Dangerous animals in the UK: Part One.

Cows, dogs, foxes, and horses, with more to come in Part Two.

The death and injury rates are tiny, of course; I just like the headline. I’ve been slowly preparing for a second edition of my book, Getting Home In An Emergency, which I’m assuming will be free to people who’ve already purchased the first edition. Plus I’m doing a lot more travelling up and down the country recently, visiting here there and everywhere. So when I saw a headline from last year in The Independent, “Cows officially the most deadly large animals in Britain”, I had to have another look. Any long journey will include rural areas, and it’s basic preparedness to be aware of the potential dangers posed by farm, domestic and wildlife.

There isn’t any advice in that Independent article, though we can take a few implications from the stats presented:

  • don’t get near a calf, and most certainly don’t get between a mother and it’s calf.
  • if you have a dog in a field containing cows, keep the dog close to you.
  • groups of people seem not to be vulnerable at all, so if you have any concerns about a particularly frisky herd, try to cross the field in a group of people.

Dogs are the next most deadly animal. Heartbreakingly, of course, it’s often babies and toddlers in the news, who are killed by a pet. To pre-empt that situation, personally, I would never, ever allow such a young child in the same room as a dog that hasn’t had extensive obedience training, and has a proven character. And even then, I’d be keeping an eagle eye out. Taking a risk with the life of a child in your care; it mustn’t be done.

In the course of our daily travels around the country, however, there are different issues. So here’s what I’ve learned:

  • don’t panic! This isn’t lifted from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s very true. Not only do you need to avoid the appearance of panicking, you need to calm down your physical responses – dogs can smell our emotions, so to speak, our pheromones and hormones, plus agitation may actually trigger the dog’s aggression.
  • stay still, and keep your hands at your sides. I had personal experience of this one, in Spain: I was leaving the Cortijo where I was staying, heading onto a dusty trackway, and a local dog bounded up, barking furiously. I’m not afraid of dogs, but my companion was, so I said “No”, very loudly, just once, and shook my finger at the dog simultaneously. It stopped in it’s tracks, yes, but it also went for my finger. I pulled back at the speed of light and was unharmed, and I learned a valuable lesson that day.
  • don’t face the dog – stand sideways on, it’s less threatening. Avoid eye contact too. The dog may actually sniff you, but will still choose not to bite you.  Probably.
  • don’t run! You’re acting as a prey animal if you do that, and you can’t outrun a dog.
  • distract it, if you can and if it seems right, by giving it something to chew on. Your water bottle (have a spare in your pack!) a glove, anything. If you know you might face a dog on your route, it could even be worth carrying something like a toy, or a ball, to use in this scenario. I wouldn’t carry dog treats, as I’ve seen suggested – they’re more likely to attract dogs in the first place.

Foxes are also known to attack babies and toddlers, even when they’re sleeping in their cots upstairs, though I have come across one incident when a fox attacked a sleeping cat and then the adult cat owners who rushed to the cat’s defence. The incidents seem to have been exclusively in urban areas, so if you’re walking in the countryside, whether for pleasure or during an emergency, you’re extremely unlikely to be bothered by a fox. The RSPCA has a great page on foxes, which contains some valuable links as well as further information in a pdf at the bottom of the page, I highly recommend it.

Horses are big enough to be intimidating to people who don’t know them or understand them, but injuries caused by horses are overwhelmingly likely to be from horseriding accidents, and from other interactions started by the human. The lesson is, if you’re out walking, for leisure or during an emergency, don’t approach a horse: looking at it, trying to stroke it, trying to get up on it, and most especially getting between a horse and it’s foal. It’s a prey animal, it will run if it can, but if it feels it can’t run from you, it will attack, and it’s big enough to kill you. Additionally, stallions could be more confrontational if they feel you’re threatening their mares, and a herd, if frightened by you, could stampede and cause real damage. Weirdly, this happened in High Barnet in north west London, just last month, October 2016. There were no human injuries, fortunately, but two horses had to be put down.

I took the pictures below at an urban riding school a while back, and they show how easy it might be to get into problems. This foal is six days old, and very, very wobbly. In the second picture, she’s trotting happily after her mum, but she’s so uncertain on her feet she could easily fall behind, and a human could then easily get in between them without realising. It can happen very fast, which is why it’s best to stay on the alert when there are animals nearby.

Six day old foal with mother
Six day old foal with mother
Foal is off for a trot with mother
Foal is off for a trot with mother

The focus here is entirely on staying safe around animals.  I do think we can turn all this around to train guard animals – not just dogs, but goats and geese, maybe even swans, will give you advance warning of people on your property.   More about that in part two.

 

Floods and gas explosions in Norfolk

A wonderfully alarmist title, that!  In September, I was on holiday in Norfolk (as well as staying with friends and foraging earlier – I had a real blast).  I was in a rented holiday cottage near Bacton Gas Terminal, and it was quite an eye-opener.

I saw at least half a dozen different sorts of sea defences – some designed to stop waves dead on, some designed to make them lose their power, and a couple of different types of gates too. One of the shore-side sets looked like it might have been designed to stop, or at least delay, a terrorist attack on the Terminal from small boats, but when I asked around, I was assured not. I’ll reserve judgement until I see similar defences in less security-conscious environments, however, because I certainly saw a lot of security patrols round and about, who were examining passers-by very carefully indeed. They’ve been on the go since at least 2007, so no big secret there, by the way.

The Gas Terminal is an amazing thing. It extends to each side of the local main road, but the fences and the security are things of beauty. I like panoramas of bright city lights at night (except for the effects of light pollution on astronomical studies) and the Terminal certainly qualifies as a substitute for a city in that respect.

