Bug Out Bags Part II: Washington, DC

Map of Washington DCFor Part II in our series on bug out kits, I will look at some specifics for planning your kit if you happen to live in or around the nation’s capital.  I chose to address DC first, because it is a city where the conditions that trigger bugging out are likely to occur and it offers some very specific challenges that are applicable to many urban centers across the US.  Hopefully, you have had a chance to read my intro post on building your bug out kit.  If not, first review thin information we posted at: http://www.lastminutesurvival.com/2014/10/13/location-specific-bug-out-bags-part-i/.

Why would you worry about having to bug out if you live in DC?  The answer, “because it IS the nation’s capital,” should be self-evident.  Similar to any major city, the fact the DC area has a high population density means that in the event of any major emergency, resources will be strained and you will be one of millions fighting for survival.  However, DC also harbors a host of unique potential threats that if triggered would dictate a rapid evacuation.  Identifying and planning to mitigate these threats are critical to designing your bug out plan and kit.  The following paragraphs outline some of the major threats to consider when planning your DC bug out kit, which I have given a rough score from 1 (minimal risk) to 10 (extreme risk/imminent) based on the “current” situation.  How you plan for those threats will determine the overall risk each threat poses to you and should be adjusted as necessary.

Note, to make a simple personal risk matrix, you can numerically calculate “risk” as representing the residual danger of any specific event.  Do this by multiplying the likelihood of the event after mitigation strategies are accounted for times the seriousness of the damage the event would cause.  Assign each category an assessed number 1-10 (10 being the worst).  [Risk (Residual threat after mitigation) = Probability of its occurrence x Seriousness of potential damage].  For example, for a nuclear attack you might assess that that after mitigation the likelihood is only a 1 but the potential for damage is a 10 so your overall risk would be a 10.  For a pandemic, you might assess that the likelihood after mitigation is a 6, but the potential for damage is an 8 for a score of 48.  Using this simple formula will help you identify and prioritize what risks you should prepare for first.

Nuclear strike and conventional war:  (Risk Factor 3) DC is a must strike city in the event of any major war with world power such as Russia or China and would certainly be destroyed in any full scale nuclear exchange.  In the rapidly developing field of autonomous drone warfare, DC is also a top target for both state and non-state actors seeking to selectively kill leaders.  However, the US maintains decent relations with nuclear nations that could pose a threat and has a potent first and second strike deterrent capability.  Further, the US has deployed redundant missile defense systems that would defeat a limited nuclear strike.

Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP):  (Risk Factor 4) The effect of a large scale/high altitude EMP would be as devastating to DC.  DC is just as likely to be hit in the event of a solar flare as any other place on earth, but is at much higher risk for a localized EMP from a terrorist attack.  However, solar events of a damaging magnitude are rare and the effects of a small scale EMP device would be localized and recoverable.

Terrorist attack:  (Risk Factor 7) DC was attacked on 9/11 and continues to be a major target of terrorists.  DC was also ground zero for the use of biological warfare agents in the form of anthrax.  However, DC has put in place some of the most in-depth (Orwellian) security measures of any city and has a very high concentration of military and law enforcement agencies operating in and around it.  Further, First Responders have done a significant amount of planning and preparation for any future attack.

Pandemic:  (Risk Factor 7+) Pay special attention to this paragraph!  Respective of Ebola and other potential pandemics, DC is a cosmopolitan mixing bowl of people from every corner of the globe.  If a disease is going to enter into the US, it will at some point have to pass through DC.  Thomas Eric Duncan, the first man to bring Ebola to the US and spread it, actually passed through Dulles International Airport, which is a US Customs and Immigration hub on his way to Dallas http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2014/10/01/texas-ebola-patient-traveled-through-dulles-international-airport/.  Also our first Ebola outbreak, the one the movie “Outbreak” was based on, began in a research lab in Reston, Virginia just outside DC.  DC also hosts large immigrant populations, which include unscreened illegals that routinely are found to be infected with deadly forms of resistant Tuberculosis and other diseases.  Further, Fort Detrick where the US military carries out biological warfare research is just a short drive north of DC.  In the event of an accident or intentional release, a deadly strain of a biological warfare agent could rip through the DC area before anyone even knew it happened.  Finally, referring back to Ebola, one of the nurses that contracted the disease in Dallas has now been flown to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland for treatment.  NIH might as well be within DC it is so close and is surrounded by heavily populated urban areas.  Although NIH is equipped to deal with highly contagious diseases, any misstep could allow an infection to spread quickly beyond its walls.

