S1E110 – Colin on Structural Triage After a Disaster

Episode Summary

This week on Live Like the World is Dying, Colin talks to Brooke about how to asses damage to structures after disasters, what you can do when you’re stuck in a building after a disaster, and ways to make your situation easier and safer.

Guest Info

Colin (he/him) is a carpenter, industrial electrician, and backpacker.

Host Info

Brooke can be found on Twitter or Mastodon @ogemakweBrooke.

Publisher Info

This show is published by Strangers in A Tangled Wilderness. We can be found at www.tangledwilderness.org, or on Twitter @TangledWild and Instagram @Tangled_Wilderness. You can support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/strangersinatangledwilderness.


Live Like the World is Dying: Colin on Structural Triage After a Disaster

**Brooke ** 00:15
Hello and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for it feels like the end times. I’m Brooke Jackson, your host for this episode. Today I’ll be talking with Colin, an experienced construction and trade worker, about how to prepare for and perform structural triage after disasters. But first we’d like to celebrate being a member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchist podcasts by playing a little jingle from one of the other podcasts on the network. Doo doo doo, doo doo.

**Brooke ** 00:48
And we’re back. Colin, thank you for joining us today to talk about structural triage after disasters. Would you introduce yourself? Let us know your pronouns, where you’re from if you want, maybe some of your background in the construction industry.

**Colin ** 01:19
Yeah, I’m Colin, he/him. Lived in around Western Pennsylvania pretty much my entire life—mostly in the Pittsburgh area. I picked up carpentry right after college just as a way to earn some money. Been in and out that for a while. I worked as an industrial electrician in the power industry for about seven years, and then decided I’d had enough of that and went back to doing carpentry.

**Brooke ** 02:10
Okay, so is your—is your background in those trades the reason that you’re interested in this topic, or was there something else that sparked you or made you kind of get into learning about it?

**Colin ** 02:23
Actually, the impetus for this was a little over—actually, seems like ages ago, but actually less than a year ago, a friend had an apartment fire right after Christmas last year. And it’s still that big cold snap. And fortunately, we managed to get them recovered from that, but it was only due to the fairly heroic efforts of a lot of friends. And after that I started thinking about, you know, like, what are the ways that, you know, if you don’t have people looking out for you and willing to come bail you out, what can you do if you’re stuck in a damaged building for a few days while you’re waiting for utilities to come back online, first responders to work through a backlog? Just, how can you make things easier in the immediate few days after disaster?

**Brooke ** 03:14
Nice. So is this something that you then have you had to put into practice, or other people around you have put into practice? Or are we mostly theoretical at this point and haven’t tested all these things—not that we don’t trust your experience here.

**Colin ** 03:31
Yeah, no, I have done some of these things more in the context of camping and backpacking, just like, there are things you can do that will make the situation easier and safer. Also, a lot of my background in working in power plants involved constant safety trainings about how do you do things safely? What do you have to look out for? What are, you know, things that you just need to be aware of when you’re in dangerous situations? And I’m continually surprised at how many of those applied to everyday life, and how much of that stuff we just don’t have to think about when we’re living in a house that has already been designed to be safe. But when you have a disaster, obviously things break. And suddenly, things that are—things that normally have the engineering and safety built into them no longer work the way they’re supposed to, and suddenly, you have to take care of all of that on your own. It’s not that hard to do, or even that expensive. You just have to do the planning and preparation before it happens. Because once you find yourself in that situation, it’s too late.

**Brooke ** 04:46
Yeah, that makes sense. And we’re gonna get into those details in a second. But for the listener, I just wanted to share that Colin had reached out to us with this really great list of different things we could explore on this topic. And as I said to him, the the part that stood out most to me was he was talking about how to shelter in place in a compromised building and how to do structural triage and first aid that can make the eventual recovery easier. So we may get into a lot more than that today, we may have a second episode at some point to talk about other things because Colin has a lot of great info to share. But that was the part that really struck me and the areas that I wanted to focus on. And so right before we get into the details, another question I wanted to ask you was, how broadly is this applicable? Like, you know, there’s all kinds of different disaster situations, right? We’ve got floods, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, unnatural disasters. Do you have different tips for different scenarios that we’re going to talk about, or is a lot of this like works across multiple possibilities?

**Colin ** 05:50
It’s some of both. A lot of the things you need to be concerned with sheltering in place, or just being aware of what are the things that change when systems go offline. So when you don’t have power anymore and you’re relying on batteries or a generator, or you lose your gas, now, suddenly, you’re relying on kerosene heaters or lamps. All of these things change how you have to think about your safety in a house. Obviously, people have been living with fireplaces and wood stoves and oil lamps for a very, very long time. It’s not that hard to do. But if you’re used to being able to flip a switch and have the lights come on, you’re going to have to make some changes. And if you don’t do those things, you can cause yourself serious problems.

**Brooke ** 06:38
Okay, so let’s talk about the first part of that where work. Let’s say we’re in a situation where we’ve just had a disaster, we’re in a compromised building—whether it be like—I guess mostly we’re talking about homes, or maybe your apartment complex too, not necessarily, like, work structures. So let’s say we’re in that in that situation, we’re in this compromised building right after a disaster, what’s one of the first things that we need to do?

**Colin ** 07:01
So the very first thing is always keep yourself safe, because there’s no disaster that you can’t make worse by getting injured. And this is especially true—

**Brooke ** 07:12
[Laughing] That’s a good line, yeah!

**Colin ** 07:12
That’s especially true when you have, you know, something like the ERCOT disaster down in Texas and 2021, and you have an entire city that is struggling, and your first responders are overwhelmed.

