At the Ready2React Emergency Preparedness Fair at Pearlridge Center last weekend, I spotted several items of interest that were high tech in a very low tech sort of way.

The first device that caught my eye looked like a large magnifying glass mounted on a swivel frame. Underneath it was a cast iron frying pan, ready to cook up anything that was placed in it.

Upon closer inspection the magnifying glass turned out to be a Fresnel lense made of lightweight plastic. John Cummings III, public information officer with the city’s Department of Emergency Management, told me that he actually found the lense on the side of the road. It was part of someone’s old rear-view projection television from the 1990s, now abandoned as junk.

John Cummings III demonstrates the heat potential of the solar cooker.
John Cummings III demonstrates the heat potential of the solar cooker. Burt Lum

At the right angle, the sun’s heat focused in the frying pan can get up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, easily boiling water or cooking that survival ration of vienna sausages or Spam.

With a do-it-yourself attitude, Cummings gathers up these forgotten bits of technology to recycle into items that could come in handy in a natural disaster, when power is out, roads are littered with debris and access to food and water is whatever you’ve stocked up. He described it as being prepared for that “camping trip you hope you never have to take.”

Of all the projects you could take on, producing clean water is a top priority. Cummings said, “We can go a couple of weeks without food. But we live in the tropics. In this heat environment, you can only survive two to three days maximum without water. And people take for granted we can go buy water from the store. But what if you can’t? It’s good to have these skills to fall back on.”

A sediment filter for water.
A sediment filter for water. Burt Lum

The first project to consider is a water filtration system. If your bottled water reserves are gone you might need to turn to standing water or stream water. There’s a high probability that the water will be full of sediment, leaves, debris, etc. In order to filter this mixture use an empty plastic 2-liter soda bottle.

In this example, starting from the bottle cap, use a layer of sand, then a layer of activated charcoal, gravel and cloth to catch the course material. (I would probably switch the layer of sand with the charcoal as shown in this example.)

Although the activated charcoal will remove chemical contaminants and impurities, this system will not remove bacteria or microorganisms, “little nasties” as Cummings describes them. In order to purify your water it is best to boil it.

The next project is a water distiller and requires a pressure cooker and gas powered stove. As the photo shows, the water is heated over the stove and the steam travels through the copper tubing, cooled in the bucket of water and then drips out into a container. This system is slightly more complicated that just boiling the water in a pot but it can also has a dual purpose as a desalination unit, to extract freshwater from saltwater.

A water distiller with the dual purpose of sterilizing and desalination of water.
A water distiller with the dual purpose of sterilizing and desalination of water. Burt Lum

Another system to disinfect water is called SODIS or Solar Disinfection. The basic idea is to use the heat of sun and the UV radiation in the sunlight to disinfect the water. The filtered water is put into clear plastic bottles and left in the sun for a minimum of six hours. This is a proven method of reducing the amount of viruses, bacteria and protozoa in the water.

According to Crystal Van Beelen, the department’s disaster preparedness officer, another priority is sanitation.

“I’m all into food and water and going to the potty,” Van Beelen said. “We all have a 5-gallon bucket somewhere around the house. We have supplies scattered around the house, like a radio, flashlight, batteries, toilet paper. You can use the 5-gallon bucket to store all these things and when you need it, you can use it to go to the potty. It has a dual purpose.”

If water is not flowing, toilets won’t flush. The “go bucket” is an under-appreciated necessity and a simple do-it-yourself project to minimize the spread of harmful bacteria.

“You don’t want to be digging holes in your backyard,” said Van Beelen. Start with her suggestion of the 5-gallon bucket. Use a heavy duty trash bag as liner and a generous amount of Kitty Litter. The Luggable Loo Toilet Seat for added comfort is a nice addition but you could also use a pool noodle cut to size.

Crystal van Beelen, Honolulu disaster preparedness officer, and the "go bucket."
Crystal van Beelen, Honolulu disaster preparedness officer, and the “go bucket.” Burt Lum

Hurricane season lasts from June until the end of November. There’s a growing realization that in most natural disasters, community volunteers are going to be the first to render assistance. As a result, communities preparedness groups and Community Emergency Response Team classes are available to train individuals and families to be prepared.

Cummings reminds me whether it’s hurricane season or not, “It’s always good to be in a preparedness mindset. Understand that we have limited resources and it’s best to use and recycle things around us. It’s not so much surviving after a disaster, it’s thriving. You just want to make life a little easier for you and your family.”

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