Why the First 72 Hours After a Disaster Are Critical

Last Updated: April 27, 2020

Everyone from FEMA to Doomsday preppers will tell you that the first 72 hours after a disaster are the most critical. Your actions and response during this period can determine whether you live or die.

And, if you live, those actions can determine how comfortably you survive the disaster aftermath.

Here, we will look at exactly why those first 72 hours are so important so you can start planning on how to respond during them.

You Can’t Count on Your Utilities to Be Working

When a fallen tree damaged an electric pole in my neighborhood last year, it took the power company over 12 hours to come out and fix it. And that was just one tree in one neighborhood!

Imagine how long it would take the utility companies to get your utilities going after a major disaster like an earthquake or hurricane.

Take the recent hurricane Sandy as an example. During that disaster, more than 8.1 million homes were without power. The outages lasted for weeks.

According to Time, 1% of Jersey Central Power & Light customers were without power up until the evening before Thanksgiving.

Residents in New Jersey and parts of New York also went without water for weeks. This included many elderly people living in upper-floor apartments who weren’t able to get downstairs to seek out supplies. Obviously, the elevators weren’t working during the electrical outage.

How are you going to cook without electricity? How will you heat your home when the grid is down? How will you survive without drinking water? How will you flush your toilet, or keep clean without water? 

These are all things you need to consider when building a 72 hour disaster preparedness kit.

There Will Be No More Supplies

Last January, New Yorkers were warned that a blizzard was on the way. They responded by rushing to stores to buy last-minute supplies like bottled water and canned foods.

The media reported that shelves were bare and there was “shopping cart gridlock.” People waited in line hours to fill up their gas tanks.

Luckily, this wasn’t a major disaster so the supermarkets and stores were able to restock.

But what if it had been a major disaster?

The supplies will have been long gone. With roads out (such as happened in the recent South Carolina flooding), getting critical supplies to those in need can be difficult.

What are you going to eat and drink in the aftermath of a disaster? Do you really want to battle the masses to get the last loaf of bread on the shelves and wait hours in line for gas? Wouldn’t it be better to prepare ahead of time?

You can get a list of food items to stockpile for disaster here.

It isn’t just food items which you will need.

Before Hurricane Sandy struck, one hardware store received an estimated 10 thousand phone calls from people wanting to buy generators.

They quickly sold out of their generators, as well as their batteries, flashlights, and extension cords.

In the aftermath, now they are selling out of repair items like nails, sheet rock, and tools.

Get a list of non-food items to stockpile here.

No One Is Coming for You

One of the prepper mottos is “no one is coming for me.” Because, in the aftermath of a disaster, you cannot depend on any rescue team to come and help.  You MUST be self-sufficient!

Governments have a three-tiered system for dealing with disasters.

  • First Tier: Residents and local governments
  • Second Tier: State government
  • Third Tier: Federal government

According to a report from the Heritage Foundation, local governments are often overwhelmed during large-scale disasters. They rely on state and federal governments to help in these situations.

However, it takes an average of 72 hours for state and federal governments to respond.

When they do respond, their efforts are usually focused on the most dire cases – like rescuing those who are trapped on the roofs of their homes during a flood, helping evacuate hospitals, and pulling victims out of rubble.

Hurricane Katrina is one example of why you should not rely on the government to help you. As NPR reports, over 100,000 people were stuck in New Orleans after Katrina.

Only 15 out of 37 nursing homes were evacuated, causing hundreds of residents in them to die.

New Orleans officials made the mistake of taking people to the Superdome instead of evacuating them. Then more people came to the Superdome, causing it to be grossly overcrowded, and the buses meant for evacuation were underwater by this time.

If a disaster strikes, don’t count on anyone coming to help you. Ask yourself these questions so you can be prepared:

How will you decide whether to evacuate or shelter-in-place? How will you evacuate (car, bus, with friends…)? How will you stay safe if you decide to shelter-in-place?

Injuries Take a Toll in 72 Hours

In the first 72 hours after a disaster like an earthquake, the chance of finding survivors decreases.

There are cases where people have survived trapped under rubble for days, but those are miracle stories where the trapped victim had access to water of some sort.

Even if you aren’t trapped under rubble, you can still face a risk from more minor injuries.

In the Haiti earthquake of 2010, CNN reports that one of the major causes of death was a condition called rhabdomyolosis. It occurs when the muscles get crushed and rupture, causing kidney failure.

There are also cases of people getting sick from infections in minor cuts.

How will you treat injuries in the aftermath of a disaster? Is your first aid kit stocked? Do you know first aid?

The Window of Opportunity for Evacuation Is Short

When we are lucky enough to have advanced warning that a disaster is about to hit, an evacuation order may go into effect.

But, many people act too late – and with fatal results.

Many people simply don’t want to leave their homes and worldly belongings. They might take stock in wishful thinking and pray that the disaster won’t hit, or they might think that they can handle the disaster.

Many more people don’t evacuate because they are too paralyzed with fear. By the time they realize how bad the disaster is, it may be too late. This is why it is so important for citizens to come up with a disaster plan and practice it!

If you wait too long to evacuate, then it might not be an option anymore. There may be roadblocks up. The traffic jams might be so terrible that you are caught in your car when the disaster strikes. Or the government might round you up and herd you into a shelter.

People Get Desperate After 72 Hours

This is perhaps one of the scariest things which occurs in the 72 hours after a disaster: desperation. That desperation can lead people to lose all sense of humanity and do crazy, violent things.

Take the Hurricane Katrina timeline as an example.

The storm landed at 6am on August 29th, 2005. By the end of the day, looting had already begun. By the next day, looting had spread throughout the city. By the third day, citizens were desperate from lack of supplies, the government had collapsed into anarchy, and looting was rampant.

Do you want to be caught unprepared for the chaos? How will you protect your family? How will you keep your stockpile safe?

If you need help getting prepared, read this Ultimate Disaster Preparedness Guide: 6 Step Plan for Readiness.  You can also take this Preparedness Assessment Test.

Have you thought about what would happen in the 72 hours after a disaster? How have you prepared? Let us know in the comments below.

Hurricane Sandy by DVIDSHUB; Found on Flickr; CC SA 2.0

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  1. things that would have been shrugged off as everyday life a hundred years ago will now be what kills most people. panic and action without direction is the sign. our citizens have been told by the government that they will care for them when trouble strikes. They do try but cant. they do indeed save many lives when disaster strikes we also see the government take advantage and try to “disarm” with the notion that it will “prevent ” deaths. we with what we call civilization have been schooled to believe that it is government and only government who will save us. we cant do anything for ourselves. as we wait for the government to save us we will die. even in a small disaster, people will die for reasons that with just simple preparation would be only a bad memory at days end. it would take little reading from sites like this that would stop many from dying. a pantry with enough to feed your family for a month will allow you to direct your efforts to other things that will ensure your safety. needing to divide one’s efforts will cause mistakes to be made. my thanks to these authors who offer direction to save our families. what is needed is a way to spread the information to people. I myself was one who had my pattern of life set. get up go to work make money to live the American dream. our focus interrupted only with a moments vacation. packing our relaxing into one or two weeks without thought of disaster preparation. After all won’t government save us? thanks for reading an old mans ramblings


    • Hey Grampa – I see a lot of wisdom and truth in your “ramblings”. Thanks for stopping by and giving us the benefit of your experience.


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