How Can Past Disasters Help Us Be Better Prepared for the Future?

Local disasters happen more often than we think.
It doesn’t take a major event to create havoc for a community. Life as we know it hinges on a fragile system. What can disasters of the past tell us about how to be better prepared for the future? What lessons have been learned?

Janet Liebsch was my guest yesterday on DestinySurvival Radio to talk about the answers to those questions. She’s been on before, but it’s been a while. Janet is co-founder of a company called FedHealth and co-author of IT’S A DISASTER!…and what are YOU gonna do about it? She’s also Executive Vice President of the U.S. First Responders Association and the Arizona state moderator on the American Preppers Network.

We started out by talking about the shooting at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut a week ago. An active shooter situation isn’t your typical disaster, like floods, tornadoes, etc., but it does disrupt normal life in a community. Such incidents call for keen situational awareness. I’ll devote a post to the subject which you can view here with resources Janet has provided, including some mentioned on yesterday’s show.

Next we talked about Superstorm Sandy. Those affected most will be feeling the consequences for some time to come. Here’s info Janet sent me before our interview.


Superstorm Sandy by the numbers:

  • Number of deaths: 125 in U.S. and 71 in Caribbean
  • Damage: Sandy caused about $62 billion in damage and losses in the U.S. but that could increase. It’s the second-costliest storm in U.S. history after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which caused $128 billion in damage in inflation-adjusted dollars.
  • 8.1 million homes lost power in 17 states
  • Over 64,000 workers from 82 utility companies across the U.S. came in to help restore electricity
  • FEMA personnel deployed as of 16-Dec-2012: 6,538 in 60 Disaster Recovery Centers
  • Assistance registrations: 507,951

Some of the logistics challenges included supplying water, food and fuel to the affected areas, restoring electricity, drying out buildings and public infrastructure, and cleaning streets from fallen trees and debris. FEMA had 400 industrial-size power generators ready to help but deployment of generators was a challenge. Despite the need for matching the right generator with the right need, FEMA officers must balance the urgency of providing electricity with the efforts to restore energy, managed by electric companies.

According to utilities, efforts focus first on restoring power to high voltage lines. Second, essential services like hospitals, police stations and traffic lights are restored. Third, distribution lines serving large neighbourhoods follow.


Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 came into play in the wake of Sandy. And Sandy is teaching its own lessons, too.

Nonetheless, people affected by disasters need to have more than the minimally recommended prepping supplies. And have plenty of patience. That’s because rescue and recovery logistics are complicated by the fact that regulations and responses are different from state to state.

Janet and I discussed how important it is to be prepared for different kinds of disasters. Be alert to what can affect you where you live–tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, wildfires, etc. And know what you might face when you travel, too.

Natural disasters are a given which we must not ignore. We always think they can’t happen to us. But here’s a run down of some of the biggest ones from past years. My thanks to Janet for providing what follows.


Some other 2012 disasters include…

Floods – U.S. experienced several flooding events in the southeast and northeast plus multiple countries across Europe and Asia also dealt with floods in 2012.

Drought – U.S. drought in 2012 is similar to large-area droughts in the 1930s and 1950s. Due to crop failure and livestock deaths, this prolonged, multi-year disaster could end up being the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. African drought has caused more than 18 million people to face hunger across 8 countries in West Africa.


A sequence of devastating earthquakes and a large number of weather-related catastrophes made 2011 the costliest year ever in terms of natural catastrophe losses.

Before the tsunami catastrophe in Japan, there had been an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude in Christchurch, New Zealand, on 22 February. The notable aspect of this event was that an earthquake of 7.1 magnitude had hit Christchurch just six months earlier.

March 2011 = Tohoku 9.0 earthquake + tsunami + Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster


Strongest earthquake ever to hit Japan and among the five most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, along with the subsequent tsunami claimed the lives of over 20,000 people.

Amazingly there were no deaths attributed to the nuclear complex meltdowns, but the radioactive materials may eventually add to the annual cancer death toll very slightly in years to come.

The massive wall of water that struck Japan was actually the result of at least 2 waves that combined to create a more powerful tsunami. According to researchers from NASA and Ohio State University, ocean ridges and mountain ranges below the surface of the water channeled waves created by the 9.0 quake off the coast of Japan, bringing them together far out at sea to form a “merging tsunami”.

According to NASA, the massive trembler slightly shifted the position of Earth’s figure axis (the axis about which Earth’s mass is balanced) by about 17 centimeters (6.5 inches), towards 133 degrees east longitude. Earth’s figure axis should not be confused with its north-south axis.

This shift in Earth’s figure axis will cause Earth to wobble a bit differently as it rotates, but it will not cause a shift of Earth’s axis in space—only external forces such as the gravitational attraction of the sun, moon and planets can do that. NASA also explains in comparison, the 2010 magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile shifted Earth’s figure axis by about 8 centimeters (3 inches) and the 2004 magnitude 9.1 Sumatran earthquake shifted Earth’s figure axis by about 7 centimeters (2.76 inches).

