Letter Re: Survival Notes from the Dominican Republic

Monday, Oct 26, 2009

Jim,

I've recently read several of your books and found them both interesting and educational. I would like to offer some personal insights based on my experiences from living in a small rural town one of the larger Caribbean islands. Most of my notes are cheap solutions used by people in developing nations all over the world. There may be better ways, but these work and cost next to nothing.

Water:

There is something especially disturbing about opening the faucet and hearing a sucking air sound. Not being able to shower, flush, or wash dishes is the worst.

One or more 55 gallon drums and 5 gallon plastic buckets are essential items to have. When you see that hurricane on the news, put the barrel it in the shower and fill it up right away. Add a few capfuls of bleach to make it keep longer. Expect the quality of water from the town water supply to drop. Rainwater collection should be set up right away. If possible the roof should fill a large cistern with a pressure pump. A gravity tank should be put on the roof.

Washing up from a bucket is easy enough. A small plastic cup and a five gallon bucket makes is easy. If the water is cold don’t try to heat up all the water. Bring a good sized cooking pot to a near boil and add it to the cold water. A person can wash easily in 2 gallons of water.

Pouring about two gallons of water rapidly into a toilet from a 5-gallon bucket will flush a toilet.

Washing dishes from a bucket without using gallons of water is tricky. It takes some practice to do it right. If you don’t stack your dirty plates and wash them right away, you only have one dirty side and no dried food.

It is very easy to contaminate your water supply. Dirty bucket bottoms and careless bathing are common causes, be vigilant.

Food:

Our community is an exporter of meat, milk, eggs, rice, vegetables and we have a 365-day growing season. Most families have a garden plot to supplement household food. Storing food is always wise but not nearly the problem it is in some other locations. Much of our farming is done with hand work.

Power:

We have daily blackouts here and most houses have invertors with battery backups. Since we have occasional power most people do not have generators but just charge when the lights are on. Most businesses have diesel generators.

A 2.5 KW inverter system with 4 deep cycle batteries will keep a few lights on, a laptop and a fan or two for about two days and costs about $2,000. The better systems run on 24 VDC. Here we are all very aware of vampire appliances [aka "phantom loads."]. All those VCRs, TVs, microwaves, wi-fi boxes, alarm systems, clocks, all pull a significant load. You need to learn your house circuits and unplug and turn off the breakers for things you don’t need. Low wattage bulbs are essential.

Running a generator for about 4 hours will charge most battery systems. Your generator will need to be at least twice the capacity of your inverter. Operating like this you can have basic lighting for the cost of about 2 or 3 gallons of gasoline a day. Running a refrigerator off a battery backup system is just not cost effective. Many people have put up both solar and wind systems as a way to produce some additional power to keep the batteries topped off.

A few simple solutions: Computer UPS systems usually operate on a 6 or 12 V battery. It is very easy to open one up and connect a large battery by running wires through the back of the case. This will give a much longer run time. While you have the case open, take a pair of pliers and crush the annoying power alarm beeper. The charger on these systems is very small and will take a very long time to reach a full charge. An off the shelf battery charger will speed things up. Alternativel,y your car can be used to charge the batteries (12 VDC only)

Guns:

While being armed is important, life is so much easier when there isn’t a conflict in the first place. Some people always seem to have problems wherever they go and need to pull out weapons while others seem to walk through the valley of death without a care in the world. Spend some time researching body language, and read books on interpersonal relationship skills. Besides improving your life right now, it could change a potential fatal firefight into a new friend.

Police:

When we have a crime wave, the police set up road blocks coming into and out of town. Rarely does this cause any real problems for honest people but you do need to have your paperwork for your car or firearms on hand. A smile and a friendly face makes things go much smoother. Acting aggressive or angry will get a messy and thorough search of your person, passengers and your car at a minimum. Knowing your local police makes a big difference. Sometimes we are asked to “help them out” which is code for a bribe. Either pay it with a smile, say sorry but you can’t today, plead poverty, or turn back. Fighting it just is not worth the trouble.

Crime:

Most traveling gangs are small and short lived. They rarely survive an encounter with police. It is very hard for a crime group to survive outside of their own neighborhood where they have local knowledge, a place to sleep and the support of family and friends. On the flip side the crimes committed by these people are usually the most brutal.

Local criminals gangs are much harder to control. Often these are well-connected individuals or gangs who are very good at remaining undetected. Some of them are drug smugglers, cattle thieves or burglars. Persons who are well liked and respected in the community are usually left alone. If you see large gangs forming, seriously consider leaving the country as it is a no-win situation.

Home Security:

This is a very safe country, but it is safe because people here do no depend on the police and protect themselves. With that in mind I have noted some of the more common security precautions here.

