There is a bathroom story stemming from the SHTF zombie thriller “Fear The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular post-apocalypse series on television.
It goes like this: throughout the filming of the current season, Ruben Blades insisted that the producers shoot a scene with him peeing on the side of the road. Why? Because he insisted viewers never see anyone go to the bathroom in the Hollywood versions of the apocalypse. So the producers obliged him.
There is a reason we don’t see this in the mythological end-of-the-world stories. Pooping and peeing are pretty gross, although normal, and neither make for a great visual. Moreover, the problems caused by a lack of sanitation don’t help to advance the zombie or nuclear war plot line when warlords or giant irradiated bugs need to be conquered.
Even the consumers and business leaders who make up the Survival Industry and consider themselves “realists” give the subject diminished time and space. Sure, there are prepper toilet paper companies like Privy Paper and some legitimate survival bloggers who post about the subject every other year or so. But do any of the bloggers and survival fans have a real clue what a grid-down TEOTWAWKI will look and smell like when the toilets stop working?
The truth is a hard, “No.”
While it’s fun to talk about survival gear like Bug Out Bags, Bug Out locations, survival gardens and self-defense, how many preppers without military experience ever really consider the nasty situation that will overwhelm any community when the sewer and drainage systems break down?
At least military veterans know what it means to dig and use a latrine. Those with combat experience know what it’s like to relieve themselves wherever nature calls.
But this is a very difficult complex issue to wrap one’s head around. That’s why we’re attempting to use this story to show what it’s actually like, in all its inglorious nastiness, when hundreds of millions of people start using their surroundings as a bathroom, instead of a room inside their home.
Below are very real world situations that should help all survivalists and homesteaders understand the need to plan for this issue physically and mentally.
Sewer Lift Stations and Electricity
In 2012, residents of Jefferson Parish (a suburb of New Orleans) were dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac when something unexpected happened. The storm paused over the area for about three days slowing efforts by the local electric utility company to begin its restoration efforts.
Utility companies usually begin repairing and reconnecting power lines to critical infrastructure immediately after a storm moves through the area and the winds die down. (Average hurricanes can last approximately half a day to a full day.) Because Isaac stalled on top of the metropolitan area, the length of power outage to critical facilities dragged on for three days before line crews could safely start taking action.
One of the critical pieces of the infrastructure waiting for power were dozens of sewer lift stations that served the state’s largest parish.
A sewer lift station takes water and sewerage from a low lying home or building and pushes it to higher elevations where the gravity fed drainage systems take over. This, of course, is a common piece of a community drainage system in many parts of the country, especially hilly areas.
For the residents of Jefferson Parish, going one day or two without electricity doesn’t impact sewer systems. For three days while the storm paused on the city, and families were sheltering in place, there was no push for the sewerage when they flushed. As the days dragged on, families continued to use their toilets causing the sewer system to back up as thousands of homes flushed adding more and more waste and water to a system that had no where to go.
Before long, toilets in the homes of residents trapped by the high winds of a major hurricane began backing up with raw sewerage. The discomfort and problems caused by long power outages were compounded by the introduction of raw sewerage to family homes. (To avoid this problem, see the end of the article.)
Millions of People and No Bathrooms Except The Beach, an Alley, Your Lawn…
With more than one billion citizens, India is one of the world’s largest democracies. Yet, approximately 600 million people live without a modern amenity Western Civilizations take for granted: a bathroom.
In cities and communities around this massive nation where English and technology rule the culture, millions of citizens use the bathroom wherever they can.
Railroad tracks, alleys, river banks and beaches are just a few of the locations millions of Indians poo and pee. It’s dangerous, disgusting and smelly.
Do survivalists living in moderately-sized communities grasp the reality? Do prepper suburbanites outside major cities get it? Have you truly gotten your mind right with this possibility? Watch this video of modern day, civilized India, and consider the problems that await our communities when electricity and civilization goes down.
The bottom line is that sewers, human waste and sanitation are disgusting, smelly and deadly problems most preppers and survivalist never really think about or plan for, physically or mentally. It is a safe bet that in a long-term grid-down situation death and disease will be widespread, and the mental impact will be just as devastating even for those that thought they were prepared.
While many survival and homestead experts touch on the problems of poop, most blogs and retail sites are filled with more popular issues like firearms, self-defense, food and water. But, for those paying attention, there can be no doubt that the true impact of mismanaged sanitation in a post SHTF event will be an overwhelming problem for everyone, and one that will kill far more people, and create far more misery (on many levels), than a scarcity of good freeze-dried food or ammunition.
