by Mike Moore, DDS, MPH
(Editors Note: This is the first in a series of articles regarding preparation for a natural disaster. While WUAS does not recommend specific steps of preparation, these articles will provide pertinent information should you choose to take a more active role in preparation.)
Disaster preparedness is difficult to consider because it requires us to face the possibility of loss of life, property and a disruption in our lives. Preparation for a disaster can involve two diametrically opposed poles of activity. Some individuals believe they should completely trust God and allow Him to meet all of their needs without any physical preparation on their parts. Other people, however, want to trust only themselves for survival and go to great lengths of preparation in an attempt to meet their physical needs during a crisis or disaster. In considering the type of preparation that is appropriate, each person should evaluate both extremes. I believe a "middle of the road" approach to surviving a disaster and its aftermath is the most prudent method. This article is the first in a series that will address common-sense things to do and items to have on hand that may help you and your family if you find yourself facing a natural disaster. These preparatory steps are by no means complete and they are meant as a resource list as you consider your own specific needs.
Most disasters, natural or man made, have one thing in common. Normal services that we have become dependent upon become disrupted and we have to do without many or all of the services for an extended time. The down-time for such services will vary from a few hours to several weeks, depending on the scope and effect of the disaster. The potential lack of basic services requires that we plan for provisions and storage of the necessities of life for this period of time. A three day supply of food, water, and medication stored in a readily accessible part of your dwelling should be available for each person normally living there. Of these three items, water is undoubtably the most important. A person can survive for up to thirty days without food, but will die in only a few days without water.
How much water? The absolute minimum amount of water that will support life in a normal adult is eight ounces per day. A reasonable amount to store is a gallon of water per day, per person. If you doubt the disparity between eight ounces and a gallon, try to live on eight ounces of fluid in a day, total intake. You will survive, but you will be very uncomfortable and thirsty! One gallon a day per person will provide enough for cooking and limited washing and you will also be a lot more comfortable. If you make sure the water is potable (drinkable) when you store it, then it should keep for a very long period of time. Do not be afraid to use recycled containers, such as milk and juice containers, as long as they have been thoroughly cleaned and have a good seal on the lid. Check them periodically (at least twice a year) for cloudiness or leakage. Some people change their stored water every six months to ensure a fresh supply. Multiple small containers are recommended over large containers, because you may need to move them or take them with you if you have to evacuate. Remember that water weighs about eight pounds per gallon and does get too heavy to move easily and quickly in large containers. There are many proprietary brands of water available in one and two gallon plastic jugs. These sizes are excellent choices if the lids seal well. Our family has some containers that are over ten years old and have been moved countless times, yet they are still preserving their contents very nicely. Avoid uninsulated glass containers since broken glass can be a potential hazard.
It is also a good idea to develop, or at least have in mind, a secondary source of water in case your principal source is destroyed or inaccessible. Obtaining a secondary water source may become difficult, depending on where you live. Only about one-half of one percent of all the water in the world is potable without further treatment. That means that 99.5% of all water in the world will need treatment before we can drink it without getting sick. Therefore, it is important to learn how to treat your water. There are several reliable ways, but all require practice and planning.
If you are not absolutely certain of water quality, consider it contaminated! In the event of a disaster, you will face many problems, so eliminating the threat of waterborne illnesses is paramount. Making water potable means you must disinfect the water. This does not necessarily mean removing all the organisms in the water, but it does mean removing the pathogens or organisms that might make you sick. The pathogens include bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. Fortunately for us, virtually all known pathogens are heat labile, meaning they are destroyed or inactivated in heat. Probably the easiest way to disinfect water is simply to boil it. A "rolling" boil for three minutes is considered enough to adequately disinfect any contaminated water and make it fit for human consumption. Obviously, this requires access to a pan large enough to hold the water and a heat source hot enough to bring the water to a boil. Remember, post-disaster services will be spotty at best, and gas or electricity for heating may not be available. Develop a contingency plan for a source for cooking and boiling water. Camp stoves are one way to provide a heating source. If you live in an area where firewood is easily available, you can also consider that as an option. Whatever cooking method you decide on, try it out before you actually need to use it. Otherwise, how can you be sure that it will work?
It is also acceptable to disinfect water chemically. The two most common means of doing this treatment is with chlorine and iodine. Iodine tablets, like those used by backpackers, are easy to use and very effective. Simply read the instructions and use as directed. There are even reversing tablets available that help to reduce the aftertaste that iodine tablets leave in the water. These are excellent items to have on hand. The most inexpensive method to disinfect water is to use household bleach. The active ingredient in household chlorine bleach, sodium hypochlorite, can be readily utilized. Use one or two drops per quart of clear water at a temperature of over 60 degrees F. Leave the solution for an hour and it will effectively disinfect the water. The chlorine taste can be neutralized with a little hydrogen peroxide, if you feel it is necessary, although this is not recommended without technical training. A safer way to mask the flavor of chlorine or iodine is to simply use unsweetened Koolaid. This method lets you know at a glance that the water has been disinfected and ready to drink.
There are currently several ceramic filters that are approved for disinfecting water. These work by mechanically removing the pathogens while allowing the water to pass on through. These are not usually virus safe, however. Viruses are the smallest of known pathogens, and the pores of the filter are large enough to let some of these organisms through. There is, however, a phenomenon known as "clumping" of viruses, which results in many viruses grouping together, becoming large enough to filter out. Fortunately, the enteric viruses, those most responsible for human disease, tend to do just that in water. For this reason, filters are a good way to make water potable and are extremely easy to use. Get one or two of these devices and practice using them. Follow the instructions on the label.
Reverse osmosis is probably the single best means of purifying water. This method can purify virtually any quality of water, salty, dirty, contaminated, even with organic compounds in the water. It is simply a micropore filter so small that only a water molecule can pass over the filter. It normally removes 98% of dissolved salts, along with all microorganisms, and many of the organic compounds that may have been present in the source water. This process allows you to take sea water and treat it so that it is drinkable. Reverse osmosis, however, does have several drawbacks. Reverse osmosis is not efficient and it will convert only about 10% of the water available to potable standards. The rest must be dumped or recycled. Therefore, this method is of questionable value if you have a limited source of water. Also, it is very energy intensive. Internal pressures within the mechanism has to reach in excess of 800 pounds per square inch. It takes significant energy to achieve this pressure, whatever the source. In addition, the the equipment is very expensive. However, it may be exactly what you need. Reverse osmosis units are readily available at marine supply shops, and are becoming the treatment of choice on off-shore boats for fresh water production.
Remember, no matter what method you use to disinfect the water, it is important to keep the water clean after disinfecting it. Use common sense when placing disinfected water in a container. Do not use the same container that the contaminated water was collected in unless the container has been cleaned. To clean water containers, use water that has been disinfected with chlorine bleach or iodine, five to ten times the recommended disinfecting dose. Remember, in the past more people have died from food and waterborne illnesses than any other cause. In a post disaster setting, diseases caused by waterborne pathogens will be rampant. The very best treatment for these illnesses will be prevention and prevention starts with a clean, dependable water source. By keeping your family healthy, you will be able to minister to the needs of those around you. It is extremely important that we prepare NOW, while we have time to plan. God has given us His word to guide us spiritually and physically through the most perilous times. He has also given us physical resources to prepare for disasters. We cannot be good stewards of these resources if we do not use them to His glory. What better way to utilize them than to aid and comfort those around us?
About the Author: Mike Moore lives in Yucaipa, California and has a Masters Degree in Public Health. Living in earthquake-prone southern California has prompted Mike to take a serious look at preparation techniques for natural disasters.