**Brooke ** 07:28
Was that when they lost power?

**Colin ** 07:30
Yeah, they lost power for I want to say a week or two? I don’t think it was continuous. I think it went off, and then it came back on, and then it went off again. The estimated death toll from that was like somewhere between 250 and 700 people, which is—that’s like 10 times the number of people that die from an average hurricane season. And most of it was due to things like hyperthermia and carbon monoxide poisoning. Just because people were trying to stay warm and making bad decisions either because they didn’t know any better, or they didn’t have the tools they needed. Most of it could have been avoided. But obviously that was a terrible situation, and Texas is still recovering from that. So yeah, you’ve got to keep yourself safe. Couple parts of that. The easiest thing is the personal protective equipment side. Because that’s just a matter of throwing a little bit of money at the problem, and it doesn’t even take very much money. This is stuff like have worked gloves around so that you can protect your hands. Keep safety glasses around, because getting an eye injury will make life real bad and real tough right now. Earplugs. Disasters are often loud, and even if they’re not, things are going to sound different. So having earplugs can help you sleep better. These are, like, not—things that do not cost a whole lot of money. But the most important thing is just to look at the situation and take a beat and figure out what has changed and what you need to do to stop the problem from getting worse. So the first part of this is anything that is broken or not working the way it is supposed to needs to be shut down. So like, do you need to get the power turned off? Do you need to get the gas turned off? Do you need to get the water turned off so your pipes don’t freeze and burst? These are things that the average homeowner can do: turning off the power, as long as you have access to the circuit breaker, it’s a matter of flipping a switch. Water should just be a matter of closing a valve. The problem is a lot of times the shutoff valves for water don’t work the way they’re supposed to because they haven’t been maintained. I have run into that a few times. And—

**Brooke ** 09:42
I know I know at my own house, shutting off the water is a much bigger deal than it should be.

**Colin ** 09:48
Right and most of the time that’s fine, until you have pipes that are actively spraying water, and suddenly it’s not fine. Getting the gas shut off. Usually, again, just matter of going outside with a wrench and turning the valve at the meter. But you have to have the right size wrench and you have to know where that valve is.

**Brooke ** 10:09
Okay, so here’s a neat—sorry to interrupt you. But I’ve had—for a long time I’ve had—I don’t know if this is good, so you tell me. I got a wrench that’s like specifically for shutting off your gas, it’s this bright red one, and you zip tie it next to your gas main. And then if there’s a disaster, you should have to go cut the zip tie and use that wrench.

**Colin ** 10:32
Yeah, that is a fantastic idea.

**Brooke ** 10:34

**Colin ** 10:35
I would suggest maybe string or something that you can just yank to break it loose, because having zip tie on there that you have to cut, that’s one more tool you have to find before you can get to the wrench. Zipties are fantastic because they are very secure. Sometimes so secure that you can’t get them off.

**Brooke ** 10:50
So I might have to replace the string once in a while, but string would be better.

**Colin ** 10:53
Or, the meters normally magnetic, you can put it on a magnet, you can just have it—

**Brooke ** 10:58
Oh, yeah!

**Colin ** 10:59
—duct taped to the side of it. Something you can get off without tools. And it’s always there. And then periodically, every six months, just check and make sure it’s there. And, you know, a raccoon hasn’t stolen it. But no, that’s a fantastic idea.

**Brooke ** 11:13
Okay, so that’s a good planning ahead. But if you haven’t planned ahead, then, you know trying to find a wrench is generally the tool you’re going to need, right, to shut that off if you have gas?

**Colin ** 11:22
Yeah yeah. Then if you live in an apartment building, usually you will have access to your electrical panel, but not always. You may not have access to the main water shut offs for your apartment. You can probably find out where in the building those are. You’re not going to be able to tell if they’re working the way they’re supposed to before something happens. But have a plan for how to get into whatever room the shut offs are in. If you have to go through a door, this may mean keeping a sledge hammer or pry bar around so that you can get through to the shut offs in the case of an emergency. And yeah, your landlord is probably going to be unhappy and you may lose your security deposit, but it’s better than having your apartment burn down.

**Brooke ** 12:12
Yeah, seems like it.

**Colin ** 12:13

**Brooke ** 12:14
Okay, so step one is, like right after the disaster, donning some protective gear and then going around to shut off compromised utilities.

**Colin ** 12:24
Right, anything’s not working, get it turned off so that the situation stops getting worse. Once everything’s shut down, then you can take your time and figure out how to make things livable until systems start to come back online. The other thing to do with preparation is make sure all your smoke alarms are working, and make sure you have fire extinguishers. Because, again, fire when you don’t have first responders available is very, very bad. So hopefully everyone has these things to begin with. But if you don’t, I highly recommend going out and getting some as soon as possible.

**Brooke ** 13:01

**Colin ** 13:02
So you now have everything turned off, you have your fire extinguishers, you’ve dealt with the immediate problem. Now you’re faced with, how do I make the structure minimally safe for the next few days? If you have broken windows, damaged roof from storms, things like that.

**Brooke ** 13:25
Okay, so it’s assuming your residence is still some amount of livable and/or you just don’t have anywhere else to go and you kind of have to stay.

**Colin ** 13:35
Yeah, as long as you have a roof and three walls, you’re gonna be fine most of the time.

**Brooke ** 13:44
What about—what about the fourth wall? Why don’t we get a fourth wall here, Collin?

**Colin ** 13:48
I mean, four walls is great. Three walls is enough to keep the roof up.

**Brooke ** 13:55
That’s a really good point though, no, genuinely.

**Colin ** 13:58
If a tree comes through the front of your house, you can still deal with that. It’s gonna suck, but it’s not the end of the world. And the things that you need to make the situation better than it would be? Not that complicated. It basically boils down a lot of times to having some plastic sheeting or tarps and a staple gun. If you can get something over your openings to keep the wind and the water from entering the house, that’s going to buy you a lot of time. If you’ve ever been driving through, you know, the back roads and rural counties and you see the houses that have the plastic tarps over their roofs that have obviously been there for many years, those houses are still functional. They’re still standing. A lot of times people are still living quite comfortably inside those houses. Doesn’t look very good, but it’s gonna work for a while. And oftentimes, that’s all you need.

