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A Problem Requiring a Different Approach

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ost survival strategies and related tactics used today draw upon the methods that were used or which worked in past small-scale localized and regional disasters, and will likely work again to some extent in similar small-scale disasters.

However, large-scale (continental-sized disasters) are quite different in many ways. What can cause a continental-sized disaster? There are many potential scenarios that could create a ‘disaster’ across the entire U.S.; click here to view a very short documentary.

Some people assume that all disasters are created equal and that one-size fits-all when it comes to disaster preparedness and response, however that is not the case by any stretch in a large-scale disaster. And when this assumption is proffered to others, it ensures that there will be many more causalities than need be.

a very large crowd of people
Large crowds competing for resources can present a multitude of challenges.

As if this writing, FEMA is still proffering a “72-hour” disaster survival kit: (I recommend this for a vehicle).

I guess the sixty-four dollar question is; what do the people who follow FEMA’s advice do in a large-scale disaster after their 3-day allowance of food and water is exhausted?

The psychological impact of a localized small-scale disaster is quite different from that of a continental or global scale disaster. In local or even regional (small scale) disasters (tornado, hurricane, etc.), survivors know that help will be coming from nearby unaffected areas and that positively affects morale and how most survivors react; there is some order and cooperation.

But in the case of a national or ’continental scale’ event, many survivors will, within a day or two, realize that nobody is coming to the rescue. And this is because everyone is suddenly thrust into the same desperate situation. This later situation is a game-changer and will certainly create a level of desperation seldom seen in the history of mankind. And the most dangerous aspect of how people in-general view such a prospect is the ‘normalcy bias’.

The current failure by FEMA to properly instruct Americans as to ‘a more realistic level of preparedness‘ (given recent world and pending geological events) such as having several weeks of supplies (as a minimum), will in the event of any large-scale disaster lead to enormous masses of desperate people in the short term. If people had enough supplies to weather 6-months, there might be a chance for people to organize and form a cooperative effort for some level of recovery. But currently that is not the case. Sadly, most Americans have less than 3-days allowance of supplies.

Recently I was debating with another disaster preparedness author on the differences between the conditions that existed during the Great Depression (~1929-1940) and the conditions that would envelop a serious disaster situation today.

 Movie ‘Outbreak’: Measles, Ebola and other viruses pose a very real threat!
Movie ‘Outbreak’: Measles, Ebola and other viruses pose a very real threat!

There are many different possibilities when it comes to the potential causality of large-scale disaster scenarios that are statistically relevant. Some are man-caused such as an EMP or cyber-attach on the national electrical grid and industrial supply-chain infrastructure, while others may result from the forces of nature, such as a severe geomagnetic storm. Regardless of the causality, there would likely be a complete breakdown of society as a result of the collapse of the supply-chain infrastructure resulting in large-scale lawlessness and chaos.

When you read some of the survival blogs, papers, books and other speculations on ‘what if the excrement hit the fan (‘SHTF’), you quickly realize that many people haven’t fully considered the existing environment in which any massive crises would develop.

We now have over 300-million Americans living within the United States, and that’s more than double the number during the Great Depression (~127-million). And many more people are armed today compared to the 1930’s; approximately 80% of all American households today now have firearms.

Today, our society is living on the top floor of a ‘house of cards’ due to the fact that almost every facet of our daily needs and current level of living, literally our daily survival, is based upon a highly complex integrated supply-chain system that is highly leveraged and quite fragile.

That means that everything we depend upon and probably take for granted each and every day, including the simple things like; water, food, fuel, clothing, medicine… almost anything we can think of, depends upon society and its intricate systems operating in perfect harmony. Any major interruption of these systems or the failure of any key element will lead to a catastrophic failure of the entire system due to the inter-dependencies of these symbiotic systems, which due to high-level efficiencies operate on a ‘just-in-time’ basis.

This phrase (‘just-in-time‘), which is used by supply-chain managers, generally refers to the fact that, unlike in the past, inventory (food, parts, supplies, fuel, etc.) are no longer inventoried in great quantity on-site at wholesale and retail locations. Instead, products are essentially produced and distributed directly from producers and manufacturers as they are needed in real time to supply the retail and wholesale outlets serving retail consumers. This system allows more money to be made, which is why it is done.

