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Disaster Plans 101

Disaster hierarchy of needs

Disaster plans 101

In disaster planning there is always the question of, “what should I plan for?” In the broadest possible terms, your plan should keep you alive and safe during the disaster. More than that, your plan needs to ensure you come out of the disaster with enough physical strength to continue on after the disaster, and enough emotional strength to have both the desire, as well as the will, to rebuild what was lost.

Fortunately, there is a lot of good information available on the subject of what humans need in order to survive, both in life and in disasters. In his 1943 paper, “a theory of human motivation”, Dr. Abraham Maslow outlined these motivations in what he called the Hierarchy of Needs. It turns out that there are some universal requirements for life, regardless of situation. Time has proven Maslow’s theory to be correct, so we can use these “life motivations” as an effective guideline for survival requirements during and after a disaster.

Using the Hierarchy of Needs to accurately anticipate, we see that are three fundamental requirements for people to survive any disaster situation. They include physiological needs, safety needs, and social needs.

  • Physiological needs keep a person alive; food, water, shelter, and rest.  
  • Safety needs include physical, environmental and emotional safety and protection.
  • Social needs include the need for love, affection, care, relationships, and friendship.

There are two more levels, but for the purposes of disaster survival we are not looking at our personal realization of psychological fulfillment. Let’s stick to disaster plans for now.   

How to meet basic survival needs

So how do we meet physiological needs? Years of survival experience has developed an accepted list of survival priorities that will meet a person’s basic survival needs when are lost in the wilderness (i.e. separated from society). When this list is examined alongside Dr. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they match very well.  It provides a solid list of tasks-oriented goals by priority to help keep you physically and mentally functional.  They are: shelter from the elements, warmth and hydration, protection of health, maintenance of physical strength, and maintenance of mental ability via rest.

  • Shelter (Protection from Weather and Elements / Exposure)
  • Water & fire (Hydration and Warmth)
  • Protection from minor injuries (infections, illness, animals, and insects)
  • Food (Strength, stamina, and clear thought)
  • Sleep (Dangers of sleep deprivation / Need for clear thought)

You will notice that two of these requirements, protection from minor injury and a safe place to sleep, fall within the security and safety requirement. This short list makes a good start for goals in a solid survival plan, but a disaster plan needs something more.

Disaster plans should include social interaction as a basic survival requirement

Remember that wilderness survival is about separation from society and infrastructure. In a disaster people will most likely be around other survivors and have access to some infrastructure. For disaster plans we should continue up Maslow’s hierarchy and include the social requirement as well.   

In looking at Dr. Maslow’s third tier, it includes the social aspects of feelings of belonging and friendships. This goes beyond having a safe place to stay. It is specifically because people are present that we need to find some that we can trust. It is the presence of people that generates the requirement and it becomes as fundamental as the need for food and water. This is specifically about communication.

Social requirements relate directly to emotional stability and communication of needs. In the aftermath of a disaster people have a tendency to not communicate needs. They may have injuries that they do not talk about with people they have just met or may not trust. This “shutting down” is an effect of emotional shock rather than some basic mistrust of humanity. The ability to communicate basic needs effectively is vital to ensuring people are receiving basic physiological and safety needs. Simple truth, being around people you trust makes it easier to communicate.

An effective way to provide for social familiarity and trust is to be active within your community. The more people you know the more people you may have a close enough relationship with to provide the level of trust needed for effective communication. This is especially true for children who may become separated from their parents. A teacher, pastor, neighbor, or known and trusted family friend could make all the different for a child who finds themselves temporarily separated from family.   

Let these basic needs be a guide to make your plans

These needs will be the drivers for establishing the goals of your plans. Understanding your goals will help identify the knowledge, tasks, tools, and supplies you may need to collect or accomplish to make your plan work. 

An online search to answer the question of what a family’s immediate needs and survival priorities should be after a disaster strikes can present a bewildering, and sometimes contradictory, tangle of answers. The best method for finding an answer that is right for you is to examine your situation and build from there. 

For more details on practical preparedness check out – Disaster Response SMARTBook 3 – Disaster Preparedness, 2nd Edition 

Disaster Prep book 3 


Community and Disaster Preparedness, Part 2

Tomato Garden
Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

Practical preparedness involves doing little things that will have a big impact in providing you with options and resources during and after a disaster. Part of being involved in a cooperative community is making sure that you can participate. What does this involve? You can make preparations before a disaster so you are able to sustain yourself and contribute (at least a little) to the group.

This is a simple thing to do. Keep some extra food, water, and weather appropriate clothing. All things that are around the house now or that can be picked up at the store when it’s on sale before things go south.

