Monday, October 17, 2011

Preparedness Review of The Walking Dead Episode 201: What Lies Ahead

The Walking Dead debuted to great fanfare last fall, but the abbreviated six-episode first season felt like it was ending just as it was warming up.  Following the events in the cataclysmic finale, it was interesting to see just how the themes of hope, adaptation, and survival would play out.  
When we last left our intrepid crew of survivors, their safe haven, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, had blown up in their faces and they were forced to return to the road to find a safe place to weather the undead storm.
Spoilers lie ahead now … you have been warned …

 1. The will to survive is important. There is an opening monologue from Rick Grimes, the central character, regarding his doubts about their survival and the loss of hope among some of the group.  Hope may be the most precious, yet fragile and elusive, survival asset.   One character has given up hope and chosen suicide via the CDC explosion, while another was saved from the same fate only by the intervention by Dale, the elder statesman of the survivors.  Grimes himself has voiced doubts about their survival.    You may have guns, ammo, food, and water, but without hope for the future, why do you even bother to survive?
The US Army Survival Manual perhaps summarizes this hope best as “the will to survive:”
It takes much more than the knowledge and skills to build shelters, get food, make fires, and travel without the aid of standard navigational devices to live successfully through a survival situation. Some people with little or no survival training have managed to survive life-threatening circumstances. Some people with survival training have not used their skills and died. A key ingredient in any survival situation is the mental attitude of the individual(s) involved. Having survival skills is important; having the will to survive is essential.
The most interesting dynamic regarding this theme is Andrea, the survivor who left the CDC after Dale decided he was going to die with her if she would not come with the group.  She clearly hasn’t dealt with her sister’s death, but didn’t want Dale’s blood on her hands.  Now she has to survive in a world she no longer wants to inhabit, and resents Dale for it.   Dale is so worried about her he confiscates her gun. 
2. Having a place of security and safety is important, because bugging out (leaving a place of danger in search of a place of safety) stinks of ice, if you are more than a few days into an emergency.  The group is forced to abandon Atlanta to the dead in an attempt to find safety at Fort Benning, Georgia. Several cars are abandoned and their gas siphoned for the trip, and Daryl (let’s face it, when the stink hits the fan, you want a gun toting redneck riding shotgun) switches to a motorcycle.   
Here is my first problem with the episode.  A motorcycle is a mixed blessing.  It is nimble and can weave around stalled traffic, but it’s loud and draws attention.  We’ve already established in previous episodes that walkers use sound, smell and sight to hunt food.  A regular car is loud enough without that hog drawing walkers to the group.
The group also keeps Dale’s old RV for the trip, which is handy, can hold a bunch of gear and probably has its own generator, but guzzles gas.  It’s hard to maneuver around stalled cars as well.  This point strikes home when they run into a massive traffic jam, complete with flipped tractor trailers bracketing the road.
3.  Spare parts are a good idea.  Dale’s much maligned radiator hose finally gives up the ghost, forcing the group to stop for repairs.  While most cars have progressed to the point that almost anything more than a minor repair requires a trip to the mechanic, keeping an extra belt or length of radiator hose in the trunk might just save you.   Too often we expect our cars to just work.   We don’t remember that vehicles have a failure point.   That’s why most people don’t have a repair fund for their cars.
Shopping Spree: The survivors scavenge for supplies.
4.  When resources are sparse, you are going to have to scavenge – meaning loot – what you need to survive. While the group is stopping for repairs to the RV, the party fans out to search the abandoned cars for items they can use to survive.  Shane finds a full water truck, ending their chronic water shortage at least temporarily.  T-Dog and Daryl begin replenishing their meager fuel supplies by siphoning gas tanks.  Carl finds a stash of machetes and blades (I loved seeing the Bear Grylls parang I own in action later in the episode) that are put to good use.    The group searches for a replacement hose for the RV, and the ladies in the group pilfer new clothes and food.  I was cheering the screen at that point.   There was all this abandoned stuff that could make their lives measurably better, and someone finally recognized it after a few minutes.
5.  Group dynamics in a survival situation can splinter people off and make survival more difficult.  Shane and Andrea are considering leaving the group for different reasons; Daryl is another question mark. 
The zombies aren't the only threat to survival.
Shane and Lori are still at odds over their former relationship and his actions at the CDC.  He is short with Carl, hurting his feelings in a huge contrast to the father figure he represented before his dad returned to the group.  Shane is a tragic figure.  He made all the right moves as the world fell apart, attempting to save his friend and rescuing his friend’s family, only to fall in love and have that love thrown back in his face when Rick re-enters the picture.  He's trying to do the honorable thing by bowing out, but can the group survive without him? 
Daryl has spent his whole life hating people of color (check the Nazi SS runes on the side of his bike’s gas tank) yet saves T-Dog from a walker when the roving hoard moves through the area.   He seems to have found his niche, but T-Dog DID leave behind his brother last season.  I expect we’ll run into Big Brother Merle before the season ends, forcing Daryl to make his own hard choices.
Then there is Carol; she blames Rick for leaving her daughter alone in the woods when he draws off the walkers pursuing her.   She’s clearly hanging by a thread.  Her reality has been defined by her now-dead abusive husband so much that she is having trouble accepting that this is a big, bad world, and Rick had to make a choice that gave them BOTH the best chance to survive.  She's going to have to start making decisions for herself and living with the consequences.
Dale's little fib regarding the status of the RV is another interesting point.   He knows the pulse of this group.  The fact that he needed to stall the group for fear that some of them would want to abandon the little girl is telling.
6.   They FINALLY took perimeter security seriously, with Dale on the RV as lookout and Rick serving as sentry while the group scavenged the cars.  Big step up from last year, when roving Walkers swept through their camp and killed several people.  Had they been scavenging with the others, the group most likely been decimated.  Last year, their camp security consisted of Dale on the RV during the day and a string of tin cans on the perimeter.
Let's face it, when SHTF, you want a Daryl in your group.
7.  Splitting the group is a BAD idea.  Rick leads a search party for Carol’s daughter, while Dale and T-Dog stay with the cars.   On the way back Rick, Carl, and Shane stay behind to search the area around the church (minor nit:  the timed bell broadcast gear still had power).  The group is exposed, in the open and in unfamiliar territory.  They are divided and weak.  And that is when the big shock of the episode occurs.  Which brings me to my final point …
8. Assuming the thing or event that caused the emergency is your only problem is foolish.  Other survivors can be just as dangerous.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Personal Disasters: When YOUR World Collapses

