The Anatomy of a Breakdown

If we can all agree on one thing, it’s that the government and disaster organizations alike grossly underestimate how dependent the majority of the population is on them during and after a disastrous event takes place. We need not look any further than the last major disasters that have occurred to find our answers: the Haitian earthquake that occurred in 2010, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2011 super tornado of Joplin, MO, and even as recently as Hurricane Sandy.

As preppers are well aware, when the needs of the population cannot be met in an allotted time frame, a phenomena occurs and the mindset shifts in people. They begin to act without thinking and respond to changes in their environment in an emotionally-based manner, thus leading to chaos, instability and a breakdown in our social paradigm.

When you take the time to understand how a breakdown behaves and how it progresses, only then can you truly prepare for it.

The Anatomy of a Breakdown

This glimpse into a systemic breakdown is based on an isolated, limited disaster or event where emergency responders have been deployed. I must emphasize that all bets are off if the event is wide spread, affecting multiple tens of millions of people simultaneously.

Phase 1: The Warning

Although disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes can come on so quickly that timely warnings are not always given, for the most part, governments typically provide adequate time to get a population ready in advance. Local governments even go as far as to err on the side of caution and sternly warn the citizens to evacuate.

For one reason or another, there will be a select group that stays behind. Some of these citizens are prepared and ready for what may come and may feel the need to stay to defend what is rightfully theirs but the majority of the population will not be ready for what they are about to endure. Those that are in this unprepared majority who choose to ride out the disaster do so because they are either unaware of how to fully prepare for disasters, have become complacent or numb to the heeds of warning from the local government and news media, or are overly confident.

This is the point in this cycle where herds of people go to the grocery stores frantically grabbing supplies. Most grocery stores will not be able to meet the demand of the people’s need for supplies, and many could go home empty handed.

Bracing for the disaster, the prepared and unprepared will be hoping for the best outcome. What many do not realize is the hardest part of this event is soon to be upon them. Within days, the descent into the breakdown will begin.

Phase 2: Shock and Awe (1-2 Days)

After the initial shock wears off  of the disaster, many will have difficulty in coping and adapting to what has just occurred. This is also what many refer to as the normalcy bias, and is actually a coping mechanism to help us process and deal with the changes that have occurred. Many will cling to any normal thought and habit until their brain begins to accept the changes it has witnessed. As they are  trying to wrap their thoughts around the severity of the disaster, their losses and what their future holds, local government leaders are scrambling for answers and trying to assess the situation, all the while dealing with their own normalcy bias issues.

At this point, the unprepared survivors will be expecting organizations and local government to step in to meet their immediate needs at any moment. The reality of the situation becomes more bleak when they realize that due to downed power lines or debris blocking roadways and access points, emergency organizations, emergency response and distribution trucks supplying food, water, fuel and other pertinent resources will be unable to get to the area. Once the realization hits that resources are scarce and the government leaders are incapable of helping them in a timely fashion, desperate citizens will take action into their own hands.

The breakdown has begun.

Phase 3: The Breakdown (3-7 Days)

Have you ever heard the saying, “We’re three days away from anarchy?” In the wake of a disaster, that’s all you have is three days to turn the crazy train around before crime, looting and chaos ensue. In reports during the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, residents from Staten Island were pleading for help from elected officials, begging for gasoline, food and clothing.

“We’re going to die! We’re going to freeze! We got 90-year-old people!” Donna Solli told visiting officials. “You don’t understand. You gotta get your trucks down here on the corner now. It’s been three days!”

Similar stories of looting occurred during the tornado in Joplin, MO of 2011. This time, the looting occurred from national guard soldiers patrolling the area.

“The night of the tornado, as emergency responders rushed from one shattered home to the next, Steve Dixon sat outside his father’s destroyed house with a baseball bat. They wouldn’t see me sitting here in my chair, I was in the dark,” he told NPR. “I’d turn my bright spotlight on them and tell them they needed to move on. Then when the police came by, I’d tell them which way they went.”

Multiple factors contribute to societal breakdowns including failure of adequate government response, population density, citizens taking advantage of the grid being down and overwhelmed emergency response teams.

For whatever reason, 3-5 days following a disaster is the bewitching hour. During this short amount of time, the population slowly becomes a powder keg full of angry, desperate citizens. A good example is the chaos that ensued in New Orleans following the absence of action from the local government or a timely effective federal response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In such troubled times, people were forced to fend for themselves and their families, by any means necessary. This timeline of Hurricane Katrina effectively illustrates “the breakdown,” and within three days, the citizens of New Orleans descended into anarchy, looting and murder.