Civil Disorder:  (Risk Factor 6) As the seat of our nation’s government, it will always be prone to protests and violence and will be one of the first cities in response to a major crisis to be locked down under martial law.  During the “Occupy Protests,” parts of DC were shut down and subject to constant police actions.  With an economy teetering dangerously on another collapse, one should expect unemployment protests and riots soon after any market crash.  Further, the race riots of the 60’s and 70’s all but destroyed huge swaths of the city and as the riots in Fergusson, Missouri demonstrate, racial tensions are still boiling just under the surface around the nation.  This is particularly acute in DC, which has been dubbed the “Chocolate City” and is experiencing widespread dislocation of the city’s black residents due to rapidly increasing home values, taxes, and overall costs of living.

Industrial Accidents:  (Risk Factor 3) DC is closely located to a number of facilities that if there were to be an accident, it could force the evacuation of large sections of the national capital area and cause wide spread panic.  For example, there is nuclear research reactor at NHI in Bethesda, Maryland and a small nuclear power reactor at Fort Belvoir, Virginia undergoing decommissioning.  Both dangerously imbedded within densely populated areas.  Numerous rail lines also crisscross the region and carry tons of hazardous material daily.  Even a minor derailment of a train carrying hazmat could lead to thousands being evacuated.  Traveling into Virginia and Maryland, there are numerous manufacturing plants such as Micron near Manassas, Virginia that handle tons of highly toxic substances daily.  A mishap could lead to localized evacuations, so if you are located in their proximity, you should know what kind of dangers the plants pose.  Still though, even with the importation of Ebola, these facilities have demonstrated a safe (but perhaps deteriorating) record.

Environmental:  (Risk Factor 4) Generally speaking, DC has been thought to be seismically stable, but the 2011 5.8 earthquake proved that we had to reevaluate what we knew about seismic activity.  If the quake had been even slightly larger, widespread damage and death would have resulted and power and water would have been disrupted for an extended period of time.  The arguments for climate change aside, DC is vulnerable to flooding.  DC was built on a swamp and is very low lying.  Should a sudden rise in water levels from massive storm surge or a tsunami threaten the Chesapeake Bay, DC could be inundated by flood waters from the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers.  Further, like New York City, DC too could be hard hit by a hurricane if the atmospheric conditions properly combined.  Nonetheless, it is highly unlikely that an environmental event (short of a solar flare) would be so colossal that the damage would extend beyond a regional event.

Infrastructure:  (Risk Factor 2) DC’s infrastructure has not been properly maintained.  From the power grid and water system to the roads, bridges, and trains, DC has its share of necessary repairs that have not been funded.  Although DC is not in a Detroit crisis yet, one can expect to have to deal with a growing number of power and water outages and never ending bridge and roadway repair.  However, if the US were to enter into another major economic slump, these maintenance issues could quickly become far more serious leading to bridge closures and longer term power and water disruptions.  Nonetheless, these breakdowns would not cause wide spread disaster or systemic collapse in the near term and would not happen all at once allowing time to mitigate and correct any damage.

Based on my rough scores, you see that DC does have a host of risk areas that could force you to have to bug out.  Risks of pandemic, terrorist attacks, and civil disorder are probably the most critical to prepare for, but each individual must score this based on their own situation.  Further, many of these issues are short term and easily mitigated with smart preps that would allow you to bug “in” and weather the crisis.  A very likely example could be a one or two week long disruption to water and power due to a storm or earthquake.  However, in the event of a pandemic or large scale social unrest, you may have to bug out for the long term.  As such, you should be prepared for both short and long duration crises that are localized as well as wide spread.

Bugging out of DC presents some challenges that must be thought through before designing your kit.  First of all, are you actually living inside DC or like many, just commute into the city daily for work?  Living inside the city creates greater challenges for bugging “in” and mandates either an early evacuation when you can carry more supplies or having to bug out with very limited supplies at the last minute.  If you commute, you most likely drive or take the metro rail line to get to work.  Therefore, you are going to face a more rigid list of limiting factors on both the contents and weight of your kit while you are in the city.  Further, your kit will have to be extremely low profile due to the heavy security presence in and around Washington, DC.  However, your ability to bug in increases the farther out in the suburbs you live and also provides you more time to react to a developing crisis.  Still though, in both cases, it would be wise to cache supplies in various secure locations outside of the immediate DC area along the route you plan to take to your bug out location.

