Preparing for Natural or Manmade Disaster

A friend from the U.S. recently wrote that citizens are being strongly advised to prepare for disaster, and to visit a relevant government website. As I was writing the post about my Feb 27 reflections, thoughts of what we found useful kept interrupting. Although this article was put aside to write about more pleasurable topics, the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has made this post relevant again.

In my life, I have lived in regions that required a certain degree of self-sufficiency. Snowstorms, ice storms, brown-outs, black-outs, tornadoes, hurricanes, and most recently, earthquakes, have all had a play with my well-being, and have taught me important lessons on preparedness.

The most important thing to prepare for is the absence of any immediate help. Even with the most carefully planned means of action, it will take any government time to mobilize and implement protocols.

In Chile, the government was in the final stages of transition from one administration for another, and was essentially caught with its pants down. The administration was extremely slow to act, and a national program, ONEMI, failed to acknowledge the impending threat of tsunamis. Far too many lives were lost due to coastal communities being instructed to return to their homes, that there was no risk of tsunamis. In other communities, stores were looted and burned, because people were at first thirsty and starving, and then later angry. There was no immediate help in sight.

Ultimately, the responsibility for care and safety resides with oneself.

The following are my personal experiences and suggestions for when all services (water, gas, electric) are lost, and are by no means completely inclusive or appropriate for all circumstances. I do highly recommend that readers visit their own governmental websites for further information.

Food, water, shelter are the very basic of basic human needs, and are the starting point for our personal preparations.


My grandfather had instilled in me a belief in keeping a pantry. He was Mormon, and believed in keeping a year’s worth of supplies. One winter, when my father had broken his arm and couldn’t work, our family struggled with expenses. Food was one of the struggles. Although young at the time, my grandfather’s anger at our circumstances and compassionate purchase of food remained firmly implanted in my brain. As an adult, I honor his believe in the pantry.

While over the years and in many different abodes, my pantry has expanded and contracted, I have always kept essentials for cooking and baking. The value of this practice became very poignant after the 8.8 earthquake that we experienced on February 27, 2010. Not only did we lose all utilities (electric, water, gas), all of the groceries stores were ransacked and burned. All that we had to live on was what was in the apartment, and what little we had purchased right after leaving Lago Lleu Lleu (please refer to last year’s postings on the earthquake).

Fortunately we had items that were easy to prepare, required little fuel or water, and were satisfying and nourishing. There were pastas, rice, crackers, dried nuts and fruits, fortified cereals, flour, sugar, yeast, couscous, barley, oat flakes, coffee, tea, and other sundry items. While we had a plethora of different beans, they could not play a role in our daily diet because of the amount of water needed for rinsing, soaking, and cooking. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a pressure cooker (stovetop) at the time.

Pasta was a very judicious food item to have, for the water used in cooking was retained for another day’s preparation, and then accumulated with other waste water for flushing the toilets. Rice also requires minor amounts of water, and other liquids, such as chicken stock, wine or even juice can be used.

Our freezer had been stocked with meat, frozen fruits, humitas, pesto, butter and lard. The loss of electrical power forced us to prepare all of the meat as it began to thaw, and we threw a giant feast for friends. Even though apartment dwellers, we are fortunate to room for a gas grill, with side burner, on the living room balcony. We also had a small, portable one-burner camp stove. Both proved to be invaluable means for preparing warm meals as the weather turned colder (we were heading into Autumn).

The refrigerator held some root vegetables (we had taken almost everything fresh for camping), garlic, ginger, preserves, condiments, tortilla shells, cheese, eggs and milk, plus some fresh tomatoes and lemons brought back from Lleu Lleu. There were additional unopened milk cartons on the counter. In Chile, the milk is kept unrefrigerated until opening. The same is true for eggs. It took several trips to the grocery store, after moving here, to realize that they weren’t on display in the refrigerated section.

Although our diet was limited in variety, we kept ourselves nourished. Meals were kept to breakfast and dinner. Breakfast consisted of crackers with butter, preserves and/or peanut butter. Dinner always featured a pasta or rice, with some sort of meat and vegetable on the side, as supplies lasted.

Absent in our stock of food were canned goods. We almost invariably prepare everything fresh, from scratch. So, canned vegetables, fruits, tomato sauces, and fish were lacking. Looking back, I do wish that we had included canned salmon or even tuna. Although, one couple we knew ate tuna every day until they felt fins and scales sprouting. They too wished for a varied diet.

The most important things to remember in preparing a “disaster pantry” are: family preferences and special dietary needs; ease of preparation with minimal use of water and fuel; and nutritional nourishment. While foods, such as potato chips, cheese curls, candy and other junk foods may appealing to the craving for sugar, salt and fat, they provide few nutrients and are “empty calories.” You don’t need to completely rule them out, but they should not be the mainstay of the cabinets.

Although we didn’t have these on hand at the time of our disaster, other items to consider are: bottles of juice, granola bars, canned goods (make sure you have a manual can opener), and pet foods, if applicable.

Apartment dwellers should not feel at a disadvantage, for there are many ways to create storage. As our kitchen only has one small upper cabinet and corner shelves available for food storage, we have employed a variety of baskets to provide additional storage.


Water became a real issue, and it made me realize just how much is needed for daily living. Before making the long trek home, we purchased six gallons of water to supplement the water cooler-sized jug at home. Some of the gallons were given to family members in need of water. We learned to be very judicious in its use, and no water went unused.

