Why The City Might Be Your Best Bet
February 14, 2011 by David Morris
For the last 15 years or so, the common thought has been that in a disaster situation where there’s a medium to long term breakdown in infrastructure and civil order, the ONLY way to survive is to flee the city, like a dog with its tail between its legs, and hide out in the woods until things get back to normal. This is really dated thinking that ignores history.
Besides the logistics of whether or not you’ve got a fully stocked rural retreat to flee to, or the fact that there’s a good chance that it will be difficult to travel with gridlock and roadblocks, there are several reasons why cities — or urban areas — make good places to stay after a disaster. We’re going to cover five of those today and another five in my next article.
I need to start out by saying city people DO have additional risks that isolated rural dwellers don’t have. Cities are more at risk for terrorist attack, there are more people fighting for fewer resources and there are more possibilities for major accidents that affect hundreds or thousands of people at once. But it’s ironic to note that survival is the very reason why many cities were originally set up. People wanted to set up a common defense, build a marketplace for their goods and have access to people with specialized skills.
What do I mean by urban? Well, by "urban" I mean a few thousand people to a few million people. Basically, it’s any community that shares water/sewer/electricity distribution. With that in mind, here are the first five of my “Top 10 Lies and Half Truths About Urban Survival” and why it may be better for you than a fully stocked rural retreat (in no particular order).
Lie No. 1. I’ll be a sitting duck in my house! After a disaster, if violence is particularly bad, you can rotate a watch without it being too much of a burden on any one family. This concept has been around for generations. Just to be clear, it doesn’t stop crime, it only changes the location where it happens.
If a crackhead needs to steal a TV to support his habit, it’ll just get them to go a block or two away to break into a house and steal someone else’s stuff. Of course, in a disaster situation, many have scaled this up and have multiple roving people covering an entire neighborhood. In the country, there’s just too much space between houses to make this practical. Why? Because in an urban area, one person can watch several houses at one time.
Lie No. 2. With all those people, everything’s going to run out right away. True, but it’s just the first chapter of the story. In the event of a medium- to long-term breakdown in order after a disaster, many people will abandon cities and others will die of shock, medical reasons or violence, leaving a remnant of people who were prepared and can continue/rebuild the economy. Also, at some point, products like fuel, food and other supplies will start being distributed again. If refiners, farmers and other distributors have the option to deliver to one city or 10 towns, they’ll pick the one city. Their cost to deliver goods to only one location will be less AND they’ll probably be able to sell the goods at a premium because of higher demand. The key here is to have enough supplies on hand to make it through the worst part of a civil breakdown situation until resupply begins.
Half-truth No. 3. Everyone in the city will turn on each other. Partially true. I hear people talk about their organized plans to kill, loot and steal from their neighbors way too often. Just yesterday a friend told me how he overheard a group of otherwise rational people talking about how they have their neighborhood mapped out and the houses prioritized according to which ones they’re going to attack first.
This is no joke, and it’s why I cover operational security so much in the “SurviveInPlace” course. I think these people should and will be "taken care of" quickly if they ever start acting on their sick plans. They go against everything that America stands for, and they disgust me.
There is another side to this story… one which has a lot more historical evidence. Think of barn raisings and the ability of a rural community to band together to get a big project done. Now think about how many more people there are in a city than in a rural area and how much easier it would be for any one person to get a group of people together to get a big project done when there are so many more people to ask. (Stop laughing at the thought of city people helping each other.)
Really, stop laughing. The reality is that people don’t tend to help each other like this in urban areas anymore during normal times. But one of the "good" things about disasters and breakdowns in civil order is that while idiots are running amok, good people band together to help each other. It happened after the San Francisco earthquake, 9/11, numerous floods and tornadoes in the Midwest and even after Hurricane Katrina.
In fact, I have a friend who has moved BACK to New Orleans because of what he saw after Katrina. He happened to have friends who lived in a neighborhood that was galvanized by the event. They pulled together and became like a small town community in the middle of all the chaos. He decided that he wanted is family to live in that kind of an environment in the event that another disaster happened.
None of this was in place before Katrina to set this up — it was a neighborhood of strangers living on top of each other, just like most neighborhoods. It just happened that good people decided to take control of the situation in front of them. They had armed checkpoints to get into their neighborhood, they took care of each other and, when things calmed down, they realized that they had turned their neighborhood of strangers into a family.
This was a great case of a group of proactive people doing what was necessary to create a stable micro environment when surrounded by relative chaos. These stable micro environments are exactly what are needed after breakdowns in order to restore order, and prepared people are the most likely ones to make them happen.
