Post-eclipse and post-Harvey thoughts on emergency preparations

Following the traffic chaos during and after the solar eclipse last week, and the damage and destruction wrought by Hurricane Harvey, I thought it might be worthwhile to do a “lessons learned” article, seeing what they confirm about my previous posts on emergency preparation, and whether they add anything new.

First, the eclipse.  In my article “Lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005“, I wrote about the hazards of trying to evacuate the danger zone when everyone else was trying to do the same thing.  Karl Denninger wrote about his experiences driving home after observing the eclipse, and came to very similar conclusions.

The return trip home was something else.  There was literally no movement over 25mph from Andersen SC southbound until we hit the 85/985 junction north of Atlanta and plenty of time spent at walking speed or less.  You probably could have bicycled faster.  Worse, attempting to re-route around it manually was pointless; all the state highways and similar were also jammed solid and worthless to try to use as alternative routes.  During this time there was no congestion of any sort evident in any of the northbound lanes.

The mapping apps all said there were wrecks everywhere although we never saw one; by the time we got to wherever it had been flagged the wreck was long-gone but the impact remained for the entire rest of the day and evening.  Cellular data was worthless or extremely spotty until, once again, we hit Atlanta metro. Voice calls and text messages were fine, but not data; the networks were simply slammed well beyond capacity.

. . .

Let me further remind you that it was nearly 100F out on that highway too with zero cloud cover for most of the journey.  My Mazda has an excellent AC system and while it was keeping up it wasn’t digging it. What’s in your go-bag? There better be drinkable water in there and a means to purify more of it, because at that temperature you’re going to go through a hell of a lot of it in a really big hurry.  Oh, let me remind you that water weighs 8lbs/gallon and I’m willing to bet that had we needed to bail a gallon per person would have likely been consumed in a few hours.  In terms of water demand it probably would get close to (if not exceed) what I experienced while hiking out in the Grand Canyon on Kaibab South – brutal, in other words.

Next, consider what happens if someone else didn’t have water and you do?  Got anything effective to defend that water supply with and are you willing to use it?

Finally, how are you physically?  Could you get out of that car, get away from the highway by a good quarter-mile or more and actually make time on foot, even if slowly, in that situation, toward somewhere safe?  Oh, and where is “somewhere safe” in relationship to where you are?

Better have “yes” answers to the above because if not you would be a corpse.

. . .

You got a freebie lesson in this regard if you ran into even a fringe of it, in terms of exactly how under-capacity our so-called “infrastructure” is in response to even relatively minor loads and under friendly terms.  In short our so-called “civilization” is nothing more than a thin veneer over a really ugly reality, protected by nothing more than the fact that over the last 150 years it has never been challenged on the ground by heavy load during an ugly natural or man-made incident over any sort of materially-wide area.

Think Katrina times 100 and you might be getting close.

If it ever is challenged that infrastructure will collapse instantly and trap you.

There’s more at the link.

Those are very sobering thoughts . . . but they’re true.  I saw them reflected in my part of the world just yesterday.  Gasoline supplies are drying up fast;  we had reports that Midland and parts of San Antonio were already out of gas altogether.  As a result, panic buying ensued at local gas stations.  People were pulling up in pickup trucks, towing trailers loaded with one, or two, or a few 55-gallon gasoline drums, and filling them all, hundreds of gallons at a time.  As a result, gas stations that normally get supplies once or twice a week were running out within hours of receiving their latest shipment of fuel.  I expect that sometime today (Friday), many local gas stations will close down.  Those who still need gas will be S.O.L.  That applies particularly to traffic heading through this area to other major centers.  Yesterday afternoon, vehicles were turning off Interstates and regional roads whenever and wherever they could, to fill their tanks at local gas stations before going on, because they had no idea whether they’d be able to do so later that evening or this morning.  Panic buying was the order of the day.