If this scenario isn’t bad enough, at the end of this time frame, there will be an increase in illnesses due to cramped living quarters from emergency shelters, sanitation-related illness, compromised water sources and exposure to natural elements. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, sanitation- related epidemics became a large concern for the disaster victims. In fact, the outbreak erupted into the world’s largest cholera epidemic despite a huge international mobilization still dealing with the effects of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake (Source).

Victims from Hurricane Sandy are also beginning to see their share of illnesses. Due to the horrible weather plaguing the area, many of the evacuation shelters in Brooklyn were closed last week for sterilizing due to a vicious viral outbreak that struck.

Phase 4: Recovery (8-30+ Days)
Despite what we want to believe, most recoveries are slow and difficult in progression and require long-term planning. On average it takes a city around 1-2 weeks after the event took place to start this phase of the cycle. Every disaster is different and the length of recovery efforts vary greatly on the nature of the incident.

7 years after Hurricane Katrina leveled parts of Louisiana, the state is still in the recovery phase, “We are in a process of long-term rebuilding,” said Christina Stephens, Spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority. “There is at least another 10 years of recovery.” (Source)

Within this recovery phase, essential goods and resources could will still be hard to come by, thus forcing local officials to implement the rationing of resources to ensure there is enough for the population. We are seeing this right now with the gasoline rationing in New York.

It could be months before the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy is cleaned up. Damaged communities are coming to terms with the devastation that delivered an unprecedented punch to the region’s economy, causing more than an estimated $50 billion in losses and forcing hundreds of thousands to rebuild their lives. (Source)

Don’t Be Another Statistic

Now that you understand what we’re dealing with, there are ways you can use this information to prepare for the next event so that you will be a part of the population that is ready for what may come.

Trust yourself. Learn to be self-sufficient and rely on yourself. When it is all said and done, you are the only one who can care for yourself and your family the best. You will be the one who has your family’s best intentions at heart. Having a stock of your family’s favorite canned or dry goods, a supply of water and a simple medical kit can maintain your basic needs for a short-lived disaster. This simple preparedness supply could set you apart from the unprepared.

If you live in a highly populated area, understand that resources will diminish quickly, so preparing beforehand can circumvent this. You can always start out with the basic 10 preparedness items you will need to skirt through a disaster:

  1. Food and alternative ways to cook food
  2. Water
  3. Fuel for generators, cooking stoves and mantels, charcoal for outdoor grills
  4. Batteries and battery charger
  5. Generator
  6. Emergency lighting
  7. Ice
  8. Medical supply
  9. Baby formula
  10. Sanitation supplies

Or, if you want a more comprehensive supply, take a look at The Prepper’s Blueprint: The Step-By-Step Guide To Help You Through Any Disaster.

Educate yourself. Learn from the disasters, folks! Each time there is a disaster, the same pattern occurs: the warning, shock and awe, the breakdown and recovery. Study the effects of disasters that effect your area and what items you will need to get through the event. Further, find the weak points in your preparedness supply and correct them. Supply inventories twice a year can do wonders in this area.

Get into the mindset. Learning what to do in the face of a disaster or how to care for your family during extended grid-down emergencies can put you well ahead of the race. The more prepared you are, the faster you are at adapting to the situation. You can learn anything as long as you research, gather and apply the information. For example, while many on the East coast were still in shock from Hurricane Sandy and were sitting in their homes panicking and watching their perishable food items go bad, those that had learned how to survive in off-grid, cold environments were well prepared for this type of disaster, and had already begun packing their perishable items in the snow to preserve them. It’s that simple!

Practice makes perfect. Practice using your skills, your preps and prepare emergency menus based around your stored foods. The more you practice surviving an off-grid disaster, the more efficient you will be when and if that event occurs. Moreover, these skills will keep you alive! For a list of pertinent skills to know during times of disaster, click here.
Further, to make your family or group more cohesive, cross-train members so they can compensate for the other during a disaster.

In summation, only until we see the cycle for what it is and the effects it has on society will we be able to learn from it. There is always a breakdown in some form or fashion after a disaster. If you can prepare for this, you will be able to adapt more quickly to what is going on around you.

The cycle is there and we can’t look past it. Prepare accordingly and do not overlook ensuring you have your basic preps accounted for.

The Prepper's Blueprint

Tess Pennington is the author of The Prepper’s Blueprint, a comprehensive guide that uses real-life scenarios to help you prepare for any disaster. Because a crisis rarely stops with a triggering event the aftermath can spiral, having the capacity to cripple our normal ways of life. The well-rounded, multi-layered approach outlined in the Blueprint helps you make sense of a wide array of preparedness concepts through easily digestible action items and supply lists.

Tess is also the author of the highly rated Prepper’s Cookbook, which helps you to create a plan for stocking, organizing and maintaining a proper emergency food supply and includes over 300 recipes for nutritious, delicious, life-saving meals. 