Americans face an uncertain future
Americans face a very uncertain future.

One of several potential catastrophic failures in society would result if we lost a major portion of our national energy grid. The fact that even the U.S. government has been seriously looking at this probability should send a chill up and down your spine, since they are sometimes a day late and a dollar short on important projects! And as of this writing, they haven’t affected any of the corrective measures mandated by the recognized experts in these matters.

Like an 8-cylinder engine that requires all eight cylinders to run properly, we absolutely need and use the full capacity of our current electrical grid as well as many other systems to support our society. In fact, the demand on many current systems (water and electrical) actually exceeds what is available on a regular basis. Of course assuming everything continues to run optimally, we can to some extent, continue this delicate high-wire balancing act, and scrape-by with one work-around after another.

The United States is essentially already over-populated because we have according to experts exceeded the ‘carrying capacity’ of our own natural resources, where as examples, our soils are being heavily depleted as is our water supply. As a nation, we can no longer live on our own resources alone and we are drawing-down the natural resources from outside the U.S. by way of very large, complex and fragile supply-chains. More on this here.

We haven’t had a large-scale disaster in the United States that would be remotely comparable to a large-scale grid-down scenario (major or complete loss of the national energy grid). So there are no direct lessons that can be learned from our past history, even for those people who do take lessons from history to heart. There have been some small-scale grid failures, which of course were remedied only because there were nearby areas that were unaffected, from where repairs were initiated.

The combination of our current high population density with a catastrophic failure of any critical supply-chain would lead to social unrest and competitive violence at unprecedented scales. And if such an event affected the continent, who will be coming to the rescue of the United States? Well, looking back in history, it seems that for the most part, the U.S. has been there for many other countries during times of disasters, as most other countries sat on the sidelines and watched. I think it may be reasonable to posit that we could expect the same in the future. In fact, the enemies of America would want to see any such disaster continue to the point where America is reduced to nothing more than another decimated third-world country.

Even in the best of times, we have witnessed (on YouTube) well-fed people trampling over and injuring each other in order to be first to get a pair of shoes or a game on sale at Wal-Mart! I can easily imagine these same kind of people killing anyone to get what they needed if they became truly desperate. In my estimation, these will be the real-life ‘Zombies’ in any serious large-scale disaster. Look at the violence as a result of the Ferguson Missouri situation!

I realize that these postulations paint a dire picture, and it’s not what any of us want to hear or think about; that is unless you are really serious about surviving any such potential events. The U.S. Government is that serious, which is why they have built complete cities in massive elaborate under-ground bunkers. Survival depends upon a full comprehension and understanding of the potential challenges and risks. Clearly the government has that understanding, however few civilians do, and of those few people, most say we cannot afford such solutions.

But there are effective alternative solutions that are within the financial reach of average people, which I will discuss further into this article.

It’s quite clear that in the event of any large-scale disaster, the short and long-term competition for resources will be fatal to a large percentage of the population as a result of population density, regardless of basic training, bush craft skills, firearms, etc. If average people adopt the wrong strategy, they will perish.

There Are Basically Two Schools of Survival:
There are basically two schools of thought with regard to surviving massive large-scale disasters and the resulting social chaos. Many people who have some level of preparedness (AKA; ‘Preppers’) subscribe to one these two strategies.

Again, causation is not the issue in these considerations; surviving the aftermath of any continental or global-scale disaster is of the essence. So debating what may trigger such an event is not a fruitful exercise; devising and adopting the proper survival response strategy is a beneficial enterprise.

Strategy One (the most common):
Generally speaking: The first, and more common school of survival strategy is to hunker-down where you live, and by using a multitude of survival skills and stocks of supplies and weapons, survive long enough to get a community re-established.

Of course this plan sounds better that it really is, and if you live in, or close to a major city, this is not a viable plan.

As they say here in country, ‘that dog won’t hunt’ in a large-scale event. People who adopt this strategy for whatever reason have failed to properly gauge the impact of the loss of the technological infrastructure combined with the immense numbers of un-prepared survivors (AKA: ‘Zombies’) who due to their own desperation, will swoop-in on the positions of the prepped like the hordes of Genghis Khan in the pursuit of any and all resources.

