This Is How To Survive Disaster: 6 Secrets From Research


You woke up expecting another weekend of binge-watching Netflix and arguing with strangers on the internet. Instead, you were greeted by a massive earthquake. Or a flood. Hurricane. Zombie apocalypse. Or your Roomba stopped humping the sofa leg and led an AI overthrow of humanity.

One thing is for certain: you’re not ready for this. Yesterday your biggest fear was sending a text to your boss and having “meeting” autocorrected to “mating.” Now you gotta find water and locate food? Cub Scouts was a long time ago. Most people don’t know much of anything when it comes to survival.

Maybe this sounds like a screed from an insane doomsday prepper – like I’m writing this from my bunker. No, I haven’t gone crazy. But if you think giving a little consideration to the possibility of extreme negative events is silly, I have one question for you: in 2019 did you expect there’d be a global pandemic the next year? I’m not sure if the world ends with a bang or a whimper, but there will definitely be a collective “Oh, I didn’t see that coming.”

We’re not going full paranoia here; we’re just looking at the minimum necessary to be ready for a Black Swan event. Because they do happen. COVID. Hurricane Katrina. 9-11. Heck, I live in Los Angeles and paleoseismologists say we’re about due for a big earthquake.

So today I’m Eric, your Apocalyptic Concierge. Now thinking about every potential danger would be paranoid and this post would be book length. We’re gonna keep it basic, sane and reasonable.

We’re going to assume the threat is temporary and help is coming. We’ll focus on some minimal prep and emphasize the psychological side of things. We’ll be drawing on a number of sources, primarily Sam Sheridan’s “The Disaster Diaries: One Man’s Quest to Learn Everything Necessary to Survive the Apocalypse.

Okay, time for the post I hope none of us ever need. Let’s get to it…


Be Prepared

You have a smoke detector for your house and seatbelts for your car, right? So it’s not a terrible idea to make sure you have a few other basics in case of emergency.

Survival Bag
One stop shopping for unexpected emergencies. Has the basics like a first aid kit, a compass, a flashlight, etc. Yes, you can get one on Amazon.

Remember the Great Toilet Paper drought of 2020? Exactly. And that was a minor problem. If there’s a natural disaster, pipes could be broken. So have extra water. Might sound silly now but won’t seem as crazy when you’re drinking rainwater collected in an old boot. You can go a month without food, but without water you’re dead in 72 hours.

Trust me, “Post-Apocalyptic Iron Chef” is not a competition you want to participate in. Have some basics stored in the garage or basement. Flour products such as dried pasta will last a few years. Dried rice will keep well for up to a decade. And maybe some coffee. (A world without caffeine isn’t a world worth saving.)

If you’re the kind of person who waits until the last minute to refill your prescription medication, uh, might wanna change that habit now. You don’t want to be fighting zombies without your insulin or asthma inhaler. A study done in the 1980’s by the FDA tested hundreds of medications and found that 90% of them were effective long past their labeled expiration date. They’ll last. So always have a few weeks more than you need.

Phone and internet? They’re toast. You’ll need information so there are radios you can get that are literally charged by cranking them. Very Steampunk. Communicating with family? Well, it’s just like summer camp again. Walkie-Talkies are a good option.

And make sure to have some cyanoacrylate. That’s a fancy word for superglue. Uh, we’ll get to why later…

Okay, you have the basics stored in your basement. But what happens when you unfortunately need to use them?


What We’ll Diplomatically Call “The Adjustment Period”

The power grid is down. Water isn’t working in the house. Loud noises outside. There’s a zombie shambling down the street. Oh, wait, that’s Gary. He always looks like that. Anyway, whether it’s a tornado or the End of Days, things are clearly NOT GOOD. People will be panicking in the streets!

Actually, no. The research shows panic is quite rare. It only happens under specific circumstances, usually when people are trapped, like when there’s a fire at a concert. In most terrifying situations people don’t panic — they freeze. They shut down. They do nothing.

If a natural disaster or “War of the Worlds” scenario happens and reality takes a long, undeserved holiday, most people are going to be stunned and overwhelmed. They will be attempting to process something unlike anything they have ever experienced before. Think initial pandemic reaction multiplied by a thousand. You can’t remember if it’s Tuesday or February. And being stunned – unable to quickly adapt – is really really bad.