Water isn’t just used for consumption, but also personal hygiene, dishwashing and toilet flushing. Our building has a cistern on the premises, and each family was allotted one gallon of water each day. Although I am not sure how other families used their allotment, we used ours for one daily flushing of the toilets. One bathroom was designated for “liquids” and the other bathroom for “solids.” Clorox was added during the day to keep odors and germs to a minimum.

Washing dishes became a tremendous chore, and we employed a lab cleaning method. Three small bowls were set up in the kitchen sink. One held a little soapy water and sponge. The second held water and a measuring cup to rinse soapy water off and into the bowl. The third bowl was set up similarly for the final rinse. At the end of the day, the first and second bowls were used as waste for flushing, and the third bowl was poured into the first. Needless to say, dishwashing became a long and tedious process, but it saved on water, which I was thankful to have.

While we were fortunate to have water from the cistern, many families were reduced to gathering water from public fountains, broken water pipes, and even lawn sprinklers. Every possible water source was employed. It was not unusual to see long lines of people waiting for their turn at securing some water.

The limited water supply reduced our personal hygiene to a minimum. We were able to brush and rinse our teeth with bottled water, and wash faces and hands using water poured into a fresh bowl. The water in the bowl was then added to the waste-water bucket.

The amount of water needed to be stored will vary based on the number of family members in the household. This includes the pet(s) in family.


We were very fortunate to have our apartment standing and usable after the earthquake. Had it not been the case, we were prepared to use our camping gear, which included a tent with floor, sleeping bags, air mattresses and pillows. These items were, and still are, kept in the car should we have needed to make a hasty departure.

Let There Be Light

Thankfully, due to our camping trip, we were well stocked on a variety of flashlights – pocket size with clips, standard size, one with power pack – and a plethora of batteries. In addition, we also relied on basic candles purchased before departing for Concepcion.  Four candles were sufficient to adequately light the dining room, and lasted throughout the night. All were in holders that had a surface to catch drips of wax, and were transportable from room to room. It’s important to remember to never leave lit candles unattended. Also, dripping wax can very hot, and care should be taken when small children are present. Additionally, be sure to keep an ample supply of matches.

Even when traveling, we carry pocket flashlights. During one stay in Santiago, months after utilities had been restored throughout Chile, there was a blackout and we had to gingerly make our way down the stairs to the hotel’s front desk, where the staff kindly supplied us with a pen flashlight. We learned that it’s better to be prepared than left in the dark.

First Aid Kit and Medication

It is very easy to assemble a simple first aid kit, which can be kept in a plastic ziplock bag. The kit that I’ve assembled includes: a variety of band-aids, gauze pads, tape, non-latex gloves, antibiotic ointment, hydrogen peroxide, antiseptic wipes, aspirin, Ibuprofen, and a supply of our prescriptions. I also carry scissors and tweezers in a different kit.

Another important suggestion is to consider taking a first aid/CPR training course. The American Red Cross, for example, offers excellent programs for everything from family and babysitting care to professional responder certification.


While it may be financially challenging with the current price of oil, try to keep your vehicle(s)’ fuel tanks at least half filled. If evacuation is necessary, or in the case of our post-earthquake situation where gasoline was unobtainable, what is in the tank is all that may be available for an extended period.

Toilet Paper, Sanitary Supplies and Diapers

This is an important category that can easily be forgotten, until in times of dire need. Take time to assess what and how much your family uses during a two-week period, and strive to keep comparable on hand. Thanks to having lived in regions where stores were either a distance away or the weather would make venturing out a hassle, I’ve learned to keep an ample supply (about a month’s worth) for my family. Having lived without any grocery stores, for an extended period after the quake, I was thankful to have prepared in advance.

Important Documents

As an expat, I always carry a copy of my passport, US drivers license, and Chilean residency card in my wallet. Additionally, there is always cash (in my case, two currencies) tucked away for emergency use. The cash became very relevant during our crisis, as banks, credit cards and ATMs were not functioning and/or available.


During the aftermath of the earthquake, our only connections to the outside world were our radio with power pack and the car radio. Looking back, I wish that we had also had a hand-cranked radio. We had to limit our time listening to news reports, in order to conserve battery charge.

Means of Protection

I think that this is a category most often overlooked by sites that I had visited in the post-2001 days. It really never seemed relevant until desperation took hold in part of the population, leading to mob riots, looting and other crimes. While I personally do not condone guns and other weapons, and do not wish to have them in our possession, I do recognize that it is important to be able to protect one’s family and self.  Types of protection should be chosen based on legality, skill and use.

Other Things to Consider

As avid nature and camping lovers, we have assembled equipment and a system that would suffice in a time of disaster. All that we use fits into a large, canvas bag on wheels, which allows for departure at short notice. In this bag, we can carry a tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, one burner camp stove, cooking ware and utensils, dinner services (plates, cups, utensils), cutting board, knives, flashlights, first aid kit, and other small supplies.

We always have at least one small bag partially packed with clothes (which changes with the seasons), and always go to bed knowing where our shoes and change of clothes are located. The same holds true for wallets, handbags, keys, laptops and dog leashes.

Last Words

While we hope to never have to experience another major disaster, there is little question about being prepared. Given our ages, and the 20-25 year pattern of cataclysmic earthquakes in Chile, the probability is great for another life threatening challenge. We learned a lot about survival during last year’s quake, and have little doubt about our ability to survive again.

I hope that this article has been helpful. While I am far from a doomsayer, I do carry my maternal grandfather’s belief in preparedness, and urge others to consider the same.


After the earthquake, many Concepcion residents were forced to live in tents. In one neighborhood, tents lined the grassy median between two lanes of road.

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