A Practical, Full Spectrum Suburban Survival Plan, by JIR

Wednesday, Apr 21, 2010

Survival planning can be overwhelming and a lot of the advice you get is not practical or compatible with our lifestyles. A lot of us choose, or are forced to live in the crowded East Coast far too close to cities to survive TEOTWAWKI. I dare say, a lot of SurvivalBlog readers live in suburbs just outside medium to large population centers. Many of us have jobs that don't migrate to small towns and would face a substantial loss of income if we moved away from our livelihoods. Some of us like our current lives and feel that hunkering down in a rural town is just too much like running away from life. Others (like myself) have family obligations that preclude relocating.

That can make surviving the "big one" difficult or even impossible. But, fortunately, the "big one" is much more unlikely than a lot of smaller regional disasters. You should be able to easily survive the small ones and with a little planning you may be able to increase your odds of surviving TEOTWAWKI astronomically. If you approach preparation logically, you should probably have a variety of plans in place to mitigate a whole range of possible disasters. While this suburban approach is not as safe as living in a back-woods retreat out west, it's much less extreme and more palatable for suburbanites. If you can pull it off, living debt free and off the grid in your remote retreat is the safest option. If you can't, don't give up. Prepare for what you can and mitigate the rest. At least think it through and have a plan of action.

First, what are your real goals? Survival is simply keeping body and soul together and your body temperature at 98.6 degrees. That's definitely not enough for most of us. We all want to survive in style, with as little discomfort as possible. There is a huge difference between living in a stadium with thousands of other refugees and living in your own home. Most of us want to be in a position to help others in a crisis, or at least exercise some level of control over our lives and maintain some dignity. But, don't lose sight of the real objective. You want to keep breathing, even if you lose your home and your possessions. The scale and duration of a disaster determines the amount of preparation you must have, but in every case, living in style with dignity and comfort takes more preparation than simply living through it. If you are living in a high population area, you are accepting risk and betting that society will continue in some form. That's okay as long as you realize that you are going to have to pay for that bet if the big balloon ever goes up.

Lets look at some disasters in ascending order of severity and see what you can do to live through them from your suburb home. I will share my own preparations under each heading, not because I am a super-survivor and ready for anything, but so you can see what I consider a practical level of effort (in my particular case). You can easily improve on my preparation level and should if you feel the need. I am 50 years old and basically a lazy guy with grown up kids. If I die from my own lack of preparation, I can accept that and I guarantee the world will go on without me. You have to choose your own pain level when it comes to survival planning.

1. Power outage (temporary, like would be caused by a severe winter storm). This is an easy disaster to survive. Basically everyone will survive it unless they are unfortunate enough to be on an operating table or something at the time. Surviving with style requires a generator or at least candles and maybe a camping stove. In very cold environments, you can be in danger without an alternate form of heating for at least one room. Setting up a dome tent inside your home and using good quality sleeping bags can allow you to survive sub-zero temperatures easily. Even a couple of candle lanterns can keep the inside of a small tent above freezing. Several LED lights will make your life much better and a good battery radio is a must. Rechargeable batteries are a good idea but only if you keep them charged. If you can't make that much effort, take the lazy way out and keep a large supply of Duracell batteries on hand and rotate them yearly--problem solved. Keep in mind that elevators and subways become immobile metal boxes in a power outage.

My own preparations: I have a deep cycle battery backup to provide light and recharge AA batteries for a few days. My system is on a smart-charger to maintain the charge and I rotate one of my two big marine batteries every three years for a cost of about $90. This is much less trouble than maintaining a small generator, but probably a little more expensive in the long run. I also have a 12 watt (12 volt) solar panel to top off my battery bank and a 6 watt solar AA battery charger. If worst comes to worst, I can recharge my batteries from my truck alternator. Total system cost (with a 1,500 watt inverter, charger and a hand truck) was slightly more than a generator. I don't use a freezer for food storage, so I don't require much electricity. I have kerosene lanterns and both propane and wood cooking capability. I am prepared for much worse, so, of course I have lots of food, some water, a hand operated well, several good radios, camping gear and other stuff. So a power outage is not even very inconvenient. The only thing I really miss without grid power is air conditioning and television.