In a previous post, I discussed some of the common emergencies and their levels of scope.  Briefly, those emergencies fall into four broad categories (as defined be my after studying the issue):
  • Personal
  • Local
  • Regional
  • National or Global
We're going to take a look at some of the personal emergencies or disasters that can affect you, and give tips on how to prepare for it.  Today's emergency is the personal disaster of unemployment.

Who Said A College Education Is Useless?

During my undergrad years, I had a history professor named Dr. Kiernan.  He was gruff and opinionated, but brilliant. I was astounded at his depth of knowledge and his ability to deliver amazing lectures time after time with no notes whatsoever.  He just walked into the class, grabbed the chalk, and started lecturing. 

One time in a European history class, we were reviewing the Industrial Revolution in Europe, and he asked us what the greatest fear was for anyone in the working class.   Some thought it was an unsafe workplace, while one student said it was contracting a disease that would make the employee unable to work.

Dr. Kiernan smiled at the student and said she was partially right.  The greatest fear of any member of the working class was unemployment.   Without the ability to make money, a person in an industrialized economy would be unable to survive.   

Unemployment is a prime example of a personal emergency/disaster. As an employee or small business owner, a person has some control over his or her employment status.  As an employee you can do the best job you can; as a business owner you can control your expenses and decide how to grow the company.

