Aug 032013
 
The redder the state, the happier its people.  The bluer the state, the less happy.

The redder the state, the happier its people. The bluer the state, the less happy.

If you’re considering relocation, wouldn’t it be preferable to locate to where the people are more positive, optimistic, and happy, than somewhere with dour, negative, unhappy people?

Okay, so you might have other issues that you rank higher than a vague ‘happiness’ factor, but in the mythical scenario where all other things are equal, it is something to consider, don’t you think?  A happy community probably has less ‘real’ crime, more complete employment, better services, more honest elected officials, and so on.

If you do agree that happiness is an interesting thing to understand, that rather begs the question ‘so how do you measure happiness’?  The easy answer would seem to be ‘ask people’ but in this modern age, why use an easy approach when there’s a ‘better’ high tech approach?  So a team of researchers at the University of Vermont came up with a list of more than 10,000 words, each one of which it scored as implying happiness or unhappiness, then worked through millions of Twitter tweets, sorted by location, to calculate the relative levels of happiness, as expressed in tweets.

Interestingly, some poor choices for prepper retreats scored highly on the happiness scale (and vice versa).

The happiest five cities were first Napa CA, followed by Idaho Falls ID, Longmont CO, Mission Viejo/Lake Forest/San Clemente CA, and Simi Valley CA.  Other featured cities in the ‘American Redoubt’ included Spokane WA (scoring at 11th place), Nampa ID (41st) and Cour d’Alene ID (109th).

The least happy city (of the 373 evaluated) was Beaumont TX, followed by Albany GA, Texas City TX, Shreveport LA and Monroe LA.

Of course, no prepper would want to move to a city, anyway.  So let’s also look at states.  The five happiest states were Hawaii in first place, followed by Maine, Nevada, Utah and Vermont.  The unhappiest state was Louisiana, followed by Mississippi, Maryland, Delaware and Georgia.  The three core redoubt states scored 7th for Idaho, 10th for Wyoming, and 26th for Montana.

To be fair, there’s not a huge difference in score as between the happiest and least happy states.

Here’s an interesting article that summarizes the findings of the team and also shows international happiness scores, too.  Internationally, based on an OECD survey,  the happiest five countries are Switzerland (happiest) followed by Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark.  The five unhappiest are Hungary (least happy) followed by Portugal, Greece, Turkey and Estonia.  The US placed slightly better than average.

Surprisingly Mexico rated significantly happier than the US, which begs the question ‘If they’re so happy in Mexico, why do they keep coming here?’.  🙂

Aug 022013
 
Beware the lure of foreign countries as a bug-out location.

Beware the lure of foreign countries as a bug-out location.

In theory, a prepper would be most comfortable in a more libertarian environment.  Less government participation in people’s lives implies less to go wrong in the case of some sort of societal collapse, and a more libertarian environment also suggests it would be easier for preppers to quietly prep as they see fit, free of interference or constraint.

Here’s an article on Britain’s Daily Telegraph website that claims to be a guide to the world’s most libertarian countries.

But we have to say we find the countries on the list surprising, and the tests used to determine the most libertarian countries simplistic and inappropriate.

Are we about to suddenly move to North Korea (one of the recommended countries) – or Canada, which is, unbelievably, also on the list?  Not in a million years.  If anything, this article’s selections reads like a list of countries to avoid at all costs.

Maybe the US isn’t such a bad place to live in after all.  In all seriousness, we are all of course most familiar with our own country’s shortcomings and challenges, because we live here.  The grass on the other side can indeed seem greener.  But speaking as one who has lived and worked in other countries, I have to say that while I see our own problems and challenges vividly, I see at least as many everywhere else in the world, too.

In case you can’t see the article, it recommends countries as follows :

(a)  Drug Policies :  Portugal, Czech Republic, North Korea.

(b)  Gay Rights :  Argentina, Netherlands, South Africa

(c)  Prostitution :  Canada, Germany, Netherlands

(d)  Taxes :  Andorra, Monaco, Jersey

(e)  Corruption :  Denmark, New Zealand.  Avoid Russia and Somalia.

Jul 302013
 
A private road to your retreat for sure, but who maintains and repairs the bridge if it fails, and how will you get to/from your retreat if the bridge is out?

A private road to your retreat for sure, but who maintains and repairs the bridge if it fails, and how will you get to/from your retreat if the bridge is out?

Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers releases a report card on the state of the country’s infrastructure, giving grades, state by state, to a number of elements ranging from the quality of drinking water to the number of bridges needing repair, from energy self-sufficiency to schools and parks.

Not much of this has any direct relationship to us as preppers.  But there are some very weak correlations between a state that has a good infrastructure at present and it therefore also being a state which might be able to better withstand stresses to its structure during some sort of disaster, being a state which could manage for a longer time with ‘deferred capital investment and maintenance’ during the period of a Level 2 situation, and being a state which is more likely to recover sooner from whatever the problem was.

Furthermore, all other things being equal, a state with good infrastructure is probably a better run state every which way, and a better choice to live in, both now and in the future.

You can see their entire 2013 report card here.  You should appreciate that this is a group with a vested interest in developing infrastructure, because such activities directly result in more work for their members.  But even after recognizing their bias, it remains true that a state they rate as better than another state truly is better, no matter how actually good or bad each state may be.

Unfortunately, it seems the methodology used to grade the states was possibly inconsistent or maybe just plain incomplete, and not all states were given grades.  This makes it difficult to compare state by state, but you can see some basic facts about each state, both by clicking states from the map on this page and by selecting the states by name after clicking the states label from this page.  It seems that both routes give you the same information, but presented in slightly different formats.

Something to consider when you’re considering what state to locate your retreat in, perhaps.

You also of course need to consider not just about an entire state, but also about the county and local area in which you would locate.  Don’t be like one family we know – they proudly told us of their great retreat location, down a country road well off the main traffic routes.  The only problem?  There was no other road access to the property, and the road to their property included a bridge which was washed out unexpectedly, one spring (note – not the bridge pictures at the top of this article!).

It was six months before the county repaired the bridge!

Jul 242013
 
Do you want your retreat to be in a small town, on its outskirts, or some miles away in empty countryside?

Do you want your retreat to be in a small town, on its outskirts, or some miles away in empty countryside?

Choosing a retreat location is the hardest thing you must do, because there are so many variables, issues, and choices to make.

Furthermore, many of your choices are far from clear-cut.  They depend on things uniquely to do with you, your circumstances, and to do with the areas you are considering, and require you to make difficult value judgments where a choice for something might then impact on your ability to also optimize some other important feature.

This all makes it difficult for you, and of course, difficult for those of us who try to write on the topic too!  But write we do; indeed this article means we now have over 90,000 words already published about choosing a retreat location (more than a full-sized book), and there’s plenty more still to write.

This article can be considered as a follow on from several other articles that directly or obliquely consider the choice between an in-town or out-in-the-country type location.  See, for example, our two-part series, Identifying Good Towns and The Robustness of a Town’s Services, plus articles such as Where to Locate Within a Town, The Importance of Good Nearby Neighbors and Will Your Nearby Town Thrive, Survive or Fail.

In this article we identify some of the respective good and bad points associated with living either in a rural area far from other people, or in a more concentrated population cluster such as a small town.  You can decide on the relative importance of these things, we simply offer them up for your consideration.

