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Go Bag #4: Sanitation

FEMA - 24788 - Photograph by Andrea Booher taken on 10-29-2005 in LouisianaIn the fifth of this regular series I explore what you need to put in your go bag. This week: sanitation.

Much of the morbidity and mortality associated with disasters comes not from the impact of the disaster itself, but from avoidable infections associated with damaged infrastructure and poor hygiene in the aftermath of a disaster.

I will talk about first aid in a later post, but here the old adage “prevention is better than cure” is much more important.

Sanitation boils down to two things: staying clean and waste disposal.

Staying Clean

The most important thing to keep clean are you hands, most pathogens are spread by hands coming into contact with your face. In the past this meant washing with soap and water, which may be scarce or contaminated in a disaster.

Now with the advent of hand sanitiser, soap becomes less of a necessity. Some studies have even shown that it is more effective than hand washing with soap. Hand sanitiser should be the number 1 sanitation item in your Go Bag.

Make sure that you use a product that contains at least 60% alcohol for maximum effectiveness. However if your hands are covered in dirt or grime that will compromise the effectiveness of the hand sanitiser, so you will need to find a water source and use soap to clean them. It is a good idea to use hand sanitiser afterwards. To wash your hands liquid soap is a good addition to your Go Bag.

In between cleaning your hands make sure you avoid touching your face and mouth or any open wounds. Try and keep your clothes, particularly socks and underwear as clean and dry as possible.

If you need them make sure you keep a decent supply of sanitary pads in your Go Bag – these also make pretty good wound dressings.

Waste Disposal

You can’t be sure that you will be able to find a functioning toilet, the sewerage or water supply may have failed or buildings may be unsafe to enter. You may have to improvise a toilet.

The most portable are plastic bags that you can do your business in and then dispose of away from your shelter. There are a number of purpose designed products on the market such as the PeePoo bag, but any plastic bag will do in an emergency situation. Make sure you have a decent supply of these and toilet paper in your Go Bag.

Other options include lining an existing toilet with a larger plastic bag or using a bucket in a similar fashion. Keeping some bleach on hand can help disinfect and control odours.

If you end up having to shelter for a lengthier time in place without an operational sewerage system it may make better sense to dig a latrine or pit for defecation, make sure you line these with plastic though so contamination doesn’t leach into water supplies.

Go Bag #3: Food

GranolabarIn the fourth of this regular series I explore what you need to put in your go bag. This week: food.

Now you’ve got enough water and some shelter it’s time to turn your mind to your stomach. Whilst the average adult can survive more than a week without food they won’t be functioning too well.

Food will keep you energised, help stop you from getting sick and most importantly boost your morale.

For your go bag food needs to satisfy a few requirements:

Weight – You’re going to be lugging it around, so tinned food is out. You need to go for food that is light and in lightweight packaging.

Energy – To keep you going you’re going to want to eat small amounts often. So nutritious, energy dense food is important.

Water – You’re already using your limited supply for drinking so you don’t want to be re-hydrating food, or cooking something. By the same token foods that are very dry or salty will make you thirsty, putting further strain on your water supplies.

Shelf life – You don’t expect to be needing your go bag on a regular basis, so your food needs to last a while. At least six months is a good length (change it when you do your smoke detectors and other emergency kit maintenance). Don’t forget that there’s a difference between the various forms of labelling “best before” dates.

Taste – At the end of the day though you want food you like. This will boost your spirits and make it easier to rotate your stash so it doesn’t go stale.

All these factors limit your options pretty significantly. Think about packing Muesli/Granola bars, trail mix (aka scroggin), nuts (unsalted), some chocolate, dried fruit, some crackers and spread (in a tube or plastic container) and other pre-packed snacks. I know some folk who swear by tubes of sweetened condensed milk, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Others will get some army rations/MREs, but these aren’t necessarily terribly tasty. Just make sure there’s some variety.

As for the amount there isn’t really any rule of thumb. You probably should have enough to stretch out over 2-3 days, but this may not be practical depending on what else you have in your go bag and how much weight you’re willing to carry.

Do you have a favourite food for your go bag? Leave a note in the comments and I’ll add it to the post.

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Go Bag #2: Shelter

CZ-IJ14a Tábořiště pro stany In the third of this regular series I explore what you need to put in your go bag. This week: shelter.

If your home or workplace becomes unsafe or is destroyed, and other buildings aren’t safe you’re going to need somewhere to stay. That means that you really need to think about shelter if you’re in an area prone to devastating earthquakes.

The most important thing here is climate:

How hot or cold does it get in your location, especially at night? What about rain, or snow? And if it does rain, how cold is it usually. Being wet is uncomfortable – being cold and wet can kill.

You can choose a tent or, if you’re the adventurous type, two tarpaulins and some rope will usually work nicely.

You will also need something to keep you warm. An emergency blanket, regular blanket or sleeping bag will work, also consider that you might need some insect repellent. Make sure that if you need a sleeping bag, it’s rated for the sort of weather you might be facing.

Think about your pets too. Much of the time evacuation centres won’t have the facilities to cater for them. Even though you might be safe and dry make sure you have taken their needs into account.

Go Bag #1: Water

Sparkling-bottled-water In the second of this regular series I explore what you need to put in your go bag. This week: water.

A healthy adult can last a week or more without food, but only a couple of days without water. In a disaster water supplies may be contaminated or just plain unavailable. Thus, if you put nothing else in your Go Bag ensure you have some water.

 

How Much?

Depending on size, amount of exercise and climate the average adult will need to drink 2-4 litres of water a day. You can calculate what your needs might be here. Add a little extra for sanitation, multiply it by a few days and your talking about 15 litres, per bag. One litre of water weighs one kilogram so your Go Bag could get pretty heavy if you carry all the water you need fresh.