**Brooke ** 14:50
Yeah, that’s one of the reasons you see tarps up there for so long is that they’re doing what they need to do and they don’t need to do more than that. For folks that don’t have that kind of stuff sitting around, I imagined that maybe grabbing some sheets or blankets or something and throwing those over the opening would still be better than just leaving it open?

**Colin ** 15:10
Yeah, even the bed sheet over the window is going to stop rain from blowing in and my dogs barking in the background. I apologize.

**Brooke ** 15:19
That’s okay. We are a puppy-friendly podcast.

**Colin ** 15:25
A staple gun is something that you should definitely own if you don’t, because that’s the easiest and fastest way of getting any kind of sheet, whether it’s cloth, or a tarp, or trash bags with plastic sheeting attached to walls really fast. A staple gun will set you back maybe $20 tops, and makes life a whole lot easier when it comes to covering openings. If you don’t, if you don’t have that, duct tape will also work. However, it doesn’t work as well as you would expect, especially when the weather is cold or if surfaces are wet.

**Brooke ** 16:01
Sure. Yeah. Thumb tacks if you have those sitting around.

**Colin ** 16:06
Thumb tacks. Hammer and nails.

**Brooke ** 16:08

**Colin ** 16:09
Anything to do to secure a sheet. At that point, you’re not really worried about damaging the house because the damage has already been done, and fixing a few nail holes is peanuts compared to trying to fix, you know, several hundred gallons of water that have been blown in by high winds.

**Brooke ** 16:25
Okay, so we close our openings to protect from water, from cold temperatures, probably from other elements too, right, if—blocking the sun?

**Colin ** 16:36
Yeah, sun. If you’re in a hot area—this is a totally different topic on its own. But trying to keep the sun out of your house, if you’re in a hot situation is just as important as trying to keep the heat inside the house if you’re in a cold situation. If you lose power and you’re relying on air conditioning to keep your house livable, the best thing you can do is get all of your windows covered as soon as you possibly can. Because solar gain through glass will drive up the interior temperature really quickly. Doesn’t matter what you have. Again, plastic bags will work. Anything, just block the amount of light that’s coming through the glass. Cardboard, sheets, blinds, you name it?

**Brooke ** 17:24
All right. So we’ve covered up our holes. What do we need to do next?

**Colin ** 17:30
Covered up the holes. Things are shut down, turned off. Now you have to start worrying about how am I going to actually get back to living inside this damaged structure for as long as I need to until help can arrive and start doing major repairs that need to happen? And a couple of things you want to look at, the—obviously we’re coming up on winter. So the first thing to talk about is how do you stay warm? Hopefully you have blankets and sleeping bags and things that will keep you warm overnight. But you can also look at how you can take a single room and the house and make that one room more pleasant for the duration. So like, if you are struggling to keep your house warm because either you’ve totally lost power or your furnace can’t keep up with the temperatures, shut everything down except for one room—preferably a room that has water and power in it. So you have all of your basic necessities in one spot. If you have a bathroom basement—or a bathroom in the basement is ideal because it’s usually going to be interior walls, you’ve got water, you’ve got power, and if you throw, you know, a pad down the floor you can even sleep in there. You’ve got all your necessities in one spot.

**Brooke ** 18:56
Now are basements fairly safe places in the face of most natural disasters? Are there times when you wouldn’t want to hang out in the basement?

**Colin ** 19:03
It depends on the disaster.

**Brooke ** 19:04

**Colin ** 19:06
Obviously if you’re dealing with a flood, the basements not where you want to be.

**Brooke ** 19:10
[Laughs] Sure. What about if there’s been fire damage to like the upstairs of your house?

**Colin ** 19:20
That depends on how stable the structure is. If there’s fire damage, usually you don’t want to be directly over or directly under the damaged section.

**Brooke ** 19:31
Hm. Okay.

**Colin ** 19:32
So that if it collapses, it doesn’t land on you and you don’t go through the floor.

**Brooke ** 19:37
Okay. Makes sense.

**Colin ** 19:38
So fire—like talking about a fire damaged structure is probably beyond the scope of what I’m qualified to do, and beyond the scope of most of the people listening to the podcast because it requires you to be able to look at the damaged structural members and evaluate, you know, how compromised are these? Is this floor burned but otherwise stable, or is this going to collapse in the next five minutes? And that’s a skill set entirely on its own.

**Brooke ** 20:11
That’s a good point.

**Colin ** 20:12
If something looks burned and unsafe, just don’t go near it.

**Brooke ** 20:18
Yeah, and of course, you know, burned structures and objects can be very carcinogenic too.

**Colin ** 20:26
That’s also true.

**Brooke ** 20:27
They can really impact your health. So that’s a really good point that a lot of this maybe is really not applicable to the situation of having been in a fire.

**Colin ** 20:35
Now, that said, if you’ve lost half of your house to fire, and you have a few rooms that are still relatively untouched on one side of the house, and you can seal off the burned section of the house, again, using plastic, just so you don’t have the smell of the burned material getting into the living area as much as possible, you’re still better off inside the house in that situation overall, if you don’t have anywhere else to go, then you are trying to, say, camp out in the backyard. Because solid walls and a solid roof offer you more protection and better insulation, even when they’re damaged.