Positive Aspects of Town Living Negative Aspects of Town Living
  • You become a member of a local community, and with a group of people in the town, can select your friends and fellow community members from a larger group of people to choose from
  • If the town groups together constructively, there is better mutual security – ‘safety in numbers’ and with help closer at hand in an emergency
  • Probably have some community services such as medical, law enforcement, fire, water, sewer
  • Probably have businesses providing all sorts of commercial services – eg electrical and mechanical maintenance, plumbing, etc
  • Most places you need to go to will be within walking distance
  • A group of people in one location aids effective trading – buying, selling, exchanging, bartering
  • It is harder to quality control your neighbors (and their neighbors, too) and you are more impacted by them and their actions
  • Some locals may pose present threats, others may become troublesome WTSHTF
  • An unknown number of people will be truly prepared, and an unknown but greater number may become dependent on you WTSHTF
  • A greater population density and more frequent interactions with other people makes it easier for epidemics to spread
  • A town is unlikely to be self-sufficient for food, and unlikely to be able to become so in the future (too many people, too little land)
  • You have much less privacy of any type in a town
  • The desirability to be discreet about your resources and capabilities and the lack of privacy will pose problems, for example, with antenna arrays, making your dwelling structure bullet proof, etc
  • Smaller sized lots make it more difficult to use them for many different purposes
  • Land prices are higher, limiting the amount of land you can buy in a town
  • Land taxes are probably higher than in the country too
  • Local city bylaws are probably going to be more restrictive in many respects (some possibly unexpected).  In particular, you can forget any opportunity to use firearms for any purpose on your town lot, and may have major restrictions on the fuel you can store
  • City laws (and laws in general) may be more aggressively enforced with a city police force and less ability to do things unobserved
  • A town’s services may fail WTSHTF and make the town less viable without the services than the countryside would be (never having the services in the first place).  For example, most country folk have their own septic systems, what do townsfolk do when their town sewer system fails?
  • You probably can’t hunt or fish or raise livestock on your town property; even if you could, just how much game do you expect to find in your back yard?
  • Might not even be allowed/able to collect rainwater from your roof.  Where else/how else would you get water in a town?
  • Less space for solar arrays, probably no chance of hydro, probably little/no chance of wind power
  • Impractical to consider activities that generate significant noise or smells
  • Towns are more likely to organize formal food sharing (ie confiscation) type programs in an emergency.  They have an additional level of government (city govt) and a significant concentration of people needing food.

Positive Aspects of Rural Living

Negative Aspects of Rural Living
  • Free of direct/immediate issues from neighbors, who are probably sufficiently distant to give you much greater privacy and to have less mutual impacts on what you and they do
  • Lower population density and fewer interactions with other people reduce the spread of epidemics
  • Your neighbors (and you too) are all more likely to be already self-sufficient in terms of food production
  • You may even have a chance to start growing food surpluses to trade with others
  • Because everyone was not relying on city services (eg water, sewer) to start with, WTSHTF you will all be less impacted
  • Land prices are lower – you can buy more land for the same money as less land in a town would cost
  • Land taxes are probably lower than in the city too
  • More land gives you more space for everything, and a greater amount of land spreads your risk of unexpected events over a broader area, hopefully making such events less impactful
  • With more space, costing less money, and more private, you can set up all sorts of things ranging from private gun ranges to antenna arrays to more extensive cultivation of many different crops to safety and privacy zones
  • You have the space for extensive solar arrays, might possibly be able to implement a micro-hydro system, and maybe add a wind turbine too
  • You can consider activities that are noisy or smelly or in some other way would be too attention-getting or objectionable in town (eg methane gas generation from cow dung)
  • You’re more likely to have a solution already in place for water
  • Fewer (or no) restrictions on hunting and fishing and livestock raising on your land
  • Easier to build structures with non-standard construction eg for fire-proof and ballistic protection and to erect obstacles against vehicular assault
  • Less likely to have as much county government interference as city folks do with both city and county government, and more able to live your life discreetly
  • Larger lots allow for inefficient but beneficial land uses such as forestry and harvesting trees for both construction materials and firewood/energy
  • Your nearest neighbors are probably too far away to be able to provide immediate urgent assistance in an emergency
  • Even communicating with neighbors may become difficult if cell phones and landlines fail
  • Might not have high-speed internet and state of the art cell-phone and data service
  • Although neighbors are far and few, you are more dependent on additional people to manage and secure a larger lot than you are in a town
  • There is probably less of a community spirit, and a smaller potential community anyway, at least within a few hours walk/bicycle/horse ride
  • There is a lack of convenient local services.
  • Nothing will be a short walk away, and if liquid fueled internal combustion powered vehicles become impractical in the future, distances will become a major problem

Towns Aren’t All Bad

Wow – looking at the imbalance between the pluses and minuses of town and rural life would seem to suggest that everyone should choose a rural location for their retreat.

But not all the bullet points are of equal importance, and you need to do more than just count bullet points.  You need to decide which are the most important factors for you, and whether you can minimize the negatives that inevitably are associated with any set of positives.

We provide considerable more detail on the brief bullet points we offer above in other articles on these topics.  We linked, above, to some of our other articles about town vs country living, and you can also visit our complete collection of retreat location themed articles here.

Summary

The difficult art of choosing an ideal location for your retreat involves trading off the pluses and minuses of each issue you need to consider.

To help you understand and evaluate the consequences of your choices, we’ve listed almost 50 different factors to consider when trying to select between a town or rural retreat location.

Jul 172013
 
How do you know what makes a town a good location for your country town retreat?

How do you know what makes a town a good location for your country town retreat?

You already know that your retreat should be far from a big city, but what about small towns?  We’ve written before on the subject of being close to a suitable ‘good’ small town (see ‘The Importance of Good Nearby Neighbors and Small Towns‘ and ‘Will Your Nearby Town Thrive, Survive or Fail WTSHTF‘, but we’ve not really considered the issue of actually living in a small town.  Hence this article.

In this first part of the article, we talk about the differences between what we view as ‘good’ towns and those we view as ‘bad’ towns’.  In the second part of the article, we talk about the measuring a town by the robustness of the services it provides.

There are several issues to consider when deciding if you want to live in or close to a small town.  The first issue of course is identifying suitable small towns.  But what makes a town suitable?  In the second of the two articles above we lightly touch on one measure of suitability – whether a town is likely to remain a viable and close to self-supporting entity in a future Level 2 or 3 situation.

That is indeed an important consideration – a town that will collapse when society collapses is nothing more than an instant gang of marauders inconveniently living right next to you; whereas a town that can survive with only moderate impairment is a positive resource that can add to your own chances of surviving.

There are other considerations too.  Two very obvious additional considerations are :

Location and Size

Similar considerations that apply to your choice of a location for your (possibly remote/rural) retreat apply to your choice of a town to live in.

You don’t want the town to be too close to a major city, indeed, if anything, you want a town to be further away from a major city than would be the case for a rural retreat.  This is because towns are like beacons, calling to people.  They are names and places on maps, whereas individual retreat properties are vague amorphous things with nothing to identify themselves on a map (unless it has aerial photography!).  It is conceivable that refugees will think ‘I’ll leave my big city and travel to this small town – I remember driving through it once and it seemed like a friendly nice little place, I’m sure they’ll welcome me and look after me there’.

So, more distance than for a rural retreat and/or some geographical barriers are definitely called for when considering a town’s location.  We discuss this further in our article on Transportation and Roading Implications of a Retreat Location.

You don’t want the town to be bisected by a freeway or in any other way be part of a major throughway that you can expect refugees and marauders to be traveling along.

You want the town’s population to be bigger than very small but smaller than very big.  Let’s try to be a bit more specific.  You want a town to be at least a couple of hundred people in size.  Any smaller than that, and it isn’t so much a ‘town’ as it is a semi-random grouping of people living close to each other.  There are less likely to be existing town services, and less of a feeling of belong to a specific township in the minds of the residents.

In somewhat irrelevant support of that, in Montana cities can’t incorporate unless they have more than 300 residents.  In case you’re wondering how it is you’ve seen some much smaller incorporated towns and cities, that is because they don’t have to automatically disincorporate if their population dwindles below 300 – the smallest incorporated town in Montana has fewer than 100 residents.

So, ideally, you want to set about 200 people as the lower limit for a viable/suitable sized town.  At the other end of the scale, once you start to go over 1,000 residents, the feeling of connectedness starts to weaken.  People become more individually anonymous and therefore also less individually accountable for themselves and for the town as a whole.  In a town of a few hundred residents, pretty much everyone knows everyone else, but once you grow from a few hundred to a few thousand, that is no longer the case.

One important thing about measuring the population of a town – if there are population clusters living in unincorporated county land close to the town, those people may identify themselves as residents of the town and will of course be part of the town’s economic base, even though they don’t live in the town as such.  Similarly, two towns very close to each other tend to coalesce into one larger whole – even if both are small and there’s a mile or two between them, residents will of course happily travel to one or the other for their shopping and other needs.