2. Regional disaster (Earthquake or Hurricane). Some disasters are too nasty to face. You will want to evacuate. This requires a vehicle with plenty of fuel, a wad of cash, and a well stocked bug-out bag for each member of the family. More importantly, it requires a plan. What will your bug-out route look like in a disaster? If you haven't considered this, you probably should. Take a look at the congestion in every recent hurricane evacuation and plan accordingly. You need to know where you will go and plan your route. If you can own a well stocked retreat outside the disaster area and can get to it, you have it made. If not, make plans to stay with friends or family outside the disaster zone.

My own preparations: My area is sort of vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding, so I have a very extensive bug-out bag with basic camping stuff, two weeks of food and water, and a few basic weapons for the road. I have all my important documents in a waterproof/fireproof lock-box that I can grab and take with me. I keep my truck in good shape and consistently top off my fuel when it reaches 1/2 tank, but I only store seven gallons of gasoline (which I rotate every month or two). I also have cash on hand so I can pay for hotel rooms. I am 1/4 tank away from high ground, so I figure that's good enough. Oh, and I also carry flood insurance.

3. General economic depression/recession/hyper-inflation etc. Once we start an economic slide, it can hit you in a lot of ways. Some of us have already been crushed by the current depression. Your pension may be lost. Prices will skyrocket, while your paycheck doesn't. Losing your job or having drastically less money can be a soul-destroying disaster. There are several ways you can mitigate it if you start early enough. Debt is your biggest problem and threat. If you miss a few house payments, or car payments, the banks are not going to be forgiving. Credit card debt can crush you with interest and finance charges. Avoid them like the plague. While you still have a reliable income, you need to pay off debt, or at least build up a buffer of cash to allow you to make minimum payments while you look for a job. Many of us have fallen into the trap of having a huge 30 year mortgage and live in fine suburban houses. As the real estate market falls flat, you won't be able to sell your home to get out of debt. Buying a smaller, less expensive place or renting can give you a measure of freedom if you can manage to get free from your current mortgage. If you have a mortgage payment, you are still a renter and subject to eviction. Even if you own your house outright, you really don't. You probably still have to make a tax payment or you will be evicted.

Oddly enough, a food storage program can really help you make ends meet. The kinds of food we store tend to be not only shelf-stable, but cheap. If you start eating the same foods you store, like wheat, beans and rice for most of your meals, you can feed your family on pennies. These basic foods are actually tasty and nutritious once you get used to them. Work them into your diet gradually and you may find that you feel healthier and spend less on your grocery bills.

A small garden can cut your food costs and raise the quality of your diet at the same time. (You also get an opportunity to get a little exercise, something most of us need.) Fast food is not only unhealthy, it's expensive. The same $20 you would spend to feed your family a meal of greasy burgers will stretch to five or more healthy meals if you cook it yourself. A good cookbook can be a wonderful investment if you use it.

Get rid of all your car payments. Driving an older car that you own outright can save you a ton of money. They are cheaper to insure too.

My own preparations: Not so good. I have a fairly safe job, but almost no savings and quite a lot of debt, mostly in the form of a large mortgage. If I lost my job, I would quickly lose my home if I couldn't find another one quickly. I have a small military retirement pension, but we would have to make some drastic lifestyle changes to live on it. The thought that I could be homeless and broke within 5-6 months scares me, but there is no quick fix for debt.

