Building Tangible Margin: Staying Put, Part I

Staying put is preferable during many emergencies. If you don’t have to evacuate, don’t. Your home is familiar to you and, with some forethought and preparation, can be made a refuge against many storms, both natural and manmade. Even a studio apartment can hold infinitely more resources and shelter value than anything you could hope to fit in a “Bugout” or “Get Out of Dodge” bag. That said, you can only improvise to a certain extent, so having some things in place before they’re needed will make weathering the storms much easier. In this post, we’ll look at Water & Food.

Water is your priority. While electricity and water may continue to flow during an emergency, it should not be assumed. You should store at least one gallon per person per day, half for drinking and half for sanitation. Hot weather or strenuous activity will necessitate more like two gallons per person per day.

There are many ways to store water, but the typical “milk jug” style containers are prone to leaks, as are the collapsible water storage jugs in my experience. Two liter soda bottles are more durable and seal well, just make sure you clean them. I use Coleman’s hard plastic five gallon jugs—good volume of storage but not so heavy they can’t be moved or tossed (well, lifted gently) into a trunk if needed. Better but somewhat pricier options are the Aqua- and Water-Paks. Fifty-five gallon drums are great but water weighs eight pounds per gallon (that’s 440+ pounds!). Unless you’re in a basement or garden apartment or built your home yourself and know the load limits of your flooring, I wouldn’t try it.

In the event of many emergencies, it is a very good idea to fill your bathtub and as many pots and pitchers as possible with water. The typical bathtub holds 40 gallons or more. Just doing this can double or triple your water supply and allow you much greater freedom for hydration and sanitation, assuming you treat it properly.

There is some debate about treating tap water. Apparently if you’re a city dweller with treated water, you don’t need to treat stored water. Just rotate it every six months. If you have well water or otherwise untreated water, treating with a small amount of bleach will keep bacteria growth at bay. We will look at treating and filtering found or otherwise questionable water in a future installment of Building Tangible Margin.

Food is not necessary. I repeat, for the time period we’re looking at (one week), food is not necessary. Most healthy people can live three weeks without food. You’ll have serious hunger pangs for a few days, but those eventually subside. Still, you won’t be at your physical best without nourishment, and the psychological benefits of maintaining some sense of normalcy during a crisis are immeasurable. If you have a spouse or family, this is especially important. Even if you think you can “tough it out,” don’t put your loved ones through that.

The amount of food you store is not as vital as the amount of water. If you have the funds and space to tuck away three squares per person per day, that is great and will be much appreciated. If you can do one square hot meal (particularly in cold weather) and supplement it with other food each day, you should be good and can build up to more as you are able.

Canned and boxed foods are the easiest and cheapest to come by. Watch the sales at your local grocery store or stock up at Sam’s Club or Costco. Most everything in cans can be eaten straight from the can or heated, if you prefer. (Don’t forget can openers!) Canned food generally has a shelf-life of 1-5 years while boxed foods are limited to about a year. (Some examples—Y2K Kitchen - Canned Food Code and Shelf Life Information). Eat foods as they near expiration and replace.

Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) are a good option for preparedness food. They are relatively lightweight, offer a square meal in each, self-heating (with flameless meal heaters) and have a long shelf-life if stored properly. They are tasty, too, in my opinion. Their only downside is price. Post-Katrina, cases of 12 MREs will run you anywhere from $60-90 plus shipping. Read “Tasty! An MRE Review” for more specifics.

Freeze-dried food may be a good option for you. It is more expensive than everything but MREs, generally, but the shelf-life can be as long as 30 years if you opt for the #10 cans offered by manufacturers like Mountain House. Their only downside, other than cost, is that they require water--cold if necessary but hot ideally.

Emergency ration bars are also available. Mainstay and Datrex are a couple of the most popular offerings and are high-energy, compact, long shelf-life bars. They are both divided up into 200-400 calorie portions for easy rationing and provide much of the calories and nutrition one needs, at least for a period of time. Though hardly comfort foods, they can be a good supplement to MREs and/or canned food. Their compact size and low weight make them ideal, as well, for car kits, evacuation bags, etc.

If you have children, you should include some comfort food—snacks they’re familiar with that have a decent shelf life. Also be sure to consider caffeine for those addicted and special diets for diabetics and those with food allergies. Some infants require formula, but this generally has a short shelf-life, so check the dates and rotate regularly.

Cooking is generally not necessary with emergency foods, but having the ability to cook will allow you to fully utilize your stores of food, particularly foods like pasta and rice, and can be used to treat water. Fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are fixtures in some homes and serve this purpose extremely well. For those whose heat and cooking abilities are tied to the availability of natural gas and electricity, everything from pocket Esbit stoves up to charcoal and propane grills can serve you well. Just be sure to store extra fuel and cook with care.

Finally, make sure you have water to drink if you’re going to eat. If you’re extremely low on water, the energy and water needed to digest food may leave you dehydrated.

In the next installment of Building Tangible Margin, we will continue looking at staying put, specifically Tools & Materials.

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