The Differences between a Town and a Group of People Living Closely Together

Here’s an interesting way of distinguishing a collection of people who just happen to live closely together from a ‘real’ town.  A ‘real’ town is more likely to have some sort of public/community amenity – a park, a statue, a town hall, something like that.  Even if it ‘just’ has a church, it has some type of focal point for the population, and the people have shown themselves to recognize the township as something more than just a semi-random grouping of people who happen to be living in close proximity to each other.

Maybe the town has a 4H chapter, or a Masonic Lodge, or some other sort of social cornerstone as well.  A Chamber of Commerce is another good sign.  For that matter, even a local bar/tavern/restaurant is at least a place where locals can go and do a bit of socializing.

Something else that distinguishes a town from a mere grouping of people living close to each other – a volunteer fire department (or a full-time one), or any other type of community service like that.  Let’s also not forget a public library – ideally in its own building rather than a truck that visits once a week.

Does the town have its own newspaper, or radio station, or even television station?  If it does, that is better than if it doesn’t (although with the small-sized towns we’re most interested in, it is unlikely they’ll have their own radio/tv station; and any newspaper is probably a weekly rather than daily).

You want to find a town where there is a sense of community identity, and ideally community spirit and community pride too.  This helps to subtly make the people in the town feel accountable to each other and their community, and modifies their behavior in a positive way.  It also encourages people to ‘fight’ for their town – not in a literal sense (well, not in normal times, anyway) and encourages them to make some effort to help preserve and protect the town from problems.  Because part of protecting the town is protecting the townsfolk, in these types of town, people are likely to be more helpful to each other, and more willing to help out.

Some people might consider seeing neighborhood watch signs an indication of positive community involvement, but we don’t think they are either as relevant or as common in small towns as they are in large cities, and we’ve seen little clear evidence suggesting that neighborhood watch groups actually signify or do much at all in communities of any size.

Another perspective is that small towns tend to be more crime free to start with, and the criminals are better known – there’s less need for a neighborhood watch group, and if there is, perhaps it denotes as much overly officious nosiness as it does a sense of protective community.

A Suitable Town Should Have Some Viable Industry or Shops or Services

You want a town that has some local industry and commerce and services.  Some towns seem to be nothing more than a clustering of houses with almost no stores or anything else.  Other towns have a surprising amount of retail stores, multiple gas stations, and other service providers.

A town with some commerce is better than one with too much or too little.  You know, for example, that the gas stations will be out of business very quickly if society collapses.  The big box super-store will also disappear when it can no longer get its daily deliveries of goods to sell, leaving a bunch of employees without work.  But a small country store or butcher shop or something like that – hopefully those sorts of places can transition to become intermediaries in the new economy after TSHTF and will continue to provide valuable services to both food providers/sellers and food consumers/buyers.

A post-collapse town will need to be able to adjust to a new economy which will be much more focused on trading with local farmers, and providing services to the town’s residents and nearby rural farmers.  Some types of service based businesses (especially low-tech ones) will be able to continue as before, others might be able to adapt to provide slightly different services that will become more in need.

Quality as Well as Quantity of Residents

We don’t mean to sound elitist when we offer up this section heading, but the clear truth is there’s a world of difference between a prosperous thriving town of 500 people, with well maintained streets and buildings, and high levels of income and education on the one hand, and a moribund decaying town of 500 people, with empty boarded up buildings and those still inhabited in a poor state of repair, and a massively greater than normal level of unemployment with few college graduates, on the other hand.

Which would you rather live in?  Of course, the former.

Sometimes the difference between one town and another is massively obvious the minute you drive into the town.  We can think of one town in MT in particular where the only local resident seemed to be an aggressively prowling policeman in his cruiser, looking for revenue opportunities – understandable, perhaps, because there’s no way a town of not quite 1000 residents can afford their own police department unless the department is charged with generating as much revenue as possible, ideally from non-residents.

You want to be careful if considering a town that is also the county seat.  It will have a disproportionate number of local government employees, all desperate to do something, and not otherwise contributing to the local economy.  When TSHTF, these people will need to redefine their jobs and seek new income sources to keep themselves paid, and will instinctively want to use their government authority to ‘take control’ of the problem and manage any ‘solutions’.

With all due respect to such people, let’s just say there’s an appreciable risk that their ideas of a solution, and their need to levy other people to support themselves, may not coincide with your own ideas.

Political Leanings

We know this is a bad measure to use, but we’d try to get precinct level voting records for the last few elections to see not just how the various congressional districts and counties voted, but also in more detail, how people specifically in the town itself voted.  The problem with county level voting records is that there can often be a difference in voting in different parts of the county, the more detailed you can get your information, the better.  If there were any ballots or initiatives, that will give you a feeling about how the town feels about things, and of course, the Presidential elections are another good bell-weather measure of political feelings.

We’ll let you decide for yourself which views are the views you’d like to be surrounded by!

If time allows, attend a public meeting or two.  Have a look on the notice boards at the library and at other public places and see what sorts of issues (if any) might be gripping the population at present and get a sense for the general feeling of people about these things.

Read back issues of whatever newspapers service the town, so you can get more of an idea about what challenges the town faces and how they confront these challenges.  It is amazing how quickly you can form a reasonably accurate understanding of a town, just by reading through a few back issues of the local newspaper.

Growing, Stable, or Shrinking?

We don’t like extremes.  We don’t like a town that is growing too fast, because such growth is usually the result of people moving to the town from elsewhere, and we’ve no way of knowing if those people will be adding to or detracting from the town’s identity, independence, political perspective, and so on.

A rapidly growing town is a rapidly changing town, and not only do we not like extremes, we also don’t like rapid change and the unknowns it presents.  Rapidly growing towns also often seem to be imbued with a desire to turn their back on their rural roots and to become ‘more civilized’ – an attribute which, to us, is not always a desirable one.

Furthermore, if you buy a lot in a growing town, you might find the density of residents around you increasing, with neighbors subdividing or building additional structures on their lots.

Rapidly growing towns also always seem to be placing pressure on their infrastructure and services, and on their roading and traffic capacities.

On the other hand, a shrinking town is not a nice place to be, either.  There are two sorts of shrinking towns – ones which have been reducing in size steadily for the last decade or two, and then there are the ones that had a single event at some point in the past which massively impacted on the town’s economy.  The closing of a timber mill or a mine; the coming of a freeway that took away all the through traffic, something like that.  A town that was once much bigger, but which shrunk in size 50 or more years ago but now is stable or slowly growing again is much more preferable than a town that is diminishing at present.

There are lots of problems with towns that are shrinking.  The town itself looks dismal and forlorn, with boarded up buildings and empty streets.  Furthermore, the last thing to shrink in any town are the municipal employees, making for top-heavy local government and greater costs together with under-employed people keen to justify their non-essential jobs.

While property prices are often low, they may also continue to go lower, which is not something you’d want.

Our favorite types of towns are ones that are slowly growing, more or less in line with the growth in the county and state and nation as a whole.  Our entire economy is based on an (often unstated) expectation of gradual growth, and if there is slight growth, then that equates to prosperity.  New businesses will occasionally start up, current businesses will see increasing amounts of business, and everyone feels pleased and happy.  They want to protect their prosperity much more than people in a shrinking town, where many people are, either openly or privately, debating as to whether and when they too will leave the town.  There’s much less community identification in the shrinking town.

Judging a Town by its Traffic Management

In our opinion, another measure of a town’s suitability is to look for stop lights.  If a town has stop lights, that either means it has more traffic than you’d be comfortable with, or an overly controlling mentality that seeks to regulate and protect its citizens from each other.  If it just has stop signs (or not even that) you’re in a town that doesn’t have as much traffic, isn’t as self-important, and which trusts its citizens to be sensible and sane.

Some towns are proud of the fact they have no stop lights, whereas we suspect some are proud that they are now big and important enough to have one (or more).  We’d prefer to be in the town that proudly delays getting stop lights as long as possible.

Okay, the presence or lack of stop lights is probably not the most important issue to consider, but it provides another perspective on the social values of the town.