**Brooke ** 21:16
Okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. If you have a really bad kitchen fire and lose your kitchen, that doesn’t mean you have to move out of the whole house necessarily. Okay.

**Colin ** 21:24
Correct. Yeah. And obviously, the best thing to do is leave and go someplace else if you can. But this is: your stocking place because the roads are impassable, or you literally have nowhere else to go.

**Brooke ** 21:37
Yeah. Okay. All right. So moving into the basement, a good idea if you can, but in general is secluding yourself in part of the house. And to throw in a personal anecdote, we had this ice storm here in Kalapuya territory in Oregon—it was almost three years ago now. And most of the town lost power. And it was one, two, three days, a week, seven days, ten days for some folks—long time. And, I kind of without knowing any of this, just sort of instinctively moved us into the living room where a fireplace was because we had lost power and we lost it for a week. And we all just camped out, you know, slept, ate, played in the living room, because the only source of heat was the fireplace. So that’s what we gravitated to. Anyway.

**Colin ** 22:27
Yeah. And if you have a fireplace, if you have a room that’s already set up for that kind of thing, like a living room, that’s fantastic. I mean, there’s no reason to hide out in the bathroom, if you have a place with a working fireplace. Yeah, good, go for the fireplace room.

**Brooke ** 22:42
Yeah. On the downside, we had to pass into the, you know, 40 degree, 30 degree weather in the rest of the house to get to the bathroom. One in the back of the house. But, you know, for everything else, we were cozied up and warm in our one little room. Which, you know, we drove each other crazy. I will say that too being trapped in the one room together. But it was the only place that we be worn for that week.

**Colin ** 23:06
Yeah, like having just a contained place that you can keep as warm and comfortable or as cool and comfortable as possible is your best option. Don’t worry about trying to keep your entire house up to temperature, whether that be warm or cold. Because that takes a lot of energy to do and it’s just probably not gonna be possible in most situations.

**Brooke ** 23:28
Okay, here’s a scenario question for you: Let’s say same set of circumstances, like, that I went through, but something crashed through my big living room window, and we have to tarp over it. Is it? Is it? Is it better? Like, if I have to stay in my house at that point, is it better to still be in the living room with the fire in the tarped up window, or should I try and move to a different room and figure out some other heating source?

**Colin ** 23:54
I would probably still stay in the living room. If your concern is keeping yourself warm and you have a fireplace, that’s going to be your best option.

**Brooke ** 24:06

**Colin ** 24:06
The issue of the window being broken and the tarp—the one problem with tarps is in high winds, they tend to flap a lot and they’re just kind of annoying. The easy solution to that is back it up with cardboard. Cardboard does not like to get wet, but as long as it stays dry, it’s a fairly good insulator and it’s solid. And it’s cheap. You can—everybody has a pile of cardboard boxes and their front hall from Amazon waiting to go out in the recycling. So take some of those boxes—

**Brooke ** 24:37
I’m just gonna close this door behind me…

**Colin ** 24:41
Take some of these boxes, break them down, put a few layers of cardboard on the inside just as a backup to the tarp so that your plastic is keeping the water out, but your cardboard is blocking more of the wind and keeping the plastic from flapping quite so much.

**Brooke ** 24:57
Okay got it. So staying close to that the best heat source is still the way to go.

**Colin ** 25:03
Yeah, it’s always gonna be a judgment call as to what that is. But if you have a fire, and you are comfortable using it, and you have a good wood supply, that’s almost always going to be your best bet.

**Brooke ** 25:16
Okay? Makes sense. All right, so let’s see, where are we even at not in our to do list here?

**Colin ** 25:24
Okay, so we have a warm place to stay. And, assuming you have a fireplace, we’ve got that taken care of. The trickier situation is when you lose power and suddenly you’d have no heat at all. And even if you’re relying—if you use natural gas for your heat, pretty much every furnace these days has an electric blower unless you have one of the, like, direct vent wall mounted furnace units that are basically just a gas flame that’s passively heating. But if you’re using forced air, it’s using gas for the heat source, but you need electricity to move that warm air through the house. So if you lose your electricity, you lose your heat, even though you still have a fuel source. And that’s something that a lot of people don’t think about, especially in winter, they’re like, oh, it’s not a problem. If you lose electricity, big deal, I have gas. Well, that’s not going to help you.

**Brooke ** 26:25
That was my circumstance. Gas furnace, but needed the electricity and we didn’t have that.

**Colin ** 26:30
Yeah. So if you can get yourself down to a fairly small room, a bathroom, a small bedroom, even a large walk-,in closet, it doesn’t take a whole lot of energy to keep one of those spaces warm. You can get the small, portable, like, propane heaters, little buddy heaters. They don’t cost a whole lot, but then you have the issue of combustion in a confined space, which is a good way to end up with carbon monoxide poisoning or asphyxiation or, yeah. It can be a very bad scene. So if you’re going to do that, be sure you have a portable carbon dioxide alarm. Just go to Home Depot or wherever, pick up another one of the nine volt battery powered smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, and keep that in whatever space you’re running that portable heater. It doesn’t matter if you have smoke alarms and carbon monoxide heaters or detectors throughout the house. Those aren’t going to help you if you have sealed yourself off from those alarms so that you can try to keep the space warm.

**Brooke ** 26:41
Makes sense.

**Colin ** 27:22
And actually, my recommendation, even more than one of the small portable heaters, is a kerosene lamp or propane lamp of some kind. A lot of the old ice fishers for heating their ice fishing huts in the winter just used Coleman lanterns. One of the propane Coleman lanterns will put out almost the same amount of heat as a 1500 watt electric space heater.

