There is probably no place on earth that's not at risk for some type of widespread emergency, be it a hurricane, tornado, blizzard, earthquake, volcano, tsunami, flood, or wildfire. A little common-sense planning and preparation can go a long way to minimize the adverse impact on you and your family in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. Once a crisis is imminent it may be too late; think about it now and take the necessary steps to protect yourself and family.
Every crisis has its own special features. In the U.S., Hurricane Katrina and Rita provided many lessons. Recently during Hurricane Ike roughly 45,000 people fled Galveston Island among the more than 1 million who evacuated the Texas coast but many chose to shelter in place. Their bad experiences in evacuating during Hurricane Rita a few years earlier was still a vivid nightmare. Many were stranded in their cars for 12+ hours. It was such a nightmare that they were willing to ignore the mandatory evacuation orders in spite of being told to remain on Galveston Island meant "certain death". Fortunately, the threat of certain death proved to be exaggerated for most who stayed behind, however, the thousands who survived still had to evacuate when Galveston Island was declared unsafe and uninhabitable after the storm passed. In Houston, most people in the nation's fourth-largest city were still without power a week later.
After any widespread disaster there is the likelihood of public utilities being disrupted. You can probably carry on without electricity or natural gas, but once water and sewer service are lost we quickly realize how much our civilized world depends on indoor plumbing and in particular the flush toilet. A major lesson from past disasters is that as individuals we must be prepared to survive on our own for at least the first few days after a disaster. Disaster can strike quickly and without warning. It can force you to evacuate your neighborhood or confine you to your home. What would you do if basic services--water, gas, electricity or telephones--were cut off? In the U.S. local officials and relief workers will be on the scene after a disaster, but they cannot reach everyone right away.
Ideas and Suggestions
Below are ideas and suggestions to help you get started in preparing your home for an unexpected disaster.
Sandbag your toilets!
Flooding is always a threat to homes located near water. But the flooding in Brisbane, Australia in 2010/11 showed how widespread flooding can get. And you don't need to live near water have your home inundated with water; I had four-inches of water in my basement from a nearby ruptured water main. One of many steps you can take to help minimize the damage to your home is to put a sandbag into the toilet bowls. This will not prevent your home from being flooded, but it will prevent sewer waste from backing into your home.
There is a unique product in the UK that provides an emergency seal for toilets. It looks a bit like a lid to a small trash can. The seal is quick to fit, easy to store and secures the toilet during a flood to prevent backflow. This company will ship to the U.S.
Value of Household Bleach
In the mid-50s I lived in Oklahoma during several active tornado seasons. At that time, the country was also concerned about civil defense. I remember numerous newspaper and magazine articles on preparing our homes for a widespread disaster. The one suggestion that I've never forgotten is to NEVER throw out an empty bleach bottle. They make great containers for storing water. Rinse out, fill with water, seal and label them, then store in a dark spot in your house. I always buy bleach in the largest container available, usually a one and a half gallon size. While you should replenish the water every six months (use to water your plants), it's not hard to forget to do so, but it's easy to disinfect the water if you need it for drinking purposes.
The American Red Cross says, "You can use household liquid bleach to kill microorganisms. Use only regular household liquid bleach that contains 5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite. Do not use scented bleaches, colorsafe bleaches or bleaches with added cleaners. Add 16 drops of bleach per gallon of water, stir and let stand for 30 minutes. If the water does not have a slight bleach odor, repeat the dosage and let stand another 15 minutes. The only agent used to treat water should be household liquid bleach. Other chemicals, such as iodine or water treatment products sold in camping or surplus stores that do not contain 5.25 percent sodium hypochlorite as the only active ingredient, are not recommended and should not be used.
If you are uncertain about the purity of any water source, treat before you use it for drinking, food preparation or hygiene. In addition to having a bad odor and taste, water from questionable sources may be contaminated by a variety of microorganisms that can cause dysentery, cholera, typhoid and hepatitis.
To treat water, follow these steps:
1. Filter the water using a piece of cloth or coffee filter to remove solid particles
2. Bring it to a rolling boil for about one full minute
3. Let it cool at least 30 minutes. Water must be cool or the chlorine treatment described below will not work.
4. Add 16 drops of liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water, or 8 drops per 2-liter bottle of water. Stir to mix. Sodium hypochlorite (concentration 5.25% to 6%) should be the only active ingredient in the bleach. There should be no added soap or fragrance.
5. Let stand 30 minutes.
6. If the water smells of chlorine, you can use it. If it does not smell of chlorine, repeat steps 4 and 5 above. If after the second try the water smells of chlorine, you can use it. Otherwise, discard and find another source of water.
People with certain medical conditions may need distilled or sterile water. Your physician can tell you whether you fall in this category.
Guides and Checklists
Are You Ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness (IS-22) is FEMA’s most comprehensive source on individual, family, and community preparedness. The guide has been revised, updated, and enhanced to provide the public with the most current and up-to-date disaster preparedness information available.
Amazon.com has a free online two-page Emergency Prepardedness Checklist that you can print out from their site. You can cross off all the items that you already own and then decide which of the remaining items you should stock up on. While everyone should have a supply of water and toilet paper on hand, not everyone needs a supply of hurricane roof ties. It's a good list that will make you think about just how much you must consider to prepare your home for unexpected emergencies. You need to prepare yourself and your family to survive a disaster whether you are at home, in your vehicle, at your office, or at school.
The Institute of Business and Home Safety has a gallery of 14 videos that you can view online that show how to minimize the destructive consequences of natural disasters and everyday events from hail storms and hurricanes to water damage and wildfires. There is also an interesting map of the U.S. that shows where natural disasters are most likely to occur.