It has its problems – there was a fire in 2011, for which Shell was fined a total of £1.5 million for neglecting basic maintenance, reported in the Daily Telegraph at the time. And at the same time, one of the oil companies that use the site was warned about inadequate moorings of one of it’s floating oil platforms. .

What really surprised me, though, was the list of precautions at the holiday cottage, which I’ve listed below. We were right opposite two fairly pleasant caravan sites, and they were only two fields away from the Terminal.

Emergency Instructions to be followed on hearing the Bacton Gas Terminal Complex Red Alert Alarm

GO IN:

  • stay calm
  • DO NOT EVACUATE UNLESS ADVISED You may place yourself in greater danger (this will normally be done by the Police).
  • make sure neighbours are aware and go indoors.
  • close external doors and windows and turn off ventilation systems to keep out any gas.

STAY IN:

  • extinguish all naked flames if possible.
  • stay in a room facing away from the terminal complex, preferably downstairs.
  • pull curtains closed and stay as far away from the windows as possible.

TUNE IN:

  • children at school will be properly cared for by their teachers, who will know what to do.
  • tune in to BBC Radio Norfolk FM 95.1, 95.6 or 104.4 or Heart Radio on FM 102.4
  • do not use mobile phones- except in an emergency – until the ALL CLEAR is given. This will ensure lines are free for the emergency services.

Seeing that list, I was really glad I was in a sturdy cottage, not a flimsy caravan. We had no trouble, of course, but it’s a surprisingly long list.  And to be honest, the phrasing of the advice not to evacuate could really really be improved, because as it reads right now,  the job of putting you in danger is to be done by the police.  Not what they intend!

The sea defences were really interesting too. Below is an ingenious gating system for the thigh-high sea wall thats on top of the promenade built along the actual sea wall, near Bacton Gas Terminal. It gives wheelchair access, dogs are allowed on it all year round, no one has to worry about actual gates to be closed properly, I imagine its a fun learning experience for the local 7 year olds on their scooters too.

Ramps at Bacton become a permanent flood gate
Ramps at Bacton become a permanent flood gate

There’s a handy little pdf from North Norfolk Council that illustrates and describes them all, or most of them. I didn’t see the reefs, but of course they’re not often on view.

Here are another couple of pictures of mine too. Below is the road to the sea at Sea Palling, complete with obscured face for anonymity’s sake. It’s close enough to the sea that you can just make out, at the summit of the hill, the words “Sea Pa … epende”. That’s the Sea Palling independent lifeboat station. And that’s a really big hill, specifically to act as a sea defence, completed in 1959 after the floods of 1953, when hundreds lost their lives in Eastern England, including 7 at Sea Palling.

Sea defence hill at Sea Palling, with floodgate on top
Sea defence hill at Sea Palling, with floodgate on top

But that hill, more than 20 feeet high – that hill has floodgates on top. You can’t see them too well in this photo, but their seating can just about be seen on the far right of the next photo, of the independent lifeboat station, facing the sea.  Those floodgates definitely show the scale of the potential problems.

Sea Palling Independent Lifeboat Station
Sea Palling Independent Lifeboat Station

It’s obvious, from what I saw, that the dangers are very real, and that any individual prepping has to take account of the large-scale emergencies that this area is subject to. Which means:

  • windup radios, or at least battery radios, are essential, to listen to those radio stations, whether that’s about weather or evacuation routes.
  • transport. If you live round here, or stay near here, I would say that personal transport is an absolute necessity.
  • water! When the power goes out, as it does because of flooding, water often follows.
  • emergency snacks too, that can be thrown into a rucksack and thrown into the car, or put on your bike if you’re on a bike.
  • a bug out plan. Evacuation plan, if you prefer, but between floods and gas escapes, you need to know how to get out of the area – which roads might be flooded? What does natural gas do, does it follow the contours of the land when it escapes, or does it drift into the sky? That will affect your evacuation route.
  • as a bit of a postscript, you should know what to do if you have a domestic gas leak.  This link to British Gas will tell you.  For the record, it’s 0800 111 999.

Still a great experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

September Foraging

I’ve been staying with a friend in a very sandy area of the country, unlike my own heavy clay soil, and it’s been fascinating to see the different gardening crops and routines.

2.7kg of crab apples on the go
2.7kg of crab apples on the go

But most of all, we’ve been foraging: crab apples, rosehips and hawthorn, all of which are nationwide, whatever the soil is. 2.7 kilos of crab apples, 2kg of rosehips and another kilo of haws, all from lovely locations. The rosehips were gathered a mile from any road at all, deep in a local nature reserve full of sand dunes and protected toads (we saw a baby, less than a centimetre long).

Wild rosehips on the Lancashire sand dunes
Wild rosehips on the Lancashire sand dunes

We followed two recipes, both from the Preserves book from Hugh FW’s River Cottage series, the hedgerow jelly and the rosehip syrup. I can’t see it on Amazon at the moment, but this one is similar (and there are second hand copies for pennies via that link:

There were many lessons …

Firstly, get your kitchen organised, and have everything ready to process your haul. My own kitchen is more or less up to speed with this – though not as good as British Red’s setup shown on his blog English Country Life – but my friend is looking after an elderly lady, so while I was there, the kitchen was filled with the paraphenalia for three of us, all with differing nutritional and dietary needs. In a grid-down situation, of course, we’d have to focus more, and concentrate more.

Secondly, using resources as local to you as possible, for freshness, for convenience, for time: the haws were only five minutes walk away, but the rosehips and crab apples were 15 minutes drive away. So more research beforehand is needed to make it work without overwhelming your days.