For both the commuter and the resident, DC presents some very difficult problems if you are trying to rapidly evacuate the city.  Heading south or east essentially traps you against the Chesapeake Bay, heading north runs you right back into densely populated areas beginning with Baltimore and not ending until you clear Connecticut.  That leaves you with west.  However, if you live to the west in Virginia or plan to bug out in that direction, you must cross one of only seven bridges if you intend to use any sort of vehicle or one of only nine if you include railroad bridges and go by foot.  Even on a normal day traffic is jammed so bad even short commutes will take hours.  In the event of a real emergency such as on 9/11, you simply would run out of fuel idling in traffic.  The gridlock alone makes any plan of bugging out via a car or truck next to impossible unless you left town far in advance of the crisis.  One other option in the early stages of a crisis could be to use the metro before it ceases operation.  Trains are relatively robust and the DC Metro runs underground protecting it against certain disasters (while making it more vulnerable to others such as flooding and earthquakes).  Also, the metro will still run when traffic above ground is gridlocked, but you may have to fight through large mobs trying to get on the trains.  Further, the metro crosses deep under the Potomac River between the Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn stops allowing you to quickly and relatively safely escape DC.  Even if the train is stopped in the middle of the tunnel, you can still evacuate the train and walk the rest of the distance through the tunnel and exit to the surface in Virginia.  However, later in a crisis, the entrances to the tunnel are likely to be sealed and or guarded so without a plan to circumvent security, you would be denied access.  You should plan on these bridges and tunnels being closed anyhow.  In the event of social unrest or a pandemic, these bridges and tunnels would at minimum be controlled by checkpoints and in the event of a major earthquake or war they could be destroyed.  The waterways would also be patrolled by the police and Coast Guard.

DC also has significant urban and suburban sprawl.  One must plan on traveling a minimum of 30 miles from the city’s center to just begin reaching areas of reduced population.  This could mean that you are able to zip out of the area within minutes by car or spend over a week slowly making your way to your bug out location depending on how the situation develops.  Throughout that journey, one must contend with endless strip malls, housing developments, and business parks.  This means that if you plan on bugging out by foot, it will be nearly impossible to remain undetected even if moving only at night and from safe house to safe house.  As such, it would be advisable to design your bug out kit to look as unassuming as possible and to avoid a paramilitary look.  Remember, the Commonwealth of Virginia is a very pro-gun state and many of its citizens are not only well armed, but well trained.  Northern Virginia in particular has a large population of current and former military and law enforcement officers and many of them have served on SWAT teams or within the special operations community and have extensive combat experience.  You will be crossing their home turf and you can guarantee they will be taking precautions of their own to ward off any possible threats.  In the event social order completely breaks down this will likely mean a shoot on sight and ask questions later policy.  As such, don’t even look like a threat and be forewarned, if your plan requires you to loot or otherwise prey off of others to survey, not only do you deserve to be shot, but the likelihood that will happen in Virginia is extremely high.  Once you break out of suburbia, you now have the task of navigating through open farm country and mountain forests.  As you go, try to avoid the natural lines of drift, which run north and south along interstates 81 and 95 and east and west along interstate 66 and routes 7 and 50.  Also, avoid military bases like Quantico Marine Base for those heading southwest and the FEMA facility inside Weather Mountain for those heading straight west.  They will be heavily defended.  People will naturally collect along these routes and there is a high probability that by time you pass through, the welcome has long since warned out for refugees.  This doesn’t mean that your risks are reduced.  This land is just as owned and just as guarded as any other place.  You can use camouflage while moving in this region, but again, try not to look scary and offensive.  Remember, you can get about the same results by moving slowly and wearing earth tone clothes without the downsides of looking like a rival militia.  I recommend trying to make friends with at least some of the people along your planned bug out route beforehand.  At minimum, do your homework and identify a few key allies that can help you get to your final destination.  It is worth noting that you do need to have an actual destination.  By that I mean a place that is legitimately owned by your or someone that is close to you and has explicitly invited you.  Showing up unannounced could go horribly wrong even amongst friends.  It is disturbing how many plans end with “getting out of town.”  You should have a good answer when asked, “Where are you going?”  Listless wandering is a symptom of piss poor planning and all too often results in looting to provide by theft what you failed to provide for in preparation.  Per my previous warning, in Virginia and points west that is a good recipe to get yourself shot.

