Earthquakes and tsunamis and climate change, Oh My!

Ken's picture

Risk is unevenly distributed across most systems, of whatever sort. But especially so in terms of geographic location. We all know the old real estate adage: location, location, location. Well, like many old adages; it's not wrong.

Living in the flood zone below a dam or in the fallout area downwind from a nuclear reactor or on the slopes of an active volcano, all put you at increased risk from natural (or otherwise) disasters. Considering climate change as a slow moving disaster, clearly there is greater risk from more powerful hurricanes if you live on the Gulf or Atlantic coasts. The ever increasing drought in the Southwest is a clear and present danger if you live in LA or Phoenix, Vegas or El Paso. And my home, Cascadia, is defined by the active volcanoes of the Cascade Range and is doubly threatened by the eventual 9.0 Juan de Fuca subduction zone earthquake and tsunami. (This is predicted to be Fukashima scale - 100 foot+ walls of water on the Pacific coast.) So, WHERE YOU LIVE MATTERS.

But there are also economic and social disasters which either follow natural/physical disasters or emerge on their own and those are usually easier to see coming but are even more granular. That is, little differences in location can make a big difference. I have never felt safe in any urban setting at any time; there are no monsters in the forest (or under the bed) that are even 1% as dangerous as human beings in groups.

Conversely, there is also safety in numbers. By which I mean that a cooperative group is far more resilient than a loner or a small family, no matter how well-prepared. Thus I am led to the notion that a genuine small town, ideally unincorporated and less than 5000 people (although I can see plenty of good arguments for incorporated towns up to 15,000 or so) is in the 'Sweet Spot' in terms of balancing enough people to offer mutual support and needful social organizations and services (medical clinic, fire department, sheriff, schools, churches, etc.) but not so many people that there is anonymity, or that there is a huge entrenched bureaucracy. If the small town is a safe distance from large urban areas, which to me means at least 50 miles and preferably with some natural barrier or controllable choke points: bridges, mountain passes, narrow canyons, etc. then I think you have found a really good location.

Depending on individual economic situations, a small town can be a good place to start a small, cash business. Generally those little towns have more than their share of older folks and if you have the ability to offer some kind of needful service, you will not only make a lot of friends, you might make a living too. My daughter does grocery shopping for elderly folks for example. By itself that wouldn't be enough to live on but as a side gig, it's turning out to be really good for her.

I suspect that for some folks that are unable or unwilling to leave large urban environments, there will be some scary times in the aftermath of disasters of whatever kind. Thinking about them ahead of time and talking about emergency plans with neighbors and friends now, will undoubtedly help later.

Jefferson is credited with saying, "The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance." But everyone has to sleep sometime...

David Trammel's picture

Ken, have you ever heard of Mel Tappan? He was a well-known survival writer in the 80s.

He agrees with you that a smaller town, of 5000 people max, which is predominately farming, not industrial in a rural area is the ideal location to live in. You can download his writings here: (begin at page 24)

What he suggests is what he calls an "abandoned farmstead":

"If wilderness nomadics are one extreme of living off the land, then full-time farming is the other, and it too has its drawbacks. For one thing, making a living solely from working a small farm is so labor-intensive and requires so much skill that few people succeed in the attempt. Under survival conditions, of course, you would need only to produce enough to feed your family and, perhaps, a bit more for barter, but even that modest goal involves considerably more knowledge and work than the uninitiated may imagine. Insects, animals, thieves and weather can all thwart your plans even if you know when, what and where to plant, how to cultivate, rotate and keep your land fertile without the use of commercial fertilizers, and all the rest.

Fortunately, there is a middle ground between these two extremes of seeking long-term subsistence from the land: a thoughtful combination of foraging for wild food and limited small-scale agriculture. Although unusual, this approach is practical -- as I can personally affirm from almost three years of experience with it -- and it can save you a great deal of money when you purchase the land for your retreat.

There is often a greater abundance of food more easily available on an abandoned farmstead in good game country than can be found on ten times the acreage in true wilderness. Yet the most expensive farmland is usually well kept and completely cleared to maximize its use for cultivated crops. It offers little in the way of cover for game, and hardy nutritious plants such as dandelions, lamb's quarters, Jerusalem artichokes and thistles, which flourish without care in most parts of the country, have been uprooted and burned as unwanted weeds. That is a logical approach for the full-time farmer whose eye is on developing cash crops for market, but for the survivalist who is concerned with producing the surest source of nutrition for his family with the least amount of work, it is a serious mistake.

An optimal retreat site for the survivalist forager might be a poorly maintained or abandoned small farm, a portion of which had once been cultivated but which had never been entirely cleared of trees. You might even want to add additional brush piles for small game cover, and, if a suitable one does not already exist, you should consider digging a pond. Nothing else will enhance the food-producing potential of your land as much, even if you don't bother -- as you should -- to stock it with fish. Turtles and frogs will appear as if by magic, deer and other large game may be attracted if the terrain and certain other conditions are right, flocks of migratory birds will probably come in if you are near a flyway and a variety of edible small game such as muskrat will undoubtedly take up residence there. The pond doesn't need to be more than a few feet deep unless you should require a great deal of irrigation water from it, but the surface area should be as large as you can reasonably make it, for maximum effect. A two-acre pond on an eight- to ten acre parcel is none too large. Surrounded by a start of such nourishing edibles as wild rice, cattails, berry bushes and the like, then stocked with trout, catfish or bass and bluegills -- depending on location and climate -- such a pond alone could provide substantially all of the food necessary for a small family."

In regard to understanding potential natural disasters where you live, almost every county in the US has a hazard mitigation plan for the purpose of qualifying for grants with FEMA. A lot are online; the rest are hard copies with the emergency management director. They should have a risk analysis and a strategy for reducing risk. Some are good and some are very generic. It might be worth hunting yours down.

lathechuck's picture

From time to time, after a major disaster, you might hear about "ham radio" being used to coordinate response operations. This typically involves the ARES organization, which is all volunteers, organized at the lowest level by county, with a hierarchical structure up to nation-wide. If your area is visited by disaster annually, once every 10 years, or once every 100 years, the preparatory activities that an ARES group performs can give you insight into local risks and response plans. Here in mid-Maryland, we consider tornadoes, hurricanes, civil unrest, brush fires, and pandemic (the last, with a remarkable lack of foresight). If you've ever thought about "ham radio" as a tool to help in trying times, check out Just having a radio won't do you much good, if it only sits on the shelf, but an active ARES group will conduct exercises and public service events to help you learn how to communicate effectively.

If the idea of taking a test to get a license to use the radio puts you off, bear in mind that it's not much different from taking a driving test, to get a driver's license. You need to know how to operate safely and cooperatively in a shared-resource environment. Study guides and classes are freely available (as well as sold). (The ability to send and receive Morse Code is no longer a requirement.)