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Winning the Disaster Game — by Turning an Ordinary Room into a Safe Room

by Bruce Haring

You’ve probably seen the shows — the ones where people are getting ready for some unimaginable apocalypse, when the you-know-what hits the fan and it all comes tumblin’ down. It probably caused you to shift around uneasily in your chair, knowing that if disaster struck tomorrow, you’re probably as prepared as your granny to survive. Probably less, since granny knows how to can, and has saved every piece of tinfoil she’s used since the Korean War.

But here’s the thing — you don’t have to prepare for zombies in the streets, asteroids, world economic collapse, the next plague, or even TEOTWAWKI. What you should do is plan ahead so that when a more likely occurrence happens — a weather condition or some sort of civil disturbance — you can navigate the problems for four to five days without resorting to savagery.

Like most traffic accidents, disaster prepping happens within five miles of your home. That’s because you’re more likely to be home, or to head home, at the first sign of trouble. You should focus on making sure you have what you need in your house or apartment to ride it out.

Safe rooms are standard issue in Israel, and are considered luxury extras in the US and Europe.

One of the problems with securing your home is that it wasn’t really designed to be a fortified bunker. Not every room in your house is safe for every situation, and even those that are relatively safe can be compromised. Remember that certain sections of your house may not be habitable because of water, high winds, or fire damage. Basements, while generally safe, also run the risk of collapse, can be dank, and aren’t generally heated.

So the first thing you should do is take a quick survey of your home and determine what will be your “safe room.”  This room, sometimes called a Panic Room after the Jodie Foster film, is a place where you can feel relatively secure in the event of an emergency. This means it doesn’t really face anywhere where a stray bullet can shatter glass or high winds can break through and enter the room. Ideally, this room has a closet big enough to fit everybody in case things get really hairy, and have a bit of storage so that you can have your supplies handy.

Safe rooms are standard issue in certain parts of the world (particularly in Israel, where the possibility of chemical warfare or rocket attack looms), and are considered luxury extras as part of very expensive properties in the US and Europe.  But you don’t have to spend a lot to make sure your safe room is perfectly suitable and sheltered. The “safe” can apply to almost any room — with the right preparation.


Your first consideration: what disaster are you likely to be facing?  If you’re near the river, clearly you don’t want to designate the lowest place in your house as the family gathering spot. In earthquake country, consider what’s holding up your house and where it’s most firmly anchored, so you can move to that room in case of tremors. And remember, even when the immediate disaster passes, you may face a period of uncertainty. Thus, if your room is water damaged, you’ll likely have to worry about mold, which can generate in as little as 12 hours.

The four characteristics of a good safe room are: (1) strong walls, (2) a heavy door that can be locked from inside (steel is preferred or some other heavy-duty material, (3) a four-day supply of food & water, and (4) some way of monitoring outside conditions (a hand-cranked radio is usually cheap).  A first-aid kit, a flashlight, and a bucket are great to have. And if you’re a parent, you’ll be very happy if you remembered to bring an assortment of books and simple toys that can keep the offspring occupied.

Despite the elaborate prepping you see on certain television shows, it’s best to keep things simple. Don’t add shelves that can topple over, or running water, extra lights, or things that can easily become more of a hazard when they fall than whatever is going on outside.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency offers some case studies on safe rooms inside and outside the house. Of course, FEMA is rumored to have all those camps waiting to herd you into, so you might want to use a proxy server to visit the site and stay truly under the radar. But if you’re willing to take that risk, you’ll be well on your way to making sure that you have the minimum you need to ride out any short-term crisis.

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