Another example came from Walmart yesterday morning.  I was in a local branch when store managers started coming around to every till, explaining that the card payment system had gone down “company-wide”.  Those who were buying with cash or by check could do so;  all others could not have their payments processed, and would have to wait until operations were restored.  Fortunately, I had sufficient cash on me to pay for my purchases, so I wasn’t inconvenienced;  but the screams of outrage from those relying on debit, or credit, or EBT cards, were epic.  Yet another example of why it pays to keep a couple of hundred dollars on you at all times, just in case.  (Don’t carry bills larger than $20 – many businesses won’t accept them, for fear of counterfeit currency.)

Evacuations before and during Hurricane Harvey also echoed those ‘lessons learned’.  We’ve read many reports about so-called ‘price gouging‘, although some defend it as natural economics of supply and demand in action.  That’s all very well, but if you’re desperate to get to safety, and don’t have enough money to fill your tank with gasoline that’s suddenly priced much higher than normal, or to pay for a room at a hotel that’s just tripled or quadrupled its rates, it’s cold comfort!

As for personal security, we’ve read reports of criminals posing as government officials, trying to force people out of their homes so they could rob them.  Others have tried to rob rescuers of their boats and vehicles.  A curfew was proclaimed in Houston, in an attempt to stop looting of empty homes and businesses.  All this is very similar to what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as described in my “lessons learned” post and contemporary news reports – although the problems in Houston appear to have been rather less widespread and intense, for which thanks be to God.

In short, those who got clear of danger zones before Hurricane Harvey struck did well.  Those who kept emergency supplies at home, and were able to use them there while traffic was at a standstill and stores were closed, did well.  Those who did not get out in time, or did not have sufficient emergency supplies, did poorly.

I hope and trust all my readers will take these “lessons learned” to heart:

  • Keep at least a couple of weeks’ supply of emergency foodstuffs, medication and other needs on hand.  I strongly recommend at least 30 days’ supplies;  up to 3 months would be better, because it gives you enough to share with family and friends if necessary (something I learned the hard way after Hurricane Katrina).  If you aren’t sure what to keep on hand, refer to any of a large number of emergency supply checklists that are available.  This one from FEMA is a good starting point.
  • Keep sufficient cash on hand to buy what you need when other methods of payment are not available.  I strongly recommend a minimum of one months’ normal expenditure, in cash, stored in a safe place in your home, and never touched for normal use.  Reserve it for emergencies only, and if you have to draw on it, replenish it as soon as possible.  Even if you can’t afford a month’s worth of cash, set aside whatever you can.  It may be a life-saver.
  • If you can store it safely outside your residence (e.g. in a locked garden shed, or something similar, to avoid the fire hazard), keep enough gasoline on hand to fill the tank(s) of your vehicle(s) at least once, so that you can remain mobile when normal supplies of gas run out or aren’t available.  If evacuation is part of your emergency plan, keep at least two tanks’ worth of gasoline on hand for every vehicle you may use for that purpose, and take it with you when you leave – gas stations may have run out by the time you reach them.  Treat it with a fuel stabilizer,  rotate it once every year (i.e. put the gas in your vehicle’s tank and refill the storage containers with fresh gas), and don’t waste it on casual use.  You never know when you might need it the hard way.
  • If you plan to use propane or other forms of gas for emergency cooking, keep one or two cylinders of it in the same safe location as your fuel.  It’s no good having emergency food supplies that need cooking, if you haven’t made arrangements to cook them!  Don’t expect firewood and charcoal to be available.  Everyone else will be looking for them, too.
  • When the proverbial brown substance hits the rotary air impeller, and looters begin targeting your area, it’s too late to look for a gun.  You need to already have on hand the means you’ll need to protect your family and your home.  Local laws and regulations will affect your choice, of course;  but you need to make preparations now, so that when you need them, you’ll have the necessary tools and supplies available, and the training required to use them effectively.  Don’t leave it until the last minute.

All common sense measures . . . but we’ve just seen how many people lacked common sense, and were caught short when an emergency arose.  Let’s not be like them.