As long as I have a job, I will at least have local transportation. I often ride to work or shopping on my mo-ped which gets 150 mpg. I can get around town pretty well with no other form of transportation. I store 7 gallons of gasoline and oil and have a complete set of spares. This would allow me to run my Moped for at least months, even if I were unable to get more. If gas gets much higher, I will probably park my old truck most of the time anyway. My little bike is home built from a kit. It has a 66cc engine I bought on Amazon and put together in a weekend. At first, this bike was just a toy, but I quickly saw the utility and bought a complete set of spares and bike parts to "systemize" it. It has proven reliable, economical and loads of fun. Coupled with a small cargo trailer, my bike can haul about 200 pounds of groceries at 25mph and has a range of over 75 miles without refueling the little 2.5 liter tank. Total cost counting the bike, engine kit, spares, fuel storage containers and tools was about $450. If you are interested in building one of these kits, I highly recommend a visit to MotorBicycling.com. With a little research, you can tell if you are skilled enough to build one and maintain it. This solution won't work for everyone, but it works great for me. It's a wonderful feeling of power to know I can repair anything that goes wrong with it.

4. Crime. The Marines have a saying I admire: "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet." These are words to live by. Being robbed, raped or burglarized is a personal disaster, but violent crime can be the most horrible thing that ever happens to you. Anyone can be a target of violent crime, so never assume you are safe, even in your own home. Your physical security should be your first concern and always at the back of your mind. There is no time to think about it while it's happening, so you will need to plan out your responses in advance. Do you have to go through life watching over your shoulder for danger? In short, yes. You do anyway. When you cross a busy street, you don't just amble across without a glance. Why should you behave that way when it comes to thugs?

Do you have a weapon? If not, you really do need to get one ASAP and learn to use it. Do you rely on the police to protect you? If you do, you are betting your life against long odds. Historically, the police have a dismal record for protecting citizens. If you don't believe me, ask a cop. Most of them will tell you that they can't protect you from violent crime and will advise you to arm yourself. Firearms are by far the best weapons, but if you simply can't own one (for whatever reason), have something and a plan to use it effectively. Even residents of New York City can own a ball bat, knife or tomahawk, so there is no excuse for being unarmed. Don't bet your life on a Taser or pepper spray. Buy something lethal and learn to use it. Just your possession of a weapon, skills and a plan to use them will calm you and allow you to think more clearly.

Defending your home. If someone wants into a house, then they can get in. No physical barrier can stop a determined person. But, barriers like solid doors and locks can slow them down and force them to make noise. The only real deterrent that works is the threat of brute force (even if you rely on the police to provide it for you). Visible barriers can also deter criminals and make them go elsewhere. But what if they ring the doorbell in the middle of the day? Do you answer your door with a pistol in your hand? Maybe you should. Or at least, stuff a snub-nose revolver in your pocket on your way to the door. Home invasions often begin with a knock on the door and a friendly smile. You may not be able to stop the Manson gang with a pocket pistol, but then again, you might. Your chances are certainly better if you expect that friendly UPS guy holding a package to suddenly turn nasty and push past you into your house with his four buddies. Look at your situation right now. Are you more than five seconds away from a loaded weapon? If so, you are not as secure as you might be.

Defending against burglary while you are away is harder. Barriers like stout doors and window bars help. Living in a good neighborhood and knowing your neighbors helps. Having a monitored burglar alarm helps if you can afford it. A loud (unmonitored) burglar alarm will make the burglar jumpy and might scare him away. You should also make it hard on him. Don't store your valuables in easy to find or easy to grab fashion. A heavy gun safe is a lot harder to carry off than loose valuables. If it's bolted down, it's even more difficult to steal. Scatter and hide your wealth and the burglar is likely to miss some of it. If the worst happens and your stuff is stolen, console yourself. It's just stuff.

A dog can be a big deterrent and a wonderful warning system (and a peerless pal!). But never depend on a dog to fight for you. Dogs are too easy to beat. Dog owners tend to overestimate the combat effectiveness of their animals. The fact is, even a large dog is not hard to kill and all of them are downright stupid compared to a human adversary. Don't count on your dog to defend your home. He will try valiantly and fail. Dogs are best used to warn you and give you time to prepare a defense. (By the way, domesticated dogs are the only canines that bark. There is some evidence that they were originally bred specifically as burglar alarms.)