Here are a few simple rules that can help you plan:

  1. Store what you eat, and eat what you store. Don’t keep separate “survival rations”.  They will most likely go bad before you will use them and no one wants to survive on stale food.
  2. Two is one and one is none. If you will be depending upon an important tool or item in your plan, keep an extra one just in case. A good example of this is a hand operated can opener.
  3. Keep some for sharing and trading. A little good will goes a long way. Keep some extra of the supplies you feel are important and make up your mind that you will share. Know how much you can share and then be generous. It may be prudent not to let the world know you have extra, but be prepared to help where you can.
  4. Revisit your plan twice a year. Look at your plan and check your supplies twice a year. Once for spring/summer and again for autumn/winter. Change out your extra clothing, check batteries, test your electronics (weather radios, etc), and see that you have some extra food in the cupboard.
  5. Awareness is not obsession. Disaster preparedness should not be all consuming. Planning for a disaster is not the same as fearing one. Remember that a 20% plan is the 80% solution. A little planning goes a long way and including your friends and neighbors in your preparations will encourage cooperation and build realistic expectations in times of stress.  

Don’t add to fear with imagined threats

TV and movies make it look like society will completely collapse at the first sign of trouble. This adds drama to the story. In your story, you will not want that kind of drama. You and those in your community can chose to skip that drama through cooperation and strength in numbers. It is true that some people will take advantage of any reduction in the rule of law, but they will not last long. Also, they will look for those who are separated and alone. Thieves don’t like the odds for attacking groups.

The reality is that strong communities will do just fine.  During the Spanish Flu (influenza) epidemic of 1917 whole communities were cut off from the world. These communities did not immediately descend into violent anarchy. The people in these towns pulled together and helped each other even when contact with an infected home could bring death to their own. They were safe and careful, as well as kind and helpful. 

When the tornado of 1966 swept through Topeka Kansas, people descended by the dozens into the aftermath of the storm. Not to loot, but to rescue. They found wrenches and formed search lines, walking the destroyed neighborhoods turning off gas valves and rescuing people from the rubble of their homes.

These stories and ones like them are repeated hundreds of times throughout the last few decades. We just don’t hear about them. Looting in New Orleans and L.A. make for riveting news coverage. Next door heroes don’t make the evening news. 

Choose to survive ahead of time   

You can influence your situation to make it easier on yourself before a disaster. None of us can control nature, but we can control ourselves and choose to be civil and constructively helpful. By participating in and encouraging community interaction before a disaster, we can form friendships and civility that will turn into neighbor helping neighbor when a disaster does come along. Community civility and cooperation are the bedrock of community resiliency and it has many benefits prior to any disaster.

Community resiliency is not complex or difficult. Find like-minded people you get along with and spend some time to get to know them. Make basic plans for disaster preparedness and revisit those plans a couple times a year. Talk with your friends and plan to work together when disasters strike. Community and cooperation are the secrets to living through and recovering from a disaster.   

Make a plan and collect what you need to make your plan work.

For more details on practical preparedness check out – Disaster Response SMARTBook 3 – Disaster Preparedness, 2nd Edition

Disaster Prep book 3

Community and Disaster Preparedness, Part 1

Lone Wolf

I was going over the books available for Christmas and, as I do, I checked out the “survival” books. I don’t know how else to say this. If you are lost in the woods and separated from rescue these books have good and helpful information, but In a disaster scenario the advice in some of those books will leave you exhausted and friendless within a week.

During 33 years of working in disaster situations and conflict zones, and after hundreds of interviews with war and disaster survivors, I have never heard a single soul say; “I wished I’d had a gun, that would have made everything better.” What they said was, “I wish I’d have had my friends and family.” The other most heard desire was, “I wish we had a safe place to go.”

The two most common desires of people who are displaced by disaster or war was people they could trust and a safe place to stay. This was even in places where there was little food and water. This aspect of access to community is important. 

Survival vs. Surviving a Disaster

There is a distinct difference between “survival” and “surviving a disaster”.  In a survival situation you are separated from society. You have to survive on your own because you are separated from people, services, shelter, and supplies.

In a disaster situation you will often find yourself in a group with others who are similarly affected by the disaster. This can be an advantage. The reason you can survive is because you are not separated from people even when you are separated from services and supplies.  

Myth of the Lone Wolf

The absolutely most effective thing you can do to improve your situation in a disaster or social disruption event, before the disaster, is to be on friendly terms with your neighbors and socially active within your community. How you do this us up to you. Be active in your congregation at church, join 4-H, participate in the local farmers market, organize a block party once a year; anything you can do to meet and interact with the people in your community.

