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The Secret to Making Food and Water Last During a Disaster

On Aug. 5, 2010, headlines around the world began sharing the story of the San José mine collapse in Chile’s Atacama Desert near the regional capital of Copiapó.

You probably remember this incredible account of survival — including the footage when all 33 of the trapped miners finally made it to the surface. However, the untold part of the story is the dire food and water rationing these men experienced during the 69-day ordeal.

In Short Supply

At first, the trapped miners believed they would be rescued in a few days. Unfortunately, they weren’t fully aware of the extent of the cave-in. The miners made their way to the mine’s emergency shelter — a classroom-sized area (540 square feet) with two long benches.

Also inside were provisions intended to keep 25 men alive for two days.

The supplies they found included one can of salmon, one can of peaches, one can of peas, 18 cans of tuna, 24 liters of condensed milk (eight of which were spoiled) and 93 packages of cookies. There were only 10 bottles of clean water — plus hundreds of gallons of dirty, oily water in their mining equipment.

Once the miners realized it was uncertain when they would be rescued, they immediately began to ration their supplies. Mario Sepúlveda, one of the leaders of the group, lined up 33 plastic cups. He put one teaspoon of canned fish and a little water into each cup to make broth.

The miners managed to survive on an estimated 300 calories a day for over two weeks. By Day 17, the food rations were down to one cookie per day for each person. Each of the men had lost an average of 18 pounds by the time one of the drills managed to break through, creating a tunnel large enough for rescuers to send down supplies.

After over two months underground, all 33 men were rescued. They were extracted one at a time through a 28-inch hole to be greeted by the cheers and tears of their loved ones.

Make It Last

Because the miners initially expected to be rescued within a few days, they could have easily blown through the emergency food and water. However, the leaders of the group knew there was no guarantee of rescue. They were smart to ration what little food they had from the beginning.

There is no doubt this decision helped the 33 men survive for over two weeks without additional supplies. Considering this, I want to share with you a few tips on how to ration food and water in a survival situation.

  • Take inventory of everything. The moment disaster strikes and you know you are going to be cut off from supplies for a while, you need to take inventory of what you have. I realize most people probably have a good idea of what’s in their food storage, but you have to take into account the other items in your everyday kitchen that you can add to your inventory. It’s critical that this inventory is as accurate as possible in the event of a worst-case scenario. Leave no stone unturned when you are taking stock of your supplies
  • Get a head count. To accurately ration your food and water, you need to know how many people you will have to feed. Is it just you and your spouse? Do you have in-laws who live next door with no food storage or survival gear? Obviously, this step won’t take very long, but it’s important to plan ahead if you think you may have to support a family member who shows up when disaster strikes (Yes, we all have those relatives)
  • Consider special needs. As mentioned above, the miners survived on roughly 300 calories for many days — they were definitely malnourished by the time they received more supplies. The thing is it’s difficult to say you should have X amount of calories per day because there are other factors to consider, including your age and how active you are. As a general estimate, adults should consume around 1,500 calories per day and children should ideally have a minimum of 1,100 calories. However, our bodies can survive on a lot less. That being said, never starve yourself during a survival situation — no matter what. If you only eat every few days, most likely you will become sick
  • Start rationing immediately. The fact is the miners thought they would be stuck for a few days at most but they ended up trapped underground for a total of 69 days. This is why you should always plan for the worst-case scenario and begin rationing your supplies from the start. The same kind of thinking goes for any disaster situation. For example, you might think you will be without power for 24 hours — but you could be in the dark for much longer.

In a perfect world, everyone should have at least 30 days’ worth of emergency food and water on hand. Therefore, I suggest planning to ration your supplies for a minimum of 30 days. Hopefully, the situation you are in will be over much sooner, but you need to plan for the long haul like the Chilean miners did — just in case.

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