If you bug out, then you should absolutely be armed. There are too many things that can go wrong on the road. You need weapons you can conceal or they may be confiscated at a check point, so I suggest a battle carbine with a folding stock. (The WASR 10 AKM, that comes with a TAPCO trigger job is a great choice). A good choice for concealed carry is a Ruger SP-101 in .357 Magnum. It's utterly reliable, powerful and as accurate as you are. My G.O.O.D. preparations include a Mossberg riot shotgun to surrender to the cops and a few other items that are less noticeable. The Mossberg is an excellent weapon and cheap enough to not weep if you lose it.

My own preparations: Not great, but better than most. I have a battery powered burglar alarm inside the house to give me some warning and 3 battery powered wireless cameras for outdoor monitoring. We have three cell phones on two different networks, so we can call the police.

I have a modest, but adequate survival battery and a moderate amount of ammunition for each weapon. I answer the door with my hand on a .44 Magnum. I am rarely more than two seconds from a loaded firearm and carry a knife even in the shower. Does this make me a paranoid? Maybe, but I figure that just because you are not paranoid doesn't mean everyone is is not out to get you. This level of readiness for sudden combat might prove too inconvenient for some people but doesn't cramp my lifestyle at all. I have lived this way my whole adult life. I am not hurting anyone and I feel pretty safe. None of my neighbors know about any of my preparations or suspect that they are covered when they come knocking at my door. My home doesn't look like a bunker and I never look like I am armed. My wife is a marginal but enthusiastic shot, and has a .45 Colt single action revolver within reach most of the time. (She has three of them and jokingly calls two of them her "speed loaders" [since Colt single action revolvers are notoriously slow to reload.] It might be a bad day for someone attempting a home invasion at my place. The bad guys will at least have to overcome an instant, determined defense. But even with all my "rational paranoia", my house is far from secure. It can be burglarized easily or burned. It's definitely not a fortress. If law and order completely breaks down, I recognize that I can't possibly defend this house from a determined group. There is no shame in running away from extreme danger.

5. Financial collapse: If there is a general collapse of the finance systems, expect banks to close immediately for the duration, or perhaps impose withdrawal limits on your accounts (check the fine print. They can do that.) If you have valuables stored in a strong box inside a bank, you may not be able to access them. ATM machines may quit working. Credit will dry up and your VISA card may not work. As hyperinflation takes hold, the price of goods will fluctuate wildly and vendors will start defensively pricing their goods. In most historic cases of hyperinflation, prices changed daily or even hourly. If all of this comes to pass, any wealth or entitlements you have denominated in dollars (like a retirement check, for instance) will quickly become waste paper. In this kind of environment, most people are going to we wary of doing business and shortages of fuel, food and other staples should be expected. Cash is king in a credit-less economy, but it's also poisonous. It loses value quickly, so you will want to hold as much of your wealth as possible in tangible goods and dump cash quickly. In hyper inflating economies, people who get paid in dollars try to cash their checks and spend the money on payday. If this kind of emergency gets really bad or lasts very long, I believe it could easily slide into a total grid-down TEOTWAWKI collapse. Our only hope is that the same government who caused the crisis can somehow maintain order and halt the crash. I don't have a clue how they will be able to do this and I suspect they don't either. The point is, they will be on a time limit. At some point, people will start to riot, loot, and evacuate cities and the whole house of cards may fall.

The Ideal way to survive this kind of calamity is to already be living outside the money economy. If you don't have any bills or expenses and are largely self sufficient, you can probably survive this without much change in lifestyle. Everyone else may be in trouble. In the event of a general finance meltdown, you really should consider executing your TEOTWAWKI plan, because things may get very ugly very quickly and you may not be far ahead of the Golden Horde. Widespread and simultaneous bank closures from financial instability is a very bad sign.