Thirdly, walking your neighbourhood at different times of year, is helpful in so many ways. It will show you what crops you can experiment with, and you can learn how long a crop is available for. We scouted the rosehips in the second week of September, but didn’t have time to pick them till the following week, and more than half of them were nibbled by wasps or rotten by then.

Next, an outside space to sort what you’ve gathered is pretty important, especially if you’re cooking in your domestic kitchen, not a dedicated space in an outbuilding or shed of some sort. I’m not sure my friend quite agrees with me on this one, but I don’t want to bring extra pests into the home, I want the leaf detritus and rotten berries onto the compost heap as soon as possible. Plus the sheer amount of space needed when you also have to sterilise your jars and bottles and so on, just makes it impractical to do everything from the initial processes right through to the bottling in the same room that’s being used for domestic life. Luckily, my friend has a little courtyard garden where we could sort through things in peace.

Getting the equipment together would be my fifth point, and I’ve said it before during earlier experiments. But you have to be willing to improvise too. In our case, we had a “died in storage” situation with the elastic of the muslin bag my friend used to filter the crab apple jelly. It had completely collapsed, and nearly slid off its tripod, taking the crab apple pulp with it. So the muslin bag was held on with its loops and with wire tied around it, which you can see in the photos. It was great, and it worked.

Crab apples draining through
Crab apples draining through

Lastly, labels. Last, but important. Labels are good – if you were doing this sort of preserving even a couple of times a week, you couldn’t possibly remember what’s what. Labels may look chintzy in some shops, but they’re a real essential. Showing the month and year you made your produce is also a good idea.

Labels aren’t last, sorry. There’s also the crucial taste test! The rose hip syrup wasn’t good, to be honest – much, much too sugary. And as with any wild species, the taste varies from plant to plant. In this case, the taste of the actual rosehips was very mild, and overwhelmed by the sugar. The spicy crab apple jelly, which also has the haws in it, is still maturing.  I’m hopeful.

Spicy crab apple jelly
Spicy crab apple jelly

If there was an ongoing crisis of some sort, there are better things to do with sugar than to make a sugary drink. Still, since we’d made it, I used it on my porridge instead of honey – it was certainly sweet enough, and there are nutrients and micronutrients in rosehips. Waste not, want not.

RICE: a new-to-me medical acronym

I can’t emphasise enough that this is about a small medical experience of my own – it’s not medical advice.  That said, please keep reading …

I needed to pop over to my GP’s last week, and luckily I was able to squeeze in to their “clinic” – which seemed to mean “you don’t get an appointment, just turn up at midday and we’ll see you when we can”.  Fair enough – I was seen at about 12.20, in and out in a few minutes.

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I’d been chopping back brambles during the previous weekend – which is most definitely a prep, clearing a garden so that you can plant edibles – and at the end of the day, noticed a bright red area.  A bite?  A bramble puncture?  Who knows, I’d have to have a time machine to find out.  But 24 hours later, there was a big problem, a huge swelling, that increased the size of my ankle by maybe 40% . Not great, not great at all.

Since it was still there two and a half days later, I went to the doc.  After looking at the NHS website, I was concerned there might be an infection, especially an infection of the cellulitis variety, which can be horrendous.  But although it was bright red, it wasn’t sore and it wasn’t tender, so I was hopeful it was something easily sorted.

And it was! I was given the acronym RICE: rest, ice, compress, elevate.

REST: let your body heal a bit.  Not so relevant to me this time, but important at other times. Apparently, it’s best to take 1 or 2 days rest, if indicated by a doctor.

ICE: to take down the swelling, and help the area heal faster.  Don’t put the ice directly on the skin, wrap it in a towel or just use the classic bag of frozen peas, wrapped in a tea towel.

COMPRESS: to help limit the swelling to the injured area, and to give support.  It’s crucial not to compress too much, if you cut off the blood supply to the affected area, you could then give yourself a life-changing, totally avoidable injury.

ELEVATE: elevating to ease the pressure on the wound, and to help gravity with the healing.

More detail on all of this is available on this website, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is the only one I could find, oddly.  There’s a WebMD page too.

Because of the particulars of my little wound, I was also advised to use an antihistamine, and an antiseptic cream such as Savlon. Job done.

It did start me thinking about wounds like this in relation to prepping, however.  If it had been an infection, that would have depended upon antibiotics to cure it – and antibiotic useage is in deep trouble right now, as all the drugs we have are becoming less effective, and resistance has recently been discovered even to the antibiotic of last resort, as described in this BBC report from the end of last year.  And everyday gardening is mentioned in that report, incidentally.

Once I’ve been wearing my heavy duty gardening gloves, I’ve become pretty cavalier about protection whilst gardening: that’s going to change.  Ankles are vulnerable too, even in sturdy sandals like mine, there are plenty of openings that leave you vulnerable to problems.  I really don’t fancy becoming a statistic in the Antibiotics Apocalypse, even though that phrase is only a marketing headline, it does sum up what could well be a severe problem in the future.

Lightning Strikes!

Lightning strikes image by NASA
Courtesy of NASA

There are a huge number of lightning strikes every year, and a surprising number of them kill people. Exact numbers, however, are hard to come by – so, using data on the USA collected by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), it can be confirmed that over 400 people are struck by lightning every year in the USA, and that between 55 and 60 of them are killed. Of the rest, many of them suffer permanent neurological damage. Let me repeat that – permanent.

It can be a devastating problem. Just last month, in June 2016, almost 100 people were killed in India – in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkand and Madhya Pradesh. These figures represent catastrophe for the communities and families involved, especially as most of the casualties are labourers with only one income in the family.