In preparing your bug out plan from DC, design it to be tiered and flexible.  You could begin with bugging out by vehicle or train.  If that becomes infeasible, I recommend to those with the driving ability to look into street legal dirt bikes such as BMW’s Enduro models.  They give excellent cross country performance in a reliable package that can cover long distances quickly and carry a reasonable amount of gear.  Further, they are able to weave around stopped or abandoned vehicles and are not road bound by any means.  If a motorcycle is too much for you, a mountain bike is another reasonable option to bypass gridlocked traffic and get you outside of the city with a basic kit.  If vehicles, motorcycles, or bikes are not feasible, then you are essentially left to bug out by foot.  If the bridges are closed, this leaves you with very limited choices that boil down to having to be prepared for floating across the river in a remote section and or at night as a worst case scenario.  It gets worse though because the river may be partially frozen making crossing extremely dangerous and difficult and the banks would likely be patrolled by military and police trying to interdict you.  Even if you are able to cross in a remote location, much of the Potomac River is boxed in by sheer cliffs and has well known lethal currents and Class VI rapids throughout most of the Great Falls section north of DC.  Opting for crossing to the south is equally hazardous because the river is much wider and flanked by the government facilities, military bases, and National Airport, which are all heavily patrolled by security.

To plan to overcome the natural river obstacles, you must identify optimum crossing and takeout points on both sides of the river taking into account the current.  You need to do this early and have multiple options suitable for both day and night and good and bad weather.  Don’t forget that in the event of high water, the river may simply be too dangerous to cross and you must have a plan to move to a temporary hide site until conditions improve.  Further, you will need to have a way to waterproof all of your kit and float it across the river…you included.  I would recommend that every DC bug out kit at minimum have white water rated dry bag(s) that are big enough to seal all of your gear in, a personal flotation device, and rope rated for rock climbing.  If you intend to make your escape along the cliffs of Great Falls, good luck and definitely pack climbing gear.  For winter, I would add some type of dry suit if your plan includes swimming.  Ultimately, these are just some recommendations.  Some of you may simply opt for floating slowly downstream with inflated river bags and a life jacket.  Others may have access to a boat or can cache a small kayak or flotation device.  Still others may choose to move by foot for long distances to access cached equipment or a temporary bug out hide while they wait for an opportunity to cross and move further west.  How you accomplish this is up to you, but it must be planned for and rehearsed.

While planning your bug out options, you must also consider any necessary link up plans.  This is simple if it is just you making a break.  However, if you have kids, a wife, family, or friends that are bugging out with you, you must have a solid, rehearsed plan in effect to link up.  For example, a worst case situation could be your kids are too young to fend for themselves, but are at school in DC, you have an elderly parent at home, you are at work, and your wife is in Virginia.  If you can coordinate that bug out, you are golden.  To do this, everyone must know the plan and have the ability to execute their portion.  In this case, it may be necessary to conduct two separate bug outs and meet at a predetermined location with a plan on what to do if one party does not make it to the linkup.  This should include where one should look later on if anyone becomes completely isolated for a long period of time such as refugees experienced after wars and major natural disasters.  Key to a good plan will be to test it without modern modes of communication because your phones will fail early in any crisis.