6. TEOTWAWKI plan. (Long term Grid-down emergency): This is the big one. It's what this blog is all about, and the reason you should have moved out west to a quiet little town. If you can plan for this one, you will be ready for anything less catastrophic. I see a collapse happening in three broad phases: The struggle to save society, the big die-off, and the early struggle for recovery. Let me explain what I mean. Our modern world is very inter-dependent and a breakdown of any major system can cause the collapse of the others like a house of cards. The main ones that can't stand much interruption are:

Food distribution
Fuel distribution
Finance systems (commerce)
Electrical Power Grid
Government law enforcement

Failure of any of these for an extended period could cause catastrophic failure of the other four systems. If people are starving, they will break laws to get food. If nobody can buy or sell, it can completely stop food and fuel distribution. Fuel distribution effects the power grid. Unless the Government quickly reacts to disruption of any of these main systems and props it up well enough, the others are sure to crash. There will be a period where the government (and most responsible citizens) attempt to prop up the system and put it back in order. Reporting for work even if you are afraid of violence and not being paid may be the only way the system can be repaired and the crash averted. If these efforts fail and one or more of the above support systems stay down long enough, all five of these systems will likely fail in rapid succession.

Failure of these will cause other second order failures in systems that, while critical, can stand some disruption without catastrophic results, such as food production, medical services, transportation and distribution of other goods, other government services, coal mining, Water and sewage and maintenance as well as many others. The net result of a general breakdown of services would be to shatter society beyond a return to normalcy.

Here is the problem you face: Almost everyone in western civilization is supported by this precarious web of services. Without them, these people cannot possibly maintain their current existence for more than a few days or weeks at the most. There is not enough food stored nearby where people live, also, these people don't yet own it. (check around. Almost nobody stores a meaningful amount of food in the USA or Europe). Without the electrical grid, finance, law enforcement, transportation and security, everything comes to pieces and people will start to starve.

The population of the USA (and Europe) will be hungry and desperate within a very short time. How short? I really don't have any empirical data on this. Regional disasters are not a good model for a general breakdown because there is always help available immediately from the outside, even if it's nothing more than a stable finance system and the threat of eventual prosecution for looters. The one thing we can be sure of is that without modern systems, most people are going to die in a matter of months.

Lest you think this kind of catastrophe can't happen, be warned: This massive population die-off is not without precedent. Throughout pre-history, there are repeated catastrophic die-offs where a population suddenly collapsed. The Mayans, Anasazi, Greenland Vikings, Easter Island, and several African empires probably experienced a very similar event. Each population (except Greenland) stabilized at a new, far lower, population level. But, each of these cases was the result of the collapse of societies much less complex and populous than our own, with fewer dependencies and much shorter production chains. In other words, their societies were much more robust and resilient than ours. Our collapse and die-off will be unprecedented only in scale and the speed of the crash.

Living near a population center makes surviving the die-off difficult or even impossible. People don't just sit down and starve to death. They form groups and go out looking for provisions. Put yourself in their shoes and think it through and you will see that every house, every building they can reach will be systematically searched for food. Even remote retreats may not be safe from this. People tend to organize and come up with solutions, even to tough problems. [JWR Adds: And be forewarned that they tend to apply "situational ethics."] Every city and every town will have provisioning teams out looking for supplies. Anyone who expects to stand on their rights and claim that they "own" their supplies is going to lose in the face of general starvation. Any provisions you have that can be found will be confiscated by somebody unless you can fight them off.

I would like to save you some planning time here and say that you can't fight them off. They will use whatever force they require to kill you if you try. you will be facing a modern military force determined to take you down. You simply cannot win. Expect to be approached by a uniformed policeman (or citizens wearing armbands or whatever) armed with a writ or martial law decree allowing them to search your home and confiscate food and fuel. Unless you have hidden or evacuated your goods, you will lose them, one way or the other.