  1. I can confirm here in San Antonio that some gas stations have run out of fuel. I think it's based on panic buying more than anything else, though; there was no fuel shortage until it was announced there was a fuel shortage. Also, in SA the summer temperatures often exceed 100 deg. F. I always keep 6-8 cases of water on hand (plus a couple of 5 gal. jugs) because you can dehydrate in a matter of hours in those temps, even if you keep to the shade. If you are working, it will happen even faster. With a case of water at Wal-mart being less that $4.00 a case, there is no reason not to keep some on hand. One MUST have the basics on hand BEFORE an emergency takes place, because once it happens you are just not going to be able to find what you need.

  2. I live in the Houston area ( A n side suburb). A couple of thoughts. First, we were in pretty good shape going in. I went to closet, removed " Hurricane" box….and went through supplies inside. Determined all was well except we needed more batteries. I went out right away and got more. WOW !! I got the last D sized batteries from The Battery Store !!! A store that sells nothing else but batteries quickly ran out ! I did manage to get a few more from a Walgreens because… one else thought to go to a drug store to buy batteries. Second…..those neighbors who had helped US over the years….we helped now that the storm was coming. Some had no water, no money, no anything. We helped them. However, those who rarely or never helped us Before…..didn't get so much help from us when they needed it. Some people are lazy and/or often have their hands out. When SHTF, I don't help them and I don't admit that I have anything at all. " You looking for bottled water? Me too…..tell me if you find any." ( WHile I'm setting on cases stocked in advance). Third….there were looters. I don't get it. In Texas that is like playing Russian Roulette. We are a state where half the people on any given day are armed. So….With my pistol concealed and my eyes wide open I went door to door to make sure everyone had heard about the thieves. None came to our block. Most of the families were armed. Some of the ones who weren't armed with guns at least had machette and baseball bats….and making plans for their gun purchase to come soon. ( Yet even then at least one couple refused to learn other than locking there doors. Folks it rained over 6 in a hour at one point… police coming ! ). Finally, it seemed like the people who couldn't decide what to do got hurt the worst ! If you are going to stay….stay ! If you are going to leave…leave EARLY !! Roads became unpassable and areas of death !! DO NOT be on the road when things are going down ! ! ! Roads clog ! People run out of gas. I felt a little bad because a lot of people were screaming at the mayor ( a political thing mainly ) for not evacuating the city. Who are you kidding? You cant evacuate 6 Million people in less than 48 hours !! If you even could….where the hell would they go??? Remember that ! If any SHTF event happens in your area in the future. Whether it is local or national. You have only a very small window to decide to go, or to stay. Because the highways, the backroads…whatever. Just plain can't handle that much traffic !

  3. A last couple of thoughts. I had heard it before but….it was really shown to me. Recovery is insanely hard and slow. Meaning this. It quit raining on Tuesday morning. Today is Friday….not all grocery stores are open. Of those that are shelves are often bare! The stores have nothing in their backrooms. The system cant handle resupply in an event like this. No milk, no bread, no meat. When they get a truck load it is gone in minutes. That will change yet….it hasn't yet. What if the problem was larger than just 10-20 counties.

  4. We went up to a VERY remote part of Wyoming to watch the eclipse. The number of people who managed to get into the area was impressively large with commiserate traffic jams. Even on the remotest jeep tracks there were random people, many obviously unprepared for the conditions.

    – Stations ran out of gas, I was very happy to have extra on the jeep. (Along with many days worth of food, water, POL, ammo you name it.)

    – Coms were down all over the state and didn't recover for a couple days until the crowds filtered out. Internet was impossible, texting and voice very spotty.

    – All this for a state that is filled with competent and organized people who have been preparing for the influx for a couple of years.

    Bottom line is that there is zero resiliency in the system. All is fine in our just in time world and the bean counters are happy, but if ANYTHING goes out of the normal you are on your own and all of a sudden the 21st century is gone and gone hard.