In his book “The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps” Terrence Des Pres looked at the accounts of hundreds of survivors of the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulags. He found newcomers had the highest death rates. Many of them could not adjust to the new terrible circumstances. They shut down or went into denial and, unwilling to accept the new circumstances, they didn’t respond appropriately enough to survive.

Who handled it best? Oddly enough, criminals did. They experienced less denial in this new world because they were used to breaking the rules. They didn’t cling to how life “should” work and they adapted. That’s cold comfort but there’s a lesson here: immediately after disaster strikes, denial is deadly. The quicker you accept the “force majeure” nature of the current situation, the better you’ll do.

The next step is to take action. The key question to be asking yourself is: What do I need to do next? Is everyone you love safe? Do we have adequate shelter? Can you get to your supplies? How can you reach help?

So you haven’t fallen prey to denial. Great. But there will be challenges — and fear will be waiting next to each one. How do you deal with it?



Under extreme stress it’s been documented that some people aren’t even able to call emergency services. Sam spoke to a paramedic who said it was common for people to have to ask a neighbor to call 911 because their hands were shaking too much to dial three numbers.

Fear. How do you beat it when it’s not just thoughts in your head but your body is literally quaking? The groundbreaking, monumental secret is… inhaling and exhaling. Earth-shattering, I know.

You can’t politely ask your adrenaline levels to drop. You can have a back and forth with thoughts in your head but negotiating with your physiology is a lot harder. But there is one way: breathing. Fear alters your breathing but the system is bidirectional. Breathing can also alter your fear.

Use a technique known as “combat breathing.” Breathe in for a count of four, hold, breathe out for a count of four. Do this cycle four times. Repeat if necessary.

Okay, you’re adjusting. But what about those you love?



You might adapt quickly and escape denial but the people with you may not. They may just go emotionally numb. Or, even worse, they may dissociate and experience perceptual distortions. Police officers in shootouts have reported that they thought their gun malfunctioned because they literally didn’t hear it go off. The moment was so stressful that they weren’t really “there.”

No time to get your therapy license. This is the mental equivalent of battlefield surgery. Messy but we need to get them stable and functional again ASAP. Four things to focus on:

  • Validate: They’re scared and arguing with them isn’t going to help. Get them talking. Be understanding. “I hear what you are saying, and it is as terrible as you say.”
  • Build A Narrative: They can’t think straight enough to comprehend what’s happening. Walk them through what you know and what has occurred so that it starts to click. Establish cause and effect, a sense of time and meaning.
  • A Feeling Of Control: Once the narrative starts to sink in, help them make sense of it. Give the chaotic world a sense of order. Remind them they have agency. The situation is not good but there are things we can do.
  • Future Focus: They’re going to dwell on the difficulties. To stop the spiraling, do what you did for yourself: get them focused on what they need to do next. Confidently establish a plan and get moving.

So what’s the number one most important thing when dealing with epic catastrophe? The thing the movies don’t discuss nearly enough?



In your current situation “First Aid” is more like “Only Aid.” Prevention is your only option for serious injuries. But what if someone you love gets hurt?

First — and this is all too often neglected — assess the scene. Do not rush to help just yet, as difficult as that may be to do. This is not normal life. Debris falling from a damaged building hit them? Well, it might hit you too. Rule Number One: don’t make more victims. Assess the scene, establish what occurred and make sure it’s safe to approach.

Second: if they’re unconscious check the ABC’s: airway, breathing, circulation. In that order. No obstructions to their breathing? Are they taking in air? This is why EMTs love screaming babies – “Okay, we know the airway is clear.” Then check circulation. Is there a pulse? Are they bleeding?

CPR can help with drowning victims or someone who has been electrocuted. Bad news is, in your current situation that’s about it. CPR is not terribly effective in general and without an ambulance on its way, someone with no pulse is unlikely to make it. Even The American Heart Association “concedes that resuscitation without advanced life support (such as defibrillation and intravenous medications) is extremely unlikely to be successful.”

If they are breathing and have a pulse, put them in “the recovery position.” This is to prevent their tongue, blood or other fluids from blocking their airway. Here’s a video.

If they’re bleeding, apply pressure for 20 minutes to allow the body to clot. Here’s a very very important thing: aggressively clean that wound. Even in hospitals, most people die from infection. Hit it with 2 percent iodine solution or alcohol. A metric ton of antibiotics won’t do squat if the injury is dirty.