My experience here is that a house with lights on and occupied is the house that is left alone. Your best defense is to be the least interesting but hardened house in a occupied community. Vacant houses attract soft criminals and people who need a place to sleep. Most Dominicans always have someone home in the house. Night time home invasions are rare but they do happen. People who do this time of crime are extremely dangerous experienced and hardened criminals.

Isolated houses are at the worst risk for the most serious attacks. A gated community, walled yard, electric gate, bars on the windows, dogs, even armed security guards are all common place here. Country people live in small groups of three or more houses with the fields surrounding them.

Your most vulnerable time is being ambushed entering or leaving your home or car. When designing your landscaping, don’t build easy ambush points for attackers. This sort of thing doesn’t happen much in a small town.

Protests/Strikes/Riots:

Occasionally when the power or water is out too much, the citizens will organize a protest/strike/riot. Often the organizers are union leaders or other non-governmental community leaders. The usual format is to shut down the with road blocks and burning tires. Much of the bad behavior is more for show than reality but trying to pass the road blocks will result in getting your vehicle wrecked by the strikers. It is important to know why people are protesting and to be sympathetic to their cause (in many cases it is well justified). Their intention is to cause just enough of a disruption to get government the government to resolve the problem without getting arrested. Trying to pass the roadblock means that you are disagreeing with the reason they are striking. Know your local area for alternate routes and don’t try to travel during strikes.

Dogs:

Good dogs are essential. A pair of large dogs of a known breed are a very significant deterrent. Rottweiler, Doberman, German Sheppard, pit-bulls are recognized and avoided. Dogs differ widely in personality. Be sure yours matches your needs. Be aware and realistic of their shortcomings. I know too many people who depend entirely on a easily circumvented dog for security. Professional thieves routinely outmaneuver, poison, or shoot dogs.

Don’t overlook the value of small "yippy" and intelligent dogs like Chihuahuas. They are light sleepers, a second set of eyes and ears and are cheap to feed. They often work well with the bigger dogs.

Watch your dogs. If your dogs suddenly become sick, it may mean they were poisoned and you should expect a robbery that coming night or the following day. Look for your dog before you pull into your drive or get out of your car. If there has been an intrusion it may be hurt, nervous, missing or dead. This will often be your first indication of an awaiting problem.

Community

After a disaster (hurricane, flood, earthquake) the best thing for everyone is to keep the community together. Building a good reputation and personal relationships with neighbors and community leaders will make all the difference when resources are scarce and people are scared. The people who are capable leaders and community contributors often get first dibs on any help that does arrive and the right to make decisions on how goods are distributed.

Filling sandbags, organizing relief, passing out information, providing power, clearing roads, etc will make friends and build relationships that are not soon forgotten. This sort of thing can really bring a community back together in a hurry. We all depend on each other and leadership through positive action is a great way to rebuild. Just as looting is contagious, when people see others working together and helping, they are apt to join in. I have seen this numerous times here.

Transportation

Propane is subsidized here and is significantly cheaper than gasoline. Many people have adapted cars and trucks to run on both fuels using a special carburetor. As propane stores well this is a good emergency option for transportation, cooking, and power generation. Additionally propane machines can run on biogas and syngas.

While horses are very common here there would be a shortage if things really went bad. They did become proportionally more valuable as the price of fuel shot up.

I rarely see wood gasification mentioned as a alternative fuel supply. (See the Wikipedia page on wood gasification) This is an excellent modification that was used heavily in Europe in the 1940s. In my opinion, for most people this is the best solution to combustion engine power after a complete breakdown. Both alcohol and biodiesel require working farmland and refineries.

Post crash employment:

Anyone who can provide alternative sources of food, power, fuel or light will do well. A little Google work will show what technologies work on a small scale and provide business opportunities both now and after. Additionally, people here who can repair things never seem to make much money here but they always have work and food on the table.

Currency and hyperinflation:

After a major bank failure here, the currency here devalued by a factor of four in about two years. As the slide begins there are lots of opportunities to buy up things at old prices as many people price things based on what it cost them, not what the replacement value is.

As prices shot up, wages lagged way behind. Interest rates sky-rocked. Food prices shot up. Skilled labor prices went through the roof. The economy stopped dead because it becomes impossible to price things and nobody wants to work.

At the end of the slide the asking prices for everything got just crazy high, and the bid prices so low that almost no transactions took place except as acts of desperation.

Three years later, the currency has stabilized. Interest rates on loans are still slowly retreating. Merchants learned to price goods on replacement cost. Prices are often quoted in USD instead of local currency. Asking prices never really came down, but bid prices slowly rose up and as the spread reduces the economy starts to move again. Salaries are paid in local currency, but pegged to the USD for stability.

I wasn’t expecting to write such a long letter but maybe some of this will help people prepare and know what to expect. Sincerely, - S.H.


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