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Catastrophe Time Line: What Will Happen

Note: It is a great honor to present a guest post from my good friend Wellie, the Well-Prepared Witch! Be sure to follow her on Twitter and like her Facebook page (details below the post). This is really an excellent presentation for all of us, but new preppers should find it especially useful – if you have an idea of what might happen, it is easier to decide what you might need to do to prepare! -Mike

Catastrophe Time LineMy husband has been into prepping for some time, while I’m fairly new to it.  He’s been working on the below timeline for a while (he’s an engineer – he likes to understand the how and why of everything in detail).  We’ve been talking it through and rolling it over in our heads.  I can’t count the number of times Mr. WPW asked, “if things went south how do you think people would react” or some variation on that.   What you’ll find below is mostly Mr. WPW’s work.  We talked it out a lot, and I contributed, but he really did most of it and deserves the credit.

The information comes from many sources.  We both read everything we can get our hands on when it comes to prepping: history, politics and news, emergency management, homesteading and country skills, and medicine, amongst others!   

We’d love your feedback.  Did we miss anything?  Are there gaps in it that are important to know?  What do you see happening in a major disaster?  – Wellie  


Catastrophe Time Line

(assuming you are not at the epicenter!) 

This is a list I put together from many sources.  It is a study, not an original work.  Comments and discussion are welcome.  Let me know what I missed. 

Definition:  An event – sudden, damaging and lethal – that occurs with little or no notice with major global effects.  This would be an event that has no precedent in living memory and changes the trajectory of our culture and civilization. 

Disambiguation: this is not a hurricane, blizzard or typical earthquake – these are relatively short term localized events.  They can be serious but would not be considered a catastrophe for the purposes of this study.  This does not include slow events that can take a generation or more to have an effect like population growth, desertification or climate change. Again, serious but not covered in the scope of this study because of the lead time for society to adjust. 

Examples:  super-volcano eruption; large earth impact; pandemic with high lethality or serious chronic injury to humans; major crop failure to cereal grass(es) from disease; Coronal Mass Ejection/Solar Mass Ejection/Gamma Ray Burst and other rare solar/cosmic events; widespread (nationwide/invasion, U.S. civil, or world) war; energy distribution failure or major energy shortage.  Other events calibrated within this outline would include any event expected to cause a human population decline of 30% or more within 2 or 3 years in the United States.   

First 24 Hours

  • Grocery, Department, Hardware, Convenience & Drug stores run out of many common items
    • This occurs in my area before a blizzard or hurricane.
  • Depending on the type of event, some people may not even realize anything significant has happened
  • Many, if not all, people are in a state of shock
    • Many people will be unable to accept the event has happened
    • Many people will wait to be told what to do
    • Many people will not react to emergency instructions
      • Example: people who will not evacuate when they know a hurricane is approaching
  • 911 phone lines are flooded
  • Cell phone networks may crash
    • Text messages work better
  • National Guard and other troop movements will shock many people.
    • In the scope of this type of event the government at many levels will mobilize
  • Public transportation may be commandeered by the local, state or federal government
  • Curfews may be placed into effect
  • People gather to assess what is going on in small, local groups
  • Government & law enforcement may or may not try to organize at local levels
  • Rumors run rampant and parallel to the news
    • In the absence of factual information, conjecture will pass for news on media (reporters interviewing other reporters, as an example).
      • Rumor, spin and contradicting information abound
  • In the absence of actual information, many will impress their own ideology or causality onto observed events
    • Religious, political, ideological, superstitions
  • Scope, scale and or cause of the disaster may not yet be apparent or understood.
  • News still available – but may not be reliable, infotainment, repetition and re-spin shed no new information
    • News is on a continuous loop with no new information
    • EBS (Emergency Broadcast System) cycling/looping may start
  • Local rescue efforts occur – may or may not be coordinated
  • Traffic accidents and possible evacuation (official or ad hoc) clog the roads
  • Local panic may occur.  General panic has not set in yet.
  • People help each other and organize locally
  • Municipal services still function.  Hospitals are open, fires put out.
    • Although still functioning, response times may be delayed due to quantity of incidents

