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How to survive a zombie apocalypse

With explosions, tornadoes, bombings and meteors in the news, surviving disaster is everybody's concern. Not to mention zombie attacks.

June 02, 2013|By CHRIS COPLEY | chrisc@herald-mail.com

Zombies. Giant super-storms. Runaway climate change. Alien invasions. Sneak attacks by invading enemy nations.

Thrilling stuff of end-of-life-as-we-know-it science fiction books and movies.

But as recent news coverage reminds us — Superstorm Sandy in New York; the fertilizer explosion in Texas; the huge tornado in Moore, Okla.; the train derailment and explosion in Baltimore — ordinary events bring plenty of disasters that can end life as we know it, at least for those affected.

It’s probably not possible to prepare for all potential disasters, but some preparation is better than none.

Zombie attack!

I’m a fan of apocalyptic science fiction, so I’m looking forward to seeing “World War Z” opening in theaters on Friday, June 21. The movie tells the story of a virus that turns people into raging zombies who attack noninfected people and overrun armies and governments around the world.

But how would a zombie attack go down in Hagerstown? What should citizens do to survive?

I asked Doug Lent, spokesman for Red Cross of the Chesapeake Region, which covers Washington County. He laughed. Then he talked about disaster preparedness.
“You know, whether it’s a zombie apocalypse or a huge tornado, the Red Cross wants you to do three things,” he said. “Have a kit, including the things you take for granted: a copy of important documents, like home insurance; nonperishable food and water for three days; medications. Whatever you can’t live without. Keep the to-go kit in a backpack.

“Second, be prepared for disasters that might come your way. Know what might happen.

“And third, have a plan with your family to meet up after a disaster. The kids are at daycare, Dad’s at work, Mom’s at home. Know where you’re going to meet up afterward. And practice it,” Lent said.

Vacate the area

Rod MacRae, spokesman for the Washington County Health Department, has been a zombie fan for years. But he’s not a fan of the so-called fast zombies of “World War Z.”

“I am old, and I find myself as a traditionalist. I’m a slow zombie fan,” he said with a chuckle. “But with a zombie attack, you’re talking about a more broad-based disruption. (The advice is) basically, vacate the area.”

MacRae said in the event of a zombie attack, people would be dislocated. In movies, following the zombie onslaught, people typically congregate in a safe haven, at which they would need the supplies they would need for a large storm with extensive, lingering damage. MacRae suggested preparing a to-go pack of supplies, such as those recommended by the U.S. Federal Emergency management Agency. See sidebar.

“You need that immediate set of supplies to get you through the initial disruption,” he said. “Also, if power is out for an extended period of time, ATMs would not work. Cash on hand would be good.

Prepare for the unthinkable

Zombies, of course, are completely imaginary. Probably.

But an electromagnetic pulse — called an EMP — is not. Nuclear explosions high in the atmosphere produce an EMP over an area hundreds or thousands of miles wide.

And a few years ago, I read “One Second After,” a fictional account about a small North Carolina town struggling to survive after an EMP destroys electronic and electrical systems across much of the United States.

Unlike “World War Z,” “One Second After” is not action-packed. The story focuses on ordinary people trying to survive the loss of electricity and all that involves. Individually and as a community, the book’s characters deal with day-to-day concerns such as allocating food and fuel, policing the community, self-protection, burying the dead, rationing medications and surviving winter.

One character in the story is insulin dependent, and that got me thinking. Because insulin needs to be refrigerated to remain effective, an extensive loss of power could be catastrophic for people who rely on it.

MacRae said planning ahead is key for power outages of at least a few days’ length.
“Since we’re pretty dependent on electricity every minute of every day, that would be pretty disruptive,” he said. “I would recommend people (needing insulin) have frozen ice packs stored and an insulated container. That won’t last forever. But that’s your best bet.”

It’ll never happen here

The good news is that, in terms of natural disasters, the Tri-State area is in one of the safest regions in the United States. The New York Times published a map of the United States showing the comparative vulnerability of cities across the country to natural disaster. The Atlantic Seaboard is vulnerable to hurricanes, and the Midwest gets tornados. But these storms don’t affect Appalachian ridges and valleys much. Washington County is in a sweet spot.

Occasionally, we’ll get a weird weather anomaly. Typically, the worst Mother Nature does to us is deliver heavy snow, severe wind or rain.

But there are other ways this area might experience an apocalypse, or at least a mini-apocalypse. Check out the Nine Disasters sidebar below.

Take care of Fido

And what about pets? If zombies attack or the power goes out for a week, what should you do for Fido and Fifi?

Mike Lausen, executive director of Humane Society of Washington County, has a background in law enforcement and risk management. He’s seen disaster unfold.

“I lived in South Louisiana. I was a police officer there during Hurricane Katrina,” Lausen said. “You want to prepare a month’s worth of food. Loss of electricity affects your ability to get around town. You won’t be able to pump gas or get fresh water.”

Zombie attacks are typically sudden, as everyone knows, but bad weather in the Tri-State area is often expected days in advance. If severe weather is forecast, Lausen said to set aside a month’s worth of food for each pet. Also, if you have an animal needing special foods or medications, make sure you have two to three weeks’ supply.

And in case of a zombie attack? Lausen played along.