Lie No. 4. Only jacks-of-all trades will survive. People with specialized skills will have no use and quickly die: Famous self-reliant author Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers) said that "specialization is for insects," but that’s not entirely true.
A better view on life would be "Jack of all trades, master of ONE." In other words, if you happen to be a surgeon, it’s really not worth your time to change your oil, build a deck, milk a cow or dress and butcher a kill, but you should still know how. A surgeon would be better off learning how to do primitive and handyman skills and then paying someone else to do those he didn’t enjoy so that he had more time to do his specialty — surgery. That way, he can get the most value for his time, contribute the most to society, but still have the primitive and handyman skills to fall back on in an emergency.
No matter what you do, there are going to be tasks that you’re not efficient at. I recently read that the reason why people are so busy in survival situations is because they’re spending all of their time doing things they’re not efficient at, so everything takes two to three times longer to do than it should. In a city, you don’t HAVE to do everything… even if you know how to do it all. There is a ready supply of skilled friends, acquaintances and experts for hire who can do specialized tasks — that you can’t efficiently do — much quicker than you can.
What I do and what I suggest others do is to spend time learning and practicing primitive skills and handyman skills so that you know how to do a wide variety of things if you need to. But, spend the majority of your time getting better at one or two specialties.
There are two reasons for this. First, specializing will make you more valuable to other people. Second, it will be a better use of your time.
As an example, let’s say that you don’t like baking and you’re not particularly good at it, but you want to give your wife a cake for her birthday. You could go to the store and pay $20 for an INCREDIBLE cake, or you could buy all the ingredients for $5 and make it yourself.
By the time you figure in the TIME to go shopping, find the right pans, ingredients and measuring spoons, bake the cake and clean up the mess, if you’re anything like me, you’re looking at two to three hours. So, you traded two to three hours for $15 in savings and essentially made $5-$7.50 per hour. That’s not a very good use of time.
Heck, I could have spent half an hour going door to door until I found someone who needed their lawn mowed for $20, mowed it, bought a cake from the store, and still had an hour or two to enjoy! (Remember… I made the assumption that you don’t like baking and that you’re not good at it. If you love baking and are good at it, then there is surely some other task that you could substitute that would be a better fit for you.)
The other benefit of specialization in urban areas is that it allows for highly skilled people like the surgeon that I mentioned. In a rural area, the surgeon may only get a chance to practice his skill a few times a month. In an urban area, he’ll have the opportunity to hone his skills every day and all of his patients will benefit from his efficiency and expertise. And frankly, if I have critical or life-saving work that needs to be done, I want a specialist around rather than a jack of all trades.
Half-truth No. 5. Sickness will spread like wildfire in cities after a disaster. True, and in the animal kingdom, this is one of the ways that overcrowding is taken care of.
But history shows us that much of the reasons why disease spreads so quickly in urban areas is not only due to population density, but also due to a lack of sun exposure as a result of spending all day indoors. And poor hygiene also factors in. This is something you have control over. Throughout history, the benefits of efficient distribution and a common defense have outweighed the increased dangers of disease spread.
In fact, everything spreads easier in a city, and A HUGE advantage that urban areas have over rural areas is how much more efficient product and information distribution is. A kid on a bike can deliver a few hundred newspapers quickly in a city. Mail can be delivered on foot. Bike messengers can deliver packages and messages quickly. Food and produce can be delivered QUICKLY by hand, foot, vehicle, car, or animal to hundreds of customers without adding much cost to the final buyer.
One of the big problems that we have, both in stable and unstable times, is urban sprawl. By urban sprawl, I’m specifically talking about subdivisions of 1,000 to 3,000 houses with absolutely no grocery, retail or convenience stores except at the entrance from the main road. These are very inefficient setups because they require people to drive for small things like fresh produce, a snack, a missing ingredient for a favorite recipe or a newspaper.
I have a very strong feeling that in a civil breakdown situation, as others abandon their homes in search of greener pastures, many houses in subdivisions like these will turn into markets… regardless of zoning. In other words, if you’ve got a main street through a subdivision that’s a couple miles long, I can see five to 10 of them being changed into convenience stores and, when the season is right, farmer’s markets.
Why do I say this? Because good people always have and always will figure out a way to improvise, adapt, and overcome… and this is a natural solution to a problem that we see in subdivisions in every city in America.
In my next article, I’m going to cover the next five reasons why cities are better than rural areas, about how Chicago is breaking down, and I’ll tell you the reason why gangs of "bad people" won’t be a long-term problem in most cities after civil breakdown.