**Brooke ** 28:11
Oh wow!

**Colin ** 28:12
They are very, very warm. Now also, it’s still combustion. So you have to be aware of that. And they do get very hot. So you need to have a place to hang it to keep it away from fabric and other things that can catch on fire. But they will make a room surprisingly warm on their own. And then that also gives you light source, which is another thing that you’re going to need if your power is off.

**Brooke ** 28:39
Now, what if—what if it’s a reverse circumstance. You’ve lost power and it’s very warm climate. You’re in, you know, hot temperatures. Are you still trying to stay in one room? What tools do you have to get cold?

**Colin ** 28:55
That is a much more difficult situation. There are some things you can do, but it’s going to require more tools and more planning. If you’ve ever seen the giant black tubes coming out of pit toilets, usually like a national parks, what those are doing is pulling a draft on the underground part of the toilet by using a thermal chimney. That black tube gets hot in the sun and hot air rises, you’re pulling the hot stinky air up from out of your bathroom, and pulling fresh air in. So you can do the exact same thing with a house by having some kind of large black chimney. You can do this out of pipe or even black cardboard if you live in a very dry area. But this is something you’re going to have to know how to build and plan for in advance. It can be done, but it’s probably going to be on—be beyond the scope of what most people can do in an emergency. So really, in the situation where hat is issue, the best thing you can do is stay out of the sun and try to move as little as possible. Outside if you can, like wherever you can get fresh air, any kind of breeze, air movement, is going to keep you cooler than sitting inside.

**Brooke ** 30:24
Yeah. If you know how to make like a swamp cooler kind of thing—let’s say your water, you can still get coolish water coming out and you’ve got—well I guess you need electricity for the fan. Damn.

**Colin ** 30:36
You can use the swamp cooler, you can build a passive swamp cooler. Again, it relies on that thermal chimney to create the draft. But those do work, assuming that you’re in an area that is dry enough that you have evaporation. I live in western Pennsylvania, and usually in the summer if it’s hot enough to need air conditioning, it’s also about 95% humidity and swamp coolers do not work.

**Brooke ** 31:02
And I think they can even be dangerous, right? Making it—because they can make it too humid—unsafely humid?

**Colin ** 31:09

**Brooke ** 31:12
Sorry, you’re getting outside your realm.

**Colin ** 31:17
No, no. So the swamp cooler, you know, for listeners who are not aware of what this is, it’s a—basically the same thing as a wet rag that the moisture on the—in the cooler evaporates and evaporation requires energy. So you’re pulling heat out of the air and using that to evaporate water. And what you end up with is air that is cooler than it was before, but also more humid. So obviously, before that can work, you need to have air that is dry enough that it can absorb some amount of moisture. If you already have close to as much moisture in the air as it can possibly handle, you’re not going to change the temperature significantly by evaporation.

**Brooke ** 32:03
Okay. Make sense. All right, so we we’ve gotten ourselves down to one room, we figured out a way to heat ourselves, and we’re hunkered in and it’s gonna be a few days that we’re in this situation. So what now and what next?

**Colin ** 32:22
So now you have to think about, you know, the basics of survival. You need food and water. Food, hopefully you have some stores around. If not, you know, at least in the United States, getting food is not that difficult most of the time, it may not be good. But you’re probably not going to starve if you’re in your house.

**Brooke ** 32:52
Even if you’re iced in and can’t—can’t literally get out of your house, you probably have something in your pantry, it might not be what you want to eat, but there is calories available.

**Colin ** 33:02
Yeah. You have calories. They’re maybe not the best calories, but their calories. Water is trickier. Hopefully, you have at least a little bit of a stockpile, but not always. And if you have lost your water supply, or if there is damage to the mains—like again, using Texas as an example. Once your water mains freeze and the pressure in those pipes drop, you start having issues with groundwater making its way into the water mains, and that results in a boil order. So it’s entirely possible to be in a situation where your taps still work, water comes out, but you can’t drink it. And now you’re faced with a problem of, like, how do you make this water supply drinkable again? And if you have a small water filter like the Sawyer Mini, it’s popular with a lot of backpackers, a LifeStraw, anything like that, those are great. If you don’t have one of those, the reason it’s called a boil order is because you can always boil the water. Again, assuming that you have a heat source with which you can get the water hot. If you have a gas stove, most of the time natural gas is not disrupted by natural disasters with the exception of earthquakes. But if you’re relying on electricity, if you’re cooking like a lot of people do and you lose electricity, now you’re kind of out of luck. So you need to have some kind of way of boiling water. If you have that Coleman lantern or a kerosene lantern, a lot of those get hot enough that you actually can boil water in a small container over one of those lanterns. It’s not ideal. My recommendation is actually just one of the old school Coleman propane two burner backpacking stoves. They are absolute workhorses, indestructible. My brother just inherited the one of my parents, which I think is pushing 50 years old and still works just fine. You cannot kill those things, and you can pick one up off eBay for somewhere between $20 and $50, depending on what kind of condition it’s in. And the other great thing about propane is that it has an indefinite shelf life. So if you have one of those stoves sitting around and you have one of the green one pound cylinders of propane, that you inherited from your grandparents, plug that in. It doesn’t matter if it is twice as old as you are, it’s still going to work just fine. Same is not true of gasoline and a lot of the other fuels. They’re hard to store, they smell, they have other issues. But propane is fantastic. So you can buy it, you can stash in your basement, you can forget about it, and it’ll be there when you need it.

