There is a line in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner that reads, “Water, water everywhere,/ and all the boards did shrink;/ Water, water, everywhere,/ and not a drop to drink.” In the poem, this describes the desolate situation of a ship that has been becalmed and is running out of both food and water. For ancient sailors, at the mercy of the winds and the waves, this was probably the most feared death. Worse than running aground or being torn apart by a storm ravaged sea, being becalmed meant you were stuck in the middle of the sea to slowly wither away. The frustration of being deathly thirsty and surrounded by undrinkable water would, at times, drive men literally mad.
It is a fear and a frustration that modern day flood victims can readily identify with. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was inundated with flood waters. Rivers overflowed their banks, levies crumbled, and water was everywhere in the city. Whole zip codes were submerged and the people were left to scramble for higher ground as best they could. The irony of this tragic situation is that with water everywhere around them safe, potable drinking water was incredibly difficult to find. With the municipal system down, the pumps and treatment plants silent, even tap water became toxic and contaminated as backflow into the system released chemicals and waste into the taps. The situation devolved quickly, and within a week there were areas of the city where a case of bottled drinking water was a commodity precious enough to kill over.
Let me say that again…. Within seven days in a major U.S. city, people were literally killing each other over bottled water.
When the power goes out for a few hours during a spring thunderstorm, the disruption of our daily lives is minimal. It may be temporarily inconvenient, but these situations are not life threatening to the vast majority of us. There are times, though, when the full force of nature is bearing down on an area and the impact is far greater. We’ve seen the impact of these catastrophic events in recent history with hurricanes, super storms, and thousand year floods. When major events like this are looming, the best option is to evacuate, but that is not always possible. If you find yourself caught in a situation where the power is down, basic services like water are no longer functioning, and the timeline for relief is unknown, there are a few basic tips that can help keep you alive until help gets to you.
- Turn on the taps This only works for those situations where you have lots of advanced warning of an impending disaster. If you hear the weather reports about a massive hurricane headed your way, or a freak snow storm screaming down from the north that affords days, if not weeks of advanced warning. In these instances, if you don’t opt to leave the potential disaster area, you can at least take advantage of the municipal services for as long as they are available, and the taps in your home are the best way to do so. You can fill bathtubs, sinks, bowls, bottles, and any other container you have available with clean, fresh, treated tap water. The best time to do this is in the hours immediately preceding the impact of the storm, flood, etc. Since most of this water will be stored in open topped containers, it’s best to use this water first.
- Shut off the water
As soon as you realize that the power is off, and it’s going to stay off for any length of time, shut off your water supply. For apartments and condos, there is usually a shut off valve on the line leading into your unit, somewhere in the neighborhood of the water heater. These shutoffs are a simple turn valve that can be hand turned to shut off your home’s water lines from the system. If you’re in a single-family home, there will be a water meter by the street with a shutoff valve. For these municipal shutoffs, you may need wither a large pair of channel lock pliers or a special water key. You can get a water key at just about any hardware store for a reasonable price, and having one on hand will save your knuckles if you ever have to shut off the water.
By closing down your water supply you are isolating your home in case of any backflow. In a disaster situation where the power goes down at municipal water handling plants and waste treatment plants, gravity takes over. Waste water contaminated with chemicals and even raw sewage can flow back into pipes that normally carry only clean water. This water may look, or even smell clean, yet carry deadly pathogens and toxins. If you isolate your home’s water system quickly enough, you can protect the water stored in pipes and various other places in the home as good to drink.
- Stop flushing
I was raised in the country, so there have been times throughout my life when I have had to “have a conversation with a tree” as my father put it. In other words, doing my business outdoors has never really been an issue for me, but it can be rather embarrassing and off putting for people who are not used to it. It’s important to remember two things in a disaster situation, though: First off, the waste water treatment plants are not functional, so there’s nowhere for the “stuff” to go once you send it down the pipes; Second, each time you flush the toilet you’re watching between 1.5-3 gallons of fresh, clean water go literally down the drain.
While the water in the bowl of the toilet in such a situation is probably not worth drinking, at least not until you get REALLY desperate, there is water in the tank. The average tank on a toilet without spacers will hold 2-4 gallons of fresh clean water. You can siphon the water out with a clean length of hose, or dip it out with a cup. I would recommend boiling the water if possible to be on the safe side, but this water is essentially safe to drink and can help keep you and your family alive. In an average size home with 2.5 bathrooms, that can add up to anywhere from five to ten gallons of water. And that translates into days of added life.
- Turn off the Water Heater
Most people don’t really think about it, but your water heater is one of the largest reservoirs of fresh, clean water in your home. An average water heater tank will hold between 35-50 gallons of water. All modern water heaters also have an incredibly convenient drain tap at the bottom that will accept a standard garden hose. To drain the tank, simply connect a garden hose at the bottom, and open the valve. This allows you to pull out a little bit of water at the time so that you can effectively ration what’s held in the tank.
**NOTE** Before you start draining the water heater tank, make sure that all gas lines and electrical lines are disconnected, even if power and gas services are no longer functioning. This eliminates the risk of boiling off the remaining water in the tank as it is drawn down. Cooking off the water also carries the risk of creating a pressure buildup in the tank that can have some pretty nasty consequences, so make sure you shut the heater off and disconnect the power and/or gas first.
- Have water on hand
This last tip is probably the easiest to actually accomplish, and yet somehow the most unpopular to talk about. “Prepping” has become somewhat of a taboo word in recent years, and it has attracted quite a negative connotation thanks to certain portrayals in the media. However, the best way to make sure that you have the necessities to survive a disaster situation is to get them before the disaster hits.
For water storage this is relatively cheap and very easy to accomplish. Grocery stores offer several different levels of water storage that can be purchased directly. There are cases of individually bottled water that can be purchased for anywhere from $2-6 depending on brand name and weekly sales. I recommend watching for buy one-get one offers and taking advantage of them. These small bottles allow for easy rationing and distribution in a disaster situation. There are also gallon size containers that can be purchased for a few dollars each and store in an attic or other out of the way area. Gallon size containers of water are typically cheaper per unit than individually packaged water and can add up quickly to significant quantities.
Another easy storage option is to buy the large 5-10 gallon water cooler bottles. These massive bottles can be used to store large quantities of clean, potable water that is easily accessible even without the cooler apparatus. Simply take a sharp knife and cut a triangle in the jug’s cap without removing the plastic sealant tape that keeps the cap attached. You can then make a small air hole on the opposite side of the cap from the triangle cut, and you’ve created a crude but effective pouring spout. These large bottles can be lined along one wall in a garage for easy storage of large quantities of drinkable water.
The best option to take if you know a disaster is coming is to get out of the path of destruction. There are times, though, when evacuation just isn’t an option because circumstances prevent it or because there is just no warning before the disaster hits. In such a case, having at least some extra water on hand can go a long way to keeping you and your family alive while waiting for services to be restored or for help to get to you. You can also use the tips above to get the most usable water out of the hidden reservoirs within your own home.
Remember…a person can survive for weeks without food, but only a few days without water.