along Atlantic Coast.  We know we are overdue for a large earthquake in California.  The chances of the Big One happening in any given year is above 0% but less than 100%, and depending on what you read the probability is either increasing or decreasing every year that it does not happen.

For planning purposes, maybe we should assign a probability of 3% to such an event.  That would be about the same probability as your becoming the victim of a crime of any sort in any given year.  Or would you judge that the likelihood of a Black Swan Natural Disaster that impacts you would be less than 1%, or about the same as the probability of dying from any cause according to the CDC?  Or is it in between, at about 2%, which is the approximate the probability of your being in a traffic accident during any year?

Other Black Swans
Black Swan events can include things such as the “financial meltdown” in 2009.  There are many people who predict that the fiscal and monetary policies being followed by the Federal Reserve, the US Government, and many state governments, made a further and more serious financial crisis a virtual certainty within the next five years. 

I have read some reports that state that the past four years have actually been worse, by certain measures, than the Great Depression.  What if it got worse suddenly?  That could certainly happen, with the wrong combination of tax, fiscal and monetary policy being imposed on our economy.  Would the resulting economic and societal stress, combined with gradual breakdown of infrastructure and government services (roads, signals, water/sewer, police, fire, schools) result in our gradual slide into failed state status?  Would that result in the environment becoming as dangerous to us as Mexico is now, or Chihuahua State, or Ciudad Juarez?  This seems more likely to me than the comet strike, Planet X or zombie epidemic scenario. 

A Wedge of Swans
Black Swans, at least by the Ernst & Young definition, are not TEOTWAWKI events, since we have had them before, and the world still exists, in almost the way we knew it.  However, swans are gregarious birds, and a group of swans can be called a flock, a bevy, a wedge or a team.  I believe that a wedge of Black Swan Events could amount to a TEOTWAWKI event, and that such a combination of blows could be a more likely scenario than some of the others we hear discussed. 

One scenario that I don’t like thinking about would begin with a financially weakened and war-weary United States teetering on the brink of a further financial disaster that had been building for years.  We are then suddenly hit with one or more of the following: a 9/11 scale terrorist attack, a major epidemic, and/or several natural disasters.  If you then throw in a dramatic increase in civil unrest bordering on insurgency, which in turn leads to US Government actions that are seen as unlawful by a significant portion of the population, you have a believable, non-sci-fi, TEOTWAWKI scenario. 

What is the probability of such a combination of events?  In rooting around on the Internet, I find that there is a fairly narrow range of personal predictions from various sources of this type of scenario happening: from 1% to 20% within three to five years.  If this is true, at even the low end of the range of predictions, then we should be just as worried about this as we are about being in a traffic accident, being a victim of a crime, or dying from heart disease.

I should add that I recently had a discussion with someone that I respect who argued that there might be several unique Swan Wedge Combos that have an overall beneficial impact on at least part of the population.  For instance, what if the US was teetering on the brink of a financial disaster, and was suddenly faced with a substantial part of the country that wanted to go its own way – secession – and a war-weary population prevented a Civil War type re-conquest of the seceding states or regions?  It is possible that the seceding areas would be established as lightly governed havens for business and technological innovation, a Libertarian utopia.  Where can we sign up for that?

Black Swan Impacts on the Rates
If we slide into failed state status because of renewed financial crises, or we suffer a Swan Wedge Combo, the way that affects our survivability will manifest itself through dramatic increases in the probabilities of various items shown in Tables 1 and 2 above (even bear attacks).  It is useful to think in terms of everything breaking down to where we are suddenly shoved into Caracas-level risks.

If the murder rate is, on average, increased to about 200 from about 5 (40 times), you might also expect that your chances of dying, from any cause, to increase from about 800 to about 32,000.  In other words, your probability of dying in any given year from any cause would go from less than one percent to about 32 percent – the odds are one in three that you would die. If that were to be the average probability – the middle of the bell curve – think what the ends of the curve would look like: on the one end you would have conditions that are much closer to what we know as normal, on the other you would have absolute slaughter house conditions.

The job of those who are preparing is to push their own situation, and that of their loved ones, towards the “more normal” side of the curve.  If you are preparing yourself physically and financially, then you have a much better chance.

Cataclysms, TEOTWAWKI
The scenarios that are the subject of major motion picture franchises, and memorable novels, belong in this category.  Red Dawn foreign invasions, Terminator singularity and machine-attacks-mankind events, epidemic aftermaths such as The Omega Man and I Am Legend, and others.  The scenarios would include asteroid or comet strikes, diseases, apocalyptic wars, electro-magnetic pulse events (natural or manmade), and other disasters.  In 1984 and Atlas Shrugged, both the movies and the books, the villain is the slow relentless grind of totalitarian government.  What are the odds?  I don’t know, but they are certainly greater than 0% – for one example you can check out NASA’s risk assessments for potential Earth impact events.

Who Cares About the Odds?
Life is full of peril, and it is essential that persons committed to individual responsibility and self-reliance be prepared.  It begins with the things that are most likely to happen to you and your loved ones, and grows out from there. 

If you have made the commitment to defend yourself and your family from crime and possible civil unrest, if you alter your lifestyle to avoid the most common objective hazards such as disease and geographically-focused dangers/crimes, if you take measures to ensure you can survive for a substantial period of time during the most likely Black Swan Events (hurricane, floods, earthquakes), then you are already better prepared than the vast majority of people. 

Progressing from that state of readiness to being able to handle various conceivable Swan Wedge Combos is probably just a matter of scale, and of organization into a community of like-minded souls.  If you have done that, and are lucky, then you will be a survivor if this happens. 

Moving from that stage to a stage of being able to handle a true global cataclysm is probably not a very useful planning task.  If you are lucky enough to survive whatever the opening disaster is in the TEOTWAWKI scenario, and you are already pretty well prepared for a potential Swan Wedge Combo, then you are also probably as well of as you could be for the aftermath.  Good luck to you.

The Author
Despite the state’s appalling politics, the author lives peacefully in California.  He is engaged in the business of financing energy and technology firms, and is the acting CEO of a private military contracting firm.  He is also devoted to the personal pursuits of rock climbing, martial arts, and hunting.  Prentice is also the author of Feral, a novel with significant Libertarian overtones, and the short story Purgatory.

References and Suggested Further Reading:

Disaster Center, US Crime Rates 1960 – 2010 (

Center for Disease Control (

National Weather Service (

“Yellowstone Bear Attack: What Are The Odds?” by David Knowles

Statistics from Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, 2010 Annual Report (, adjusted to show the “rate” per 100,000 population using 308mm total population and 234mm adult population.  Note that the Cato report shows a total of 4,861 reports of police misconduct, involving 6,613 sworn police officers, and a total of 6,826 alleged victims, out of which there were only 247 fatalities.  The rate of misconduct of 978 is per 100,000 police officers, whereas the two figures above that are the incidence for the population as a whole, in the first case for the average 2010 US population of 308mm, and the second figure for the adult population only.

Used data from NYPD Analysis of active shooters from 1966 through 2010, total of 202 cases in the 44 year period, averaging 3.0 dead and 3.6 wounded per instance, for total casualties to active shooters of 1,333 over the period, during which there was an average population of 252.3mm.

Based on battlefield casualties in Iraq through January, 2007 (, based on per 100,000 man-years of battlefield exposure; compares to a KIA rate of 2,231 per 100,000 for Vietnam.

Huffington Post, 16-Jun-12, updated 16-Aug-12 (