You will need to make some hard choices if you plan to survive a die-off and live near a population center! If you truly believe, as I do, that you can't possibly bug out in place, you will either have to evacuate to a safer place, or hide. A long G.O.O.D. trip (IMHO) is likely to fail. There are just too many variables that are outside your control. You must have a clear route, good weather, working vehicle, provisions for the trip and ample fuel. You must also maintain security during the trip. It's not just ambush or raiders you have to worry about. Any local sheriff, anywhere on your route can block a road and confiscate your vehicle, almost on a whim. Any number of problems can come up on the road.

My own preparations: Since I have chosen to accept risk and live in the East near a population center, I will have to take extreme measures to live through an extreme disaster. My preparations are fairly extensive, but not as expensive or time consuming as buying even a meager retreat home. As with all my other preparations, I set a goal for myself that minimizes my effort and expense and still gives me a good chance to survive.

First, I have no confidence that I could evacuate to a safe place or outrun the "Golden Horde", so to live through a general population die-off, I will have to hide my family and all our provisions. This is not a fool-proof solution. It requires some preparation and it certainly isn't easy to do, but I believe this is my only real chance of surviving the die-off long enough to help rebuild.

I have chosen a remote wooded area (Federally owned pine woods) near my home with lots of ground cover and almost no game or other resources. There is a tiny stream nearby, too small for fishing, but with a year-round supply of relatively clean fresh water. I have chosen a good place for a hide site (a camouflaged encampment with a sturdy fighting position) and cached quite a lot of provisions nearby including a big box of sandbags.

With these basics and my (truck load) BOB, I can set up a LRS style hide site. This is sort of an enhanced objective rally point (ORP) with much better security than my home. I feel that my family can be preserved there for about a year, even in the event of a massive society collapse and die-off.

This plan seems extreme, (it is), but weigh it against the alternatives. The advantages of a wilderness hide-site retreat (for me, anyway) are compelling. My site is very close to my current home, so I don't have to worry about keeping a lot of fuel on hand or facing a long, dangerous G.O.O.D. evacuation. It is highly unlikely to be found by looters, hunters, loggers, or anyone else and isn't on somebody's private land...in fact, I don't hold a deed to it, so it can't even be traced to me and located by city hall records. It's much safer and more defensible than my home and can be evacuated with little loss of provisions since the bulk of them are hidden at some distance from the site. My pre-positioned provisions are carefully waterproofed and don't require much maintenance. (I spot check some of my caches yearly, but none of them have ever required any attention). Any retreat with buildings is much harder to hide or maintain and obviously costs much more.

Building a permanent cache is an art form, so if you choose to use this tactic, think it out and research it before you do it. A good technique is to bury a large galvanized steel culvert and seal the space inside with welded (or even bolted) steel doors or bolted panels to keep out rodents. Cover the ground a few feet around with heavy (6 mil or better) plastic sheet and cover the whole thing with a foot of soil and sod or leaf litter. In a few weeks, it will be undetectable without a metal detector. An 8 foot section of 3 foot culvert provides over 40 cubic feet of usable secure storage space and can be man-handled into place by two strong men using only a pickup truck and hand tools. You still have to waterproof every container inside the culvert, but they are surprisingly dry and temperature stable inside as long as you are well above the water table. I recommend you provide some redundancy. Hide several of these and store more food than you think you will need, in case one or more of them are found and looted somehow. This requires a lot of heavy digging unless you can rent some machinery without attracting attention. But, even if you have to do it with a shovel, it might be worth it someday. And once you have your culverts in place, you can relax and go fishing. You don't have to worry about provisioning too much since the bulk of yours will be safe.

Living in suburbia in the Eastern US, you are constantly living in the shadow of a major population center, or several. This can be good and bad. Your chances of making it through most disasters are actually better than if you were living in the remote boonies since you will enjoy the benefits of the money economy, easy to find jobs and a nearby police force. Just be aware that if the worst happens, you will need some pretty extreme plans to maximize your odds of living through it.

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