**Brooke ** 36:01
Now a complicating factor to be aware of ahead of time, of course, is that you can have a big propane tank like you might use for your barbecue, and then you can have those little green ones. And they’re not—they don’t necessarily all hook up into the same canisters, you know, the camp stoves versus barbecues, right, so you might not have the right size of—like if you’re—if you have a camp stove and you’re like, I can hook my barbecue propane tank up to it, that’s not going to work with what you normally have, right?

**Colin ** 36:31
With what you normally have. There are adaptor hoses that are designed to do exactly that. And a lot of times if you have outdoor events, they will use those two burner stoves but they will hook them up to the barbecue tanks because the little one pound cylinders get expensive if you’re relying on those for a large amount of propane. You also can’t refill them like you can with a barbecue tanks.

**Brooke ** 36:54
Right. So it’s so frustrating.

**Colin ** 36:55
Yeah. So if you have a bar—if you have a barbecue grill already, then, you know, there’s your heat source. You have to go outside to use it, but you can put a pot of water on your barbeque grill and bring it to a boil, it’ll work just fine. Or if you have one of the little two burner backpacking/camping stoves, they make the hoses to go from the barbecue tank to that kind of stove. And now you can bring your propane tank inside as you need. Again, under normal circumstances don’t do this. But in a disaster you can. And run the propane inside.

**Brooke ** 37:35
Check your venting, check your C02 levels…

**Colin ** 37:38
Again, there’s a very good reason that they tell you not to do this. And if you’re cooking inside with a stove that has not been designed to do this, you need to have your fire extinguisher, you need to have your carbon monoxide alarm, and as soon as you’re done with it, get that fuel back out of the house, because obviously propane is flammable.

**Brooke ** 38:00
Alright, so we’ve got a way to get some water, hopefully, and to warm up some food or cook some food if we need to. So we’ve got those basic elements that we can survive and subsist for however long we’re gonna be stuck in this compromised building in this disaster.

**Colin ** 38:18
Yeah, so the next part is, don’t get sick. This means how to have a way to keep yourself clean. [Everyone dissolves into a fit of giggles] Hot tip! Don’t get sick. Life is better when you’re not sick.

**Brooke ** 38:21
[Laughing] Yes.

**Colin ** 38:40
Keeping up with sanitation when you don’t have running water, especially when you don’t have hot running water, is hard. If you don’t have water, you also probably don’t have a functioning toilet anymore. And that’s going to be a problem sooner than—real quick. Takes about 24 hours, possibly less, and suddenly it’s unpleasant. So have a way of dealing with all that when you don’t have running water. The easiest solution is a five gallon bucket and something for urine. You want to try to keep those things separate because you’re in, you know, you can take it outside, you can dump it in the grass, it’ll be fine. The same is not true of feces. You need to at the very least compost that. You can get fancy composting toilets that will set you back several thousand dollars.

**Brooke ** 39:41

**Colin ** 39:42
They worked really well. They have fans and tumblers and everything else. But for the van that I use for camping, my solution is a five gallon bucket with a gasketed lid and plastic bag full of chopped straw, and it works just fine. It doesn’t smell that great when you open it. But honestly, it’s not terrible. As long as you keep the feces covered with a layer of either chopped straw or peat moss or something else that will absorb all the excess nitrogen is really what you’re after. You’re fine.

**Brooke ** 40:21
A brief segue as we talk to Colin’s husband/wife/romantic partner. How do they feel about the shit bucket?

**Colin ** 40:30
Not a fan. On the other hand, given a choice between the shit bucket, and going outside, when it’s pouring down rain in the middle of the winter, and we’re camping? [Laughing] The bucket is better. It’s not ideal, but when you need it, you’re really glad that you have it. And it’s something that you can keep around, it’ll set—it’ll cost you maybe $10, and throw it in the basement. Hopefully you never need it. But if you do, it’s there, and it will get you out of a bad situation. And it doesn’t require you to put a whole lot of thought or effort into dealing with it. And then once everything is back online, and you have trash collection, again, if nothing else, seal the bucket up, put it in the trash can, and let the whole thing go to the landfill. Composting it is great, that’s what I do. But if you just don’t want to deal with it, put the entire bucket in the trash.

**Brooke ** 41:28
Or an even poor man’s version of this, you can put a plastic bag in a trash can and put your business in there and then tie up your plastic bag, set it outside. And repeat, if you forgot to get a bucket ahead of time.

**Colin ** 41:43
Yes, that also works just fine. The nice thing about the bucket is then you have a sealed lid so it keeps the odor inside, and you can keep it in the house where it’s warm and dry. Because there’s nothing worse than having to poop in the middle of the night when it is sleeping and five degrees outside.

**Brooke ** 42:03
Yeah, that’s pretty awful.

**Colin ** 42:05
Food waste and trash are two other big things. Trash collection, we take for granted. But if you’ve ever had a couple bags of trash sitting in your garage for a week because you forgot to put them out on trash day, they get real unpleasant real fast. So again, if you’re in a situation where you know you’re going to have to be living with this stuff for an extended period of time, try to keep your food waste separate from your trash that doesn’t stink. So plastic bags, solid stuff that will be dry and relatively odorless in one bag. Food waste, again, can go in a sealed bucket, or in a smaller bag, you can keep further away from the house. If you’re familiar with Bokashi, I think that came up on one of the episodes about composting. It’s not, it’s not composting in and of itself, it’s a bit more like fermenting—kind of like making sauerkraut, but with food scraps—and basically does the same thing. You just get a bucket with a sealed lid, put your food in there, let it sit and it will slowly ferment on its own. And it can take pretty much anything. Even things that normal compost can’t. So it can handle small amounts of meat and protein, cooked food, things like that. We have a bucket of that just under our sink that all the food scraps go into. And it probably gets emptied maybe once every two weeks, so that we don’t have to have any food going into the trash. And yeah, it’s—it’s funny, like I will occasionally go to people’s houses now that are just using trash cans the way people do where everything goes in the trash can. And I walk into the kitchen. I’m like, why am I smelling, like, food waste? Like I smell rotten food. What’s wrong? It’s like oh, right, it’s because you’re putting in the trash can where it sits and rots. So if you can just keep those two things separate. It will make the situation a lot more pleasant. That’s a great tip. And yeah, just, you know, as much as you can, wash your hands and do all the things you are supposed to do. Brush your teeth, floss, things like that nature. Just take care of yourself and try to keep yourself together for as long as you possibly can. The situation will improve if you can just avoid making it worse. Human body is amazingly tough. All you have to do is sit and wait and most situations disaster-wise will improve on their own because the pressure on first response yours and utilities will ease up and things will start to come back online, as long as you can make it through that first critical period.

