Dealing with Poo After a Disaster

Avatar Gaye Levy  |  Updated: December 16, 2020
Dealing with Poo After a Disaster

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.

Dealing with Poo After a Disaster

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 Seat
Toilet paper scrunched into a sealed FoodSaver bag (you could use homemade cloth squares instead)
Disposable gloves
Personal wipes
Hand sanitizer
Puppy/Potty pads for Tucker the Dog
Microfiber cloths
Disinfectant
Kitty Litter
Tie Wraps for closing off the used bags of waste
Holding tank chemicals similar to the type used in RVs and boats
Camp Shovel
Tarp

Potty Bucket

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!
Gaye

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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. I have filled my portable potty with my sanitation supplies and even then there is room to spare.

Emergency Essentials Potty

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.

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My eBook, The Prepper’s Guide to Food Storage will provide you with everything you need to create an affordable food storage plan, including what to buy and how to store it. Nothing scary and nothing overwhelming – you really can do this!

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48 Responses to “Dealing with Poo After a Disaster”

  1. We picked up a hospital potty chair and put it over the bucket. There are potty bags that are designed to contain and decompose waste in RV supply stores like Wal-mart. 6 bags for $11. They will last about 1 or 2 days and can be put into regular trash.

  2. This is one topic I have done a lot of research on and have not found one article that deals with the whole situation completely.Everyone’s situation is different, but there still are a few basics.
    Rule #1 in any disaster is you are on your own! Don’t depend on some one else to have thought it out for you or will take care of it for you. Rule #2 is prepare for longer term, not just 72 hours, If we think after a major earthquake that there will be water and sewage anytime soon, than we are not prepared or thinking realistic!
    Humans produce on the average 5 gallons of the 3 Ps a week (pee, poo, paper) //www.yourfamilyark.org/yfa-blog/250-emergency-sanitation-the-scoop-on-poop. That is a lot of the 3 Ps if you are a family of 6 and live in an apartment! I live in the Pacific Northwest and there is no option of burying without running into water also if the waste has not been treated to kill the live critters (…one gram (0.035 oz) of human feces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts, and 100 parasite eggs!), they don’t die on there own they just keep growing. Pouring Pee out on the ground and plants has its problems as well,. Urine has salt in it and the animals lick it and it can make them ill and it can kill your plants.
    I will stop here I can go on a lot longer. They info is out there, but you have to look. here are a few sites to check out.
    1 //www.yourfamilyark.org/yfa-blog/250-emergency-sanitation-the-scoop-on-poop
    2 //www.usfra.org/group/disasterpreparedness/forum/topics/poop-tips#.UnbKzBCYxOY
    3 //www.backpacker.com/community/ask_buck/337
    4 //www.i4at.org/lib2/hmnwaste.htm
    5 //lnt.org/learn/principle-3#sthash.kHEDDMJd.dpuf
    6 //preparedchristian.net/survival-sanitation/#.UnsU8xCYxOZ
    7 //www.tacticalintelligence.net/blog/survival-sanitation-how-to-deal-with-human-waste.htm
    8 //www.sewersmart.org
    9 //www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/insects/fly/Houseflyprintout.shtml

  3. Luckily,we have a compost toilet that we brought with us from N.H.
    It is actually very clean and no orders and it can be used for compost in a garden . About once every 6 months we pull out the tray and do just that. In N.H we emptied the tray once a year. The material IS like compost consistency when it came out. There are some simple things to do but it’s very water saving and very practical.

    • Kathryn, I for one would love to hear about your composting toilet. Could it be your only toilet to be used? If so, how often would you “take out the tray”, and if it is used everyday, would it be composted when emptying the tray? How does it compost? It is hard for me to comprehend how this could work. Please write all you can. I’m sure it will be read. Thanks, John R

    • John, here’s a link for FAQs
      //www.natureshead.net/store/index.php?main_page=page_4&zenid=2223e6a13fed730f85b4964832597d90

      I know these have been used for it seems decades now. I have one for my RV (less emptying and carrying of extra water for that purpose.

    • I went to that web site and was getting excited. Everyone should have one of these. Then I went to the pricing page. Woo. Maybe on a wish list or when I win the lottery. Thanks for the info.

