Friday, January 14, 2011

I have tonnes of water at my door but none in my pantry - Queensland floods

If you have been reading into floods, earthquakes and other disasters, you should have guessed that the scene portrayed in the following figure is "normal". In fact, this photo immediately caught my attention, prompting me to write this post.

100,000 to lose power, supermarkets bare as flooding crisis continues (11 Jan 2011)

Figure: Actually, the amazing thing about this scene is there ARE still bottles of water on the shelf. I imagine the photographer positioning himself capture the shot in the midst of hordes scrambling to grab water, food, batteries, flashlights, fuel, candles, first aid items and toilet paper (TP) (yes, TP is incredibly valuable in an emergency though few people talk about stocking it up) in the supermarket.

Regardless of the country (developed e.g. Australia, developing e.g. Haiti, communist) and the type of disaster or emergency (flood, earthquake, civil disobedience, war), the same patterns are often observed.

The chain of event goes something like this (also see this earlier post on the earthquake in Chile based on similar themes):
  1. Dysfunctional  utitlitiesElectricity usually goes down. This has wide ranging implications as many other services depend on this modern convenience. And in the case of floods, the power company may turn it off to prevent accidental electrocution. Same goes for gas lines during an earthquake, the gas company turn them off to prevent explosions due to gas leakage.

    Water supply may or may not be disrupted. Even if your tap continues to run, the water may not as clean as before due to contamination at broken lines or inadequate treatment at the water works.

    Though fixed line phones are not directly tied to the electrical supply (i.e. your phone may still work even if your power is down), the physical cables and switches may still be affected by the disaster. In case you think your cellular phone has a better chance, don't count on it as the disaster can strike at the wireless transceivers placed around you. (Next time when you are outside, watch out for those usually grey boxes with 2 antennae hanging above you e.g. lamp post. There, you have your cellular transceiver.)

    Sanitation - big and ugly problem. What are you going to do if your WC stops working. Do you have a chemical toilet tucked away somewhere? Not likely. This is a very real problem yet few people want to come face-to-face with it (same as for TP).

    Not really counted as a utility but highly valuable and useful - money. Due to a lack of power or communications, forget about  using your credit card or debit card. Even cheques are viewed with suspicion. (Is your bank still going to operate after the flood/earthquake/emergency?) Cash is KING. And it pays to have small change and denominations for the small value items. By the way, your ATM is probably not working or out of cash.
  2. The mad rushPeople may initially be in a state of denial about the extent of damage. (Right, the government will fix things up. Or we can depend on the utilities companies to bring everything back to life within hours.) Once they wake up to the fact that our modern conveniences are not going to be back for some time, panic rushes in. Supermakets are raided for food, water.... Even items of dubious value (e.g. caviar) are cleaned up with all the cash one can master. If you are heading to the supermarket at the same time when the hordes are on a spree of panic buying, good luck.
  3. Civil disorderDepending on how strong the authorities are and how fast they can deploy policemen and soldiers, civil order may break down. (Remember, policemen and soldiers may also be affected by the disaster so whether they turn up for work is a big question.) When people go hungry and thirsty and uncomfortable (or worse still, their children are experiencing these problems), morality, legality and decency can go the way of the window. Riots, looting, burglary, kidnapping and daylight robbery crawl out of the woodwork. I added kidnapping because I have read of criminals kidnapping children in exchange for food and essential items from the parents during Hurricane Katrina.
  4. Health issuesIf normalcy is not restored soon (say days or weeks), the lack of clean water and food and adequate waste disposal (both liquid and solid) will take a toll on the population's health. Water borne diseases like cholera and typhoid are incredibly easy to spread among people packed together in refugee camps having less than proper sanitation. Dead bodies of humans and animals may lie (or float) in the streets waiting to be cleared. Add in malnourishment and you have the recipe for diarrhea and dysentry in addition to the big 2 above. Children and the elderly normally suffer the most. In the tropics, you can also count on vector borne diseases like dengue rearing its ugly head.
I am sure I can continue writing on and on but the idea is disasters suck. And they suck worst when you do not know of its consequences and/or are unprepared for them. (Yes, I have not written anything about the preparation part but that would be too much for a single post, right.)

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