Read More in Part 2

Please now continue on to the second part of this article – Evaluating the Robustness of a Town’s Services, for a discussion of twelve more factors to consider when choosing a town for your retreat.

Jul 172013
 
The proximity of fire and paramedic services is an important consideration when evaluating potential towns for your retreat.

The proximity of fire and paramedic services is an important consideration when evaluating potential towns for your retreat.

This is the second part of a two-part article about choosing an appropriate town to live in as a retreat location.  If you’ve arrived directly here from a search engine or website link, you might wish to read the first part ‘Identifying Good Towns‘ before then continuing on to read this second part.

When you’re choosing a rural retreat, you have little expectation of having much in the way of utilities available at the retreat.  Ideally you might be able to get some electricity run to the property, but that is about all.  But when you’re in a town, you have a much greater expectation of available services.  Furthermore, depending on the robustness of the services, the town – and its other, less well prepared residents – may be able to cope with a collapse of society to a better or worse extent.

There are several key services a town may provide its citizens, or, if not directly providing, may provide the focal point to encourage some outside provider to participate.

The most important services would be water, sewer, electricity, gas, phone, internet, and transportation.  Let’s briefly consider each of these.

Water

Does the town provide water or does each house have to make its own arrangements?  If the town does provide water, does it require electricity for any part of the process?

If the water comes from a stream/river/reservoirs ‘up there’ and is gravity fed all the way to your tap, then that is hopefully (but not definitely) able to continue operating if the power fails.  But if the water comes up from a well, then goes through a processing plant, you have electric motors driving the pumps to lift the water from the well, to send it through the processing plant, and then on to your house.

If the town does provide water, are you able to also store rainwater on your property, or dig your own well, too?

Sewer

Smaller towns probably require everyone to use septic tanks, and that’s a very robust solution.  If you buy a property with an existing septic system, we’d consider extending it, and then pumping it more regularly than needed, so if society collapses, you’ve got a good many years out of your system before it needs to be attended to in the future.

There are different types of septic systems.  Some are gravity fed, others need pumps to distribute the sewage.  Ideally you’d want to have a system that does not require electricity to operate.  Not only does this reduce your dependence on electricity, it is one less thing to go wrong and need maintaining.  If you do have an electric system, it would be ideal if you had a holding tank that could be filled and then the pump activated to process/distribute the contents on an occasional basis – that way you could run your generator briefly to power the pump once a day or whatever, rather than needing power 24/7.

If the town does provide sewer services, you should again understand what happens if the power fails.  Maybe you want to have your own septic system (if you are allowed, of course) even though the town provides a sewer service.

Electricity

Some towns and counties have their own PUDs that provide electricity to the community.   That is maybe nice, but largely irrelevant; what is more important is where does whatever utility provider you will be relying on for electricity get their electricity from?

Ideally, they have a hydro-electric power station all of their own, that provides all their power and more besides (which they sell on to other utility companies).  Less ideally, they buy hydro-electric power from some other company.  Very unusually, they might have their own nuclear power generating facility.  Still less ideally, they generate their own power, but from oil, gas, or coal.  Least ideally, they just buy power as a commodity on the open market from whoever, wherever, they can get power from.

The reason for the variation in desirability is the degree of independence/dependence this gives the utility.  If they buy power from somewhere else, then when the grid goes down, they’ll be out of luck and so too will you.  If they generate their own power from oil/gas/coal, then they’ll again be out of luck as soon as their supply of fuel is exhausted (and that could be in as short a time as a few days, even less with natural gas coming straight from a pipeline).

If they contract with another nearby utility to take some of their spare hydro-power, then that may possibly continue, although we’d expect to see the state or federal government take control of any surplus power generating and repurpose it as they see fit.  Of course, if the national grid fails, then the nearby utility could hopefully still provide power to your utility and wouldn’t have other competing utilities across the country competing for the power.

If the utility has their own hydro-power, then that will hopefully continue more or less intact, at least until such stage as the turbines can no longer be maintained.  That option gives you the best chance of ongoing electricity.

Gas

Natural gas is great stuff, and for the foreseeable future is likely to be the cheapest energy source available in much of North America.  If your town has natural gas available, you are fortunate, and should make full use of it during normal times.

But in a Level 2/3 situation, we expect that the natural gas pipelines will quickly fail.  They rely on computer controlled switching and pumping, so if the computers fail or the electricity fails at any point from well head to your home, the gas supply will either massively degrade or fail too.

So you can’t rely on gas in an emergency, but you can enjoy it during the good times.

Phone

It would be really nice if your town had its own ‘central office’ or telephone exchange.  That way, even if the broader telephone network fails, maybe your local central office can continue working and can provide phone communications within your local town.  The older fashioned it is, the better.  Wires strung on poles (or underground), and stepper/rotary switches in the exchange would be our idea of perfection.

Of course, you’ll also want cell phone service too, and hopefully with fast data, but that’s something for modern-day living while society continues to function, and will quickly fail when society fails.

Internet

Of course you want internet service for the present, and equally of course you have to expect to lose it when society fails.

Transportation

If your town has bus service, then it is too big!  You want to be able to walk from where you would live to the downtown area, and to anywhere else you’re likely to want to go in the town, too.

Ideally your town is also fairly flat, so you can not only walk, you can also cycle.

One thing that would be nice is proximity to a rail line.  When we look at the history of this and other countries, we are struck by the fact that trains preceded cars.  Of course, part of the reason is that steam locomotives were developed before internal combustion powered vehicles, but another part of the reason is that train transportation is incredibly efficient in terms of energy consumption and a great way of moving large quantities of people and things, long distances.

Our guess is that if we see a long-term Level 3 disaster, train service will be restored much sooner than road service.  Does that mean you should include a fully restored coal or wood burning steam loco, a couple of carriages and a couple of freight wagons as part of your preps?  If you can, we’d urge you to – become a new ‘railroad baron’ in the new world that would follow. 🙂

Back to what is achievable and relevant for most of us, suffice it to simply say that it would be nice but not essential to be either on or close to a rail line that is currently in use and not slated for closure in the foreseeable future.

As for road transportation, the town should ideally be on a secondary road and it would be better if it were on a spur rather than a throughway that has more traffic on it.  If it is on a throughway, it would be helpful if there were some hills on one side of the town that would act as a geographical barrier in the future, and another town reasonably readily reachable on the non-barrier side.

Other Types of Services

The preceding services were all to do with ‘things’.  How about also some services to do with people.  For example, police, fire, and medical.

Let’s consider those types of services too.

Police

We’re in two minds if having a city police department is a good thing or not.  Many smaller towns contract either with the country sheriff, or alternatively, with another nearby town or city.

This can save a great deal of money compared to the cost of having to establish their own department, and also gives the town access to ‘surge’ strength and a share of things that it would otherwise have to create entirely.  For example, instead of needing its own bomb department or SWAT team, it would have access to such things maintained by the law enforcement agency the town contracted with.  Even things like detectives might not be needed on a full-time basis by a small town, and so being able to get ‘half’ a detective is an efficient way of proceeding.

On the other hand, in a small town, the police are more directly accountable to the people they serve.  Hopefully most officers live in the town, whereas if you’re contracting with a larger county or city department, maybe none of the officers live in the town, so rather than reflecting the town’s values in their approach to policing, they’re imposing their outside values.

At what size does it make economic sense for a town to have its own police department?  That’s hard to say.  A town of 1000 – 2000 will almost always find it better value to contract from a larger department; and perhaps we can stop at that point, because if your town is much bigger than 2,000 people, we suggest it is starting to become less desirable because it is becoming ‘too big’.

While it is nice to have your own police department in your own town, the smaller the town, the greater the probable cost of this ‘luxury’ item, and/or the more aggressive the police department may be in ticketing people for violations so as to pay their way and protect their jobs.

Fire

Many small towns will have a volunteer fire brigade, and might call volunteers by something as simple as a siren that sounds in the middle of the town.

The problem with this arrangement is that it adds several minutes to the time it takes to get a fire truck to your property and fighting your fire, and if you’ve ever seen a fire take hold of a property, you’ll know that several minutes can mean the difference between a salvageable fire and needing to tear down the ruins and rebuild from scratch.

