Planning for a Community Emergency

Water and Sanitation in the Days Following DisasterThe goal for every community should be to develop a contingency plan in case the very things we dread actually happen.

Global markets have crashed and war is breaking out in remote corners of the world. If you woke up tomorrow to such a reality, would you and your community be prepared for what it would take to survive?

In our current modern world it is all too easy to take for granted that the lights turn on and that there is an abundant supply of clean, healthy drinking water on tap. Many of us fail to comprehend how easily and quickly such comforts could disappear.

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Food storage and distribution should be included in such a plan, but because dehydration and disease are often the first challenges to combat, the primary need for citizens in distress will be safe, clean water as well as sanitation.

Establish a Central Distribution Location for Food

A central distribution location should be located and surveyed as to how to best suit the needs of the community if and when disaster strikes. Such a location could be a public park or perhaps even private land, but agreements with the land owner must be made well ahead of time as attempting to negotiate during a catastrophe only adds to the chaos. The area should be open and large enough to accommodate emergency supplies and more than the number of expected refugees. While modern homes are a welcome source of shelter when utility services are intact, not all homes are suitable places of refuge when the electricity and water utilities stop flowing. Thus the emergency staging area should suitable as a tent city.

Water Supplies

Planning for water supplies should take into consideration, as accurately as possible, the number of people expected to use such services. If your community has large water storage tanks, the location of the refuge would benefit greatly from being nearby and at a slightly lower elevation from the tank if possible. The lower elevation will benefit from the use of gravity in the likely event that the pumps are no longer operating. One important item to remember in such planning is that the water lines that feed fire hydrants, while no longer pressurized, will have an abundant reserve of available water. Each community that is equipped with such a resource should have the wrenches used to open the hydrant valves available.

Water Storage Strategies

Discussions about water should include water storage tanks.Water storage strategies should plan for one gallon of water per person per day and need to be held in food-grade containers such as plastic tanks, barrels and bottles. Keep in mind that if your community is proactive in planning for such an incidence, water storage should be recycled every six months to ensure that supplies are not contaminated.

An ample supply of water purification methods is also essential as an abundant supply of non-potable water is more dangerous than not having any water at all. The human body is easily susceptible to bacteria and other contaminants in unclean drinking water. Failure to plan for safe water supplies will only add to the chaos and already hazardous conditions. While there are commercially available purification methods, if such items are not acquired beforehand (and stored properly) it will be necessary to purify the water on site using two common methods. The better the quality of the water before purification will improve the outcome of whichever method utilized, thus if possible, filter the water before purification.

The first and most effective method of water purification is boiling. In order to purify water in this way, an amount of water needs to be brought to a boil and remain there for at least one minute. Allow the water to cool sufficiently before disbursement to refugees. Of course this method requires some ability to heat the water so this resource needs to be planned for well ahead of time. Propane stoves and metal pots are suitable for individual use, but safely boiling large quantities of water will require adequate planning for your community.

A second method of treating water is to add chlorine bleach. While typically effective, this method requires special attention to the quantities being treated. Too little bleach will not purify the water and too much bleach will add to health problems. Liquid household bleaches can be used in this technique, but do not use products that contain dyes or fragrances. In order to purify the water, use one quarter teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water.


Now that your community has identified a suitable location and planned for a supply of drinking water, sanitation is the next important contingency to plan for. Just as we take for granted the resources that come into our homes, we also take for granted the refuse that is removed from our home. Human waste is a matter of great concern for both health and comfort reasons.A supply of buckets would provide an immediate aid to the removal of waste, but a staging area for hundreds or thousands of people will require a sanitary solution to the removal and storage of this potential hazard. The primary factor to consider in locating an area suitable for storing human waste is the water supply. Do not locate waste facilities near any water supplies. This includes ponds, lakes, rivers and streams as well as areas designated for food crops. Latrines can be dug in areas designated as defecation fields, but such fields, while being located close enough to the community to be effectively utilized, need to also not be too close to the living areas for obvious reasons.

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Defecation Field

The defecation field should be large enough to not only accommodate the number of people that will use it, but needs to be laid out so that only one part of the field is used at a given time. Divide the field into rows and begin by opening the row furthest from the community first. This prevents people from having to walk through already contaminated areas. The most effective latrine should be dug to a depth of at least 6 feet while saving the excavated soil to cover the used latrine after it has been fully utilized. Privacy consideration should be planned for as well, thus materials required to construct temporary screening shelters should be stored for immediate use when the emergency strikes.

Identify Multiple Areas

Depending upon the size of your community, it may be necessary to identify multiple areas in order to accommodate everyone. If this is the case, careful planning beforehand can preempt many potential conflicts. If multiple areas are identified, create some level of identifying which residents need to utilize each specific area and ensure that there are leaders trained on the specific needs and resources of that area. None of us wants to experience these drastic measures, but the more planning that goes into such efforts before a situation arises will make surviving the catastrophe much more likely.

by Patrick Whalen

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