  5. Leaving the Dallas area yesterday (Thursday) afternoon with a truckload of stuff heading east, my GPS said to use I-20. I opted for I-30 to I-40 to stay further from the coast. Still caught some of the rain from the remains of the storm. Also, lots of truck traffic with all the other big trucks avoiding more southerly routes. It doesn't take much to overwhelm the highway system. There isn't much excess capacity at the best of times.

    Last week in Oregon for the eclipse, we succeeded in avoiding most of the traffic. We found a location somewhat off the beaten path, east of Portland, but not on the main road to Madras(AKA madness central). The place we stopped was called "High Rock" and even there we had a crowd, although not a large one. I imagine that in a serious evacuation situation there would be no truly "off the beaten path" places to go to.

  6. An image stuck in my mind; the long lines at every gas station in my small Northern Colorado city on 9/11. Many examples of rude behavior. The lesson was you need to be prepared to take care of yourself. Other will look after themselves. If you are lucky, they might leave a few crumbs for you.

  7. The very prevalent "Just in time" inventory system that many stores and companies use mean that there is no "depth" to inventory levels. It means that, for example, at Wal-mart there will pretty much be nothing in stock beyond what is on the shelves. If the roads are jammed or unusable, there is no "inventory" to pull from. That's why it is imperative that one has enough to deal with an emergency BEFORE the emergency occurs.

  8. Anonymous said…
    Number one should be – build your house on a hill!
    With a solid basement to hunker down in when the gale force winds or tornado take the house.

  9. Great article and link. I live in one of the NE Metro Atlanta area counties-you could watch the Digital Traffic Maps go Red after the Eclipse. Some thoughts I did not see mentioned and that in addition to BoB/extra water in Vehicle is Hard Copy Maps of your trip area and a Road atlas. I keep a Big Delorme State Topo map Atlas-1:182,000' in the back seat pocket. That and an extra trusty ole Lensatic compass . The Mantra we used in the service-[ I was on Tanks]-was Don't trust the Electronics-[to keep functioning all the time],so I always kept the 1:50,000 map update w/ at least the basic mission Graphics.Plus we never dismounted w/out it anyways. And while I some devices can have Digital maps pre-loaded on them,re-charging could be an issue if forced to seperate from the Vehicles Power supply.

  10. I was in central Missouri for the eclipse. Traffic going in was pretty much normal. I was surprised how many people were at the out of the way wildlife refuge I had chosen as a viewing location. (Amazing experience btw-hard to put into words. People with just a passing interest who were just there to party were, at 100% totality, standing mouths agape with tears streaming down their cheeks. It was extraordinary. I understand why people spend vast sums to chase eclipses around the globe)
    Anyway, the trip back home was horrendous. The divided highway north(US63) was a parking lot and LE and locals seemed to be blocking back roads so that you couldn't bail off onto county gravels and run back roads north. Added a good 2+ hours to the trip. Another thing to note: car GPS sucks. Have detailed maps. Not just a road atlas or gas station map. Get a good detailed county level road maps and topo maps. Don't count on data from Google earth on your phone either.

  11. What do you use all the time? Water, food, fuel, batteries, clothing for inclement weather? Dog food?

    Make a list. Track usage for a while to put quantities to that list.

    THEN BUY THE $@#&ing STUFF AT REGULARLY SCHEDULED INTERVALS. Yes, what you need sometimes goes on sale; if a sale price coincides with the timing of your scheduled purchases, buy more, but if it's not on sale buy your regularly scheduled amount anyway.

    Are you lazy and stupid? Amazon Subscribe and Save was invented just for you. Amazon also has scads of "preparedness lists" most of the contents of which qualify for S&S deliveries.

    Do you know what the difference is between a stray cat and your cat?

    One dish of food.

    People work the same way. If you have a surplus and decide to share it, I guaran-damn-tee your doorbell will never stop ringing, right up to the time that the hungry herd standing on your porch decides it's not fair that you're hoarding food and they don't have any. After they finish helping themselves to what you've spent months, or years, building up you will find yourself in "stray cat" status. Shaddup about your preps.

    If you just gotta share, do it anonymously, at midnight, with a middleman for safety. Like a church in your neighborhood. Like a food bank.

