In disaster, what’s for dinner?

Special to The Times

WHEN a disaster strikes, the ideas of eating smart and staying well hydrated take on new meaning.

Under normal conditions, food is a way to optimize health. But a disaster turns the tables. So what’s the minimum that you need to survive a disaster, natural or otherwise?

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 21, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Disaster preparedness -- A photo of an Alabama family with an article about disaster preparedness in Monday’s Health section was credited to Times staff photographer Eric Boyd, but should have been credited to Times staffer Genaro Molina. A photo of recommended food supplies that had no credit should have been credited to Boyd.

Here’s the advice from experts who study these questions for the military, for international groups and for the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

* Potable water is a priority. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated so vividly, water is likely to be in short supply after a disaster. Drinking just a quart of water a day “will allow you to survive, although not very comfortably,” said Michael Sawka, director of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass.


Ideally, healthy adult men need nearly four quarts daily, and women nearly three, to stay hydrated. But World War II military studies of troops stuck in the desert showed that they survived on as little as a quart a day of water for about a week.

Water-filled foods and other beverages can be additional ways to stay hydrated. Canned fruit and vegetables, as well as such beverages as juice, coffee, tea, milk, sports drinks and sodas, can sustain a person. Other options: frozen fruit, juice and vegetables for about a day after the electricity goes off.

If you’re stocking provisions in case of a disaster, experts say to figure on a minimum of a quart of water per person per day, or three quarts per person for more comfort. That works out to up to three gallons per day for a family of four, or 21 gallons for a week.

For about $75, you can buy a hand-operated water purifier that removes nearly all waterborne bacteria and viruses. Germicidal tablets run about 10 cents each and will purify water of many disease-causing bacteria and viruses, although the water will have a bad aftertaste. Neither will remove chemical contaminants.


* Starving to death is unlikely. If you have water, you “can go weeks without food,” says Scott Montain, a research physiologist at the Army Research Institute. “Although you might not feel very happy.”

Exceptions are the very young, the elderly and those with health concerns including kidney disease, diabetes, heart problems, cancer and high blood pressure. No food, a sudden halt in medicine and no medical treatment can tip the balance in these vulnerable groups and produce complications such as irregular heartbeat, stroke, heart attack, coma and death.

* Return to basics. Most disasters knock down power lines, making refrigeration and cooking unlikely. But there are plenty of nutritious, good-tasting foods that have long shelf lives and don’t require refrigeration or cooking. Top of the list: peanut butter. Get unsalted or lightly salted; too much sodium may increase thirst.

Other good choices include tinned crackers, jerky (beef or turkey), dried fruits and vegetables, and shelf-stable pasteurized cheese such as Velveeta or canned grated Parmesan. “They’ll last up to a year or more,” said Dean Sommer, a cheese researcher at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research in Madison. Unlike other cheese, even after opening these pasteurized cheeses “will still be fine to eat” without refrigeration, Sommer said.

Nuts, chocolate, trail mix and many energy bars also have long shelf lives and are packed with calories -- a benefit when food is scarce. Canned food such as beans, soup, fish, chicken and tomato sauce with pasta are other good options. So are cooked foods that don’t require can openers, including vacuum packets of tuna, rice, shelf-stable puddings, Jell-O, applesauce and fruit cups, UV-radiated cartons of milk and soup. Once opened, however, consume these foods right away or discard them if you don’t have refrigeration, because they can otherwise grow disease-causing bacteria.

* Consider a tip from the military: Stock some meals ready to eat (MREs). Two dozen varieties include beef stew, chicken fajitas and vegetable manicotti. They’ll last three years at 80 degrees and require no water, refrigeration or heating. Each meal provides about 1,200 calories and costs about $8 ($80 for a box of 12 meals). Find them online or at Army-Navy stores.