Have you given any consideration of what you would do if your basic sanitation system was not available following a disaster? As unpleasant as this might seem, not having a viable sewer or septic system – or even an outhouse – could pose a problem if you have not given it some thought a head of time.
A few years ago I wrote and article that included a very basic Earthquake and Natural Disaster Emergency Checklist. In response, a reader wrote:
For item “Check for sewage and water lines damage”, you wrote if the sewage line is suspected to be damaged, one should avoid using the toilet.
What do you recommend people do instead? How does one deal with sewage when there’s no place to “go”? I know you do not want people using streams and creeks as their toilet. Cholera is the next reality when human waste is spread around so to speak. So an outhouse? A designated pit? A trench? What do people do when there’s an acre of pavement around their residence? Find a tree? That’s what they do when they walk their dogs.
A plan for this circumstance would be appreciated by those who will likely face this situation with everyone else in the city in a crunch. Not to mention those in the country who might find they are hosts to more people than their house can serve.
The answer, as with most things preparedness related, depends on a lot of factors.
Here on San Juan Island where I live, there are lots of wooded areas where we can build a latrine as well as boats in the nearby marina with well equipped sanitation systems including large holding tanks. Still, when the stuff hits the fan, where does one go to do their business especially in the city?
The following article taken from the Missouri Department of Health offers some viable suggestions:
SEWAGE DISPOSAL following an EARTHQUAKE or OTHER DISASTER
What will happen?
In an emergency such as a large magnitude earthquake, sewer lines will probably be damaged and become inoperable. Sewage may back up and broken water lines may become contaminated by sewage.
What Should I Do?
If stoppage in sewer lines is suspected or obvious, discontinue discharge of wastewater in house or building sinks and drains and stop flushing toilets. Avoid contact with any overflow wastewater or sewage.
If I Can’t Flush the Toilet, What Can I Use?
Large extra-strength trash bags (double bags) may be placed in tight plastic or metal containers, with tight fitting lids, or used as liners in toilets. Household disinfectant can be used for odor control. Final disposal can be by burying or by sanitary sewer when notified by public health officials.
A dug latrine or trench 2 to 3 feet deep can be used to bury human waste. Spread a thin layer of powdered lime or dry chlorine bleach and a layer of earth each time it is used. Mark the latrine site with a stick so others know where it is.
Portable camp toilets, RV toilets, porta-potties, etc., can be used.
High occupancy complexes such as apartments, condominiums, and office buildings should consider making arrangements to obtain commercial chemical toilets.
What About Sewage Overflow in My House?
Wash all contaminated areas with detergent and water, then rinse with sanitizing solution of one tablespoon household bleach (5.25% sodium hypochlorite) to each gallon of water.
Be sure to clean and sanitize all contaminated areas — pay special attention to cooking utensils, work surfaces and other surface areas such as floors and walls which your family and pets may come in contact with.
The Portable Potty Bucket
The recommendations above, while very basic, will give you some ideas to get started. But what have I done? I have put together a portable potty bucket that includes the following items:
Large, extra-strength trash bags plus an assortment of smaller bags
5-gallon bucket (which when the time comes, will be lined trash bags)
Toilet paper scrunched into a sealed FoodSaver bag (you could use homemade cloth squares instead)
Puppy/Potty pads for Tucker the Dog
Tie Wraps for closing off the used bags of waste
Holding tank chemicals similar to the type used in RVs and boats
It was cost effective for me to order a bucket and portable bucket and toilet combo online but you could just as easily set up something similar yourself using a bucket and spare toilet seat that you have on hand. You could even skip the toilet seat and use a couple of well-spaced board laid across the top of the bucket.
As far as the other items, most are self-explanatory, except perhaps the disinfectant. I currently have packed away Pine-Sol only because I have a lot of it and no longer use it for household purposes. I am more comfortable using Pine-Sol than bleach but I am certain there are better alternatives that are more earth-friendly.
An option to the potty bucket is to line a regular toilet with large, heavy duty trash bags and do your duty in the relative comfort of your bathroom instead of using a bucket. Personally, though, I would rather lug a bucket outside for temporary storage of the bag of waste than to carry the bag outdoors without any support.
How to Use Your Disaster Potty
Every time the potty is used, some of the holding tank chemical or disinfectant should be sprinkled on top to keep the smell at bay. Kitty litter or garden lime will work well too. In a pinch, you can use some dirt.
Your waste paper (TP) should be placed in a separate bag that can be disposed of separately and perhaps even burned. If you are using cloth wipes in lieu of TP, they can also be placed in a separate bag for laundering later, when the water is turned back on and things, hopefully are back to normal.
When the bag of waste is about 2/3s to 3/4s full, top it off with more of your disinfectant. Tie the bag securely and take it outdoors until it can be disposed of properly (a subject for another time).
And most important, sanitize your hands afterward. This is not a step to be overlooked if you want to avoid sickness and disease. (See Survival Basics: Hand Sanitation For Good Hygiene.)
The Final Word
Something you absolutely must not do following a disaster is flush your toilet until you are 100% sure the sewer main is not down. If it is, flushing may likely cause a gross, smelly backup into your home. If you are on a septic system, you are in better shape but only if you have water available for flushing.
Regardless of whether you live in a city or the country, the need for a plan if and when your usual sanitary system is down is important. When you think about, this gives new meaning to the acronym, when the SHTF.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
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Spotlight: I believe one of the better bargains out there is the Tote-able Toilet from Emergency Essentials. I have priced purchasing the bucket and toilet seat lid separately and found that it was more economical to pick up this kit (currently on sale for $14.95). I have filled my portable potty with my sanitation supplies and even then there is room to spare.
Bargain Bin: Today I feature an assortment of products that can be used to put together what I like to call, a potty bucket.
Kirkland Signature Drawstring Trash Bags: I readily admit that I am a big believer in the Costco Kirkland brand. Since it is an all-day trip to go to Costco, sometimes I do the easy thing and order from Amazon.
Coghlan’s Folding Shovel: The purpose of a folding camp shovel is to give you the means to build a rudimentary latrine. Of course, having a camp shovel is handy for a number of other things, too. This one will fit nicely in your potty bucket.
Walex Porta-Pak Holding Tank Deodorizer: Anyone who has had a boat or RV knows that these holding tank deodorizers really do work.
Hand Sanitizer Gels: Alcohol based hand sanitizer gels kill 99% of bacterial on contact. They are inexpensive and easy to use.
FoodSaver: As far as I am concerned, a FoodSaver is not a splurge. I use mine daily.
No Rinse Cleansing & Deodorizing Bathing Wipes: One wipe is more than enough for a complete “bath”. These are a good backup when traditional showers are not available such as the week or weeks following a disaster.
PURELL Sanitizing Hand Wipes Individually Wrapped 100-ct. Box: I prefer individually wrapped sanitizing wipes because they are easy to carry in a pocket, back or travel kit. As long as they meet the 60% or more alcohol criteria, the brand should not be important.
Amazon Basics Microfiber Cleaning Cloths These magic rags are the rags that keep giving. Seriously. I have had mine for over 10 years. They may be a bit stained but they still work. Forget about paper towels. For a one time cost you are all set. I plan to cut up some of my older stained cloths to use as washable TP – just in case.
For over 25 years Emergency Essentials has been providing the highest quality preparedness products at great prices. Plus, each month they feature sales that quite honestly are fantastic. This month give the gift preparedness.
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