After planning for how you intend to get out of DC and link up on your way to your bug out location, you can adjust your gear list.  As previously noted, if you must operate inside of DC, you need gear to cross a river in all seasons.  You should have all the basic items that I listed in my first post.  Other DC specific gear for bugging out should include rappelling gear to escape from a tall building if you work in a high rise building.  I recommend bolt cutters, a window punch, and a solid pry bar too if you can carry the weight.  These breaching tools will allow you to make entry or exit into or out of otherwise denied areas such as fenced in parks, locked office buildings, subterranean systems, locked cars, and wall lockers.  Pack your passport so that if you have the need and still have the ability, you could access one of the three major airports and put serious miles between you DC.  Further, you will want to have enough cash to pay possible expenses such as an international ticket, food, gas, or taxis.  Having cash on hand when the power is out is critical since ATMs and credit card machines will not work.  For reference, it costs about $64.00 to take a cab from Union Station to Dulles International Airport.  You will also want to have some type of official credentials to help you talk your way through checkpoints, road blocks, and other choke points.  A press pass may be your easiest form of ID to use in this regard.  However, even an old military ID may be enough to get you through a checkpoint.  In and around DC you must also have the ability to purify water in a manner that kills the full spectrum of microorganisms.  There are plenty of water sources such as streams, lakes, ponds, and rivers so you won’t need to carry more than a couple courts, but a filter alone will not suffice. You need the ability to kill much smaller viruses and reduce industrial contaminates and chemical runoff.  As such opt for a SteriPen to purify, plus a filter with a carbon element to reduce industrial contaminants.

When it comes to your safety and security, government is only a portion of your problem.  While trying to bug out of DC, you could be confronted by anyone from panicked congressional staffers and college students to street thugs and gangs.  If talking your way out of problems doesn’t work, you will need either a good pair of running shoes and/or some dual use items for self-defense until you can access your cache.  These items must seem innocent and be able to pass through metal detectors and security checks without drawing attention.  This could be as simply as placing a couple handfuls of coins into a knit cap and using it as a black jack or walking with a cane and a pretend limp.  You can also improvise weapons such as basic clubs and daggers from readily available materials all over the city that can be ditched when unneeded.  Pieces of rebar, bricks, chunks of concrete, broom handles, sections of pipe, broken bottles, a can of bug spray, a section of fire hose, a section of seat belt and the buckle, etc. all can be turned into very effective improvised weapons.  If you opt for a firearm, it better be concealable.  Almost nowhere in DC can you move without being under video surveillance and a man with a gun draws an immense amount of unwanted attention.  The good news is that DC is finally loosening its draconian, unconstitutional gun control laws for the better.  You can actually legally obtain a firearm now and DC carry laws are working their way through the court system.  The bad news is you must be very careful because DC still has very strict laws on the books that could land you quickly in jail.  Further, there are numerous facilities in and around DC where you may be stopped and searched for weapons.  So if you choose to carry, make sure your route avoids such places.

Leverage your work into your preps as well.  Most DC businesses are very sensitive to security related issues and will take active precautions if made aware of vulnerability.  This will save you time, money, and space.  They may even be able to obtain equipment you could not on your own.  Make the case to the respective department in your company to supply items like escape hoods and medical kits for chemical attacks.  They should also have a decontamination plan and equipment on-site to deal with potential biological incidents like the anthrax attacks post 9/11.  If you work on an upper floor, request an escape kit.  If you have a gym or an office, get a dedicated locker to use to cache a bug out bag securely.  Who knows, you may even get them to pay for something like advanced medical training or at least basic first aid courses.  You may even be able to safely pre-stage a bug out mountain bike (make sure you have a tire pump) at work locked in a rack in a parking garage.  Maximize this opportunity.

Respective of where to cache items, as discussed in Part I, your essential kit should be on your person.  Then, depending on your bug out plans, stage your bug out bags in your vehicle(s), work, home, and in your hide site.  As a general rule, if your hide site isn’t secure enough for you to safely cache a kit, then you need another hide site.  Be careful not to cache your items in a flood plain where they can be washed away or submerged.  Also, stay away from vagrant camps.  Disease is prevalent and they have their own systems of security and rules that could endanger you.  In cities, if at all possible, it is optimum if you can move via a network of known safe houses till you are able to clear the city.  These are going to be your most secure locations to store and retrieve cached items.  Some of these could be residences and others commercial buildings.  Either way, the buildings will provide you shelter and security between your movements or if you have to hide out for a period of time before moving on to your final bug out location.

Well there is only one thing left now to do…make your plan, pack your kit, and run through a rehearsal.  You will screw it up and learn from it and that’s okay…just don’t get yourself arrested for something stupid or killed by someone thinking you are a prowler.  Make the adjustments and run through it again under different conditions.  Keep adjusting until you are comfortable your plan is workable and robust enough to accommodate unknown factors and the injected chaos of a crisis.

Best of luck!

Guiles Hendrik

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October 16, 2014


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