Weather is more extreme in the USA and in India than it is in the UK – but we’re catching up quite a bit, thanks to climate change. Just this week, there was a warning for a majority of the UK for “Thunderstorms/Flash Flooding/Large Hail/Tornadoes”. I was surprised to see that list presented in such a matter of fact way, and it’s only because there’s so much going on right now – Nice, Turkey, Brexit after effects including a new Prime Minister – that it didn’t make headlines.

There can be very little notice of lightning strikes, because they can occur so far away from the centre of the storm – thats why it’s important to err on the side of caution, although that can seem completely impractical. What if there’s a storm, with distant thunder, when you’re due to leave the house for the day, dropping the kids off at school before getting to the train station to go to work?

I can tell you what best practice is, around lightning strikes. I can tell you that if I finish seeing a client and there’s a storm on, I suggest that we wait it out before either of us leaves. But I’m self employed – now that I know so much more about lightning, I’m not sure what I’d do if I was still an employee. Please leave feedback below, if you can, or contact me privately if it feels too identifiable.

The installation of lightning conductors and protectors is outside the scope of this article (though I sense another article on it’s way about that) but there are many, very simple things that we can all do to reduce the likelihood of lightning damage.

INDOORS

Switch appliances off AND unplug them. When there’s a surge in electrical supply because of a lightning strike, it has to go somewhere. Surge protecting extension leads will probably protect from comparatively small surges, like the ones that happen when electricity comes back on after a short power cut.

Storms can happen fast: make sure that you can get to your wallplugs quickly, that you don’t have to manoeuvre heavy furniture out of the way. Or that you have one of those protective extension leads – you can unplug your appliances really fast, and then, if you want, you can still grapple with the furniture to try to ensure that the extension lead isn’t fried.

There are UPS as well as extension leads: Uninterruptible Power Supply products ensure that the computer can be shut down safely, rather than an emergency shutdown. At the level of investment that most individuals can afford, that’s the best there is. Power down, in good order and unplug.

Don’t use a landline phone when you can hear thunder and especially not when you can see lightning. If the phone line itself is struck, even a couple of miles from where you are, you might quite easily be thrown across the room. Cordless phones, and mobile phones, are said to be unaffected – but isn’t a cordless phone plugged in to your landline is still liable to get affected by a strike on the phone line? I wouldn’t risk it, it’s a very low probability event, but a very high impact one.

Don’t use water, or touch metal or electrical objects. This is the time for reading a book, doing a few stretches, having a singsong or writing a letter. Dusting the skirting boards, even!

If you hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning – take precautions as above as quickly as possible. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from the rainfall or thunderstorm cloud.

OUTDOORS

If you’re outdoors, get indoors as soon and as safely as you can. Remember that all thunderstorms produce some lightning, and if you can hear the thunder, you’re in danger. And there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.

Move away from tall things (trees, power lines) and metal things too (parasols, bicycles) since they all attract lightning.

If you’re surrounded by trees, take shelter under the shorter trees.

However – don’t be the tallest object in the area, so avoid open areas as well.

Get to a low-lying area if you can, because of lightning striking the tallest objects around, but remember that flash flooding is increasingly common these days, don’t put yourself at risk of that either. All of this really emphasises my first point – there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.
If you feel your hair stand on end and feel tingly, that means that lightning is about to strike, so crouch down, get on the balls of your feet and bend forward putting hands on your knees. The scientific basis for this is to make yourself as small as possible, to make yourself as small a target as possible, and to ensure that if you are unlucky enough to be struck anyway, the current will pass through your extremities, not your torso (i.e. not your heart and lungs).

Don’t lie flat, that will make you a bigger target, and put more of you in touch with the wet earth. Water is a great conductor.

Speaking of which … if you’re swimming, get out of the water, fast. If you’re in a boat of any sort, the same applies. Get out of the water, and get away from it.

If you’re with a group of people, spread out – statistically, this actually increases the chances of someone getting hit, but it also increases the chances that not all of you will be hit, so that any victims will have help on hand.

Lightning can strike several people at once, especially grouped together, and a mass casualty situation caused by lightning is triaged in a different way from others: if a strike victim is breathing on their own, they’ll probably continue to breathe, so most attention is paid to the people who aren’t breathing.

The best-practice recommendation is to stay inside a safe building or vehicle for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder clap. That’s a long time, I know – but how often are thunderstorms in your area, even nowadays?

IN A VEHICLE

Keep the windows closed, that will help them conduct the electrical charge through to the ground and away from you. And the window area itself may be struck: if the window is open, that means that you will be struck, directly.

A car only provides protection if you are inside it (and it has a hard top). But just as with the surge protectors above, there’s still a chance. Be careful.

Don’t touch any metal part of the car, or the car radio.

IF SOMEONE IS HIT

Lightning victims don’t carry an electrical charge – they’re safe to touch, but they need medical attention urgently. Phone 999, or the medical emergency number of your own country if you’re not in the UK.

Deaths caused by lightning strikes are usually due to cardiac arrest – learn how to give emergency resuscitation. This page has the well known Vinnie Jones resus video, hands only CPR is a lifesaver.

Watch for two wounds: an entrance and an exit burn. Don’t put anything on them, just cover them with the cleanest, most sterile material you have available at the time.

If possible, move the victim to a safer place – lightning really can strike the same place twice, unfortunately.

Finally, this is a great view of where lightning is striking right now.

Dangers on the beach

Real life issues came calling on me in late spring and early summer, some good (weddings!) and some bad (illness and a few unnameable emergencies). So there was no blogging, but I was still taking pictures, and bearing in mind my determination to post a series about flooding, I thought I’d put up these pictures, taken during the storm that killed my garden fence.