First 3 Days

  • All deliveries stop (U.S. mail, FedEx, UPS, trucks, trains, etc.)
  • Service stations run out of fuel
  • ATMs empty or stop working; it is unlikely they will be serviced or repaired.
  • Supplies run out for JIT (Just In Time) Manufacturing
  • Jobs become meaningless as priorities change – this includes most infrastructure & municipal workers
  • News reporting starts to breakdown – possible EBS looping
  • Scope and scale is becoming known, cause may still be a mystery
  • It is possible organized or ad hoc evacuations will occur or continue
    • Can cause huge problems with predefined “bugout” plans and ad hoc “get out of dodge” activities
  • Rumors are traded and grow, replacing hard news
  • Shock starts to wear off and panic sets in
  • People who are comfortable in their surroundings (typically those at home) are still hospitable, especially to neighbors and others to whom they have strong social ties.
  • People wander around their current location
    • This is a common reaction to sudden shock.  These efforts generally produce very little.
    • Characterized by unorganized wandering, trying to evaluate changes, and get information
  • Looting and some exodus starts from population centers
  • Hospitals run out of typical supplies in areas with casualties
    • Triage becomes a reality
      • people who otherwise might get extraordinary measures allowed to die due to lack of supplies or personnel to treat them
  • Food runs out for the average family
  • Mass transit shuts down
  • Hoarding sets in
    • Significant inflation and/or price gouging may occur
  • Local road blocks may be put up and other travel restrictions may be put in place
  • Some adaptations will start to occur
    • Bicycles become common
    • Schools close
  • In areas where supplies and law enforcement still exist, rationing may start

First 3 Weeks

  • If they haven’t already, the utilities go out – this will include power, water, sewage, natural gas, even phone, internet and television.
  • Most normal government functions (drivers licenses, marriage licenses, parking tickets, etc.) become irrelevant or have shut down
  • Currency (i.e. the dollar) becomes worthless, but money (i.e. gold and silver) may still be an acceptable form of payment
  • The ability to handle the dead is out stripped by volume.
    • This may lead to serious public health issues
  • Government emergency response spins up or some areas may have no government at all.  Law will tend to extremes.  Martial law or no law at all
  • May lead to “legal confiscation” and commandeering
  • Government will triage and may “write-off” certain parts of the country
    • WROL – without rule of law – no local government
    • EROL – excessive rule of law – constitutional rights suspended
      • If all active duty military, law enforcement, National Guard and military reservists were simultaneously combined they would still be overwhelmed by a riot of only 1% – 3% of the population.  Put simply, they would likely shoot first and often to ensure order is kept and people obey.
  • City evacuations will lead to large groups of people who are scared and hungry
    • Possible forced distribution of refugees
  • Lone wolf preppers will become a problem for the short term – people whose planning consists of having weapons and ammo cached and taking what they need or want from others.  What is left of society will not tolerate them for too long.  By definition they will not likely merge or mesh with community.  This includes the small proportion of our society (around 2% who do not mesh well within society in general).
  • Panic gives way to all out fear and fear to anger
  • People start to distrust strangers
  • Religions have a massive revival – feeding into and creating rumors, creating social networks
    • These can evolve into dangerous groups in certain cases
    • Religious organizations make natural distribution centers for goods, information, and other community needs.
  • Clean water is running out
    • City water requires pumps to refill water towers.
    • Outside of many cities the houses have wells powered by electricity.
  • Hygiene starts to be a problem
    • Garbage starts to pile up
    • Human waste becomes a problem
  • Many cases of poisoning as desperation for food sets in
    • Eating spoiled foods and/or unfamiliar foods as no familiar foods left
      • Food poisoning and diseases such as cholera from bad water, salmonella from unrefrigerated food, etc.
      • Toxicity from eating poisonous plants or unknown foods
  • Lots of injuries and deaths related to the new environment
    • People used to driving having to walk long distances
    • People unused to cutting wood pulling out an axe to cut fire wood
  • Medical care deteriorates rapidly
    • Most hospitals are out of supplies
    • People on prescriptions start to run out of medications
    • Antibiotics run out
    • Numerous cases of infection set in – poor hygiene, lack of potable water and spoiling food
    • People needing regular medical assistance will start dying
  • Street traffic is mostly on foot
  • Trucks and warehouses looted
  • Bunker mentality will set in for some – some will band together in small “tribal” groups
  • Any remaining industrial transport ends
  • Violence sets in as people try to support their own families, general desperation develops
  • Suicide rate sky rockets
  • The world shrinks to your immediate area
  • Fires break out all over as people cook over fires, use candles for light – complicated by no water or fire department
  • Confinement facilities inmates escape or are released
  • Local communities who haven’t already re-organized and are still populated will start assessing and organizing within their community
  • Some people are still in denial and hold onto the idea that help is coming