Visit her web site at for an extensive compilation of free information on preparedness, homesteading, and healthy living.

This information has been made available by Ready Nutrition

Originally published November 12th, 2012
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16 Responses to The Anatomy of a Breakdown

  1. GoneWithTheWind says:

    You forgot a phase.  Golf!  As in the president playing golf while NY City and New Jersey breaks down.

  2. hzrd says:

    dont forget the salt

  3. Reggie says:

    Make sure you have a “get me home bag” at work or in your car. Some food/water and a few emergency items… just enough to give you a chance to get you home to your family. Ladies: Don’t forget to stash a good pair of sneakers at work. Walking even 10 miles in your high heels would be a killer. Check out for a complete list. Lot’s of good info there.

  4. ARIZONA says:

    AH,ME THINKS YOU FORGOT SOMETHING,the russians,chinese,DHS,canadians,mexicans,germans,turks,sauds,and who ever else the traitors brough, that are here and waiting for the big crash,and do fully intent to try to take over america,and might succede if america don’t get their head out of there ass,and realize there other countries who would LOVE to own america,there waiting and ready,how about you?GOT GUNS,AMMO,FOOD,WATER,COLD WEATHER GEAR,in case your outside for the rest of the winter?THE word is they don’t intend to wait a lot longer,say BLACK FRIDAY,or christmas maybe,it’ll be soon you can count on that,this might be your last chance to get ready,SO GO DO IT…………..

    • JAL says:

      The problems arise not when other countries want to own us.  It’s what happens when they no longer want to own us that is problematic.  That is to say, when China doesnt want to buy our bonds, we are screwed.  That will be the moment when the real doomsdayers seem slightly less nuts.

    • Des Troy says:

      dream on! no one will invade,apart from Hispanics the rest of the world regards amerika as a bankrupt crumbling shit hole.

  5. JAL says:

    “For example, while many on the East coast were still in shock from Hurricane Sandy and were sitting in their homes panicking and watching their perishable food items go bad, those that had learned how to survive in off-grid, cold environments were well prepared for this type of disaster, and had already begun packing their perishable items in the snow to preserve them. It’s that simple!”

    I live in NJ.  It didn’t snow here until a week after the storm.  By that time, most people 1) had their power back; and 2) already had food that had gone bad.  It was cold at night but hovered in 50s and 60s during the day.  I’m not saying nothing could be done, but the idea that everyone should have packed their food in the snow is not applicable, since there was no snow on the ground.  If you lived here, you’d know that snow doesn’t last very long in New York anyway.  Between the jet stream and cars and heated buildings and people walking everywhere, it is rare for snow to be in Manhattan more than a couple days.  And certainly not when its warm out during the day.

    Glad to see people out here trying to give helpful advice and instruct people how to be more self-sufficient.  But let’s stick to facts please.   

    Anyway, we did just fine.  I left Essex County (where Newark is, about 15 miles from NYC) and stayed with family out in the country.  Nice warm fires and we ate like kings.  What would have happened if we ran out of food?  Don’t be silly.  There are enough deer around here, all you have to do is put your brights on and drive around.  You’ll hit one if you’re not looking.  And we had a swimming pool full of water, so that was no problem either.  Biggest risk for us was not being able to get out there in time, which is why I sent my wife and kids a full day before the storm hit.  I had to work literally up until the Hurricane arrived, but was able to get in my car and head out there before things go too bad.  I was worried about getting marooned in my office, but thankfully my employer has provided every employee with an emergency bag at their desk.  There was enough food to feed me for months.

  6. Randy Meyer says:

    We dont want such kinds of breakdown ever.

  7. CB says:

    Of course when society breaks down, they(self appointed guardians of the area) will be looking for well stocked preppers and attempt to take their stuff for the “good of the community”. Best to lay low and not advertise to your friends and neighbors.

  8. George Blair says:

    + 1. Great article. One caveat. You’ve described scenarios where the local and federal government were both still “functional”. In an extended grid down (Attack on SCADA software), snow of an unprecedented amount, once the mutants (the “Free stuff army”) realize that the “gubment” isn’t coming to save them, it’ll be game on like Donkey Kong.

  9. per sigurd hansen says:

    this was informative, thank you:)

  10. Sheri says:

    Good article. I read one about the power outage in the south during a hot spell. UN-prepared neighbor’s were nice until they started running out of ice and when kind prepared neighbor’s started holding back on the free hand-out’s at a week the un-prepared neighbor’s became threatening. The author was thankful the power was returned. It was escalating fast. My family learned the hard way during the depression, they took in “family” who cleaned out their garden and winter pantry canned goods while they were at work. They would have starved to death if it wasn’t for the members of their church helping them. It was slim, my uncle became very ill and his infant sister (my aunt) did not make it.

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