Public Sea Safety Information
Public Sea Safety Information
Be Happy And Safe
Be Happy And Safe

The media love stories about sharks in British waters (though here’s a more realistic piece from the Beeb last year) but my pictures to the left show the real dangers: people getting swept off their feet by a large wave and not being able to get back in control, swimmers not realising how dangerous the water temperature and currents can be, people jumping off the piers and either hitting their heads or just not having the strength to swim back to shore. Even on sunny days. And sadly, people jumping in to try to save their dogs: usually, the dogs manage to swim back, and the people drown.

All of that is made worse by drunkenness – Brighton is one of the ultimate party towns, of course – and ignorance of the local conditions in particular, and the power of the sea in general. Some of those who die are children, whose parents/guardians let them walk right at the water’s edge during a storm, because they genuinely don’t understand how unpredictable the sea can be. And at Brighton, the shape of the beach causes huge problems, the shingle shelves very steeply in a few places: you can see it in the picture in this second BBC report.

Brighton and Hove Council have got a good section on their website about sea safety, including videos and video transcripts and a link to RNLI information. The text includes the weaver fish, which I’d heard of, but didn’t know how to treat. I do now!

Such avoidable deaths … please make sure you and yours are safe near the water, wherever you are, and that you know about any local hazards.

Save

Flooding

As I’ve done with other big topics, I intend to write about this in several parts. This part is an introduction and the rest is about what to do to safeguard against flood effects – good solid prepper activities, which will make recovery from any flooding go more smoothly.

Introduction

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Floooding risks outlined

Coastal flooding on the scale of the 1953 disaster, when over 300 people died, isn’t currently as high up the UK government’s disaster scale as it used to be, because of all the money that’s been thrown at sea defences since then. Pockets of land still suffer from coastal erosion, and for the people affected it’s life-changing; plus one or two storms each year are bad enough to damage sea walls, causing flooding and endangering life, but it’s not currently as severe as inland flooding. It may become so once again later on in this century, because of sea level rises, but as of this moment, it’s inland flooding that needs our attention.

Inland flooding happens more often nowadays on a yearly basis, and it’s now started to happen repeatedly within each year, often in the same places. This year, 2016, saw people in north west England flooded half a dozen times, and the year before, parts of Somerset had been flooded for weeks at a time. The National Risk Register details the consequences of inland flooding:

  • casualties and fatalities
  • damage to property and infrastructure
  • loss and/or interruption of supply of essential goods and services
  • possible contamination and environmental damage.

Monitoring and forecasting is spread between a whole raft of organisations: the Met Office, the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales and the Flood Forecasting Centre. Floodline is the relevant, active warning service.

Consultation for a review of national flood resilience has just finished (on 4th March) though heaven knows when it will actually be published. In the meantime, there’s a central government page on the .gov.uk website for the 2015-2016 floods, which is more immediately helpful. Though my guess is that if you’re one of the people who have been affected, that page won’t look that great, and I must say, the government flood pages, whether they’re warnings, advice or active help, are a complete mess. There’s no one listing of all the useful pages that I can find, not at all. I can find them all, eventually, but I had a real sense of being on a merry-go-round.

Summary of the points below

  • check if you’re at risk.
  • sign up for flood alerts if so.
  • if you’re especially vulnerable, check beforehand if you can evacuate to somewhere safer close by.
  • nothing is 100% perfect: you may have to accept that the water will get in.
  • put everything as high up as possible: the next floor, the tops of the cabinets, tables, furniture on bricks if nothing else.
  • phone numbers and references of utilities, aid agencies, insurance company, financial affairs, friends and relatives should be kept with you.
  • deploy any flood defences you have: sandbags, floodboards etc.
  • garden: move any large/loose items or weigh them down.
  • move animals to safety, or prepare to evacuate them too.
  • move your car out of the flood risk area, but make sure you can still access it for evacuation.
  • make sure your flood kit is up to date: torch, warm and waterproof clothes and footwear, water, food, medication, rubber gloves, basic entertainment.

Safeguarding against floods

A lot can be done! Checking online whether your area is particularly at risk is the first step.  I used Bicester to check this, as it was the town I used in my book Getting Home In An Emergency.

Although it’s not really near any particular danger points, the little streams that run through it have the potential to cause local havoc. That dark blue colour means there’s a 1 in 30 chance of flooding in any one year, that’s worth knowing.

There’s also a map showing current river levels: there are up to three information or gauging points in Bicester, where river data is collected, and this one shows that at the time of writing (10 March for this section) it’s in some danger of flooding, though it’s far from the worst it’s ever been.   There’s also a link for danger from surface water flooding, and that one made it look like poor old Bicester was in danger of drowning.

So that’s the first thing: check whether your particular location is in any danger, both long term and right now, and checking the “gauging stations” close to you to see exactly how dangerous the current situation is. You could also sign up for flood alerts (like the maps, a link to the signup page is on the “Winter Flooding 2015” page). For people in danger zones, the flood alerts are free; I suspect others have to pay.

If you’re especially vulnerable – you live in a park home, or a ground floor flat, or a bungalow, or you or someone who lives with you is disabled or even bedridden, you have fewer options than most of us, and you’re unlikely to be able to ride out any flood in your own place safely. So you have to be prepared to evacuate, whether that means getting in your own car and driving out, or heading to a neighbour – maybe to a flat on a higher floor, or to the clubhouse if you’re in a park home, but something, somewhere. I strongly urge you, if you’re in this situation, to talk with your neighbours and see if a mutual aid exchange can be established. You can evacuate to them, maybe you can water their plants and draw their curtains when they go away?

The last thing to remember is that nothing you do is 100% perfect: even if you’ve done everything, and the three feet of water flowing past your home isn’t getting in, you may need to open your doors yourself, to let it in. Unfortunately, this is so that the pressure of the flood doesn’t collapse your walls – better to have to gut the inside of your house than have it collapse altogether.