The problem is that things beyond your control can affect your employment status.  I saw this firsthand when my father, after working in the same coal company for over 20 years, was laid off because coal had become simply too expensive to mine in West Virginia due to the age of the facilities and the company's union contracts.

Think it might be better as the head man of your own show?  Think again.  The U.S. Small Business Administration  reports over 50% of small businesses fail in the first five years. Why? What goes wrong?

The answer is a lot:  lots of competition, lack of capital, poor credit arrangements, etc.  All conspire to stymie the small business owner.  A small business owner may or may not get unemployment. Laws regarding unemployment compensation differ from state to state in the U.S., and each has its own rules regarding who's eligible to receive benefits.

So What Happens When You're Unemployed?

1.  Your income is reduced.  If you have never been unemployed (I have, for two months) you need to know your income is going to go down despite any unemployment benefits you may draw, because unemployment payments are never as much as you were making.  Don't forget you can't draw unemployment forever, either.

2.  If your health coverage was through your job, you just lost it.  Some companies will extend that coverage for an amount of time after you stop working as a form of severance pay, but many won't.   In 1986, Congress passed the COBRA legislation allowing employees to continue coverage at group rates for some time, but generally the company doesn't pay any of the premium and you have to pick up the tab.  So just as your income drops your expenses increase. If you were barely making ends meet, you are going to start running out of money before you run out of month.

3.  Psychological effects:  according to a Rutgers University study in 2009, an overwhelming majority of the respondents said they feel or have experienced anxiety, helplessness, depression, and stress after being without a job. Many said they've experienced sleeping problems and strained relationships and have avoided social situations as a result of their job loss.

How Can I Prepare for the Personal Emergency of Unemployment?

 1.  Get out of debt.   I am a big fan of Dave Ramsey and his system for eliminating debt.   Our family is working on eliminating debt from our lives.   By reducing debt from credit cards, school loans, car payments, etc., we make our money work for us instead of some bank.   Mr. Ramsey uses a particular quote from the book of Proverbs (note the top right of my blog;  Proverbs is one of the greatest compendiums of wisdom ever written) and I repeat it here:

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.  ~ Proverbs 22:7
 Debt is cancer.  It rots away your finances and your self esteem.   Getting rid of debt reduces your outgoing cash flow and allows you to preserve your money to spend it the way you want it.  It gives you more resources to conduct preparedness planning and purchasing.

Take credit cards for example. If you have a credit card with a balance, thanks to a Congressional reform act your company now is forced to place a little chart on your bill that tells you how much money you will spend paying off the balance and how long it will take if you only make minimum payments.  There is usually a second line that gives another figure and a payoff of three years.  Look at that table the next time you make the bill and note the difference in the total amounts paid.    Look at this example I found online.   I can think of a whole lot of things I can do with that $4,610 in savings, can't you?

By eliminating debt payments, you reduce monthly bills and increase the likelihood that your reduced income will be able to cover your expenses.

 2.  Save money.   Dave Ramsey has everyone in his program start out with a $1,000 emergency fund for expenses we know might be looming over the horizon - the unexpected medical bill, a car repair, etc.   What is more unexpected than unemployment?  If you find out after you have been let go you are going to be $300 short every month after unemployment, guess what?  You have a three month cushion to keep you afloat sitting in your emergency fund.  Ramsey has you accumulate the fund first so that if an unexpected expense comes up you don't have to use a credit card to take care of it.  Good idea.

3.  Stock up on essentials.  I have seen various estimates on how much food is in an average American household at any given time, but instead of quoting that here, I am going to ask you to go into your kitchen the day you read this post and look at what is in the fridge and pantry.   Now, don't buy anything else and try to live for five days on what you have on hand.  If you live in a typical American home, it should prove to be an illuminating experience.

Stocking up on food is not hard.   Jack Spirko at The Survival Podcast has espoused a neat idea called copy canning.  Copy canning is simple.  Whatever you think you need from the store, double the amount you buy.   If you are getting one jar of pasta sauce, buy two.  That way you slowly build a surplus of food and other goods like toilet paper, paper towels, soap, etc.  Set an initial goal to have two weeks of food on hand, then build to a month, and so on.   

How does stocking up help you if you are unemployed?  Remember, your income is going to go down.   Imagine having six months of food stocked away, and not having a grocery bill while searching for a new job? Talk about relieving the stress of being unemployed!

4.  Keep your cars and house in good repair.  This minimizes the chances of a catastrophic repair bill while your income is reduced to unemployment compensation.

5.  Keep your skill set sharp and be ready to hit the job hunt as soon you find out you are going to lose your job.

These are the basics in preparing for unemployment and a glimpse of how being into preparedness can help you weather your own personal emergency.

The Concept of Disaster Commonality

Monday, October 10, 2011

Athletic Shoes: Your First Piece of Preparedness Gear

This is a hard post to write.

So I finally got a rough bugout bag put together.  A bugout bag is a bag with a few days of supplies to keep you alive until you can get from a place of danger to a place of safety.    Here is the bag I am using, a Spec Ops THE Pack (THE stands for Tactical Holds Everything).   I added a GI issue sustainment pouch on each side, a 5.11 Tactical 10.6 Pouch on the top, and three small pouches to the MOLLE webbing on the bottom exterior pocket.I put in the food, clothes, water, fire making materials, and other elements to my bag the other day.   It weighed about thirty pounds according to my digital scale.  It sat there in all its glory, ready for use.

Then I got the bright idea to put it on and walk around the back yard.

Within a few minutes, my shoulders and hips were aching, and moving up and down the hill in my yard caused my shins to hurt.  I may have lots of goodies in that bag, but unless I am in a car I sure won't be able to tote this thing.

So today I am starting a new walking program - one designed to build my cardiovascular endurance, and as I get in better shape, I will add the bugout bag with increasing weight to get my shoulders in shape.  As part of this plan I am going to lose some weight by eating right and taking better care of myself.

I believe that often those of us in the preparedness community, particularly those of us in America with our interest in gadgets, fall into the trap of the Magic Tool - if we only had just the right piece of equipment or set of equipment we would be set.   We overlook that every tool must be cared for; firearms must be cleaned, knives sharpened, food supplies inspected to ensure the contents have not been compromised, etc.  The human body is the ultimate Magic Tool, capable of repairing itself if cared for and fueled properly.

A post I read last year (remember, I've been READING this stuff for awhile) summed up what I am talking about very well (thanks to bclark for posting the following):

Prepared Fitness Criteria
Let us analyze some of the functional areas that are important in an exercise program:

  • Creates stamina to work at elevated periods over an extended period of time
  • Protects from injury and enables one to perform increased workloads safely (core - back and abs strength)
  • Enhances the ability to bend, squat, sprint, pull up one's on body weight, support the weight of another
  • Increases raw power and strength
  • Increases agility
  • Increases carrying and grip strength and endurance
Prepared Fitness Requirements
Essentially what you want out of an exercise program that makes you more prepared is the ability to:
  • Walk all day with a pack
  • Operate a few days with little sleep or rest
  • Carry a load, say a couple of filled five gallon buckets over a distance
  • Perform manual labor all day, everyday for several days without a back injury
  • Sprint, dive, crawl, climb and sprint again to get out of danger
  • Carry an injured person some distance to safety
  • Scuffle with an assailant and demonstrate enough strength and endurance to break away and escape before you are crumpled up on the ground out of breath
I think we underestimate how much physical activity is required to survive because most of us have never had to fight for our lives or face such extreme situations before.   My goal is to prepare my body so I am capable of caring for myself and my family.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Basic Definition of Emergencies

 Where do you start with preparedness?  For me, the first place I started was by doing a threat analysis.   Generally speaking here are the four types of crises or emergencies:

  • Home burns down
  • Lose a job or a source of income
  • Car breaks down
  • Major illness
  • Divorce or death of an immediate family member
  • Home invasion/mugging
  • Flood
  • Snowstorm 
  • Tornado
  • Utility outage (power, gas, water, etc.)
  • Localized civil disturbance
  • Hurricane or other large weather disturbance
  • Regional outbreak of  illness
  • Riots/Civil unrest over a large area
  • Wider, large spread utility outage last more than a couple of days
  • Suspension of travel due to disaster/government restrictions following an event (see my post here about the movie Contagion).
  • Drought/crop failure 
  • Worldwide pandemic
  • Disruption of the delivery of petroleum and other energy sources.
  • Large scale weather event.
  • Worldwide drought/crop failure
  • Terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction, including the use of an electromagnetic pulse to destroy the electric grid.
  • Total societal breakdown 
We'll take a look at each of these levels of emergencies, some examples of what a person may face, and how to prepare for it.   We'll start small at personal disasters and build from there. 

    Thursday, October 6, 2011

    Where Is This Headed?

    Okay, so no posts in September.   It wasn't for a lack of trying.  I have a day job and a side gig, plus I volunteer in my church.  Add my family commitments, and time got short.

    Isn't that the excuse we always give?  "We don't have enough time to do what we REALLY want to do."  No more for me.   Look for more posts, from basic "how to" stuff to the theory behind preparedness.  I also am assembling gear for reviews and perhaps video posts uploaded to Youtube. Another item:  my prep progress.   I intend to post some of my prep activities here so that I can publicly remind myself that I am making progress toward being more prepared for emergencies.

    I want to keep this basic - cover planning for contingencies whatever the cause.  Will I be blazing new ground here?  Probably not.  I will try to make preparedness simple and understandable for folks new to prepping and crisis planning.

    Six Things I Learned from the Movie "Contagion"

    Note:  If you have not seen the movie Contagion and wish to remain spoiler free, read no further.

     You were warned ...

     Watching the movie Contagion was an eye opener for how a truly virulent and lethal pandemic could threaten to collapse society as we know it.   I had already watched the special “After Armageddon” on the History Channel, so I had an idea of what might occur.  That being said, here are some points I picked up:
    Unlucky blow:  Our index patient infects a gambler.
     1.  We touch things daily that could bring an infectious agent into our homes.    From door knobs to other people’s cell phones to drinking glasses, everything we touch could be a vector for disease to spread.   In the movie, the index patient, portrayed by Gwenyth Paltrow, spreads the infection to a person who touches her martini glass (waiter), to a person sitting next to her at a bar who picks up her cell phone (tourist), and to a man at the same craps table (guy who hasn’t or can’t do the math on how unlikely he is to win in a casino).  She also has an affair with an old flame while on a layover in Chicago and manages to infect him.  Karma:  it’s a pain.  Which leads me to my next point …
     2.  A pandemic is a plane flight away.  Paltrow’s character is infected in China, and in the course of a few days spreads it to Macao, Chicago, Europe (through the cell phone lady) and Minneapolis. Once she gets home, she infects her son, who in turn infects his schoolmates and the staff there, and then those infected kids take the illness home.   At one point, the Centers for Disease Control, in the midst of trying to track the plague, realizes the horrifying geometric progression of the epidemic.  It’s a chilling revelation disclosed through scientific jargon.
    Matt Damon leads his daughter on a food-finding mission.
     3. When people get scared, they make very foolish decisions.  If you live in an area that is prone to hurricanes or other natural events like sudden, intense snowstorms, you know what I am talking about here -- every time one of these events looms, what happens in the grocery stores?  Panic!  The bread, milk and other staples fly off the shelves.   I have often wondered how stores could run out of stock so fast on these items.  The answer is that they don't have stockrooms anymore.  
     Many companies now use what is called just-in-time ordering;  when you run out of Widget A on the shelf, a truck is backing up to the store with a case of Widget As on it to re-stock the shelf.   The problem is that this system is highly vulnerable to the slightest disruption.  This is a very interesting report from the American Trucking Association describing what happens when trucks stop rolling.  Why is this important?

    If the garbage trucks aren't running, why are the lights on?
      4.  When a pandemic or other national emergency strikes, essential services WILL be disrupted.    The movie depicts essential services like police protection, garbage pickup, and and transportation services all shutting down as the pandemic strikes down the humans charged with keeping society running through illness and fear of the illness.  Grocery stores rapidly run out of food, commerce breaks down, and the military is forced to step in to control order and begin distribution of food to ensure people don't starve to death.  And guess what?  They don't have enough to go around.
    That being said, Hollywood loves a happy ending.  Cell phones remain operational.  The electricity stays on, allowing people to heat their homes and light up the dark.   Vaccine manufacturers are able to synthesize inoculations on automated assembly lines.   The whole time the viewer must ask, "if the garbage can't get picked up, how are the powers that be going to keep the lights on?"  In the end, society is able to recover.  I have my doubts about whether this would happen in a real event, or at least with the rapidity it seems to recover in the film.
    5. Operational security is paramount.   If you have some sort of disaster preparations, keep it to yourself.   The lead CDC investigator's wife is terrorized during a home invasion in which the culprits break in and demand vaccine, reasoning that since the investigator works for the federal agency, he would be in line to get it first.  This investigator had been interviewed extensively on television regarding the epidemic and the home invaders were able to find his home.  Which just goes to show you ...
    6. When the merde hits the ventilateur, you'd better have some way to defend yourself, because the have-nots are coming for your stuff.  When I refer to the have-nots, I am referring to everyone who didn't have the foresight to prepare for emergencies, not some generic class label for the poor.  You could have a million dollars in the bank account, but if you have less than three days of food in your house and the economy breaks down due to financial, economic, natural, or biologic disasters, guess what?  You are a have-not.  The movie shows mobs looting stores and homes, even siphoning gas from parked cars.  At one point, the main character, portrayed by Matt Damon, raids one of his neighbor's houses for a shotgun after a house nearby is looted and shots are fired.  Remember, the police stopped showing up for work.  If you are looking for them to defend you, you are looking in the wrong direction.
    What You Can Do ....
    1.  Practice good hygiene.  The pandemic started because someone got exposed to a virus and didn't wash her hands.   Carry some hand sanitizer and use it.  Regularly clean your home with sanitary wipes.  My wife contracted H1N1 (swine) flu two years ago, and my son and I did not contract it.  How?  Twice a day I donned gloves and used disinfecting wipes to clean all door handles, remote controls, faucets, light switches, etc.  Any surfaces that could transmit the virus was cleaned.   I also washed our sheets and kept bath towels and washclothes cleaned and sanitized with bleach.  
    2.  Prepare in advance. This is the essence of prepping.  Have sufficient food and supplies stocked for at least one month so that you can limit your exposures outside the home.  If a pandemic strikes, you will want to stay home as much as possible to reduce your risk of contracting the illness.    Also, be aware that essential services may fail.  Have an alternative means of heating your home, procuring or storing water, fuel, etc.
    3.  Practice operational security (opsec).   The best way to defeat looters is to make them think there is nothing in your house worth looting.   As much as possible, keep your preps secret. Buy food in small amounts so as not to attract the unwanted attention of nosy neighbors.  Don't store all your food in one place in the home.  We are clearing out a clothes closet with the intention of putting some our our stockpile there on the opposite end of the house from our main stockpile.  Have a way to secure your home and defend it.
    4. Change your mindset to understand that if it gets bad enough that you need government help, the government probably is not going to be able to help you.  See Item 4 above.  There is a riot at a food distribution point in the film when the National Guard runs out of  food.  Don't be a burden on the system; free yourself from it.