On the other hand, of course, your retreat property should not be a fire risk to start with.  You should build the exterior of it from a fireproof material; that’s not to say that your interior won’t be at potential risk of fire, but if all the fire can burn are interior furnishings, it won’t run away so severely, and if you have some decent hoses and water pressure, you can probably slow if not completely stop the fire until/before help arrives.

Insurance rates will probably be higher if you have a volunteer fire department.  But land taxes may be more if you have to pay for a full-time fire department.  Prevention is better than cure, though, so we’d prefer to pay a bit more for at least a core basic full-time fire department, but don’t consider it too serious a downcheck if the town doesn’t have one.

Medical

There are several things to consider under the medical heading.  Where would the nearest paramedics come from in an emergency, and then where would they take you after they’d arrived – ie, where is the nearest hospital?

Some towns have regional medical centers in them.  This is an enormous plus for a town, because you not only have the building and resources, you have the medical staff too.  In a crisis, your town will have an abundance of medical professionals residing within it.

Remember that with a stroke your chance of survival diminishes by about 10% for each minute it takes for paramedics to get to you and restart your breathing.  You want to have paramedic service in the town or not far out of it if at all possible.

Education

If you have, or plan to have, school age children, the presence of local schools will of course be an important factor to consider.  Even if you don’t have children, a town with decent education standards is more likely to have decent people than a town which places little importance on that.

On a related subject, have a look at the demographics of the town – its ‘age pyramid’.  You want a town with a reasonable share of younger people, rather than one comprising predominantly middle-aged and older people.  Without young people, the town has no rejuvenation and no future.

Churches

If attending church is something you wish to do, you’ll want to see the choice of churches that might be available to you in the town and its immediate surroundings.

Some people might suggest you can get a feeling for the ‘soul’ of a town by its churches, that may also be true, although it might be hard to evaluate short of spending time attending several churches to form your own direct impressions.

Summary

This was the second part of a two-part article about choosing an appropriate town to live in as a retreat location.  If you’ve not already done so, we suggest you also read the first part of the article – ‘Identifying Good Towns‘.

A logical next point in your research would be our article ‘Where to Locate Within a Town‘.

Jul 172013
 
Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Small towns can be a viable alternative location for your retreat if you have the relevant skills to survive in a town.

Maybe you’ve decided that town living is a better choice for you.  There’s nothing wrong with that decision.

Many of us have little ability or interest in a farming lifestyle, and particularly if we have some other type of non-farming/rural talent or ability we can use to survive on in the future, it not only becomes sensible for us to consider living in a town, it becomes essential, because the town contains the concentration of people needed to be your future customers.

There’s no need to feel like you’re becoming a second-class prepper by not buying a dozen acres in the middle of nowhere and becoming totally self-sufficient, because in reality, the concept of living by yourself, and being fully self-sufficient, is an impossibility to start with.  The solitary farming family will need help in many different aspects of their life, plus they’ll need people to trade with – to sell the surplus food they’ve grown themselves, and to buy other food items to supplement the diet of their own food.

That has been the historical role of towns since mankind stopped being nomadic hunter gatherers and started to settle on land.  The towns provide a focus for the farmers around them, and the supplemental services and support the farmers need.

As towns grew larger, they started to then add extra people and extra services for the existing townsfolk as well as for the farmers nearby, and then of course, with the industrial revolution, towns started to be centers for factories, and so it went from there to the mega-millions of people in some of our massive sprawling cities of today.

But, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, towns will revert back to essentially being support resources for the surrounding farmers, and you’ll want to either have something that farmers will want/need, or something that the other people in the town will want/need.  There will only be a reduced level of trade between nearby towns, and almost no trade with more distant locations, because transport will become expensive, slow, difficult and probably dangerous.

House or Apartment?  Big or Small Lot?

So, do you want to have an apartment above a store on the main street of the town?  A condo in a block of condos?  A house on a 1/8th acre lot a street back from the main street?  A house on a 1/4 acre lot several streets back from the main street?  Or a house on a one acre lot more or less at the town limits?

As a rule of thumb, the closer to the town center, the smaller your lot will be.  Of course, lot size is probably not your prime consideration, but we’d suggest you should consider this somewhat, and in particular, we’d urge you to consider having a freestanding dwelling rather than a condo/apartment/townhouse.

We’re not saying you need a large house – a smaller house would be fine, but you should probably allow for being able to accept some ‘guests’ who will want to join you WTSHTF.  A spare bedroom or two might be much appreciated by all.  Generally you want to choose an average sort of house consistent with its surrounding houses – ‘security by obscurity’ in a sense.

Having your own freestanding dwelling on your own lot gives you much more security, independence and privacy than sharing a structure and common areas and land with others, and in an uncertain future, you’ve no idea who might be living next to you.  The ability to have a buffer zone between your residence and the next residence/street gives you a very slight warning and a ‘no-man’s land’ where you can choose how to respond to unwanted visitors with less than lethal force.  When they’re breaking down your door – or, even worse, coming at you through the shared common wall with the adjoining apartment – your options are much more limited!

You can also use the land around your residence to erect a ‘garden shed’ or two in which you can store additional supplies and materials, in addition to whatever is in your home itself.  If you have your own land, you can have your own septic tank, or at the very least, dig a privy.

Talking about such things, some distance also gives you a sanitary/quarantine gap from your neighbors as well.  High density housing combined with a failure of services such as water and sewer is a huge invitation for dysentery and all sorts of other nasty diseases to spread like wildfire; and in a situation with diminished healthcare resource and fewer modern medications, what is currently inconvenient can quickly become lethal.

It also gives you a firebreak.  With the loss of public water services, fires can be harder to fight, and spread quickly between nearby buildings.  Ideally, of course, you’ll be able to modify the house you buy to ‘harden’ it against fire, or, even better, you will get an empty lot so you can build a house the way you want it, right from the start.

When you’re very close to your neighbors, and especially if you’re sharing a common structure, you’re beholden to them and you will be vulnerable to the consequences of their mistakes.

Your own extra space does a lot more than insulate you from the mistakes of your neighbors.  You have some space to set out some solar cells (in addition to whatever might be on your roof, or perhaps instead of being on your roof, so as not to draw attention to yourself).  You also have space for a generator and can park several vehicles securely.

Talking about being insulated from your neighbors, we’d urge you to avoid any type of property that is subject to a Home Owners’ Association, and be very wary of any attached covenants, codes and restrictions.  Home Owners’ Associations can run amok and cause no end of problems to people like ourselves – people who may not be willing to conform to the most excessively politically correct mandates of the HOA.

Not only do you want to avoid the constraints of an HOA, you want to have a moderate amount of privacy on your lot – you don’t want to be looking out your living room windows and straight into your neighbor’s living room, and so on.

If you have your own freestanding dwelling structure, you also have your own roof, and so you can collect rainwater from it without any complicating factors.  You can fireproof the structure too, and – while you’re at it – also make it ballistically stronger.

Even Non-Gardeners Should Have a (Small) Garden

One more thing about having some land.  Yes, you’ve already decided you’re not going to live a life as a rural farmer, spending all days doing back-breaking work in the fields.

But we’d urge you to have a few rows of veggies in your back yard, or perhaps erect a small greenhouse (then you can even raise plants up off the ground and not have to bend over so much).  Even a small bit of food independence (or, more accurately, less food dependence) might make a lot of difference when things get really tight and really tough.  Grow some easy, resilient, fun things.

You’re growing such things to supplement your other food and income, rather than to survive from, and if you grow some non-standard food items, you might find them much appreciated by other people, too.

So, one of the framing factors in your location choice within the town will be the varying costs of having some land together with a freestanding dwelling – how much you feel you need and how much you can afford.

Having acknowledged that, you should choose a place as centrally located as possible.  Sure, convenience is a good thing, and the ability to only walk for three or four minutes to get to your nearby Starbucks store in the morning is definitely a plus – well, okay then, maybe you’ve found the one town in the US that doesn’t yet have a Starbucks or analogous coffee shop.  🙂

For sure, you need to plan your future based on walking or riding a bicycle wherever you go in town, rather than driving a car.

Security Issues

There’s another reason for choosing to be close in to the center of the town as well.  If your town gets attacked by marauding bandits, two things will happen.