If whatever defences you do have are overwhelmed, what would help you inside your property? I’ll write about defence products another time, but putting everything as high up as possible is a good basic precaution. Start with things that are low down, near to the floor, that are absorbent: wooden furniture, equipment or decorations – chairs, tables, and so on. I have a semi-abstract wooden sculpture of a cat that I’d hate to lose to a flood, it sits on the floor like a real cat would. Plenty of useful things aren’t particularly valuable but would be thrown out if they were contaminated by floodwater (remember it’s likely to have raw sewage in it): the wheels of a trolley, a wheelbarrow, or a bike, anything with moving parts like a hand whisk in a drawer. Plants and dishes … put everything up high, as far up as you can, on top of the kitchen cabinets is probably the highest – the floor above is best of all, of course.

There’s a two page pdf document that could be helpful. The listing of phone numbers – gas, electric, insurer, local council etc – is something that was amongst the first precautions I took when I first started prepping, and I’d hope anyone who’s been prepping longer than six months or so already has that bit sorted.

That document also has a list of specific actions which are really useful in case your defences are overwhelmed, as mentioned above:

  • move furniture and electrical items to safety
  • put flood boards, polythene and sandbags in place
  • make a list now of what you can move away from the risk
  • turn off electricity, water and gas supplies
  • roll up carpets and rugs
  • unless you have time to remove them, hang curtains over their rods
  • move sentimental items to safety
  • put important documents in polythene bags and move to safety.move your car out of the flood risk area
  • move any large or loose items or weigh them down
  • move animals to safety, or make sure you can take them with you when you yourself evacuate.
  • Inform your family or friends that you may need to leave your home
  • Get your flood kit together and include a torch, warm and waterproof clothing, water, food, medication, toys for children and pets, rubber gloves and wellingtons.

Other subjects I’ll be covering later include:

  • travelling/moving in a flood
  • flood defence products pre-installed in your property
  • afterwards: your health, your garden, your future.
  • flash floods

 

Taxation! Argh!

Money money money

All sorts of unforeseen events can affect our financial lives, not just financial catastrophes themselves, but illness, terrorism of one sort or another, even the weather.. Real world prepping encompasses many different types of skills, events and objects, and for me, finances are a part of that, as they are for many, though not all, preppers.

Financial preps are funny old things. I did a couple of posts about financial prepping a while back, but right now I’m spurred to write because as usual last January, I finished my income tax declaration/negotiations with HMRC. And on the day I did that, what should happen but a major UK bank goes down under a DDOS attack! There are thousands of people who don’t pay their income tax on self employment until the last possible day, and if they got caught out by the DDOS attack (on HSBC) then they’d really be scrabbling around to try to finish things off. HMRC has rightly said that people can estimate figures to make a final payment, and then amend them within a year, and that’s true, of course. But there’s be chaos and stress that would be totally avoidable, with a little bit of forethought: preparedness!

As preppers, we talk (or at least, I talk) a lot about how the “just in time” culture of our retailers can lead to severe shortages in very little time if there is even a small problem. Likewise, for us to rely on a just in time approach to our tax affairs could present us with problems that would then be of our own making. For instance:

31 January, when our returns have to be in, is smack bang in the middle of the ‘flu season. If you’re relying on the last week in January to get your return in, and you come down with a bad case of flu on 20 January, HMRC really aren’t going to be too sympathetic.

A DDOS attack, exactly as happened on 29 January, could leave you without access to your money.

Other forms of cyber attack exist – internet servers themselves can be overwhelmed, leaving you stranded for an unknown length of time.

Your own internet connection could go down. Mine went down earlier in January – there was a problem at the nearest telegraph pole, believe it or not, and I lost internet and phone connection for two days. I could have coped with sending a tax payment by using the banking machines at the nearest branch, but if I’d still needed to fill in the online tax form, I’d have been in deep trouble. Going to a public computer, wherever it’s based, to fill in your tax return, must be an unpleasant feeling.

House fire. Imagine it. 27th January, and you’ve easily got four days to sort everything out and send HMRC the money. But a pan boils dry in the kitchen, burns, and then catches fire: you were in the attic, fetching down the tax papers. You make it outside the house, with your go-bag, but all the papers you were about to use are burned, and everything else is soaking wet after the Fire Brigade put the fire out.

Weather-related problems. Anything from your own connection breaking down with water on the line, a local electricity exchange flooded even though your home is dry, a lightning strike on a building or a crucial cable.

Figures might be unavailable – up to date log in details, new passwords, activation codes, all sorts of things, are necessary.

Complicated financial affairs? You may well need to amend figures and resubmit. Mine are a little bit complicated because I have some assets in the European Union, not just in the UK, and believe me, it makes everything trickier.

When you’ve finished inputting, and you’ve really got everything the way you want it, it takes a few days for the HMRC website to churn through your information and tell you what you owe on what you’ve submitted. Leaving your submission to the last possible day is really asking for trouble on this – I left 10 days, and I still made a hash of it, even though I’ve been doing these returns for 5 years. Their software told me I was entitled to a refund, but then I realised I’d filled in some figures incorrectly, and resubmitted. So then the software told me I’d made late payments for the last two years and I owed interest – not much, but still, thats what they said. I should have been working more slowly and submitted the figures earlier, then I wouldn’t have made the mistake that caused this problem, and both I and HMRC would have had less online kerfuffle.

Have enough money to pay and of course this particular tax prep is becoming more and more problematic for a lot of people. Claiming everything that’s tax-deductible, claiming all benefits you’re entitled to, legal methods of tax avoidance – like a private pension! – all of these are important, and if they’re not enough then second and even third income streams are called for.