Okay, here’s where the superglue glue comes in. If you don’t have needle and thread, and don’t know how to do stitches, well… Push the lips of the wound together, apply superglue and hold until it seals. Might sound crazy but cyanoacrylate was actually used for just this purpose during the Vietnam War.

Note: if red streaks start emanating from the injury, this means their body is fighting infection – and losing. Soon it will become systemic. They need antibiotics ASAP.

Obviously, I’m not a doctor and can’t cover all the injuries that might occur after the meteor hits your city. For a more thorough treatment of emergency medicine in difficult circumstances check out “Where There Is No Doctor.” This is the book recommended by the World Health Organization for aid workers in remote areas.

What else do we need to do before help arrives? This one may be a bit surprising…


Maintain Dignity

Sounds fluffy, but it really matters. In Terrence Des Pres’s book about survival during the Holocaust and the Gulags, he says, “Failure to wash was the iron law of the camps.” People who didn’t do it died. But this has nothing to do with hygiene…

It was the clearest sign they had given up the fight. When they stopped caring about being clean, it usually meant they had stopped caring about much at all. You wear pants during Zoom calls (most of the time, anyway) because it makes you feel professional. You wake up and take a shower because the ritual not only cleans you but makes you feel ready to go. And whatever rituals make you feel you have dignity, that you have some control, are not just useful in disaster scenarios, they’re essential.

Once you lose your dignity, the next thing to go is hope. You stop trying. And in a world where your next-door neighbor is now undead and screaming for brains, giving up is not an option.

Alrighty. You, me and the other three people left on earth have learned a lot. Time to round it up and discover the single biggest secret to survival after catastrophe…


Sum Up

Here’s how to survive disaster…

  • Be Prepared: No, a seventh viewing of “Mad Max: Fury Road” doesn’t count. Get some basic supplies and throw them in a closet. You don’t need to know how to make a crossbow out of dental floss and a spatula, but having water and a flashlight isn’t paranoid — it’s sensible.
  • “The Adjustment Period”: Transitioning from a somewhat functional society to a catastrophic hellscape is, well, a bit of a mood dampener. People won’t be panicking; they’ll be in shock. Denial is dangerous. Accept the situation and ask, “What do I need to do next?”
  • Breathing: Fear is like the pumpkin spice latte of emotions: overhyped, omnipresent, and just a little bit nauseating. Breathe in for a count of four, hold, breathe out for a count of four. Do this cycle four times.
  • Communicate: Others may be in shock. Get them talking. Validate, build a narrative, give them a feeling of control, and focus on the future.
  • Do. Not. Get. Injured.: If you thought dealing with a health insurance company before the apocalypse was hard, do I have news for you. Reality survival shows don’t show people staying safe and minimizing caloric expenditure because that’s boring. But it’s a great idea.
  • Maintain Your Dignity: It’s the emotional duct tape of the psyche. Do whatever rituals give you a feeling of professionalism and control. People who don’t maintain their dignity don’t last.

The biggest myth about disaster scenarios is that it becomes “every man for himself.” We think of those Black Friday incidents where a midwestern grandma armbars a teenager for the last discounted toaster. But that’s not what happens. People aren’t shoving each other into ditches to get the last can of SpaghettiOs, they’re helping each other. Research conclusively shows this.

When Hurricane Katrina first hit, we heard horror stories about looting, murder and chaos. But those stories weren’t true. After the incident, what did Captain Marlon Defillo, the New Orleans Police Department’s commander of public affairs, have to say? “The vast majority of people [looting] were taking food and water to live. There were no killings, not one murder. No bullet holes were found in the fuselage of any rescue helicopter.” As I wrote about in my book, “Plays Well With Others”, when a crisis strikes there are always more people headed toward it than away from it. The vast majority of us rush to help one another.

When faced with our potential end credits, we don’t turn life into a Mad Max wasteland. Instead, it’s more like a very sweaty, frightened episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

So seek help and give help. We naturally form communities and never is this more true – or more necessary — than when disaster strikes.

The good news? You’re not experiencing a disaster right now. Your current life probably seems a lot better than when we started this post. So be grateful. It’s not early 2020 (or far worse.) You’ve got it pretty good. And the above scenarios are unlikely. But if things do go wrong…

Now you’re ready.


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