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Emergency Preparedness Part 10: Disaster Sanitation

[Posted July 30, 2021]

Contributed by Robin Jensen and Patrick Pangburn for Hillsdale NET

This is the tenth in a series of articles brought to you by the Hillsdale Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) and the Hillsdale News. To read earlier installments, click here.

The articles will help you prepare your family and our community for a major natural disaster, as well as share information on Hillsdale NET and what it does. We hope you will stay tuned over the coming months and that you find the content helpful and informative.

To learn more about the NET program or sign up for NET training, visit the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management NET website. There are also many auxiliary volunteer opportunities available with our Hillsdale NET team. Email to find out how you can help.


In 2010 and 2011 the New Zealand city of Christchurch experienced two earthquakes (magnitude 6.3 and 7.1) plus aftershocks that resulted in widespread destruction of infrastructure. Wastewater systems were almost completely wiped out; fresh running water and city waste systems became unavailable to the population of Christchurch. We expect similar outages here in Portland in the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.

Options for managing human waste after a disaster that severely impacts water delivery infrastructure may include: existing septic systems if undamaged, toilets in recreational vehicles, pit latrines or homemade waste systems. Septic systems are rare in Hillsdale; pit latrines may not be practical following a disaster as they must be built to strict standards and require sufficient land area where it is safe to dig. The best post-disaster option for most Portlanders will be the DIY two-bucket toilet system.

a photo illustratiing the two-bucket system: a bucket labeled "pee," a bucket labeled "poo," a book, toilet paper, and bottled water.
Two two-bucket toilet system for human waste management following a disaster, plus the usual amenities that can greatly improve the experience.

Easy and affordable to construct, the two-bucket system consists, as the name promises, of two buckets, one for liquid waste and one for solid waste (keeping them separate helps control odors and more safely manage solid waste). Consult the Emergency Toilet Guidebook for detailed information on creating your own makeshift toilet system for use after a disaster. The Guidebook was developed and implemented by the Regional Disaster Preparedness Organization of the Portland Metropolitan Region, with funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant program.

And how do you maintain good hygiene without running water after using your makeshift toilet? As Dr. Merilee Karr of South Burlingame’s NET reminds us, “You don’t want to survive the disaster and die of dysentery.”

A yelllow bucket with a spout inserted illustrates the DIY hand-washing station.
A DIY hand washing station will help you and your family avoid waste-borne disease.

Dr. Karr has created an instructional website for a DIY hand-washing station that can be assembled for minimal cost. Handwashing is not just a personal choice—as she points out, the World Health Organization recommends at least one handwashing station per 20 people to avoid the spread of disease.

You might think about building one or more handwashing systems for your family and possibly for your friends and neighbors. They make welcome gifts for those you care about.

For a very small investment and bit of your time, in a disaster you will be ready to manage pee, poo and washing up after. As with most disaster preparedness tasks, a little advance preparation will go a long way when disaster strikes.


Hillsdale NET wants to know how you connect with your neighbors, as well the geographic boundaries of your local community networks.

Email to share information about the “how” and the “where” of the networks in your immediate neighborhood so we can help ensure that everyone is in the communication loop in an emergency.


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