Communicating with HMRC so that if there’s a problem filling out the form, or paying, you’re able to get through to them, instead of being 118th in the phone queue.

How is this prepping? Prepping isn’t all about making fire in the woods and purifying water – even though those skills are important in some circumstances, and lifesaving in others. Currently, we all live in this society, which uses money and insists we hand over some of it to central government. Ensuring that you meet your legal and financial obligations in the world as it currently is, is also about prepping. If you don’t do that, action can be taken against you, from fines at the very least all the way up to imprisonment. Like me, you probably want to avoid those things.

Nearly all of these events are outside our own control, and the only way, really, that you can ensure their effects on you are minimal, is to take action in good time. With an important event like submission of your tax return, don’t leave yourself only a week or so to get things completely done: personally, even though I often finish the submission in January itself, I start it the preceding April, with income details, regular outgoings, the easy stuff. This year, I aim to get it all done by the start of the preceding winter, but we’ll see.

Money can buy flexibility, but just like anything else, it has to be used correctly. And the more we use it correctly, the more we liberate for our own discretionary spending or saving.

Processing the harvest, even in February

Yep, you read that right. Harvest from the windowsills, harvest from a culture kindly shared by an online friend, and harvest from the supermarket – sorry about that last one, I’ve got no magic formula for conjuring food from the garden at this time of year, though perennials such as lemon balm, rhubarb, sorrel, garlic and salad burnet are all starting to grow.

This is a bit of a different from my usual post, but it underlies a great deal of preparedness in general. It’s about using what you’ve got, whether that’s cheap fresh food from the supermarket or first aid supplies from plants you’re growing yourself, or swapping cultures online. Thinking a bit outside the box to improvise, to keep alive the old skills, to become more self reliant. That means relying less on big business, saving money and giving yourself a bit of concrete insurance to ensure that you can cope with whatever comes your way in these uncertain times.

First aid supplies and food stocks are the two areas I’m most interested in. So last week, I was repotting my aloe vera plants, and three became five. I hadn’t repotted them for about 3 years, and I meant to just get some fresh soil in there and repot them in the same plantpots, but it wasn’t possible – the “pups”, the new plants, were too big, and some had to be separated out, so that’s what I did. I was really badly organised about it, I hadn’t got enough plantpots ready and my equipment was stretched out over almost the whole of the kitchen and the patio outside, as well as needing to find new sites for the newly potted pups. Not good.

But I ended up with five well-nourished plants, so that’s good, for sure. Aloe vera are incredibly easy to grow as a houseplant in the UK – ordinary potting compost, a windowsill, water once a week, and Bob’s your proverbial uncle. In fact, they’re quite hard to kill. Mine have suffered from not being repotted earlier, it’s true, but they’re still alive, and now they’re flourishing again.

How little soil they had
How little soil the plants had before repotting

They have quite a few uses – not just snipping a bit of leaf for a burn, which seems the only widely known use. Instead, I had a look at WebMD, a pretty orthodox site as these things go, and I was pleasantly surprised at what I found there. It can be used (every so often) for constipation, for many skin conditions (from psoriasis to male genital herpes) and I was shocked to find there are also studies supporting its use for diabetics, in lowering their blood sugar, and possibly in lowering cholesterol too. It is already used in conjunction with radiotherapy and is considered helpful for “radiation induced skin injuries”. That’s quite something.

Three of the new plants
Three of the happy new plants

It has to be processed carefully, however, and it can’t be used constantly, so I’ll be doing another post on the actual useage – I need to let my new plants settle in and expand their root system, in any case.

 

The supermarket harvesting was onions at 60p per kilo, not particularly cheap, but cheap enough, and I wanted to do another experiment with dehydrating. A lot of people who identify as ‘preppers’ already dehydrate, of course, and it became almost mainstream a few years ago, when Alys Fowler of Gardener’s World devoted most of one of her own TV programmes to it. But it’s new to me. I need dehydration as a form of preserving food – I don’t like using sugar for that, and vinegar is bad in any quantity for people with arthritis. I don’t quite trust my freezer any more, it doesn’t seem to store frozen veg too well, so dehydrating it is. Because there’s no magical ingredient to it, its quite hard to take it on board, so I’m doing gradual experiments – grapes and sweet peppers a few weeks ago, and onions today, a kilo of them.

Omigod! Never process that amount of onions without wearing swimming goggles, it qualifies as a chemical attack. Or a sinus treatment, I haven’t quite decided.

Saving seed
Saving the sweet pepper seed for later sprouting
Dehydrating onions
Dehydrated onions
Dried onions and sweet peppers
Dried onions and sweet peppers

One lesson I did take on board from the work on the aloes was to be much better prepared from the outset. So the base of the dehydrator was sitting right by the out-of-the-way electric socket, where it could hum away to itself for the next ten hours. The trays were stacked just behind me, on the way to the pre-positioned base. And I was stationed at my work area – a kilo of onions in front of me, a small chopping area to take the onion skins, a used pot to take the skins ready for the compost bin, and a knife and full-sized chopping board to slice the onions ready for the dehydrator shelves.

The jars I used to store the dried onions are Kilner jars, meant for home canning in the American sense; the bodies were run through the dishwasher and left to cool and dry, and the lids were just washed and dried – in future years, maybe I could make my own antimicrobial fluid by harvesting my aloe vera plants! But there are many experiments to come before I’m ready to do that. Interesting, though.

The final part of all this harvesting was an experiment with the kefir culture another prepper sent me: I’m sure mumsnet users share their kefir and scoby cultures around too, and once I’m comfortable with the process, I’m willing to pay it forward as well – if anyboy would like kefir culture, just get in touch with me via the comments.