“At that point, it’s duck and run,” he said with a laugh. “But here’s an idea. If your pets have been spayed or neutered, and they’re attacked by zombies, you wouldn’t have to worry about the zombie pets reproducing.”

Mind the bottom line

When Hurricane Sandy swept into New York, businesses had days to prepare. But the widespread flooding and extended loss of power exceeded some business owners’ plans.

Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, urged business owners to plan ahead.

“For any disaster preparedness, the analogy would be your home. What you would do is inventory the things that would be important to keep your business running,” he said.

If your business depends on a key ingredient or a specific transportation route, Poffenberger said, plan have a backup or alternative that will allow business to continue. If your business relies on a key employee, develop a Plan B in case that employee is stranded by severe weather. Or attacked by a zombie.

“Your zombie attack is the metaphor for the Hurricane Sandy you never even imagined,” he said, “You simply go to higher ground. You shutter the store, go to higher ground and minimize your losses.”

Poffenberger compared a zombie attack to a natural disaster on a farm: A wheat farmer in the 1870s sees locusts coming; he grabs Grandma and the family and gets in his storm shelter.

“You batten down the hatches and ride out the storm, and then you go from preparedness to recovery,” he said.

And don’t forget to let your customers know you’re still in business after the disaster, he added.

“The importance of a communications plan is part and parcel of a preparedness plan,” he said. “A grocery store, a gas station, Meritus, the newspaper. They need to let people know what they can expect going forward.”


How to prepare for real-life disasters in the Tri-State area

As a starting point for emergency preparedness, City of Hagerstown spokeswoman Erin Wolfe  recommended citizens follow FEMA’s guidelines for emergency supplies.
Recommended items to include in a basic emergency supply kit:

  •  Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
  •  Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food; and a can opener for opening cans
  •  Battery-powered or hand-cranked radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert; and extra batteries for both
  •  Flashlight and extra batteries
  •  First aid kit
  •  Whistle to signal for help
  •  Dust mask, to help filter contaminated air
  •  Plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter in place
  •   Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
  •  Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
  •  Local maps
  • Additional items to consider adding to an emergency supply kit:
  •  Prescription medications and glasses
  •  Infant formula and diapers
  •  Pet food and extra water for your pet
  •  Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container
  •  Cash or traveler’s checks and change
  •  Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person.
  •  Complete change of clothing including a long sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes. Consider additional clothing if you live in a cold-weather climate.
  •  Matches in a waterproof container
  •  Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
— U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency


Nine disaster scenarios that could happen in the Tri-State area

Hurricanes, freak storms or other severe weather — Before Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and the Jersey Shore, America’s big cities felt smugly secure. But high winds and high tide combined to flood extensive, low-lying areas of the Big Apple. Hagerstown will never see high tides, but 20 or 30 inches of rainfall in one day — it’s happened in other American cities —might backup the city’s storm sewers and flood streets and buildings.
  •  Severe winter storms —Three feet of snow fell in Hagerstown on one day in January 1996. The storm buried the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. The Tri-State area doesn’t usually get big snow storms, but sometimes a “perfect storm” develops and Hagerstown gets socked.
  •  Terrorism — Air Force One lands at Hagerstown Regional Airport. Camp David is just a stone’s throw from Cascade and Blue Ridge Summit, Pa. There’s a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., and an Army base near Chambersburg, Pa. A large-scale terrorist attack on any of these facilities could cause disruption to area residents.
  •  Regional loss of electrical power — America’s aging power grid is unable to keep with current peak demands for electricity. In the past dozen years, utilities in Texas and California have had to implement rolling blackouts to prevent the grid from collapsing. New York and New Jersey have used brownouts — reductions in the power available — for the same purpose.
  •  Cyber-terrorism —Experts are wary of increasing vulnerability of America’s electrical infrastructure to manipulation by enemy agents over the Internet — similar to the way American and Israeli cyber-warriors caused uranium-enriching machinery to crash in Iran.
  •  Bio-terrorism or pandemic — Smallpox, bubonic plague and anthrax are deadly pathogens, and all three have been used as bio-weapons. Genetic tinkering might make a deadly germ spread more easily and kill more often.
  •  Supervolcano — Scientists are not concerned at the moment, but deep under Yellowstone National Park is the world’s largest-known volcano. This is a supervolcano, one of a dozen or more around the world, according to National Geographic Society. Yellowstone’s supervolcano erupts about once every 600,000 years. The last explosion occurred 630,000 years ago and spewed ash over an area from California to Louisiana.
  •  Solar flares — Solar flares are jets of plasma shooting out of the sun. When a strong blast of plasma strikes Earth, it can damage electrical equipment. In 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington witnessed the greatest one on record. Telegraph lines were electrified, shocking technicians and disrupting service. In 1989, solar radiation from a smaller flare knocked out power to wide areas of Quebec, Canada.
  •  Near-Earth objects —Remember the meteor that exploded in February near the town of Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring nearly 1,500 people and damaging 7,000 buildings? Since the explosion occurred more than 14 miles above the surface of the Earth, the atmosphere absorbed most of the energy, according to NASA researchers. But if the 20-yard-wide meteor had exploded over the Mid-Atlantic Coast and closer to the surface, damage in Washington County would be more severe. And that was not a one-off event: In 1908, an asteroid estimated at 40 yards in diameter exploded over Siberia, flattening forests for hundreds of square miles.

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