**Brooke ** 45:08
Okay, do you mind now if we shift to talking about structural triage and things that we do to our actual residences, dwellings, things to look out for and know in disasters, and sort of that aspect of it?

**Colin ** 45:28
Yeah, definitely. Did you have anything in mind in particular, where you wanted to start, or?

**Brooke ** 45:32
Well, we talked about, you know, turning things off, of course. And then closing up holes. There’s lots of other things in the house that can get damaged, in, you know, different scenarios, earthquakes and tornadoes and floods. So I’m curious, like, if there are other structural indicators or things to look for, you know, that, you know, from sort of your construction perspective that, like, oh, that’s a sign of this thing is unstable, that you might not know just as a normal person.

**Colin ** 46:09
Yes, generally when you get into questions of structural stability, like is this house going to fall down? If you have any doubt, the best thing to do is vacate the structure. Because actually looking at structures from an engineering standpoint, and determining when something is safe and when it’s not, is beyond the scope of most people, myself included. I know what structures are supposed to look like and I can tell you when something is damaged, but I can’t necessarily tell you how close it is to falling down. But the big things to look for are just like, do you see cracks in the foundation that weren’t there yesterday?

**Brooke ** 46:54

**Colin ** 46:55
You’re probably familiar with, with how your house looks. If you see something that looks unfamiliar. investigate further, as much as you possibly can. This is kind of the best advice that I can give.

**Brooke ** 47:08
Okay, what about things like crack new cracks in the wall? Like, is that is the wall crack itself a sign? Or was that—would that be like, okay, now and go look at the foundation and see.

**Colin ** 47:18
If you’re talking about cracks in interior plaster walls, those are not necessarily an issue by themselves. Because buildings can have a fair amount of flex to them before they fall down. Like you look at the number of houses that have an alarming lean to them and have been standing for two hundred years. Like, structures are remarkably resilient until they’re not.

**Brooke ** 47:45

**Colin ** 47:45
But if you have any doubt, the best thing is, get yourself out of the structure.

**Brooke ** 47:50
Okay. I guess I’m also thinking about it from, like, the opposite perspective of something you might see and worry about and think you need to leave, but then actually it’s okay and you could stay. So that’s, you know, like the wall cracks, that might not actually be a big issue if you’ve suddenly had a crack on the wall.

**Colin ** 48:10
Yeah, so the best thing you can do is try to get yourself into part of the house where you have as little as possible above you and as little as possible below you. So if you have a three story house, you don’t necessarily want to be on that second floor for any reason. Because that’s kind of the worst of both worlds, because you could go through the floor or the roof could come down on you. The best thing you can do, again, is get yourself into a small space where the only thing above you is the roof and maybe some insulation, and the only thing below you is concrete slab. Still not a guarantee that you’re safe.

**Brooke ** 48:54
Sure, yeah.

**Colin ** 48:55
But you’re gonna be better off there than in a multistory structure.

**Brooke ** 48:59
Right. Yeah. We talked about how, you know, things might come through the windows or the walls, but as long as you’ve got your three walls in your roof, you’re okay. What if you have four walls and a hole in the roof? Like things come through the roof.

**Colin ** 49:13
Yeah, if you have a damaged roof, the best thing to do is get up on the roof and patch it from the outside. But that’s not always possible. Especially if you have a multistory house and you don’t have an extension ladder that can get you up to the roof, which is true for a lot of people. So then you’re stuck with, how do I deal with this hole in my roof from the inside? Sometimes, assuming you have access to the attic, you can get into the attic and if you have, you know, a gaping hole where say a meteor came through your roof and punched a big hole in it. [Laughing] You can feed things in from the outside and then pull them back down against the roof. So you can build your patch and feed it through and pieces. Reach up from the inside, lay it down on the outside. And it’s not gonna be a perfect seal, but it will keep at least some of the water and weather from getting into the house. Usually when you have that big of a hole, if you can’t patch it from the outside, things are going to end up leaking and you’re gonna be faced with situation where you have to try to catch the water once it comes into the house and get it back outside the house where it belongs. Again, the key for this is a staple gun, and some plastic sheet. So just, if you can hang plastic underneath the area that is leaking, or tarp to catch the drips, and then divert that water to a collection point, whether that is a bucket if it’s a very slow leak, or a improvised funnel if it’s a faster leak. It’s not hard to make a funnel, if you have a garden hose and a two liter bottle, the garden hose thread is close enough to the spread on two liter bottles, that you can literally just screw the bottle onto the garden hose. And if you cut at an angle, cut the bottle at an angle, you can make something that is big enough that you can make a channel in your tarp, they will direct that into your two liter bottle funnel into your garden hose which you can then, you know, run down out of your attic and out of window.

**Brooke ** 51:35
That’s really cool, I might need to do something like that—not for disaster reasons, but just for gardening stuff this summer.