I used a very pretty jar I had lying around, and seconded an old peanut butter lid to lay across the top, then put the whole construction in my airing cupboard. The hot water wasn’ t on, so it didn’t overheat.

Kefir jar sitting in the airing cupboard
Kefir jar in the airing cupboard

It’s very, very simple to harvest – after 48 hours, I strained the now-lumpy milk into a jug. The strainings went into a new jar with more milk. The kefir-ed milk was put into the fridge – I’ll use it over the next few days. I don’t want to drink this much milk regularly, even though apparently the fermentation uses up the lactose, so I’m going to be experimenting with water kefir, which comes up prominently on a web search.

Looking after the culture is a little bit more complicated than this – making sure you have clean jars and lids, timing the fermentation to fit in with your own life, and how much product you want – that just takes time to find the right way forward for each person.

Each experiment worked well, and the dehydrating in particular means I’m not reliant on continued electricity to power the freezer, to keep my food stocks good to eat. Dehydrated food stores compactly, too – as anyone who’s soaked beans overnight knows, dried food has much less volume and weight than the original food. The dehydrator can’t work without electricity, of course, but that’s my next personal project, and a solar briefcase is already sitting in my stores, ready for the battery of my choice. A haybox is half made, to cook dehydrated food – an electric slow cooker can be used in the meantime. The aloes and the kefit mean that I’m looking after the health of me and my family.

One project leads on to another, and the net result is more stocks, more skills, and more preparedness all round. I like it.

After a terrorist attack

This is the last in my “terrorist” series … I did think it needed a post to itself,  as there are several time frames to think about.

By Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons
Mstyslav Chernov, Wikimedia Commons

Immediately afterwards

Don’t gather in large groups, whether or not you’re close to the scene of the attack(s) – groups are more likely to be targets than individuals.

Just because you’ve got away from the immediate area of the attack, don’t consider yourself safe: attackers are mobile too. In the Bataclan in Paris, some people who were shot were already outside. And the Sousse attacker roamed the area for many minutes.

Shelter somewhere safe as soon as you can. Don’t necessarily try to travel – terrorists may still be around, and there may be other devices planted, or other attacks planned, e.g. at travel hubs. Plus the security services may well shut down all travel in any case, and even if you have your own transport, there may be delays, or even, horrifyingly, you could get caught up not just in further attacks, but in the flight of any surviving terrorists – for example, you could be the unlucky person whose car is hijacked. You should wait for a while – you will need to judge at the time what this means – maybe public transport is running again, maybe all terrorists have been captured or killed.
Even if you don’t need medical attention, getting somewhere safe will let you recover from the shock and get first aid for any minor wounds. You’ll also be able to find out the latest news on the security situation.

Is everyone in your own circle of friends and/or relatives safe? Are any of them wounded? Do they need support in hospital?  Is there information about what to do if one of your party has been killed?

The phone lines and frequencies will be crazy busy. Send texts where you can – keep your voice calls to a minimum.

Helping the authorities

Make sure you contact the police or anti-terrorist services, so that you are on record as having been at the event. You may have pictures or film on your phone or camera that could help identify the terrorists, or at the very least help with the timeline of events. The authorities know that not everything they get will be useful to them – they’re used to having to sift through for those little details that help take things further.

Even if you don’t have concrete evidence like that, you have your memories and impressions, and anything you can remember about the attackers will be useful: height, sex, weight, colour, build, accent, language, what they said, what they gave as their “reasons”.

If you’re not interviewed straight away, maybe because events are ongoing, write down your memories and impressions. That becomes more important when you’re watching the news, as the film of events can start to infiltrate your own memories.

Online

Twitter: Twitter was used on the same night as the Paris attacks, not just to hear news and express emotion, but to offer help. The hashtag #PorteOuverte, or “open door”, was quickly up and running, with residents in the affected areas offering shelter to anyone who had been cleared from the streets and had nowhere to wait.

Some just posted their addresses, while others asked Twitter users to contact them; another tried to bring in the basic security of not sharing addresses publicly, which makes sense. And most powerfully of all, “tweet safe places, not your thoughts on the matter. A shelter will help, prayers later.”

If you’re in a big city that’s mostly unknown to you, you might be miles away from your temporary base, and a grassroots campaign like this could feel like a lifesaver.

Facebook: Facebook was soon doing what it could by marking everyone in Parisian locations “safe” as they checked into their pages.

Later On

If you or your loved ones were caught up in terrorist events, you’re bound to want to talk about what happened and what might have happened – debriefing, in a way, and it’s a normal, healthy human reaction. You’re also bound to have feelings of one sort or another that you didn’t experience at the time – that’s often what shock is, numbing us out so that we can feel the feelings bit by bit. Respect that process, give yourself time to go through it all. If you need help to talk things through, then you do, and that needs to be respected as well.  Counselling and PTSD work can be a big help.

Precautions will be very high locally, and probably nationally, maybe internationally, for a few weeks, or a few months. In relation to the IRA bomb campaigns, precautions in the UK were very high for years, and some of those precautions are back again in relation to new terrorist threats. Accept it with good grace, and take it into account when you judge journey time.

What do we do now?

I’d caution everyone against knee-jerk reactions demanding sanctions against one group or another. I’m a little wary of saying that, as I do think our Western ethos of tolerance is being used against us. However, knee-jerk reactions (usually the result of “this sabre tooth tiger is going to kill me”) rarely give the right answer to 21st century life.

Conclusion

Life really does go on after even the worst of this type of event. But it doesn’t go on for the people killed, and it’s forever changed for their families and friends. This post, like all the others in this series, is meant to help you ensure that your life, and the lives of your loved ones, are preserved from the toxic chaos and hatred of the terrorists.