Some other figures on Japan disaster:

  • 6 = approximate number of minutes the shaking lasted during the 9.0 earthquake in Sendai (80 miles or 130 km west of epicenter). It’s also the number of miles the tsunami traveled inland in areas.
  • 133’ = the massive tsunami that slammed parts of Japan reached heights up to 133 feet (40.5 meters) in some places! The waves that struck the Fukushimi reactors were almost 46 feet (14 meters) high.
  • 961 = Total number of aftershocks in Sendai on March 11, 2011 (Note: This is total for 1 day only and a tally of magnitude 4.0 – 9.0 quakes only..! There were many smaller aftershocks too.)
  • 19,349 = Total number of magnitude 3.0 or higher earthquakes in and around Japan in 2011 (total from Jan 1 – Dec 31, 2011).

More Things About Potential Disasters to keep in mind:

“The Cascadia subduction zone (along the Northwestern U.S.) can be seen as a mirror image of the Tohoku, (Japan) area,” said John Anderson, of the University of Nevada. In Japan, the biggest jolts occurred underwater. The seafloor was displaced by 150 feet or more in some places, triggering the massive tsunami. But in the Northwest, it’s the land that will be rocked hardest — because the Pacific coast here lies so close to the subduction zone.

As far as a tsunami’s affect on a U.S. nuclear plant, there are only 3 reactor complexes on the west coast (2 in southern California and one in Washington), but the east coast has quite a few structures along the seaboard from New Hampshire to Florida. Most of Canada’s 20+ power stations are in Ontario, but both Quebec and New Brunswick have one operating station in each province.

Some other 2011 disasters include…

Tornadoes: 2011 went down in the record books as the fourth deadliest tornado year ever in the U.S. with 550 fatalities. (1925 was the deadliest year in the U.S., with 794 killed, according to NOAA.) There were 552 deaths in 1936 and 551 deaths in 1917, ranking as the second and third most deaths caused by tornadoes in a year. According to the Storm Prediction Center (SPC), the yearly average for tornado deaths is around 60.

2011 also had an unusually high number of large, destructive tornado outbreaks; 1,691 tornadoes touched down. The record number of tornadoes was 1,817 back in 2004. In comparison, the average number of tornadoes per year over the past decade is around 1,300. (Main reason for so much activity in 2011 was La Nina.) Two deadly tornadoes touched down in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011 and Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011 killing over 500 people.

Heat waves over the summer scorched the U.S. and Texas suffered from fires and its worst drought in decades.

An earthquake rattled the East Coast in October, followed by Hurricane Irene that slammed the east coast.

Drought in East Africa along with armed conflict with Al Shabaab (an offshoot of Al Qaeda) caused famine killing at least 30,000 children.

Thousands of wildfires raged across the United States last year, 2011, burning a record amount of land, especially in the southern U.S. In fact, 2011 the third-most-active fire season since 1960 (when this record-keeping began) with respect to acres burned, according to preliminary data released from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in late December 2011. During 2011, a total of 73,484 wildfires burned an estimated 8,706,852 acres (35,235 square kilometers) of land across the United States.

Floods in U.S. – in February NOAA predicted a very busy flood season thru central US due to the extensive amounts of snowfall this winter. Combine that with all the spring rains and the swollen Mississippi River and its tributaries have already swamped 3 million acres of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Plus much of this water is polluted with chemicals, pesticides, and other pollutants now surging down towards the Gulf of Mexico.

Floods in Thailand – Floods claimed the lives of some 800 people. Not only were hundreds of thousands of houses and vast expanses of farmland flooded, but also seven major industrial areas with production facilities (primarily electronic key component manufacturers) were affected, leading to production delays and disruptions at client businesses. Approximately 25% of the world’s supply of components for computer hard drives was directly impacted by the floods.


2010 started with a strong El Nino weather oscillation that causes all sorts of extremes worldwide. Then later in the year, the world got the mirror image weather system with a strong La Nina, which causes a different set of extremes. Having both in the same year is unusual.

Haiti earthquake on 12 January killed more than 220,000 people. (Only the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China claimed more lives (242,000).) Poor construction and development practices in third world countries make earthquakes more deadly than they need be.

Flooding killed more than 6,300 people in 59 nations according to the World Health Organization (30 of which were in US (TN)).

The eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull [a.k.a. Eye-eye] on Iceland in April paralyzed air traffic for days.

Gulf Oil crisis killed 11 workers but released about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil causing extensive damage to the fishing and tourism business across the entire Gulf Coast.

2009–A Quiet year…

North Atlantic hurricane season was benign. Although warm water temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic produced conditions favouring an above-average hurricane season, only 9 named storms were recorded, 3 reaching hurricane force.

Winter Storm Klaus, which hit northern Spain and southwest France between 23 and 25 January cut power to over a million people.

Major floods in Phillipines, India and Australia suffered with massive floods


The May earthquake that hit the Chinese province of Sichuan killed about 70,000 people, 18,000 were missing, 374,000 were injured, and almost five million were made homeless.