The Insurance Information Institute offers free software on their site titled "Know Your Stuff" to create and maintain an inventory of your home. On the download page there is also an online video to get you started.
Among the many things that you must plan for are the basic sanitary requirements for you and your family. Below are ideas for creating temporary toilet facilities until utilities are restored. Be a little pessimistic now, and assume it CAN happen to you.
After a disaster or in an emergency it might be necessary to build an emergency toilet. If water pipes are broken or sewer lines are not working then a sanitary emergency toilet can be built. This is an easy project that can be finished in 10 minutes. For details and tips visit the Guide To Los Angeles.
1. Line the inside of a toilet bowl, 5 gallon pail, or another appropriately sized waste container with two heavy-duty plastic garbage bags.
2. Place kitty litter, fireplace ashes, or sawdust into the bottom of the bags.
3. At the end of each day, the bagged waste should be securely tied and removed to a protected location such as a garage, basement, outbuilding, and so on, until a safe disposal option is available.
4. Residents may dispose of the waste in a properly functioning public sewer, or septic system, or they may bury the waste on their own property.
Note: During a declared emergency, these bags may be included with the regular garbage if a public announcement has been made that allows this method of disposal.
The Seattle and King County Public Health Service has many more tips on Disaster preparedness
Right after an emergency, or during one, you will probably not have the time and tools to prepare a complex emergency sanitation system. If there is a delay of several days in restoring sewage service to your neighborhood, you may find that disposal is a big problem. Your first task is to make some temporary toilet provision for your family, especially the children. Almost any covered metal or plastic container will do. You can use a covered pail, a 5-gallon bucket, or a small kitchen garbage container with a foot operated cover for an emergency toilet. Anything that has a cover and will hold the contents until you can dispose of them will serve for sanitary purposes at first.
The folks at the National Terror Alert Resource & Information Center have lots more to offer for sanitation and hygiene in an emergency
Chris Floyd the Emergency Services Director for the Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross has this to offer:
To build a makeshift toilet line a medium-size plastic bucket with a garbage bag. (If the sewage lines are broken but the toilet bowl is usable, place the plastic garbage bag around bowl.) Make a toilet seat out of two boards placed parallel to each other across the bucket. An old toilet seat will also work.
After each use, pour a disinfectant such as bleach into the container to avoid infection and spreading of disease. Cover the container tightly when not in use. Bury garbage and human wastes in the ground to avoid the spread of disease by rats and insects. Dig a pit two to three feet deep and at least 50 feet from any well, spring or water supply. LOCAL REGULATIONS MAY PROHIBIT YOU FROM BURYING HUMAN WASTES. LISTEN TO THE RADIO FOR INSTRUCTIONS, OR CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL HEALTH DEPARTMENT. If the garbage cannot be buried immediately, strain the liquids into the emergency toilet, wrap the residue in several layers of newspapers and store it in a large can with a tight-fitting lid. After two or three days, place the can outside until it can be buried.
The best choice for a disinfectant is a solution of one part liquid chlorine bleach to ten parts of water.
According to the TBO.com Hurricane Guide you can use 5-gallon buckets with tight-fitting lids for emergency toilets. Line each bucket with heavy-duty garbage bags. Add about 1/4-cup regular, unscented, liquid chlorine bleach to each bucket as a disinfectant and deodorizer. Keep the buckets in a cool, dark place. Do not dispose of human waste through your regular trash pickup. When sewer services are restored, flush the waste down the toilet and clean and disinfect the buckets.
During a flood, your city's sewer system or your household's septic system may not work. To be prepared, store materials to make a sawdust potty in your emergency kit as well. All you need is organic material such as sawdust, peat moss or soil, and a 5-gallon bucket with a lid. After you use the potty, just pour a layer of organic material in the bucket and put the lid on.
Rather Not Build Your Own
If you'd prefer not build your own; there are kits available such as this complete toilet pack on the left sold by LifeSecure Emergency Solutions. These toilet packs are compact, lightweight, durable, and easy to assemble, use and repack for future use. This portable toilet is made of very strong cardboard that sets up in such a way as to support up to 275 lbs. The toilet can be stored again after use and will hold up well to numerous uses.
The kit on the left contains a 3 day supply of US Coast Guard Approved, 5 year shelf-life food & water for four persons. Solar/Generator/Battery Powered Flashlight with Radio (never needs batteries, always ready)! Complete 4 person supply of lighting, shelter, sanitation, first aid, and emergency supplies. Designed for all types of emergency preparedness for the home or office by preparedness experts. This storage bucket unit on the right converts into an emergency toilet in seconds. The seat snaps on to the top of the bucket. Each unit comes with 3 biohazard waste bags and 3 deodorizer packets for proper sanitation.
Toilet Emergency Drinking Bowl for Pets
While humans should not drink water in a toilet bowl or tank, dogs and cats often do. If you are not going to stay in your home during a disaster and must leave your dog or cat behind leave them loose inside your home with food and plenty of water. Make sure the water in the toilet bowl is clean, remove the toilet tank lid, raise the seat and brace the bathroom door open so they can drink.
Loughborough University of Leicestershire, UK has a lengthy website devoted to the management of sanitary needs for large numbers of people. The immediate provision of clean water supplies and sanitation facilities in refugee camps is essential to the health, well-being and, in some cases, even the survival of the refugees. Sanitation is usually allocated a much lower priority than clean water, but it is just as important in the control of many of the most common diseases found in refugee camps. Sanitation is the efficient disposal of excreta, urine, refuse, and sullage. As indiscriminate defecation is normally the initial health hazard in refugee camps, this Technical Brief outlines ways in which it can be controlled temporarily while long-term solutions are devised.
Links to lists to help you organize a family disaster plan before the unthinkable happens: