Urban Survival Post-SHTF: a How-to Guide and Rural Comparison

Posted on Jan 12, 2012 in Alt Energy, Tiny Homes, & Structures, Emergency Preparedness & Survival, Featured Articles

Kevin Hayden – TruthisTreason.net

During a societal collapse or SHTF scenario, is living in an urban environment a safe and prudent option?

Let’s dive into a few of the aspects and dangers of the cityscape, what to expect, and how you might mitigate some of the threat as you either escape from the concrete jungle or try to ride it out.  This does not apply for short, temporary natural disasters; rather, this will examine a potential economic meltdown, long-term survival situation, possible military action, or perhaps an electromagnetic event of some order that brings down the grid.

Living within a major metropolitan area has its ups and down, its benefits and drawbacks. This applies to any decent sized urban area as they all typically have common systems, such as municipal water and sewage, fragile electrical grids that in many cases provide the power for heating your home and cooking, and finally – people.

Large population centers can be your worst nightmare in a survival situation, as witnessed during Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent social collapse that occurred in New Orleans.

Let’s break these threats down a bit further:

Municipal Water, Sewage Treatment, Trash Disposal, and the Electrical Grid

Depending on the cause of the survival situation, these vital components of urban living could be effected in a variety of manners.  Namely, if the grid goes down, eventually all city services go down.  During short term events, municipalities stock enough fuel in reserve for emergency generators to power vital infrastructure, but what happens when the grid stays down for a week?  A month?  Perhaps, as NASA has recently warned, a number of years?

Without these systems operating, the sanitary conditions of your existence will quickly plummet and you will find yourself inundated with stress, danger, and extra work just to survive.

If you are sheltering within your own home, there are a variety of pioneer skills and commode projects that can accommodate a family’s sanitation needs, to a degree.  I’m sure most of us can imagine several different outhouses, or we’ve dug a hole at some point while camping.  This is not a pleasant existence and is often only a short-term solution.

If you are forced to shelter in a commercial building or other structure, and especially with a number of other people, imagine how quickly the situation will turn unsafe, threatening your health in a world with no antibiotics or hospitals.

Mitigation –

Inner City/Apartment: There is not much that can be done if you are stuck in a non-functioning, dense cityscape when it comes to heeding the call of nature.  One solution that doesn’t take up much storage room is a 5-gallon bucket.  These can be purchased at any hardware or home improvement store and create a self-contained commode.  Store sanitary items, tissue paper, plastic bags, and perhaps some latex gloves within it.  This helps facilitate moving your “porta-john” into a private area or for travel while having everything you need.  Ash, shredded newspaper, or saw dust will greatly reduce problems with odor and help keep things a bit more tidy once used.

House with Yard: Digging a large hole for a functional outhouse is acceptable for a small group.  It’s better than a bucket, but is still not a long-term solution for most city dwellers.  Hole depth should be at least 48″ unless you just like digging new holes every few months.  Generally, a four foot deep hole, and several feet wide will work.  Any larger than that and it will likely require support on the sides to prevent a cave-in.  Wooden pallets can suffice for this bracing and they are easy to find for free.  And again, a layer of sawdust, ash, or lime will aid in decomposition and odor control.

Discard paper products in a trash bag and save for later burning as most tissue will prevent the proper decomposition cycle from occurring.

If you will be staying in an urban area, be sure to stock up on antibacterial wipes, spray, bleach, and related items.

Rural: Likely, if you own any sort of structure on a rural property, you have a septic tank installed.  Problem solved.  Use as normal, as long as you have water to flush with, which leads me to my next point;

What about water?

The faucet will eventually go dry or become contaminated when other vital safety systems fail.  Depending on what caused the collapse scenario, your municipal water supply might be contaminated with chemicals, fuel, sewage, or other harmful substances.

Without a large amount of stored, clean water, you will be extremely vulnerable to disease and infection.  The measly 20 gallons of water stored in your closet will last a family of four approximately 5 days if used very conservatively and only for drinking.  What about hygiene?  Showers?  Cleaning dishes?  Clothes?

What’s that you say?  You’ve only stored one case of  bottled water?  Good luck with that.

As for water supplementation, don’t overlook rain water, as cliche as it might sound.  During even a short afternoon shower, you can harvest 30, 40, perhaps even 100+ gallons of relatively safe water depending on roof size.  This is water that is mostly free of any sediment, so a short boil is all that’s needed.  If run through a water filter, this will help extend the life of your system due to already being clear and mostly clean.

Mitigation –

Inner City/Apartment: Your present living arrangements do not allow for mass water storage.  Stock up on water filters now.  Ceramic water filters can block virus, bacteria, radiation, arsenic, fluoride, and many other harmful bits in your water supply.  I consider ceramic water filters, such as those from Homespun Environmental, to be at the top of my survival list.  These filter kits are very similar to the expensive Berkey gravity-fed systems and can be used as replacements, but for a fraction of the cost.

Other types of filter kits can utilize inexpensive 5-gallon buckets as the top and bottom water chamber.  Being gravity fed, you can still have hundreds of gallons of clean water if the power goes out.  With average lifespans of 6-8 years in use, and a price tag of around $25, you can stock several kits in a shoebox in your small, apartment closet to supplement the small amount of water you already have stored.  Add a plastic tube as a siphon and you can double or triple your filter output!

If you forego ceramic filters such as these, you will have to boil all of your water and create a sand filter of some sort.  This requires a lot more effort to build and does not guarantee any sort of safety margin against many contaminants.  Spend the $25 now and prepare ahead of time.  There are no bonus points in life for making things hard on yourself.  No one will pat you on the back after spending two days building a poorly constructed water filter and say, “Wow! You’re like Bear Grylls from the Discovery Channel!”  Instead, your companions or family will likely shake their heads at you in anger or get sick from improperly filtered water.  Save this for your own future show on television and buy an easy to use filter.

Now, the only trouble is finding water in which to filter!

In regards to laundry and clean clothes, you can use those 5-gallon buckets as a wash basin and do it the old fashioned way.  Use some type of cordage to create a clothes line on your balcony or porch.  The down side, though, is that this is a dead give away that you have water and are at home.

House with Yard/Garage:  There are a number of websites and catalogs that sell 250 – 500 gallon water tanks.  I would suggest having a large, 200+ gallon tank in your garage or multiple 50-gallon containers at the very least.  You can find food-grade, 50-gallon barrels for free if you live near a Coca-Cola distributing plant.  All you have to do is ask them, and they will give you dozens of them!  I’ve noticed a lot of places sell these same blue containers as “rain water catchment barrels” for upwards of $70 or more!  Do your research and save money.  Craigslist.org is always a good place to start looking for cheap, food-grade water containers with an average price of about $10.

By having a larger water tank and a set of ceramic filters, you can take advantage of heavy rains, bartering opportunities, and rest a bit easier knowing that you have enough water to supply your family with 60, 90, or even 180 days of clean water.  Typically, these larger tanks cost between $275-400.  Shop around for tanks with better features, such as brass valves, fill-level tubes, and solid construction.

As for cleaning dishes – using a cast iron skillet or oven offers easy clean up and requires little water.  There is a slight learning curve in how to properly season them, care for them, and most importantly – cook with them! – but they are non-stick, non-toxic, and will last for centuries.

Rural: If you’re living in the country, or any semi-rural area, you likely have access to well water or already use this as your main source of water.  A manual pump head (such as those from Simple Pump or Flo-Jac) will pay dividends when the power goes out.  Many people use these exclusively for off-grid homesteads and cabins.  If you only have an electric well pump, you’ll likely be forced to use a PVC-pipe/well-bucket to fetch water.  This is painstakingly slow, but at least you have fresh, clean water.

With a gravity-fed water filter, you can also load up on water from nearby lakes, streams, or ponds.

Trash and Waste Disposal

Trash.  Many of us don’t realize just how much of it we create until we have no place to put it!  The waste management trucks won’t be coming by, so your food scraps will begin molding in your trash bags, attracting bugs and animals, and increasing the severity of the sanitation issue.  Before long, the entire neighborhood or apartment complex will have dozens of trash bags out front, creating a haven and breeding ground for further disease and contamination.  Not to mention the smell.

Mitigation –

Inner City/Apartment There is not a whole lot that can be done if you live in a cramped apartment complex.  However, by talking to some neighbors, or even delegating the trash responsibility to one particular family in the building, you can maintain some sort of cleanliness while providing a job or time-killer for several people.

Creating a small burn pit somewhere in the complex will be the most advantageous solution.  55-gallon metal drums can be utilized for burning paper trash and food scraps, while the larger burn pit or landfill can handle metal and glass products.  Be sure to divide these as best as possible before hauling your trash down as one big, messy bag.  This reduces contamination and water usage for clean up.  Starting to see a theme?

Living in a complex or apartment building will require your immediate reaction, though.  Getting your neighbors onboard and explaining the importance of this early in the event will reap massive dividends later.  Delegate responsibilities and work as a community.

House with YardQuite frankly, by having a house, you have advantages and disadvantages.  You have a lot less trash and refuse to contend with, but you must do the chores yourself.  If you are close with your neighbors and can utilize them, do so.  Any sort of force multiplier is good, but perhaps you don’t want them realizing that you’re still dining on quality, stored food while they eat Ramen noodles and stale bread…?  Decisions.

Also, once the event is over (“if” the event subsides), you will have a backyard landfill to deal with.

Rural:  The same applies to rural properties, but these are often times much, much larger land areas.  The “landfill” or burn pit can be placed a greater distance from habitable structures and daily life on most acreages, increasing the sanitation level.

Electrical Grid

There isn’t much to say here that hasn’t already been discussed in a thousand other articles.  If the grid goes down, you have either prepared ahead of time – with solar panels, a generator, stored fuel, and lighting – or you haven’t.  If not, you will find yourself living by candlelight, until even those are used up and you have nothing left.

Our current electrical grid is a fragile antique compared to what it should be.  Interruptions in any number of points can spell disaster.  We constantly hear from NASA and other space weather agencies that a strong solar flare could send us back to the  1800’s in terms of technology, and these flares increase on a notable 11 year cycle.  A crudely-designed nuclear weapon, detonated 250 miles above Kansas, could wipe out all electronics from Vermont to California with what is termed an “Electromagnetic Pulse” or EMP.

There are almost countless ways in which our weak electrical infrastructure can fail.  And while we can live without it, the sheer amount of chaos and panic that will ensue will be the unraveling of America. No hospitals, no fuel, no food delivery, no medications being manufactured, no police or fire services, and no more Dancing with the Stars.  America would be utterly lost and hopeless, right?

Many urban homes rely on electricity to create and circulate warm air, and functional fireplaces are starting to become a thing of the past in modern house design.  Your alternatives are small, propane-powered heaters – which only offer a few hours of heat before running out – and blankets.

Along those same lines, cooking requires gas or electricity.  Depending on the situation, the gas lines might not function, either.  Do you have an alternate means of boiling water or cooking food?

Mitigation –

Inner City/Apartment: If you have a generator, you will likely not have had much room to store extra fuel, so it will soon be an expensive paperweight.  Secondly, the noise signature from the generator will attract scavengers and looters like a cheesy zombie movie.  Expect your neighbors to request the use of your generator.  Do you really want to say no to them and create an enemy next door?  Perhaps the entire apartment complex?

Instead, a few small solar panels can be placed in windows during the day in order to charge a variety of batteries.  Having a little bit of power is far superior to NO power, and by using LED lighting, you can stretch that small amount of power a long ways.

LED Christmas lights are a great multi-purpose item; cheap, ready to use, consume very little power, and require little storage space.

Another great thing about having even a tiny amount of power is the ability to recharge items, like a high-output LED flashlight, radio, or laptop.  This can be done on a small budget and in a small space by charging a deep-cycle battery or similar.

As for cooking and heating, consider adding a second propane tank to the BBQ grill and using a small camp stove, such as a Coleman’s.  This can be used indoors and provide you with several weeks of burn time if used conservatively.  It’s better than nothing, right?  Remember, you’re the one who decided to stay in the city.

House with Yard: Depending on where your house is located within the city, you will likely fair about as well as those in the inner city and apartment complexes when it comes to a lack of power and cooking ability.  The main exceptions being that you can deploy a larger array of solar panels in the back yard, store more propane and 12v deep-cycle batteries, and perhaps utilize a camp fire in the backyard for cooking.  But how much firewood do you have in your neighborhood?  Propane tanks in the range of 50-100 lbs. are a reasonable investment as they provide quite a bit of fuel and can still be stored in the garage or shed, taking up the same foot print as a common 20 lb. BBQ grill tank.

Rural: Most rural homes have propane storage tanks of 500-1,000 gallons, or more.  This can last a family well over a year with normal usage, and several years with conservative use.  Remember, if the collapse occurs due to an electromagnetic event, or perhaps widespread nuclear detonations, it will take years to see any sort of national composure.

These large propane tanks are probably your best ally in preparedness if you plan ahead and have dual-use, propane-powered appliances.  Propane can power refrigerators, air-conditioners, heaters, cook stoves, area lighting, and much more.  This will provide a nearly-unaffected existence while those in the city will be suffering and spending most of their time simply surviving.

Rural properties also allow for larger solar arrays, wind turbines, and ample firewood.

People – for Better or Worse

Large population centers have high rates of crime on a good day, so after a collapse scenario, it will magnify ten-fold.  People will begin scavenging for valuable items immediately.  Tangible goods, clothing, liquor, food, expensive electronics… these will be the first to go, shortly followed by fuel, vehicles, and the remnants of grocery stores.  Not long after, the house burglaries, robberies, and shootings will begin as law enforcement and other first responders begin caring for themselves or run out of fuel and the looters have nothing left to steal from Wal-Mart and the Nike store.

Your safety will be in extreme jeopardy.

If you have not prepared for this, you will simply be another wandering, hungry refugee at the mercy of those suffering the same plight.

If, for whatever reason, you find yourself stuck in this situation during a collapse event, you have precious few days to increase your security and safety.  As long as you have prepared ahead of time with some of the above-mentioned basic ideas, you can devote more time to security or scavenging while the threat is still at its lowest point.  I am not advocating theft, but in a true grid-down situation, there will be a lot of it.  That’s just a fact of the situation and I will not dictate or weigh morals here.

During Hurricane Katrina, it was at this point that myself and several other police officers began siphoning fuel from abandoned vehicles for use in our patrol cars.  Luckily, we were able to find a 12v pump, attach it to PVC piping, and place it down into the underground holding tanks at a gas station.  This worked until outside help arrived and brought fuel trucks, and before the flood waters inundated the city, but in a national collapse scenario, there will be no one coming to help and operating your own mini-gas station will be suicide unless you are flanked by a platoon of heavily armed men.  There will be no FEMA, no Red Cross… no cavalry charging to your rescue.  It will just be you and your’s.

Mitigation –

Inner City/Apartment: Security can be enhanced in only a few ways, but having “black-out curtains” on your windows should be a priority and can be done now, before any event takes place.  By eliminating your light signature, potential danger might continue walking past without realizing you are inside.  Door and window fortifications are a good idea, but are tough to implement in an apartment setting.  A small house in an urban area stands a slightly better chance, but again, the threat from people will expand outwards and you are directly in their path.

Hungry, confused people in shock will stop at nothing to get what they want – and that’s the decent folk!  The street criminals will be jumping at the chance to take what is your’s.  We already see that everyday merely due to a bad economy and job loss.  Imagine when there is no economy and no jobs.  Period.

Minimize any outdoor activities and stay alert for sources of information on what’s happening.  And most importantly, know how to protect yourself and have the capability to do so.  That means purchasing a firearm, ammunition, and the training to go with it, if you haven’t already.  A handgun, shotgun, and some sort of rifle are considered the holy trinity of self-defense and emergency preparedness.

House with Yard: There really is no difference in the threat from other people, even if you live a bit further out or have a large, lavish home.  It might take the refugees and looters longer to reach you, but on a long enough timeline, they’ll eventually come knocking and they won’t be nice about it.  At that point, they will be demanding, stealing, or simply killing.  This sort of behavior took only 24 hours to start occurring after Hurricane Katrina.  Imagine what it would have looked like if the scenario continued playing out for 30 days, or even six months…?

Again, fortifications of the doors and windows, garage, and basement are important, as well as having a firearm.  But you are still a target.  Due to the other threats listed in this article, you will be forced to be outside more often than advisable as you look for water, food, tangible goods, and more.  This jeopardizes your entire survival plan and creates a greater danger for anyone inside the house.

And for those who subscribe to the mindset of, “I have lots of preparedness stuff, and years worth of stored food!  I’m safe and will make it through any disaster!”, I have to remind them that it only takes a single bullet to put an end to their enjoyment of all that stored food and lovely techno-survival-gadgets.  One stab wound, one traumatic injury, an accident … even a simple infection can end it all very quickly.  The odds are not in your favor to win a gun fight in most defensive situations, either.

Rural:  This is another category in which rural properties are your best bet.  They provide distance, which is a key factor, and a sparse population that consists mostly of others who have a septic tank, well water, propane and stored fuel, and often times, some livestock or farm animals in which to help sustain themselves.  This setting also typically fosters a bit more care and compassion between neighbors – which can be interpreted as a force multiplier.

This improves your safety, but you can’t assume that all will be fine.  These are also the areas in which most people own multiple firearms and can use them, to a degree.  Rural areas still suffer from the same drug and theft problems as cities do, but more often than not, these criminals are no where near the same caliber of those that thrive in urban neighborhoods and promote gang violence.

Safety can be greatly improved in rural areas by creating road barriers on your property or other obstacles that will direct the flow of vehicle and pedestrian traffic to a pre-determined area, giving you a greater tactical advantage if confronting them.

Another advantage has to do with your improved ability to detect intruders from further away, giving you time to hide, secure your home, or prepare to fight.  Refugees who make it 60 or 70 miles away from a city during a large-scale disaster also have to contend with an unfamiliar landscape, and are at the mercy of the rural population for help and shelter.  Use this to your advantage in any way possible but don’t invite danger into your home.

In Conclusion

Pioneers and early explorers lived without electricity and modern medications.  3rd world countries continue despite the burdens of hauling water long distances and scavenging for food, and most Amish get along just fine relying on manual labor and the basic know-how to fashion tools,  implements, and great cabinets (haha).

While we all strive to improve, or at least maintain our current level of living by preparing ahead of time, trying to survive in an urban area will make this much more difficult and dangerous.  Why put yourself behind the curve if you don’t have to?  By recognizing the threats ahead of time, you can prepare for and contend with these few difficult situations now.  By establishing the core, basic requirements of modern man, you can then begin to thrive in the bleak landscape because you have the time and energy to put into more advanced projects.

If you can’t afford a rural piece of property, begin talking with friends and family, or join preparedness groups.  Many times, you can arrange something or work out a deal to share a place in the event of an emergency.

If you simply refuse to live in a rural area due to work, or commute times, or perhaps you just really enjoy city life, than at least have a backup plan that involves a few acres, preferably at least 30-40 miles from town.  Place a small cabin, shed, or shipping container on the land if there is no house, and stock it with the basic essentials or bury caches around the property.  Whatever you do, when disaster strikes, get out of the city!

If a national disaster is bad enough, rest assured that the cities and metropolitan areas will be the first to burn down as they are unsustainable environments full of danger, refugees, and a miserable existence.

Kevin Hayden is a former New Orleans police officer-turned-political activist.  He endured Hurricane Katrina’s chaos and societal collapse in the days following and after 5 years in New Orleans, moved to Oklahoma.  Kevin currently runs www.TruthisTreason.net and works on local politics and education about our monetary, food, and foreign policies while building an off-grid homestead and helping people become prepared.  He can be contacted directly at Contact@TruthisTreason.net or by visiting his websites, TruthisTreason.net & Elysian Fields Homestead Project


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