First, unlike the wild west movies we see, the bad guys won’t ride into the middle of the main street, a yelling and a hollering as they come, then shoot up everything they see, then ride out of town again.  Whereas, in the movies, the center of town seems to always be the most dangerous spot, in real life, we think it will be the safest.

Just like German U-boats against convoys in WW2 that would pick off the stragglers – the bad guys will attack, by stealth, the furthest out properties – the ones in the sort of grey zone where lot sizes have got larger, houses are further apart, and if you didn’t know the official city boundary line, you’d not be sure if they were in the town or not.

The second thing that will happen is a response to the first.  Outlying residents will come in to the center of the town for protection, and at the same time, the people who live closer in will band together to protect themselves – and themselves only.

The city limits sign will have no meaning.  The townsfolk in the center of the town will band together and protect only the inner enclave of their town.  This will be the area where an attack on one building is ‘dangerously close’ to other nearby buildings, such that the neighbors feel they have to help defend.  When the population density thins out some, if one building is attacked, neighbors will either cower under the kitchen table or run away, but when the population density rises, neighbors will feel that it is safer to help repulse the attackers, because they’ll perceive the direct danger to themselves much more starkly.

We’ve also seen analogous examples of this in history too – towns where the inner part was defended by a city wall, and the outer part – outside the city wall, was on their own.

Okay, we know our advice seems contradictory.  On the one hand, you want to have a reasonable lot size, and a bit of privacy and buffer zone between you and the neighbors.  On the other hand, you want to be close in to the town center for security and safety.  Where do you compromise?  That really depends on the layout of the town (and your budget).

When we talk about town layout we don’t just mean the streets and houses and plat maps, although that is of course relevant.  We also mean the ways in and out of the town, and any geographic buffers/barriers that might provide protection – rivers and hills, for example.

Clearly, attackers will be very likely to approach from some directions and less likely to approach from others.  This isn’t a military campaign, they are looking for ‘low-lying fruit’ and will leave difficult situations well alone (because there will be plenty of low lying fruit).  So consider degrees of risk when choosing your location in a town, although the most important thing to appreciate is that if/when threatened, the town will ‘shrink in’ on itself, and only the dense central area will end up with the residents effectively uniting against external problems.

Summary

If you have a skill that can be used in a rural town after WTSHTF, then by all means plan your prepping on the basis of setting up your retreat in a town.

We discuss how to choose a suitable town separately.  Once you have chosen a suitable town, in this article we explain where in the town is best to locate yourself.

Jun 272013
 
The effects of the bomb at Hiroshima were greatly magnified by the flimsy construction methods used in the city.  The few buildings constructed to western standards proved comparatively robust.

The effects of the bomb at Hiroshima were greatly magnified by the flimsy construction methods used in the city. The few buildings constructed to western standards proved comparatively robust.

This is the first part of a two-part article about surviving nuclear blasts.  In this first part, we look at the immediate effects of nuclear blasts, in the second part, we will look at longer term effects.

Few things are more horrific in many people’s minds than the thought of being close to a nuclear explosion.  Some people have gone to great lengths, constructing massive bunkers/shelters in their basements, to do what they believe may be necessary to optimize their chances of survival in such cases.  But – two questions :  Are such things really necessary?  And, if they are necessary, will they truly protect you?

Sure, we agree that ground zero would not be a nice place to be at, but the horror and the power of nuclear weapons are often overstated and misunderstood – especially by the ‘anti-nuke’ campaigners; oh yes, and by bunker salesmen, too!  So, let’s first investigate the question – how survivable is a nuclear explosion, and then in a subsequent article series we’ll evaluate the best type of bunker or other shelter structure that would be appropriate for most of us.

The survivability of a nuclear blast depends on several variables (of course).  In particular, it depends on how powerful the nuclear bomb is – and that’s the first variable most civilians fail to account for.  A second variable is how far you are likely to be from the blast (and we consider some of the surprising unexpected considerations related to determining that in the second part of this two-part article).

Other variables include the weather (obviously wind has a massive impact on fallout patterns, so too does rain), the time of day (the nuclear flash will blind more people at night), topography (you might be sheltered by a hill) and ‘urban clutter’ (buildings and other things that occlude and slow down a blast wave more quickly than most theoretical models allow for).

One more huge variable is whether the blast is an air blast (most likely), a surface blast (less blast effect but massively more fallout) or a sub-surface blast (effects depend on how deep the blast is).

How Powerful Are Nuclear Weapons?

Nuclear bombs are measured in terms of the equivalent amount of TNT required to create a similar blast.  Actually, due to various imprecisions, these days they are measured in terms of total energy released which is converted to a theoretical equivalent amount of TNT to make it sound more scary and also more meaningful – if you were told that a bomb had a power of 4.184 petajoules you’d have no idea what that meant, but most people can vaguely comprehend that a one megaton bomb is awesomely powerful.

The 1 MT rating is equivalent to the 4.184 petajoule rating.  You might not be familiar with the ‘peta’ prefix – a petajoule is  1000 terajoules, or 1,000,000 gigajoules or 1,000,000,000 megajoules, or, in the ultimate, 1,000,000,000,000,000 joules – a very big number indeed!

But, back to the usual common measurement of nuclear weapons.  The power of such weapons is usually measured either in kilotons (kT) or megatons (MT), being respectively 1000 tons or 1,000,000 tons of TNT equivalent.

Nuclear bombs range in size from a few kilotons of TNT equivalent power to possibly over 100 megatons of TNT equivalent power.  The smallest that we are more or less aware of were the (withdrawn from inventory more than 30 years ago) W54 series of warheads, with explosive blasts measured in the mere tons or tens of tons of TNT equivalent.

The biggest ever exploded was a Russian bomb, called  the Tsar Bomba, which created an estimated 57 megaton blast, in 1961.

To put these sizes into context, conventional ‘high explosive’ type bombs range from some tens of pounds of TNT equivalent up to the largest GBU-43/B bombs with an 11 ton yield.  Russia might have an even larger bomb with a 44 ton yield.  Most conventional bombs have an under half ton yield.

So that’s the first take-away point.  A ‘nuclear bomb’ can range from something less powerful than a conventional technology bomb, to something of hard to comprehend power and magnitude.

There’s as much as a million times difference in power between a small nuclear bomb and a huge one – that’s like comparing the tiniest firework cracker with a huge 6000 lb conventional ‘bunker buster’ bomb.  Except that, of course, even the smallest nuclear weapon is sort of like a huge 6,000 lb conventional bunker buster bomb, and they just go up from there in scale!

Nuclear Bombs Are Getting Smaller

A related piece of good news.  Although the first decade or two of nuclear bomb development saw a steady increase in size/power, that trend has now reversed.  The two bombs used against Japan were approximately 13 – 18 kT for the Hiroshima bomb and 20 – 22 kT for the Nagasaki bomb; and then for the next fifteen years or so after that, bomb sizes got bigger and bigger.

The largest bombs ever tested were the US Castle Bravo test in 1954 (15 MT – this was actually a mistake, it was planned to be only half that size) and the Russian Tsar Bomba test in 1961 (57 MT).

Since that time, the typical warhead size has gone down again rather than up.  Happily, bigger is not necessarily ‘better’ when it comes to nuclear weapons.  There are several reasons for this.

Due to the increased accuracy of the delivery systems, there has become less need for a massively powerful bomb – a smaller bomb delivered with precision would generally have the same or better effect than a bigger bomb that arrives some distance off target.  Earlier missiles were only accurate to within a mile or so of their target, the latest generation are thought to be accurate to 200 ft or so, so there is no longer a need to have a weapon so powerful that it will be capable of destroying its target, even if it is a mile further away than expected.

Secondly, the evolution of multi-warheaded missiles means that instead of a missile delivering one big bomb to one target, they can now deliver two, three, or many bombs to many different targets, but this requires each warhead to be smaller and lighter (ie less powerful) than otherwise would be the case.

With a single missile having a limited amount of space available and weight carrying capability to transport warheads, and with a fairly direct relationship between a bomb’s power and its weight (and lesserly space), there has been a general favoring to the smaller warheads, although Russia still has a few enormous 20 MT warheads in its inventory.