    Stray cats will still show up at your door, so learn not just how to shoot but how to run the $@#&ing gun. Pro tip: 300 cans of food but only 1 gun with a single magazine and one box of 50 rounds is a severe imbalance that may turn out to be very painful for you; Real Life ain't nothin' like the movies.

    Learn stuff: how to read a map and use a compass; basic and intermediate first aid skills; how to make fire; different – safe – ways to make it Not Dark and/or Warm; what your physical limits are; the mental resilience to very quickly develop a Plan B; and a Plan C; and a Plan D; and so on; (this is both reason for "another list" and an opportunity for a family to do stuff together, and sometimes it will be interesting stuff. Sometimes it won't. Learn it anyway.).

    Remember the tired, old saw that "if you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem"? If you're not prepared you are the problem. Unless you want to be not-so-fondly-remembered as "Speed Bump" get your ass in gear.

  12. In a past life I worked as a Paramedic. In my initial training I learned that the mobile phone networked routinely operated at 95% capacity

    So, in an emergency……

  13. Joseph touched on a good point, about the inherent frailty of the 'Just In Time' stock supply chain.

    This VERY MUCH includes fuel. There's a bottleneck between refinery production (we need more refineries where we currently have none) and storage. We have EXTREMELY LIMITED fuel storage in the US. Refiners have started exporting fuel despite much less profit in international trade, because there's nowhere to put the crude feedstocks and finished clean fuel (gas, diesel and jet)we use for domestic production, and lower profit is still better than no profit.

    We activated an additional 50,000 bbl clean oil barge and tugboat in the northeast to meet changed demand, but it hasn't been significant. The problem is that there is no shortage of fuel except at the point-of-sail at retail, and we're currently dealing with drastically reduced carriage rates for bulk fuel movement because crude prices are so low, so the network of inland barges and over-the-road trucks has been reduced in size to ride it out.
    Next week should see some changes as the US national fuel infrastructure absorbs the production disruption and demand spike. For now, panic buying has made a dog's dinner out of the supply chain and resulted in a lot of grief.

  14. @ Paul – IIRC, it's been something like 30 years since a new refinery has been built in the U.S. – anywere.

    And as for the storage problem, you're right – the storage mechanism is heavily dependent upon "Joe and Jane storing gasoline in their vehicles' tanks," and there's a certain amount "stored" inside the actual pipeline while it's being pumped to destination and in what are relatively small tank farms at pipeline terminals.

    JIT (Just In Time) is great financially, and from a quality of component standpoint, it's even better. But JIT doesn't provide a buffer for unexpected situations. I'm more than a bit concerned about the hoopla around 3D printing because I can see component manufacturing and distribution being severely reduced when the corner parts house can simply print a replacement. If there's a software problem, network issue or printer failure, the reserve capacity will be at or near zero.

  15. I did some research on where a majority of gasoline and diesel deliveries in my area come from. The pipeline terminal was "upgraded" about 20 years ago but actual storage capacity was less after the upgrade. Tanks were new but smaller.

    There's value in learning about the infrastructure in your area. Be extremely discreet about it obviously but learn what is around you. If there are industries in your area learn what they produce, the materials they bring in and what goes out. If there are warehouses learn what's in them. Do they distribute food? Finished goods for retail? Inputs for industry? Are there LTL truck terminals in your area and what sorts of things go through there? Are there grain storage facilities close to you? What pipelines run though your area? Who are the owners and users of the various radio/ cellular towers in your area. Where does your water come from? Where's the local telephone central office? How is electricity distributed? What substation power what parts of your town/county? All could be vital information in an emergency.

  16. Not only are there no new refineries, older ones have been shutting down. This is due to regs by the EPA.

    They are not allowed to refit equipment, but must upgrade to the most extreme limit demanded. Oil companies have to decide between being profitable, or razing the place and building from scratch, pretty much. Can't blame them, with the .gov out of control for thirty years. Stupid policies, but what else can you expect from government workers?

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