    • Look online for the book Humanure, I believe you can even get the older version free. It describes a simple and extremely cheap composting toilet system. I have lived with composting for over ten years now and have some pretty definite opinions. One of which is most of the commercial composting toilets are overpriced and inefficient. The particular type I have allows fresh and old to fall into the tray together and therefore does not compost all of it properly I end up dealing with the trays in the manner described in Humanure. Have plans to just go the Humanure route soon.

  4. Is there way to install a shutoff valve on my (city) sewer line to prevent backup from coming in in a disaster? It is a 6″ cast iron line, running through my crawlspace.

    • If your line is above the manhole, there should not be a problem with back flow into your house. There is a valve that can be installed, but must call a plumber. I read that in a lot of places it is standard to have one installed at the time of building

    • Check out this site //preparedchristian.net/survival-sanitation/#.UnsU8xCYxOZ

  5. What an appropriate post for a blog named “Backdoor” Survival.

    In regards to the question above regarding tampons – I went and bought a bunch of the cheapest ones they had at the store. I’m guessing after a few months following a SHTF scenario they’ll be worth their weight in gold. There is a great article referencing “Tactical Adventure Medical Preparedness Outdoors Necessity (T.A.M.P.O.N.)” out there regarding their use as water filters, bandages, and other alternate uses as well.

    • Tampons and pads should be part of your first aid kit as well. They make absorbent treatment for deep wounds. Not sterile, but will soak up a lot of blood if need be.

  6. I attended a local preppers group lecture on post SHTF sanitation, given by a gentleman who has worked in sewage and sanitation for many years. His point was, and I think it’s a good one, one way to minimize the volume of toilet waste that must be handled is to separate liquid from solid. Urine is not the problem, and in fact is great fertilizer for your plants, if you have a garden. It is the solid waste that must be carefully contained to prevent spread of disease. So “do” each thing in separate containment, and the liquid can probably be easily enough dumped in your yard for at least some time. There is also a whole science of “humanure” which you can search online for composting human manure if you live in the country and have the space to do so.

    • I agree about separating the two, Mama Grizzly. Human quantities of urine will overcome kitty litter very quickly. It would be pretty difficult to store enough kitty litter for a family, even for two or three days use.

      We camp with extended family at an unimproved spot in Idaho every summer, and have developed a method for dealing with urine from those who prefer to sit down. We got one of the bucket toilet seats for about $14 plus a 5 gallon bucket from Home Depot. We use a big knife/machete to cut out about a third of the bottom of the bucket and put in several small boulders. Cutting the bottom out is quite easy if you have a sharp knife (like a pointed chef’s knife from the kitchen), and ideally wear heavy gloves for safety.

      The boulders really increase stability. We set it up by a small tree, in part for privacy but also to provide a hand hold. One of our group had major knee surgery and never will recover fully, so she has found the bucket by a tree method a huge improvement over squatting, which she just cannot do. Even those who can squat think this is a great system. The urine flows out of the bottom of the bucket, and when we close camp we dispose of the bucket, to be replaced the next year.

      Unless one has a urinary tract infection, urine is sterile, so shouldn’t cause any problems. If you are on well water or taking water from a lake or stream, of course, you do want to separate the toilet by quite a distance, tho, just to be sure.

      Jane commented on the height and stability of a bucket, and that is definitely a critical issue for some. The rocks really help a lot, and so does something to hold onto. The height isn’t much lower than some toilets, and certainly beats squatting.

      If someone is too unsteady to use the bucket seat alone, they may have to swallow some pride and have someone help them. Another possibility, if no potty chair is available, is to remove the seat from a kitchen chair or some similar chair and put a toilet seat on it with bucket under it. A chair with a cane seat would be ideal: you could just cut out the caning.

      For bowel movements, kitty litter works fine, tho dirt or powdered lime do as well.

    • Nope. While my wife has family in Utah and Idaho since way back when, I am originally from Wisconsin. “Penrod” was a childhood hero of mine. Booth Tarkington’s Penrod, that is, who lived in Indiana some time after the horse died, but before the stable was turned into a garage. Penrod was a boy after my own heart, or perhaps the other way around.