There is also the surprising and counter-intuitive fact that the effects of a nuclear explosion do not increase directly with the increase in its power – that is to say, a bomb with twice the rated TNT equivalent explosive power does not also have twice as much destructive power; it has more like perhaps 1.6 times the destructive power (the actual relationship is x0.67).

This means it is better to have two bombs, each of half the power of a single bomb (and better still to have four bombs, each of one-quarter the power).  In terms of maximizing the total destroyed area, if you have a single missile that could have, say one 8 MT warhead, two 4 MT warheads, or four 2 MT warheads, generally this last option would be the most desirable one.  It also means the attacker can choose between sending multiple warheads to one target, or being able to attack more targets.

Furthermore, having four warheads all splitting off from the one missile gives the enemy four times as many objects to intercept.  It is much harder to safely defend against four incoming warheads than one.

So, for all these reasons, multiple small bombs are now usually the preferred approach.

Bigger Bombs Don’t Have Proportionally Greater Destructive Ranges

This statement needs explaining.  There are two factors at play here – the first is that if a bomb is eight times bigger than another bomb, it doesn’t destroy eight times as many square miles (due to the power of the bomb not increasing linearly with its TNT equivalent, as explained in the preceding section).  At the bottom of this page it says that eight small bombs might cover 160 sq miles of area (ie 20 sq miles each), whereas one single bomb, eight times the size, would only cover 80 sq miles.

The second factor is to do with the difference between a bomb’s destructive area and its destructive range.  A bomb’s destructive area spreads out more or less in a circular pattern, but the area of a circle is proportional to the square of its radius.  In other words, for a bomb to have a radius of destruction twice as far as another bomb, it would need to be four times more powerful, not two times as powerful.

So, continuing this example, 80 square miles require a circle with a radius of 5.0 miles, and a 20 sq mile circle has a radius of 2.5 miles.  In other words, to double the distance within which a bomb will destroy everything, and after allowing for both the square relationship between distance and area, and the less than doubling of explosive effect when you double the power of a bomb, you have to increase its explosive power not twice, not four times, but eight times.

This is presented visually in the following diagram, which shows the radius of the fireball created by bombs of different sizes, ranging from small to the largest ever detonated (sourced from this page).

radius

Don’t go getting too complacent, though.  This is only the close-in fireball – the blast and temperature effects would extend much further than this (although subject to the same proportionality).

Actual Effects and Safe Distances

Now that we start to talk about actual damage and death, it is important to realize that these things are not clear-cut.  Apart from extremely close to a bomb’s detonation, where everyone will be killed, and everything destroyed, and extremely far from its detonation, where no-one will be killed and nothing destroyed, in the range between ‘very close’ and ‘safely far away’ there is a sliding scale of death and destruction.  There are zones where 90% of ‘average’ buildings will be destroyed, and other zones where only 10% of average buildings will be destroyed, and the same for where varying percentages of people may be killed or injured.

As can be seen from pictures taken after the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even very close to the blast centers, some buildings remained standing, while other buildings, relatively far away, were destroyed.  There’s a lot more to whether buildings and people survive than just distance from the blast, and one of the factors is best described as ‘luck’.

So the numbers we give below are very approximate.

To be specific, a 20 MT warhead (the largest in Russia’s arsenal) would send lethal radiation about 3 miles, almost all buildings and many people would be killed by blast effects up to 4 miles away, and third degree burns (the most serious) would be inflicted on people in direct line of the blast up to 24 miles away (see the table below, taken from the Wikipedia article on this page).

 

Effects

Explosive yield / Height of Burst

1 kt / 200 m

20 kt / 540 m

1 Mt / 2.0 km

20 Mt / 5.4 km

Blast—effective ground range GR / measured in km

Urban areas completely levelled (20 psi or 140 kPa)

0.2

0.6

2.4

6.4

Destruction of most civilian buildings (5 psi or 34 kPa)

0.6

1.7

6.2

17

Moderate damage to civilian buildings (1 psi or 6.9 kPa)

1.7

4.7

17

47

Railway cars thrown from tracks and crushed (62 kPa; values for other than 20 kt are extrapolated using the cube-root scaling)

≈0.4

1.0

≈4

≈10

Thermal radiation—effective ground range GR / measured in km

Conflagration

0.5

2.0

10

30

Third degree burns

0.6

2.5

12

38

Second degree burns

0.8

3.2

15

44

First degree burns

1.1

4.2

19

53

Effects of instant nuclear radiation—effective slant range SR / in km

Lethal total dose (neutrons and gamma rays)

0.8

1.4

2.3

4.7

Total dose for acute radiation syndrome

1.2

1.8

2.9

5.4

 

With most bombs likely to be 1 MT or less, the column in the table for 1 MT devices is perhaps most relevant.  If you have a well-built retreat, then as long as you are, say, 5 miles or more away from the detonation, your retreat will remain standing.

As for yourself, it would be nice to be a similar distance away to keep your own overpressure experience to a minimum (ie under 20 psi, although the body may survive up to 30 psi according to page 4-5 of this FEMA document).

There is also a need to avoid the lethal radiation, which will reach out about 2 miles, with diminishing degrees of lethality as you get further away from the blast – for example, you’ll have a 50% chance of dying from radiation (but not so quickly) if you are within 5 miles.

But your biggest worry (ie the threat reaching out the furthest) will be the flash and temperature effects.  If you are outside, you don’t want to have the bad luck to be looking at the bomb (especially at night), and ideally you’d be more than 13 miles from it to avoid even first degree burns.  At 10 miles, you’ll start to get more severe second degree burns, and while normally survivable, in a situation with diminished medical care available, these would be life threatening.  However, if you are inside, you can safely be closer, because the walls of the structure will insulate you from the heat and flash.

So, to summarize, with a 1 MT bomb, you’ll die from either burns or radiation or blast if you are within 5 miles of the blast.  If you’re not sheltered from the direct heat flash, you’ll die from burns if you’re within about 13 miles of the blast.

If you are indoors, then your structure may collapse around you (and on top of you) if it is within 5 miles of the blast, and if it is constructed from flammable materials (ie wood in particular), it might catch fire if within 7 miles.

There is one more immediate risk to be considered.  The blast is going to transform all sorts of things into dangerous flying objects.  You might survive the initial blast itself, only to be skewered by a flying telegraph pole a minute later, or be cut and bleed out from splinters of flying glass.

Here’s the thing – the blast wave travels more slowly than the initial flash.  So if you perceive an enormous flash, you should urgently take cover away from windows or weaker external structures, and wait several minutes until the hail of debris has subsided before venturing out.

Lastly for this part, here’s an interesting web program that shows the estimated ranges of the various effects of a nuclear explosion.  You can choose the power of bomb and where it is detonated, and see its coverage effects accordingly.

In our opinion, the ranges it shows are slightly over-estimated and fail to consider topography and other real-world factors, but it is probably acceptably accurate for the purposes it was created for, and on the basis of ‘better safe than sorry’ it does no harm to consider its results carefully.

Read More in Part Two

This first part of our two-part article has covered the immediate dangerous effects of a nuclear explosion that will occur within the first five minutes or so of a bomb blast.

But unlike a conventional bomb, don’t think that if you survive the first five minutes, then you’re safe.  There’s much more to consider, starting from perhaps about thirty minutes after the blast first occurred.  Please now turn to the second part to learn about the secondary and longer term effects of a nuclear explosion.

Jun 272013
 
A Civil Defense map from 1990 showing likely fallout patterns after a moderate intensity nuclear war.

A Civil Defense map from 1990 showing likely fallout patterns after a moderate intensity nuclear war.

This is the second part of a two-part article about how close you can be to a nuclear explosion and survive.  If you arrived direct to this page from a search engine or link, we suggest you first read the first part which talks about the immediate effects and dangers of a nuclear blast (covering the first five minutes or so) and how close you can be and still survive those.

Once you have survived the immediate effects of a nuclear blast – the fireball, the flash, the heat, the radiation, the blast wave and the flying debris, you have no time to relax.  There are two more dangers still to consider.