We can start with cholera, typhoid, and diphtheria to name just a few of the deadly threats from contaminated food and water. Ask a Prepper gives a scary overview of what diseases will impact us if we don’t protect water and food sources from human and animal feces and urine:
Water is a great medium for disease. There are many diseases that can be caught from water, even water that looks clean. This won’t change when the SHTF. It may even become more acute as treated water won’t be avalailabe and we may resort to drinking from streams and rivers. The types of diseases to watch out for are:
Cryptosporidium, which is a parasite and causes severe stomach cramps, dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea.
Legionella, found in contaminated water and causing pneumonia, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and muscle aches. If you store water you need to read this.
Weils disease cased by animals such as rats, dogs and pigs urinating in water. It causes flu like symptoms but can also cause organ failure.
Cholera is less likely to be an issue once the SHTF as it is caused by contaminated fecal matter in water and so tends to proliferate in heavily populated areas.
So, to help us tackle this problem, we rounded up great advice from some very good sources.
Why Basics of Sanitation: To get us started, we visited Bio Prepper. In this article dating back to 2013, author P. Henry gets started on the importance of sanitation after we survive TEOTWAWKI. His reasoning for this advice is simple:
In thinking about preparing your family for survival after a disaster or emergency situation you can’t forget to consider their health. Your family’s health is affected by so much more than having adequate stores of food.
Having the best gun for self-defense is great and important, but what if someone in your group comes down with an illness that was easily prevented? What if the killer that attacks you is a sinister little microorganism you never saw coming?
Family Planning: At the SHTFplan.com, author Tess Pennington of Ready Nutrition gives us one of the most scientifically sound overviews of what families must do to protect themselves in dealing with the “S” after a SHTF event.
It is a documented fact that more people die after a disaster due to poor sanitation than from the disaster itself. This is due to individuals not knowing where or how to properly expel waste. Fly infestations also pose a problem, and if waste is left out in the open, then it will only lead to the susceptibility of epidemics such as cholera, typhoid or diphtheria.
Preparing for Sanitation Before The SHTF: When it comes to survival information, the SurvivalBlog is best described as the most “policy wonk-ish” website for preppers. The information is detailed, not always easily digested, but seemingly as complete as you can find. It’s not the place to go for a quick read. That said, when it comes to toilets and sanitation, it does cover 16 Simple Steps preppers can take for good sanitation before and after SHTF.
Making a Portable Toilet: Next, if sewer systems fail, and your bugging in, should you use your home toilet or move the operation outside? Without a sewer system moving water to and from your home, the typical toilet becomes nothing more than an immovable bucket. That’s why most experts will say your bathroom has to move outside, and away from any clean water and food sources.
City Living Sanitation: If it’s a relatively short catastrophe, there are ways to survive in the city without sanitation, and while using your home toilet. Here Daisy Luther, the Organic Prepper, gives us a few tips for what to do when the toilets won’t flush.
Building a Latrine: For most people surviving a long term event means digging a latrine. Here, D.Q. gives us the best advice for creating safe bathroom facilities for long term TEOTWAWKI.
Feminine Hygiene: The Prepper Journal gives us great advice on preparing for the hygienic needs of women who just happen to make up 50 percent of the population. Men, unless you plan on surviving alone, read this too.
Treating Parasitic Infections: We return to SurvivalBlog again, this time with information about how to treat infections caused by raw sewerage. Remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Lift Station Solution: Finally, as mentioned above, most community sewer systems rely on “lift stations” to move water from your home to the drainage systems. Essentially, it’s moving water and waste from a low point to a higher point where gravity can take over. In an extended power outage, if the residents of populated areas keep using their toilets, they will create a massive backup that could sooner than later flood homes with waste. This will be dangerous and digusting.
Here are two basic steps for keeping your home from experiencing a sewer back up in a grid down situation:
- Don’t flush the toilet. This keeps the systems from back up, but more importantly it should keep your system from pushing and pulling water in. Communities that don’t need lift stations will not have this problem.
- Locate the “clean out” in the front of your home (also known as the “front line clean out” in plumber parlance), and open it up. This will basically make water trying to enter or exit your home’s system exit through the “clean out.” The challenge here is that waste and waste water will flow out into your yard or the street instead of inside your home. Be sure to consult a plumber regarding this tactic.