Cyclone Nargis claimed the lives of more than 135,000 people in Myanmar (85,000 deaths confirmed, and 54,000 people missing)

2008 U.S. hurricane season generated six hurricanes (Dolly, Edouard, Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike) on the coast in close succession, the severest being Ike, which made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane near Galveston (Texas). The storm surge triggered by Ike submerged large sections of the Texas and Louisiana coast.

2007–A Somewhat quiet year ..

Long drought gripped much of the American Southeast – At one point the city of Atlanta, one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the U.S., had just three months of water left. As the drought worsened, it triggered a nasty legal fight between Florida, Georgia and Alabama over declining water supplies.

A series of abnormal monsoon rains in northern India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh in July and August eventually led to what UNICEF called “the worst flood in living memory.” By mid-August some 30 million people across the region had been displaced, and more than 2,000 died in the floods.

An 8.0 magnitude quake hit the central coast of Peru on Aug. 15, leaving more than 500 people dead and 1,366 injured, and more than 50,000 homes destroyed.

Some quick disaster facts:

Wildfires: More than four out of every five wildfires are caused by people. An average of 1.2 million acres of U.S. woodland burn every year. Lightning strikes the Earth over 100,000 times a day. Of these, 10-20% cause a fire.

Fires: Fire kills more Americans every year than all natural disasters combined. At least 80% of all fire deaths occur in residences — and careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths.

Earthquakes: Over 3 million earthquakes occur globally each year. That’s about 8,000 seismic events every day or 1 every 11 seconds, but most of them are very small. And with the 10 to 20-fold increase of seismograph stations operating around the world (from 350 in 1931 to 4,000 or 8,000 [reports vary]) combined with the Internet and 24-hour news sources, the numbers are up due to more accurate data and reporting methods.

Lightning: One of the most underrated severe weather hazards, lightning ranks as one of the top weather killers in the United States. According to NOAA, lightning strikes in America kill about 58 people and injure hundreds of others each year. There are an estimated 25 million lightning flashes each year and at any given moment, nearly 2,000 thunderstorms can be in progress over the face of the earth. Also, lightning can travel 60 miles or more, often extending up to 10 miles away from the cloud that formed it.


Back to the show…

Janet and I didn’t get into much of the above info because we carried on a mostly general conversation.

If you want to find out specific info relevant to your state or county, search online for key words like “(your state, county or city mane) emergency management.” Find out what’s going on from local fire and police departments. Connect with a local CERT organization.

You may want to speak with nuclear plant officials in your area to find out what plans they’re making for emergencies. Fukushima comes to mind.

Don’t forget about dams, railroads, fire threats and other such things which could potentially cause problems in your area.

And don’t forget to check your smoke and carbon monoxide alarms at home to be sure they’re in working order. See the December FedHealth enews for some holiday fire safety tips.

Hear my interview with Janet Liebsch when you listen to DestinySurvival Radio for December 20, 2012. You’ll find that what we said complements the above information.

Get a sample e-book of It’s A Disaster!, or order the whole book when you click on the ad below this post.


Book Winners

I asked readers to leave a comment below before December 30, 2012 to be entered in a random drawing to win a copy of It’s A Disaster! Thanks to Janet and Bill Liebsch, I gave away two copies.

There were eleven different people who commented on this post, not counting me, between December 21st and the 30th. I used to generate two numbers from 1 through 11. The numbers 8 and 11 came up. John and Chris have been selected and notified. They’ll each receive a print copy of the book.

As you can see, the world didn’t come to an end on December 21st. But don’t let down your guard. Be as ready as you can be for disasters. And keep prepping!


It's A Disaster!


Author: John Wesley Smith

John Wesley Smith writes and podcasts from his home in Central Missouri. His goal is to help preppers as he continues along his own preparedness journey.

13 thoughts on “How Can Past Disasters Help Us Be Better Prepared for the Future?”

  1. As individuals and families, we all face our own disasters like unemployment, demotion, work interruptions, etc. Are we prepared for these(much more likely) events?

  2. Great post, thank you. This post points out how important it is to learn from the past but I’m amazed at how few people actually do learn from past disasters. With all the recent history, such as Katrina, the people who lived in the path of Sandy have no excuse for being so vulnerable. Are non preppers really that dependant on the government to take care of them?

  3. Only if more people(i.e. sheeple) would get their heads out of the sand and look around them and truely see what in the world what is really happening around them they would TRUELY start to preping to save themselves and most important their FAMILIES!!

  4. Great article, sometimes I think people can too focused on one type of disaster and forget all that can happen. How many people on the east coast ever thought about an earthquake happening? Most of us I think need to go back and look at everything and conduct a risk assessment and make sure we are ready for most likely events.

  5. Love the site and all it provides. I share it with as many people as i can think of that would be influenced by it. Keep up the good work.

  6. Thank you all for participating and congrats John and Chris! You should each have a copy of our book late next week. And John W Smith .. thank you for all you do with your blog, radio show and emails. 🙂 Happy New Year everyone! j & B

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