**Colin ** 51:44
The two liter bottle to the hose connection will probably leak a little bit.

**Brooke ** 51:49
Shhhhhh, kill my dreams.

**Colin ** 51:51
Duct tape will fix that. Or if you have any of that self-fusing silicone tape they sell for emergency plumbing repairs, that works too. But honestly, as long as the water that’s flowing through the bottle and into the hose is not under any pressure, the leak is probably going to be slow enough that it’s not gonna be an issue.

**Brooke ** 52:14
So roof damage is not necessarily something to run away from.

**Colin ** 52:19
Roof damage is not the end of the world. It’s bad, especially if you can’t get up on the roof to fix it. But there are things you can do to keep it from totally destroying the house, the first thing to do is just figure out how you’re going to keep the water from getting in. And if you can’t do that, figure out how you’re gonna get the water that’s inside the house, back outside the house.

**Brooke ** 52:44
And is that one of the biggest risks in the in any kind of natural disasters is water damage?

**Colin ** 52:49
Water Damage is the hardest and the most insidious, because once water gets into the house and things get wet, now you have issues of mold to deal with. Once you have mold that can render a structure uninhabitable in a matter of days. As long as things are dry, they can last a very, very long time. But once they get wet, you’re in trouble.

**Brooke ** 53:15
Okay, what about the opposite side? Fire damage. We talked about that a little bit. But you know, let’s say you had a kitchen fire destroyed the kitchen. Is there anything you can do in the aftermath of a fire that’s going to do anything to help you save structures or objects and make the recovery easier?

**Colin ** 53:36
Assuming that the fire was put out with water, you’ve got the same issue.

**Brooke ** 53:41
That’s a really good point! [Laughing] No, I didn’t think about that. That’s a really good point.

**Colin ** 53:45
Dried back out. If you put the fire out yourself, you probably use a dry chemical fire extinguisher. So you have a giant mess to clean up, but it’s not soaking wet. If the Fire Company had to come and put it out with hoses, not only do you have the fire damage, everything you own in that immediate area is now soaking wet and covered with soot and just generally filthy. That was the situation that we had with the friend that I talked about earlier with having the apartment fire, that it was kind of a blessing that it happened in the middle of winter because we were able to just go over there and get everything out of the apartment and throw it in our backyard and it just stayed frozen for a week until we were ready to deal with it.

**Brooke ** 54:32
Ah, right. Because your winters are snowy and icy, not rainy, like here.

**Colin ** 54:35
Yeah, it is generally rainy her. But it just happened to be in the middle of cold snap. So it was in the 20s for the most part, dropping down to single digits for about that entire week. So we just had bags and bags of wet clothing, wet furniture, sitting in the backyard under plastic so they stayed frozen and didn’t grow mold. Because once things are wet, you’re in trouble. So if it’s not frozen, the best thing you can do is get fans on it, keep that air moving, and try to get it dried back out as soon as you can.

**Brooke ** 55:11
That makes sense. I guess I’ve never thought about this, but it makes sense. The fire department, if they come in and they take a host of things, they don’t come back and dry it out for you. Right, you’re left to handle that part on your own.

**Colin ** 55:24
You’ll have to handle that part. And usually, they have broken windows in the process, because that’s how they get the hoses in and that’s how they control the flow of the smoke and the fire through the structure, is making holes in walls. Generally, once you have a fire, you also have other structural damage to deal with.

**Brooke ** 55:43
Yeah. Okay. We’re kind of get down to our last few minutes. I know there’s a lot more that we could talk about and go over with all of this. But I want to make some space here for any other sort of critical things that you really want to talk about, teach and share with this episode.

**Colin ** 56:01
I think we’ve covered most of the critical things. Again, the biggest one is just keep yourself safe and don’t make the situation worse. No matter how bad it seems, take a minute, breathe, look at it, and think. I know, again, other episodes of the podcast, they’ve talked about the, like the threat onion from the military, which is the same basic idea as the layers of safety that they talk about in industrial design. And all these things say step one is your design and your engineering controls that make it safe. So the good analogy for that is things like antilock brakes in the car. You don’t have to do anything for those to work. They’re just there. They don’t require any thought. Seatbelts and airbags are also great. Seatbelts, you have to remember to use them, and they only help—they only help after the accident has already occurred.

**Brooke ** 57:06

**Colin ** 57:07
A seatbelt does not prevent an accident. So when you’re in a bad situation, look at what you’re about to do, think about the situation, figure out which of those engineering safety controls have gone out the window as a result of the disaster. So you had a fire in the kitchen, you’ve lost your stove, you’re gonna have to rely on your little tiny Coleman backpacking stove. That’s great, it’ll work. But you no longer have that automatic ignition, you’re going to have to use lighter to light the stove. You don’t have the combustion controls to make sure that the flame has a pilot light, that the pilot light turns off when the gas goes out. So you can have the gas from one of their stoves leaking if you fail to turn the valve off all the way when you’re done with it. All these things that are part of normal everyday life that you just don’t think about, no longer work the way they’re supposed to in a disaster. So just look at what you’re doing, and see what you’ve lost, and figure out how you can get that safety back on your own.

**Brooke ** 58:22
Okay, that is really great. And I am wishing we had more time because I just feel like there’s so much more that we could say and get into. But I think this has been a really, really great, you know, just kind of primer and information that would help people get through, you know, the first two or three days after a disaster for sure. So, I really appreciate that you joined us today on the podcast and share this info with us. Is there anything else that you want to plug or promote or share?

**Colin ** 58:56
No, I think that was pretty much it.

**Brooke ** 58:58
Okay, well, thanks again for being here.

**Colin ** 59:00
Thank you very much.

**Brooke ** 59:05
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