Disaster Preparedness and Other Unsavory Topics

The author, Julie Harrell on Ski Patrol! Photo by Jerome Tracy

The Unexpected Event

You know the old adage, “It will never happen to us,” which is all good and well—until it happens to us. World weather has taken a turn for the seriously worse, and it seems like human-made catastrophes are increasing, too. Just look at all the countries in the world, including ours, that suffer from weather disaster, crime disaster, and in general, all-around tragedy. Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. Trees are dying, bees are leaving, fish are dying off, birds are singing less and less. It sometimes appears we are losing ALL of our wildlife, ALL of our trees, ALL of our oceans, ALL of our clean water, and ALL our freedoms.

Yet, technology marches on. Human and animal DNA splicing is commonplace in the science labs of today. Weather manipulation and other human activities interfere with nature to an increasingly greater extent. Yikes—it’s all we can do not to just freak out! Yet that’s exactly the opposite of what we should do. Remaining mentally stable in the event of a serious disaster is a critical skill.

Being Prepared

If disaster strikes, set yourself up for success and be prepared. I have a background in Emergency Medicine, and in Emergency Preparedness. In case of medical emergency, I like to keep the basics handy, including trauma bandages with blood clotting agents, adult and infant bag valve masks, both old-fashioned and new electronic blood pressure cuffs, and a stethoscope, to name a few. It helps if at least one person in your family has EMS training, which is available through your local Red Cross, among other organizations.

Part of being prepared is having a plan for what you will do and where you will go if disaster strikes. For my family, our “Get Home, Fast!” plan is simple. My husband is on his own. He will know what to do, and I trust that if the cell phones stop working he’ll find his way home. My daughter and I agree that if the sky falls, if there’s a terrible tragedy, if the floods seem like they will soon get too ridiculous, and especially if she just has a bad feeling in her gut, the rule is, drop what you are doing and head for our country farm home, period. Grab your cats, warn your friends, but don’t wait for them.

Prevention is Key

In our home, the plan revolves around prevention. I grew up in Oklahoma, terrified of tornadoes. We had no cellar, and tornadoes regularly ripped through the neighborhood, tossing mostly a trailer here or there, but occasionally decimating entire towns. Later in life, I spent seven years living by the ocean in California and Hawaii, where 40-foot waves crashed far up the beach and flooded entire blocks surrounding the beach. Water from the ocean ran under our house (which merely stood on skinny stilts), along with dead chickens, sewage, and anything that floated. We sold the sports car in California because of several feet of water on the highways. I swore then that someday I would feel safe where I lived.

We moved to upstate New York 23 years ago, and live high up in the mountains. Ahhh. I feel a bit safer. Flooding is not an issue here, but to avoid flooding elsewhere, I have to get home safely first. I drive a truck with off-road suspension, and it’s pretty high up off the ground. But if there’s a flooded road, I’m still turning around, even if I have to do it in a field or someone’s lawn.

You should, too.

It really doesn’t matter where you are heading or how important your trip is if your vehicle is in a flood. Watch some of the sad California and worldwide flooding videos taken from inside and outside people’s vehicles. There’s a lot of screaming, so turn down the volume.

The three big prevention topics I follow carefully are: Safety, Fire, Bacteria. Here are some examples that may help you think about how to develop your own plan.

Personal, Animal and Fire Safety

Our order of priority for any disaster is that we protect the people and animals and then save the property. We keep a fire extinguisher by the door, and we stay in with our candles. We don’t believe in walking away from the kitchen while we’re cooking, in our house. We do not use electric heaters, as lit candles and electric portable heaters are the leading cause of house fires. YUP. People don’t realize that even a cat can knock over an electric heater, and then the house goes with it…it’s sad but true.

Fire prevention requires a dose of common sense. Keep your fire alarm batteries fresh. We have wood stoves that are carefully inspected and cleaned each year. When loading and tending the wood stove, we are very cautious and always watch for sparks.

We keep farm animals (horses, llamas, cats and dogs), so their protection is a priority too. No animal is locked into a cage or a stall; in the event they need to, they can get out. We also have multiple structures on the property which could double as shelters for us or the animals if we needed them to. We are super careful with our giant fire pit, and only burn brush on really wet days with no wind.

The Bacteria Load

Can we talk poop? The big question I have for everyone is, where are you gonna poop if the lights go out and stay out? After all, flush toilets do typically require electricity to keep their water pumps going. For an alternative that can keep you “flushing” even if the lights go out, I suggest you read The Humanure Handbook. It discusses how you can easily build a small potty box with a seat, with a white bucket under it filled with horse bedding pellets for emergencies. Have some pallets available outside and use them to build a small box in which to dump your human-made compost. Throw some leaves over it. Have a few bags of powdered lime available in your garage. Find your buckets at Honest Weight in the Garbage Department, and the rest you can purchase elsewhere. We have a total of four composting toilets here on the farm, along with an endless supply of leaves. How can you avoid a massive bacteria outbreak if you don’t have a potty when the lights go out?

In closing, I will leave you with a short list that hopefully will pique your interest. Please note: The absolute most important thing you have going for you in the event of a disaster is your own, level-headed mind. Keep your sanity by creating a plan, educating yourself about the unexpected, and practicing your plan to ensure that all in your family are safe. Most of all, remember that you can always rebuild, and your family is more precious than anything else in life. Save the people and animals first, and leave your laptop behind if you have to leave fast.

What You Can Do Now

  • Do you have an emergency plan that you share with your family?
  • Do you need an emergency plan to “Bug out,” or “Get home fast”?
  • Do you know if you live in a flood zone? Check the flood insurance maps at
  • Do you have a safe place for your family and animals if you have to evacuate?
  • Do you have sufficient food, fresh water and a toilet that does not require electricity?
  • Do you have an alternative method to heat your home if the lights go out and stay out in the winter?
  • Do you have camping gear, such as Coleman stoves, sleeping bags and tents?
  • Are you mentally prepared for an unexpected disaster?

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Julie Harrell, a member of the Co-op since 1994, has a long list of publications and accomplishments, both as a writer, project manager -- as well as a farmer. To say that she is interesting and gets around is an understatement!