In the 1970s, Japanese children’s book author Taro Gomi created a bestselling picture book, “Everyone Poops,” delighting most children and causing consternation in some adults. Delighted or not, let’s face it: The title is true and an important fact to keep in mind when considering preparation for an emergency. In this last in a series of three simple earthquake preparation actions, the 3 W’s, we take up the topic of waste. (In September, we focused on warmth, and in October, water.)
OK, let’s review the basics again. According to the United States Geological Survey, there is a 5 percent chance of a Seattle fault and a 10-15 percent chance of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake striking our region by 2055. This equates to an up to 20 percent chance of a major earthquake striking King County with potentially catastrophic damages in the next 35 years.
Proper control of human solid waste after an earthquake is essential because one of the top two causes of morbidity and mortality after natural disasters is life-threatening dehydration from diarrheal disease caused by fecal contamination of water, food, cooking implements and your own two hands. (The other is acute respiratory infections, which given the current pandemic, you know how to minimize your exposure to through social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks.)
Remember, should you need medical help in the aftermath of destructive earthquake, hospitals will be overwhelmed, understaffed and short on supplies. Ambulance services will likely not be available. Prevention of illness is your best strategy, and managing solid human waste will play a significant role in that illness prevention.
Things to keep in mind
Water and sewer pipes are vulnerable to shaking amplification and rupture during an earthquake. In a 2018 study of earthquake response, the King County Wastewater Treatment Division concluded that recovery and reconstruction of our sewer system and treatment plants may take years to complete.
Water won’t be coming into your toilet, and you won’t want to waste any precious supply on flushing. Besides, any human waste that gets flushed and enters the sewer line will flood out of any break in the pipeline and pose a health risk. One alternative is to line your toilet bowl with a plastic bag to capture and manually dispose of poop, but it’s possible you may not have access to your toilet.
Human urine is sterile, so we’re less concerned about illness with exposure to that.
Twin bucket toilets will serve you well, whether you are able to remain in your home post-quake or must live temporarily outside in a tent or shed.
Simple twin bucket toilets
Supplies needed: two 5-gallon buckets; pool noodles (or two toilet seats); several boxes of 13-gallon kitchen garbage bags; lots of toilet paper; several bags of kitty litter (alternately, store a shovel to collect and use dirt from your yard); and, of course, hand sanitizer.
Create two makeshift toilets from the two 5-gallon buckets by cutting a pool noodle to fit around the top lip of each bucket. These pool noodles are your comfy toilet seats. Mark one bucket for urine (pee bucket) and the other for bowel movements (poop bucket). When you urinate, use the pee bucket but place any toilet paper you use in the poop bucket; take the pee bucket outside and spread the urine on the ground in an area larger than your shadow. Urine contains salts that can harm some plants, so spread it over a wider area.
Before you urinate and defecate, line the inside of the poop bucket with two plastic garbage bags and affix the pool noodle around the rim. After each use, sprinkle the entire surface of the pee and poop with kitty litter, wood ash, dirt, sawdust or sand to hold down the odor and absorb the liquid. You can use this poop bucket several times before emptying. Once the poop bag is half full, remove both bags and squeeze out the air and tie them off tight. Store this bag outside in a secure container, and the City of Seattle will pick it up eventually. Keeping it in your garbage can, recycle bin or compost bin will keep the rats and other vermin from feeding on the protein in your poop and spreading disease. And don’t forget to use hand sanitizer after using either of your buckets.
As we’ve mentioned in earlier articles, it’s easy to put off completing these relatively simple tasks to get prepared for an emergency. With the fatigue of a pandemic wearing us down, turning our attention to something concrete like tending to the 3 W’s — warmth, water and waste — is a manageable approach that will help you survive a major earthquake.