Most preppers are preparing for some specific crisis event. Just ask them and they’ll tell you. Most of the explanations you’ll get will feature some natural or man-made disaster of nation- or world-ending severity.
You’ll be regaled with tales of EMP strikes, massive solar flares and other cosmic mayhem, a global Ice Age, economic collapse, nuclear world war, zombie outbreaks, robot uprisings and more. Mega-tsunamis, super earthquakes and sky-darkening volcanic eruptions, the potential SHTF events preppers prep for are many and wild.
Some are pure fantasy (we hope) and others are distinctly possible, even if incalculably unlikely.
It begs the question, though: What if these preppers are preparing for the wrong thing, and in their distraction, are sort of crept upon by some other crisis? Will they be ready?
That is the question I intend to answer in today’s article. In it, we’ll define what a SHTF event is on an individual level, and then take a look at the statistically most-likely SHTF-level disasters are. Hopefully by the end, you can adjust your preps accordingly, and perhaps help steer those more wayward souls back into the realm of feasibility.
Personal Disasters versus Real-Deal SHTF Events
Before we get to far into the meat of the discussion, it is important to define exactly what I am referring to when I refer to “SHTF” events, as this invariably results in much correction and occasionally some invective in the comments.
For the purposes of this article, I am quantifying a SHTF-level crisis as one that impacts the majority of people living in an area when it occurs, either at a local, regional or national level with drastic disruption of everyday civilian life.
Some people disagree and think that a SHTF event is any event that upends your life when it slams into you, take for instance a car accident. I disagree: a car accident will certainly affect your life and the lives of whoever else is involved, but it does not affect society as a whole one iota.
After you crashed into an obstacle or were slammed into by another vehicle, assuming you survive and are able to summon help the event and its effects are over, even if the consequences and resultant loss of life or limb may affect you for the rest of your time on Earth.
Sure, a single car run-off-road accident in a remote and infrequently traveled area may now suddenly take on some broader survival context until you can be found, reach or summon help, but it does not compare to the level of disruption of, say, a Cat 5 hurricane wiping out and flooding a major Gulf Coast city.
We are concerned today with events that would be classed as major disasters or catastrophes, not personal emergencies.
Obsession with the Apocalyptic
It is tough to tell based on my simple researches into the matter just how many preppers are genuinely preparing for a truly apocalyptic event, one that has global consequences. Certainly most depictions of preppers in media would have you believe that all of them are sun-gazing, frothing prognosticators of doom, half-eager to see the Earth swept clean.
Yikes. I don’t know about the rest of you readers, but almost every prepper I know, to a man and woman, is far more concerned with the plausible, even likely events that may, even probably will occur in our lifetimes than surviving the end of days.
The adjective “apocalyptic” gets tossed around so much the word has lost of its portent, and I am as guilty as anyone. Most natural disasters, no matter how far reaching or widespread, are not apocalyptic. No tornado, no hurricane, and so far no earthquakes in recorded history could truly be described as such because there have been plenty of people left to record the event and its aftermath for posterity.
Some events, like theorized super-volcano eruptions, impact from massive celestial bodies or other cosmic phenomenon like a gamma ray burst along with other severe, but natural, phenomena could actually have apocalyptic consequences. Man-made cataclysms like a major nuclear exchange could result in the essential death of human life on Earth, an apocalypse of our own making. These events are undoubtedly real, and scarily plausible if unlikely events.
What I would caution against, if you are preparing for an apocalyptic scenario, is an over emphasis on preparing for that event in particular. The sad reality is that some events will be so bad, there is nothing you can do, or nothing you can do to effectively survive beyond the very near term. Most planning for such instances is material- land, food, equipment, shelter, etc. – not skill-based in nature.
That leads to a major blind spot in your prepper’s repertoire; having the skills to survive an event that has wiped out your home town, made the surroundings nearly uninhabitable and hampered and possible relief response.
For that reason, I have not even calculated which among the true “world ending” class events may be the most likely, instead focusing on disasters that happen year in and year out around the globe.
The Fear of the Fantastic
Similarly to the above, I am completely omitting any events that might charitably be called “theoretically possible.” These are old campfire and locker room mainstays like zombie outbreaks, robot uprisings controlled by a self-aware and increasingly hateful A.I., alien invasions, Earth’s magnetic poles flipping and so forth. Let’s get real: such things are only threats in our imaginations.
While some folks use these instances as metaphors for prepping in general, because if you are prepared for that you are prepared for anything, but I will not be giving these events any credence on our list.
The Most Probable SHTF Event
One thing to note with the event(s) below is that they are more or less likely to occur depending on where you live. Don’t take me to task over it, as this article is a general list based on gatherable statistics from agencies concerned with such matters.
According to the U.N.’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the single most likely natural disaster to occur in the world, anywhere, on a yearly basis is…
That’s right, rising water is the most likely disaster to befall you anywhere in the developed world with over 30% of all disasters being categorized as flooding, and that certainly jibes with data gathered by U.S. based disaster response agencies and insurers. Whether it is from torrential rain from a thunderstorm, hurricane or snow melt off, flooding is a perennially deadly and extraordinarily destructive event.
Typically a local major body of water will overrun its banks from a sustained torrent of heavy rain, but not always. Things like the aforementioned snow or ice melt, tsunamis, and dam failure can also create severe flood conditions.