Some variants of this survival paradigm (‘hunkering down‘) involve planned combat using stores of weapons, sometimes coupled with a ‘Plan B’ involving bugging-out to a secondary location, should the first location become overrun. Of course in a large-scale disaster, this strategy is fatally flawed from its inception, and the fall-back location will likely be overrun as well, even if the Prepper-survivors make it to that position.

‘Heading for the hills’ when the roads to the hills are already choked with stalled and wrecked vehicles and overrun with a mix of desperate un-prepped survivors and Preppers on the move doesn’t improve anyone’s odds of survival.

In a serious large-scale disaster, there will be incredible numbers of un-prepared desperate people who will be flocking out of the cities by the hundreds of thousands (some cities by the million), which is what I call a real ‘Zombie Apocalypse‘. These unorganized hordes cannot be construed in terms of what might be called ‘normal’ evacuations as we have seen during small regional scale disasters, such as during Katrina.

Keeping in mind that in a large-scale (continental-scale) disaster, there are no nearby locations from where disaster response operations can be staged; everyone, everywhere is immersed in the same pickle.

Survivors (un-prepared people) who make it out of the initial chaos will number in the thousands, and will be highly motivated by their ‘basic survival instincts’ and hunger, and they will be aggressive and desperate. Many of them will be armed and just as well-trained as many Preppers, and these ‘survivors’ will sooner or later easily overcome most facilities they encounter, assuming such facilities are within close proximity to cities or nearby urban areas.

Strategy Two (less common)
There is a second and far more realistic (effectiveness) survival paradigm, but it requires that people take significant action well in advance of any major calamity. And it really involves what would be most accurately described as a change in lifestyle.

Based upon the fact that in any large-scale disaster, fuel will be unavailable and/or in very short supply (finite supply), most of the ‘un-prepped’ survivors will only have the fuel that is in a vehicle at the moment of the disaster. Doing the mileage-math for an average vehicle with a partial tank of fuel provides a potential maximum range of about 150 miles. This would allow the survivor-hordes to essentially saturate the areas around metropolitan and nearby rural areas for a considerable distance in all directions. So if you were to draw a circle on a map around large and medium sized cities using a radius of 150 miles, the circle that is formed around those large cities is what I call the “circle of risk“.

What happens in that circle is a function of many factors, including the initial population density. An area with a very low population density could absorb more survivors than an area with a higher population density.

So with that information, it seems that Preppers might limit their exposure to aggressive evacuees by placing some distance between their homesteads and large population centers; I’m thinking at least 150 miles or more from large cities (populations of 250,000 or more).

In other words, if you pick a potential remote location for a survival homestead, and using a map, you draw a circle around that location that has a radius of 150 miles from your proposed homestead, there shouldn’t be any large population center within the circle (circle of safety) that is formed. In other words, the fewer the people inside that circle, the better.

Now here’s the hard part: By relocating now, well before any disaster, to a base of operations (your new homestead) that is within that ‘circle of safety‘, you will have increased your odds of surviving any large-scale disaster and what might be called a real ‘Zombie Apocalypse’.

Obviously there is a price to be paid for the change of lifestyle that comes with relocating and living in rural America. Is it worth it? Time will tell, but I think that when you add up all of ancillary benefits related to country living, the cost to benefit ratio is very attractive.

Cheers! Capt. Bill

William E. Simpson spent his formative years growing up on a working ranch in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon. William (aka: 'Capt. Bill') is a retired U.S. Merchant Marine Officer with decades of boating and expedition sailing experience, having logged more than 150,000 miles at sea. Capt. Bill has successfully survived long-term ‘off the grid’ at sea and at remote uninhabited desert islands with his family for years at a time. In early 2013, he appeared on National Geographic’s hit TV show Doomsday Preppers (Season-2 ‘A Fortress At Sea’) and received the highest score in two seasons for disaster preparedness and survival, earning the title of ‘Best Prepper’.

Capt. Bill is also a commercial airplane and helicopter pilot and a PADI DiveMaster. Simpson is an accomplished writer covering all aspects of disaster preparedness, including a recent book ‘The Nautical Prepper’ (Ulysses Press). His articles have been featured via numerous magazines and websites and he has been a featured guest on various disaster preparedness radio talk shows. More info at

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