The first danger is that this first nuclear blast may not be the only one.  In a full-out nuclear war, all significant targets will likely be targeted to receive multiple bombs.  We’d suggest that if a first blast occurs, you anticipate that additional blasts may follow, and potentially over a period of an hour or two.  There could be several blasts within ten to twenty minutes from the first wave of missile attacks, and then there might be a second wave of attacks that follow an hour or so later.  Assuming you are in a moderately appropriate place to shelter, stay there for an hour or two in case of additional bombings.

Unhappily, the concern about additional bombs following the first is only one of the reasons to stay sheltered (or to urgently get to shelter).  There’s another major factor that will start to come into play, about 30 minutes after the explosion.

The Danger of Fallout

This is where some type of shelter facility becomes essential.  The bad news part of the immediate effects of a nuclear blast is that you might not have a chance to get to your shelter in time to be protected from them; the good news part is that they are lethal only over a surprisingly short distance (see the first part of this article for a discussion on the range of the lethal initial effects of a bomb blast).

But the fallout from the blast may start arriving at your location as soon as a few minutes after the blast, and might continue arriving for hours or even days afterwards, depending on issues such as wind and rain (see our series on Using Wind Data to Estimate Fallout Risk).

You have two problems with fallout.  Firstly, you don’t want it falling on you or getting in to your retreat/shelter.  Secondly, it will remain ‘out there’ – on the ground, on exposed surfaces, and anywhere/everywhere dust can settle – for a very long time until either washed away, removed, or radioactive levels subside.

Even though the radiation levels from the fallout may be low, they will be continuous and the effects on your health will be cumulative.  Controlling your exposure to fallout radiation is essential.

We talk about fallout in detail on our page Radiation and Fallout Risks.

There is a new concept to introduce to you now – and that is the difference between early and delayed fallout.

Depending on the particle sizes of the fallout material, some fallout will rise further than other fallout.  The heavier pieces go up a shorter distance and come down more quickly – this is termed early fallout.  The lighter pieces will go further up into the atmosphere – some objects may even be shot out into space, happily never to return.  The lighter pieces may get caught up in the jetstreams and be whisked away from where you are.

The immediate problem for you, if you are reasonably close to a bomb blast, is the early fallout.  This will start landing on the ground within 30 minutes of the explosion in the immediate vicinity of where the explosion occurred, and closer to an hour later by the time you get 20 miles away.  By the time you are 100 miles away, it may not start landing until 4 – 6 hours after the event.  These distances are largely determined by the wind speeds and directions, the fallout will not land evenly in neat concentric circles, but will skew strongly in some directions and might not appear at all in other directions.  We can be reasonably sure about the time it will take for the early fallout to come back down again, but we can not guess as to the specifics of where it will land.

All of the early fallout is usually deposited within 24 hours.  The remaining lighter particles can take months before they return to the ground, and may do so anywhere in the world (information taken from p 14 of this excellent 1961 guide).

So even if you survived the initial blast from the bomb, you still need to quickly get to shelter to avoid the fallout.  Depending on how far you are from the explosion, you can expect fallout to start arriving some time from 30 minutes after the blast, and to continue for a day.

How Long to Shelter For

The next part of the process is sheltering until the radiation from the fallout has reduced down to an acceptable level.  How long will this take?  That depends on how much fallout is surrounding you, and also on its rate of decay.

You probably should plan to stay inside for several days before even thinking about what is out there, then at that point, warily stick a radiation meter out a door and see what it says.  If it starts chattering away at an alarming level, quickly retreat back inside and wait a few more days before repeating.  The two readings will also give you a feeling for rate of decline, helping you get a feeling for how much further you are likely to need to keep waiting.  We have a page here about detecting and measuring radiation and will shortly be releasing an article about how much radiation is safe and when it instead becomes dangerous.

Realistically, you should be prepared to shelter for as long as a month or more, and as we discuss in our article on detecting and measuring radiation, if after a month, radiation levels remain dangerously elevated after a month, and show only low rates of reduction, then maybe you are unlucky and have had a particularly large deposit of fallout around your retreat, and maybe you need to consider abandoning your retreat entirely.

Note that while you might choose to shelter for a month or more, you can almost certainly venture outside for very short periods of time during your period of sheltering, although you need to be very careful not to bring contamination with you back into your shelter.  Shoes/boots in particular will have fallout on them after walking around outside, and your outer clothes may too.

While outside you should cover up as much as possible, and we’d suggest breathing through a mask as well, particularly if there is wind and dust outside.  You’d want to remove your footwear and clothing outside the shelter, and shower outside, before coming back into the shelter.

What Is Your Likely Distance From a Nuclear Blast

So we have established that as long as you are inside a strongly built structure and 5 – 10 miles away from a 1 MT blast, or outside and 15 – 20 miles from a 1 MT blast, you will probably survive.

This of course begs the question – how close to a blast are you likely to be?  This is the second of the two key variables to consider (the first being the strength of the blast).  Your distance from any possible blasts is clearly a very important question, but answering it with exactness is difficult, for two reasons.

The first reason is we can’t accurately guess exactly where any possible enemy may choose to target and attack.  But we can probably guess some places they won’t attack – rural locations with no significant industry or airports or harbors or major transportation hubs or other economic or industrial or military objects of value.

The only difficult part of making that prediction is not knowing for sure if there isn’t some super-secret government installation, or similarly secret commercial installation, something/anything of relevant strategic value, and known to the enemy but not to you.  Maybe there’s a huge big data-center or internet resource somewhere in the fields, or who knows what, where.

And even if there isn’t, maybe the enemy mistakenly believes there is!

The second reason is that no-one really knows what would happen in a high intensity nuclear attack. In addition to the unknown reliability and accuracy of enemy missiles to start with, there are three interesting complications.

The first complication is what might happen to the guidance systems of missiles as they go over the north pole.  Depending on how the missiles are guided, this could possibly cause errors to occur.  There have been no missile tests over the pole, so this is all untested theory.

The second complication is what might happen when our defense forces try to counter any incoming missile attack.  Alas, our anti-missile forces are pitifully weak and very few in number, and no-one would suggest they would have any tangible impact on a major attack featuring tens or hundreds of missiles and hundreds or thousands of warheads.

But even if we managed to deploy five or ten ABMs, they might possibly knock some incoming missiles off course rather than completely destroy them, causing the warheads to go and explode in the ‘wrong’ locations – and ending up hundreds or thousands of miles away from their original target.  What if the wrong location they arrived at was, by a bad turn of fate, directly above our retreat?  That’s definitely a consideration, albeit a very unlikely one.

The third complication is similar to the second.  It is not clear what happens to incoming warheads when one that arrived a minute or two or three before the later ones, detonates.  Will the incoming warheads immediately behind still operate, or be destroyed in the blast (a concept known as ‘fratricide’)?

That’s a question of little relevance to us if we’re hundreds of miles away, but a more relevant question is whether the force of the first warhead’s blast might not knock other warheads off course and cause them to veer off target and again end up detonating closer to us than was intended.

Such course deviations are probably not likely to push warheads hundreds of miles off course, but it is certainly conceivable they might deflect a warhead ten or twenty miles.  This is because whereas the ABM attacks take place earlier on the missile’s trajectory, where a small deflection ends up with a larger movement at the end of the journey, the effects of other explosions would impact only on the last twenty or so miles of travel.  Depending on your location, that might be relevant.

So, with a reasonable but not absolute degree of certainty, you can probably determine whether you are in a location that has a high or low ‘appeal’ as a nuclear target.  If your retreat is located in an area that has anything other than a very low degree of appeal, you’ve made a bad location choice!

Summary

We don’t mean to understate the potential devastation and catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons.  They are beyond terrible.  But, none of us should overstate their effects, either.  The anti-nuke campaigners, in a manner very similar to anti-gunners, have chosen to magnify the public perception of the outcomes of nuclear explosions, and while many people will die and many buildings will be destroyed, the good news is that very many more people will live.

This is a two-part article.  In the first part we looked at the deadly immediate effects of a nuclear explosion and how far they reached from the explosion’s center; if you have not yet read it, you should probably now do so.

We have a great deal of additional resources on nuclear issues and responses here.