Preparing for a flood is a must no matter where you live (well, almost no matter where), as flooding creates serious survival challenges with its primary, second and third order effects. Moving flood waters pack incredible power and can sweep away people and vehicles alike. Even buildings can be dislodged from their foundations.
After the initial destruction and death, flood waters, be they fresh or salt water, will now contain and conceal all manner of hazards: debris, broken glass, sharp metal wreckage, chemicals, sewage, corpses, all will be within the swirling black water. Moving around in any flood inundated area is a highly dangerous and risky proposition. Beyond the direct hazards, you can depend on disease and parasite infections skyrocketing anytime there is contact with the nasty soup.
Beyond all that, you will be able to depend on power being down, and other utilities either being down and out or too risky to use. Broken and concealed power lines will make risk of electric shock a real possibility. Roads will be impassible, and the resultant transportation breakdown will make getting needed aid like food, water, medicine and rescue personnel into the area difficult or impossible.
Even after the water recedes, the carnage is not over. Mold and other dangerous microscopic life will infest every waterlogged surface that can support it. Sewage contamination will have utterly ruined what little could have been reclaimed from the water itself. Mosquitoes will have a heyday breeding in every pool of water, large or small, in certain climes and will plague survivors and rescuers alike.
Essentially, a flood event of any magnitude is extremely dangerous and will completely halt the processes of society in proportion to its severity. If you are not planning and preparing to deal with a flood event as one of your Number One concerns, you are planning on a bad time.
Other Likely Disasters
A flood is far from the only SHTF event that is likely to befall you. Today and historically, plenty of disasters have threatened entire regions, even large countries, and continue to do so today. Even though floods are, globally, top dog when it comes to death and mayhem, you should definitely make it a point to be aware of and prepare for these runner-up disasters.
Second only to water, wind and windstorm events are a major and unpredictable hazard. Often encountered as an effect from tornadoes, hurricanes, severe thunderstorms and other storms, all told wind-related disasters account for more than 26% of all disasters globally. Some of the very worst disasters in history did their grisly work predominately with wind.
Being prepared for a wind event means enhancing your home’s physical structure or having a known and wind-rated shelter close by. You should also make it a point to remove or at least secure anything in close proximity to your home that might become a missile in high winds.
Winds from tornadoes and hurricanes in particular are well known for causing catastrophic damage over a wide area, and are more than capable of killing all on their own: when the wind blows hard enough, even the smallest, most innocuous object can become a deadly projectile.
The bronze on our list goes to the germs. Epidemics, pandemics, pestilence, whatever kind of outbreak you are facing, know that eruptions of bacteria, viruses and other microscopic thugs have killed 10’s and 10’s of millions of people over the centuries, often in horrible ways. Outbreaks of disease account for a hair over 11% of all global disasters according to the UNODRR.
While much of the developed world has in recent decades been spared the horror of ebola, typhoid malaria and plague epidemics that still haunt much of the Third World, even these nations fear the specter of a virulent flu outbreak, and no one knows when a new and novel mutation or previously undiscovered germ will rip through a population with no cure in sight.
Epidemic and pandemic preparedness consists of effective early warning, coordination with health organizations and disease containment agencies as well as strict sanitation and quarantine protection protocols. Invisible, silent and undetectable until it is way beyond too late, germs are an insidious and deadly killer.
Less frequent in many places by a considerable margin than our other disasters, but frighteningly common and potentially devastating in others, earthquakes are a lurking threat with no real defense against them, and make up 9% of all disasters globally. In that figure, it should be noted, are also earthquake-caused tsunamis, so you can look forward to being drowned if the quake itself does not leave your entire city looking like a diorama that someone dropped.
Most earthquakes are comparatively minor and do not even warrant more than a blip on the evening or afternoon news, but when they go big, they go really, really big. Of the top 10 deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, four of them were high magnitude earthquakes.
Being prepared for an earthquake is mostly a matter of planning for the occasion and then being prepared and trained for escaping or living in the aftermath. Even with the best modern quake-resistant technology for buildings, there is of now no known defense against the titan forces and heaving earth of the strongest earthquakes.
Droughts are not the most spectacular or sudden of disasters, but they are among the worst, and typically affect a region. Droughts result in a slow decline and eventually lack of basic necessities and services. Food, water and electricity are all affected by droughts. In modernized nations, water can always be trucked in at a cost, but the impact to local livestock and crops is often enormous, creating secondary economic problems.
The heatwaves associated with droughts are deadly killers in their own right, and to this very day remain serious threats even in highly developed countries here in the U.S., each year furnishing more deaths from sustained high temperature. With that heat comes increased strain on electrical grids as people try in vain to cool down their environments. With enough demand, brownouts will occur, then blackouts. Without AC, more will die. Food will spoil, and on and on and on.
Though proper droughts make up only about 8% of all natural disasters globally, anyone living anywhere besides perennially cool or cold environments must have a plan for dealing with their effects and the effects of a sustained heatwave.
Being a responsible and realistic prepper means preparing for the most likely threats, not the ones you find the most exciting or interesting. Water in the form of flooding is by far the most serious and common almost no matter where you live, so that must figure prominently into your plans. After that you should be prepping for the effects of high winds and an outbreak of deadly germs. Don’t let your fear of an exotic, scary disaster blind you to the realities of a real SHTF event.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.