Participation in your community, and being around people who have a habit of socialization, will give you access to medical, material, and emotional support. As long as you are willing to do the same, your friends will bind your wounds, share their food, and watch for trouble while you rest.

I never understood the “lone wolf” mentality to disaster preparation simply because planning to be solo and aggressive is so ineffective. Also, the description of the lone wolf as strong is completely false in nature. Wolves live and work in structured, cooperative packs. Lone wolves are social outcasts who do not last long specifically because of the lack the social structure that provides cooperation and support. The same is true of solo and aggressive “survivalist”.

The reality is that in today’s socially isolated world it is emotionally easier to isolate yourself, but during a disaster it is medically, materially, and emotionally easier to be in a cooperative group.

There is the secret! Did you catch it? A cooperative group. The trick is to make choices before the disaster strikes to give yourself the best chance of being in a cooperative group. The best way to do that is to get out there and be sociable.

Take a risk, make a friend.

For more details on practical preparedness check out – Disaster Response SMARTBook 3 – Disaster Preparedness, 2nd Edition


Disaster Prep book 3

Having the Disaster Conversation

Kyle FerlemannThe devastating wildfires of 2018 and 2019 got me thinking about the harsh realities of when Mother Nature shows her wrath. Most people understand that disasters can and will happen but either do not want to think about it or just don’t know how to plan for a disaster. It is a fact that people get caught in disasters. It is also true that simply relying on your wits during a disaster will not save you. Disaster planning is just that; planning. Being ready and able to act before the disaster happens is the key to successful survival and rapid recovery. Even a simple plan with a few resources can make the difference between knowing what to do and having options, or being trapped by circumstances with no time, no resources, and no choices. 

As an emergency response planner, I work with people and communities in building resiliency; resiliency being the ability to survive and quickly recover from natural or man-made disasters. If you are thinking about what you should do to prepare for a disaster here are a few things to consider.

The 20% plan is the 80% solution.


I have conducted hundreds of interviews with survivors of disasters and wars. Within these conversations a pattern emerged. Those who took the time to make simple plans and basic preparations had greater success in both surviving and recovering. Simple things like having an extra set of clothing and some food set back, knowing the location of important documents like vehicle registrations, house/land titles and some extra cash, and having had discussions with family members about where to meet if they can’t get home right away. The difference that a little thought and preparation made in the stories of these families was significant.

Almost universally, these plans had similar attributes. They were very simple, easy to understand and remember. Basics like what to take and where to go were decided well in advance of trouble arriving. The plans relied on few resources. Having large stockpiles was rarely the case, as resources consisted of useful tools they often carried with them or had stored nearby and readily accessible. Most importantly, plans were discussed within the family on a fairly regular basis (maybe a few times a year) and reinforced in a positive light.  

The greatest regrets people expressed was not having time to think about decisions they had to make under stress and with limited time; and in retrospect discovering they had chosen poorly. In most cases these decisions could have been made prior to the emergency, regardless of the specifics of the situation.

By just having the “disaster conversation”, making the decisions, and collecting / organizing resources to support your plans, you can significantly improve your situation and give yourself choices in times of stress. You will also save valuable time in the emergency by acting quickly upon decisions that have already made. These conversations, decisions, and coordination will seem obvious and easy before a disaster. These choices will not be nearly as easy to make when the situation demands that multiple important decisions, each having long term consequences, be made without time for proper consideration.


A few things to consider and discuss with your family and friends that can significantly help in a disaster are:

  • Does the situation call for going or staying? This will affect meeting place and resources.
  • What arrangements must be made to move or protect animals?
  • If you can’t get to the house where would you go; a friend’s house, a community center?
  • Do you have a back-up communications plan? Prearranged meeting place, radios?
  • Do you have temperature appropriate clothing available in case you are stuck outside; in the car or at work? (I change my bag in the spring and fall.)
  • Do you know where your important papers are located and are they protected from fire and water? Can you get to them quickly and safety?
  • If you have a garden and some chickens or other livestock, chances are you have a full panty and stocked larder. What are your plans for sharing and trading?
  • Who do you know that will need extra help within your community? Are there older members or farms with more livestock than could use help wrangling scattered critters.

Remember that successful planning depends upon making choices before the disaster. Plan to use what you have, organize your resources so they are ready and available when you need them, and finally (and most importantly) talk with your family, friends, and neighbors. Share what you can, help each other, and watch how well people can work together in a bad situation.

Another really cool thing about disaster resiliency skills is that an attitude of awareness, forethought, and readiness translate directly to resiliency in everyday life. More on that later.

A full discussion of how to make and resource effective plans is available in the Disaster Response Smartbook number 3: Surviving disasters on your own terms, from The Lightning Press.

book cover

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