First 3 Months

  • All on grid systems have failed
  • Nuclear power plants not SCRAMed will start to melt down
  • Unintended chemical leaks and other reactions will occur at industrial sites and transport vehicles
  • Many industrial factories will permanently be placed out of commission
    • E.g. a smelting facility when the molten metal cools in the crucibles and transfer piping or the fertilizer factory in Texas that exploded
  • Uncontrolled fires are not put out and spread out of control – especially in industrial and population centers
    • house fires can combine to create fire storms
    • forest fires will be started by people foraging/camping/living in the woods
    • bucket brigades may make a comeback
  • Most off grid & hardened systems are running out of fuel or have failed
  • Most stored food is gone
  • Currency and money (i.e. silver and gold) become worthless and barter is the main method of exchange
  • Most municipal water and sewer systems have completely failed
  • Mass migrations and foraging slow down due to lack of food
    • Wildlife becomes very rare
  • Some larger organized groups may be operating – “locusts” or horde, or surviving communities with heavily guarded resources
  • Moral imperatives have now evolved to the immediate.
    • People who couldn’t have deliberately killed someone before the event might actually stalk and kill another person.
    • Vegan/vegetarian/passivism will no longer be common
  • Most prescriptions have run out
    • By this time all medication-dependent people are dying off (some will last this long as prescriptions for chronic conditions can often be refilled for 90 days)
  • Most cultural events cease – with the exception of churches and well organized local governments
    • Local government, churches and markets provide most social meeting and news exchange
    • Markets will be established to trade and barter
  • Martial law starts to give way to local only enforcement or WROL depending on location
  • All organized national and state law enforcement has ended
  • Malnutrition and poor hygiene leads to epidemics
  • Malnourished people start to succumb to treatable illness due to lack of drugs
  • Hospitals have run out of all supplies
    • By now medical staff has left – there is little more they can do
    • Local persons are identified for performing these function in existing communities
      • Local doctor, nurse, midwife, veterinarian, etc.
  • Possible long-term weather anomalies occur
    • Some events under the scope of this study may change normal weather patterns (e.g. nuclear winter)
    • Lack of weather prediction technology makes preparing for regular weather events (e.g. hurricanes, tornadoes) impossible
  • Feral pets, mostly cats and dogs, may become a problem
  • Almost all farm stock is gone or carefully protected
  • There would be large scale desertion from military, law enforcement organizations, and other infrastructure

First Year

  • People will start to develop and rebuild agricultural cycles
    • Large mammals are not efficient at converting grass to food so rabbits and sheep may be much more common.
  • Local governments will solidify or most people will leave the general area
  • Some type of market system will evolve for trade
    • New forms of money and/or currency may be created. May be limited in the areas where they will be accepted (regional).
    • Barter still likely to be most common form of trade
  • Population should start to stabilize at much lower levels – not over 140 million in the U.S. unless a national government can organize relief
  • Retraining would have to happen on a massive scale – less than 2% of the U.S. population are farmers.  Most of the current US farmers do not know how to farm without mechanization and delivery chains.
    • Old skills and trades become commonplace again, such as sewing, food preservation, blacksmithing and carpentry.
  • Churches and local community organizations begin record keeping (births, deaths, marriages, etc.)


  • The population and division of labor will stabilize at the new balance.
  • For the survivors, life goes on.
  • If the data infrastructure is intact (e.g. libraries) recovery may be accelerated.


Final note from Wellie:

We are working on a SHTF Action Plan that we’ve broken down kind of like the above.  What do we do if we think it’s going to be a tier 1 event (hurricane we know is coming, bad winter storm, etc.), tier 2 event (something that might last a couple weeks to a month), all the way up to a tier 3 event (the S has HTF and the world will never go back to what it used to be).  When it’s done, we’ll print it out (and I will put a copy on my smart phone, too) so if something happens we know what to do.  For instance, while people are just realizing “hey, this thing that happened could be bad”, we’re already hitting the grocery store and pharmacy.  When they’re swarming the grocery store, we’ll already be hitting the hardware stores.  And so on and so forth.  I don’t know that it will be terribly useful to post, though, as that kind of thing is very individual based on needs, location, plan of action (for instance, ideally we already live in our bug-in location, some people will be bugging out), etc.

We’re also going to include addresses of places we want to go, local warehouses, specialty shops for things like animal care, etc., so we aren’t trying to find them in an emergency and/or we can go to places that will have what we need, but that people won’t immediately think of.  I think in an emergency I’d rather go get my pet food/fish antibiotics/etc. from the tiny local pet shop than fight several hundred or more people swarming the local Walmart Super Center.

I think the most important part of a SHTF Action Plan, other than doing the proper planning/prepping, is to have it written down and easily accessible.  I don’t know about you, but the LAST thing I want to have to do in a crisis is remember what to do in what order.  Having it written down allows you to get through the panic a lot faster.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  Please feel free to comment here or to tweet me @prepper_witch!

About Wellie, the Well-Prepared Witch

I’m a Wiccan priestess with over 10 years in the Pagan community. I have the honor of being High Priestess to a small, wonderful coven and I help facilitate our local Pagan meetup. My husband and I live in a rural area of the mountains of Pennsylvania. I am learning to cook and spin. I knit, crochet and occasionally cross-stitch. I’m learning to homestead and prepare for unexpected events that may disrupt our infrastructure and for the sheer pleasure of relearning the arts my grandmothers knew. You can also find me on Facebook:

And on Twitter: (@welliewitch)

Catastrophe Time Line