      There is no finer exposition on American boyhood -nor any funnier- than “The Great Tar Fight”, which took up a couple chapters in Tarkington’s book “Penrod”. It is well worth the time to read. I read it many times as a boy, and as a man it still holds up as wonderful American literature about boyhood. Every 11 or twelve year old boy should read “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “Penrod”, and “Penrod and Sam”.

      I would add, as was added to my own reading list, anything by Ernest Thompson Seton, founder of the Boy Scouts of America. Most especially “Rolf in the Woods” and “Two Little Savages”, both of which would in their day have been categorized as “morally instructive novels for adolescent youth”. Rather than beat boys over the head with “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” Seton let lessons flow by osmosis from his pen to his young readers.

      Penrod was perhaps more subversive than Seton’s characters, but still moral, and very much a boy in an un-PC day. the next generation would be the better for having read all those books.

    • I was just wondering. When you mentioned Idaho. Many years ago, I sent my daughter to BYU to get her MRS degree, she did and became a Penrod. I was wondering if I was related to you. It seems many Penrods in Utah and Idaho.

    • Penrod by Tarkington is a free download for the kindle. Might be something to read aloud to the younger generation during power outages.

    • I read some place,to stabilize the bucket place it in a crate. but there still is the problem of sitting down on it if you have a disability or are large or tall.

  7. I hate to recall my first paying job back in the 40’s, a helper in the art of digging an outhouse. I worked with my uncle, me doing the shoveling and him watching over me, so I know how to dig an outhouse. Later in the 70’s, I flew a cargo plane out of Miami, a DC4 and cargo planes don’t have the bathroom facilities that passenger plane have. I know about putting plastic bags over a 2 gallon bucket, and having it sit inside frame with a nice lid.
    As far as my preps now, I am on a septic system, so barring the New Madrid Fault coming to life, and me having the water, I am OK. I have a potty chair like what the old sick people use that cant walk to the bathroom, wait a minute, that sounds like my near future. When I go to the grocery store, I grab extra bags that you put your produce in (they are free) to be used inside the regular grocery bags, to place over my potty chair pot. The produce bags are waterproof, but not very strong, where as the regular grocery bags are strong, but not water proof.
    One last piece of advice for when the crap hits. Be very careful about drinking straight out of the apple juice bottle. Smell it first.

    • A cute phrase I ran into. If your on a septic system or the sewage still works, but you have to haul in flush water, remember -“If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.”
      Saves a lot of straining to carry in flush water.

  8. I’ve been wondering what type of material you would recommend for wipes. I assume 100% cotton would be best. This would also include what to use for napkins and facial tissues. Another thing, that I don’t have to worry about (being male), but some of the young ladies do, is sanitary napkins/tampons. What can you suggest for those young ladies?

    • There are washable cotton feminine hygiene products or you can go old school and use cloths. Moonpads are a great product can be washed in cold water and dry really quickly, they have different absorbency products. I’ve been using them for about 6 months, great product

    • I have actually used pages of a Sears catalog when I was young and my grandmother still had an outhouse. That was only when we ran out of toilet paper. Being poor farm folk, it was often. Keep those catalogs from Christmas because newspaper leaves ink on your butt.

    • On the subject of wipes, I have already transitioned to cloth wipes for pee. T-shirt fabric works the best because it is soft and doesn’t unravel. I throw them in an open trash can that has a dryer sheet in the bottom. They do not smell at all because they have enough air to dry. I wash them with a regular load of clothes, when I have enough for a load because doing a load just to wash the wipes would negate the environmental purpose of using cloth toilet paper in the first place. The clean cloths I just pile in a small laundry basket. I have enough for about 3 weeks. Flannel is also good but it unravels.

  9. Thanks
    I got my new Kaito Voyager radio it was on sale for $39.99 thanks—it actually works here the other one I have doesn’t.

  10. The ‘bucket potty’ is probably the best way to go for this problem…however, there are many ‘not so young’ persons who would find that facility unusable…the elderly would need much more stability, find it difficult to lower themselves to bucket height, and also need help to rise up after. In our home, we have opted for a bedside commode which is stable, has arms for leverage, and is adjustable in height…just a thought!

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