However all these treatment methods below depend on you finding water, which may or may not be easy. I recommend you carry as much clean water in your Go Bag as you can.

Bottled Water

There’s a range of different ways to carry fresh water. You can buy it bottled or use containers (including ‘Camel-back’ type bladders). Remember to periodically change the water, particularly if you’re using your own bottles.

I prefer one litre clear plastic bottles. It means your supply is split up (in case one of the bottles breaks or is contaminated) and once you’ve finished a bottle, you can use the empty to start purifying any water you find straight away.

Purification

As you can’t carry enough water to sustain you for more than a couple of days the answer is purification. There’s a variety of methods you can use, but regardless of your choice you should always try and purify the freshest water you can find.

One pitfall of purification is that although most methods will kill all micro-organisms in the water, they generally can’t remove any chemical contamination such as pollutants.

All these methods are less effective (including the filters, which are designed for small particles including bacteria) if the water you find has lots of dirt or other matter in it. You should try and use some sort of coarse filter (or you can make an effective filter using sand, material and a funnel) to remove most of the gunk before proceeding.

Boiling

Boiling water is the tried and true method of killing germs, including viruses and parasites. However it’s dependent on having a container to boil the water in (though I have seen water boiled in a plastic bottle) and enough fuel to light a fire. Don’t depend on this method.

Filters

A mainstay of stationary disaster water purification systems there are also portable filters that will remove all micro-organisms from water (though beware, most cheaper filters won’t). The advantage of some filters is that they can also remove certain pollutants and other contamination. The disadvantage of filters is that they can be expensive, bulky, clog easily and once they’re broke are difficult or impossible to fix. If you choose to carry one in your go bag don’t forget to back it up with something else.

You can buy filters at most camping and trekking supply stores.

Chemical

The two prevailing chemical treatments are chlorine and iodine. There’s not a huge difference between the two (though there’s plenty of arguments on the interwebz about which is the superior treatment), but keep in mind that some people can be allergic to iodine. There’s a variety of different formulations out there, just follow the instructions on the container. I like chemicals cause they’re cheap, lightweight and can purify a lot of water.

Depending on where you are you can purchase these products at chemists/drugists, camping stores and supermarkets.

Alternatives

There are also UV sterilisers on the market as well as other chemical products which use silver. UV sterilisers use precious batteries and silver treatments are not widely available but depending on your situation may be worth investigating.

Alternatively if you’re out of options a clear (PET) plastic bottle filled with shaken water left out in the sun for around 6 hours should kill most microbes.

Go Bag: Are you ready to get out?

Recently I’ve finished putting together my ‘Go Bag’ and collecting together supplies for some of my friends. The threat of a major earthquake here in the Kathmandu Valley is very real. It was rated as having by far the highest risk of all megacities in a study by the Global Earthquake Safety Initiative. Having a Go Bag is the first step to being prepared for a major earthquake should it happen whilst I’m living here.

As one of the cornerstones of disaster preparedness I’ll be writing a series of articles about Go Bags and their contents.

For some localised guidance check the websites of your local, state or national governments and emergency services or your national Red Cross/Red Crescent society.

What is a Go Bag?

Alternately called a ‘Grab and Go Bag’ or a ‘Bug-Out-Bag’ (and a range of other cute names and acronyms) the Go Bag is a kit of essential supplies to carry with you if you need to evacuate in an emergency.

Why have a Go Bag?

A Go Bag is the first practical step to being prepared for a disaster, whether it’s a large earthquake a chemical spill or a house fire. But when I ask people about their Go Bag, they often respond that they have those items lying around the house.

Unfortunately that just won’t cut it in a disaster. The purpose of the Go Bag is that you can literally grab it and go. If you need to evacuate you don’t want to be digging through drawers and cupboards trying to pull together supplies, and then find you’re missing key items.

A Go Bag might not save your life, but it will sure make dealing with the emergency much easier and improve your comfort during the first 72 hours. And if you’re able to look after yourself, that means that the emergency services can use their limited supplies to look after those who are more in need.

A Go Bag is just one element of disaster preparedness. It’s also important know your risks, have a plan and a way to communicate with friends and family, prepare your property and get some training.

Go-Bag vs Emergency Kit

Many preparedness education will also tell you to have an emergency kit (also called a home survival kit, home emergency kit or household kit). An emergency kit is a larger box with additional supplies to help you survive in your home if you have to shelter in place, either inside or near your home. These kits often duplicate some items in a go bag but they go further, having supplies and equipment for at least 72 hours.

You can use your Go Bag to form the core of your emergency kit but it might be a good idea to duplicate some of the items in case you can’t find or access your Go Bag.

The #1 Item: Your Head

What’s the first thing in your Go Bag? It’s thinking about what you need to put in there.

Think about the hazards that might affect your area, the strength of infrastructure and emergency services. Research any public safety advice about evacuations. If the local emergency services don’t provide this information you’re going to need to come up with it yourself.

If you have to evacuate, where might you need to go, how long will it take you to get there and how long would you expect to be out of your house? For example if you’re a foreign national working or volunteering in a disaster prone area, you may think that you’d be flown out but it could take days or weeks, in which time you might have very little support.

Also think about your own needs, including any medical conditions or allergies and those of your family and pets too.

There’s no substitute for putting together your own Go Bag. Even if you buy one that’s ready made, it will have some items missing that you’ll need to add on your own such as documents and medications. Having said that a pre-made bag can be an easy and quick way of assembling the core items for your Go Bag. Just make sure you familiarise yourself with the contents and add what you need.

So what goes into a Go Bag? Stay tuned for the next instalment.