Dead Bodies and Body Bags

Earthquake destruction, rubble
I think I see someone in there . . .

After “The Big One,” what do we do about all the dead bodies?

Here in California we’ve been waiting for “The Big One” for years. Although we’ve had some warning quakes, the big one hasn’t hit yet. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s somehow going away. In fact, the threat is increasing every day.

That’s why our neighborhood emergency response team schedules at least one “Earthquake Preparedness” session every year. We’re planning our next one right now. For many of us, it will be a refresher. But for people new to California, and to earthquakes, it can be quite a shocker. Dead bodies and body bags tend to capture their attention!

Answering basic questions about earthquakes.

Most people who haven’t really learned about earthquakes seem to have a vague notion of running out of their home when a quake hits. Experts say this is a terrible idea! Our upcoming Earthquake Fair will address just why that notion is so dangerous! And we’ll make an effort to address all the basic questions like those below. How well can YOU answer them?

  • How many alerts exist to give us a warning BEFORE the quake hits? Do they actually work?
  • What will happen in the first seconds and minutes?
  • Are some places safer than others during the quake?
  • What if I am in my car when the quake hits?
  • What are the most common injuries associated with earthquakes?

Can we expect deaths?

A recent article I read stated that “The Big One” could “kill about 1,800 people and leave 50,000 or more with injuries.” Of course, the degree of destruction will depend on which fault breaks, where you are located along that fault, what kind of building you’re in, etc.

Still, we do have to assume there may be deaths, if only from heart attack.

And while we don’t dwell on how to manage dead bodies, we do need a plan for coping. Joe and I have received some professional training on this topic, so I’d like to share it here.

Dealing with dead bodies is a sensitive issue.

We have been told, over and over again, that a big earthquake will result in power outages, bridge collapse, etc., so we can expect to wait certainly hours and maybe days before we’re reached by emergency personnel. That means that deceased people and animals (who aren’t still buried under collapsed buildings and rubble) will be scattered about where they fall. Even while we survivors are busy supporting each other, we must manage any dead bodies — because after as little as 12 hours after death, they may no longer be recognizable.

Steps we may need to take to recover and manage dead bodies.

A municipal entity will have the final authority for managing bodies. But if there is a delay before authorities arrive, our local neighborhood group may have to step up.

Some of the considerations:

  • Once the immediate danger has passed, and the living are being cared for, our goal is to move rapidly to find and identify the deceased.
  • A team will be required to find the body, take appropriate PHOTOS (if possible, without moving the body), and hopefully identify the person. Throughout, the team needs to treat every body with utmost respect. As for identifying, in our case, our neighborhood directory will be invaluable for initial identification, but of course there may be strangers within the disaster area, too.
  • Each body must be carefully LABELED — with a unique number, name if known, where and when found, etc.. If possible, the label will be protected from water or smearing, by being in a plastic cover.
  • As bodies are found and labeled, information from each label must be carefully RECORDED for later use by officials and family. One team member should maintain the record.
  • In the case of anticipated delay, the body can be placed in a BODY BAG or covered or wrapped by a sheet. The covering carries the same label mentioned above. Obviously, in this case the body will need to be handled. New photos of the face and any identifying marks may be appropriate. Workers should not worry about becoming infected, but should follow normal hygiene procedures, wearing boots and gloves and washing and/or disinfecting after touching the body, blood, feces, etc.

Here’s an example of two important forms necessary for managing dead bodies.

You’ll want to have made up some forms in advance.,

In a neighborhood setting, does it make sense to set up a morgue?

While we have body bags, our neighborhood group does not have the ability to transport bodies. Our first choice would be to leave them where they are found (in body bags) as long as they are sufficiently out of the way, protected from further damage, and, preferably, out of view. Only in the extreme conditions would we attempt to set up a morgue.

What about your neighborhood? Do you have what it would take to store bodies? Setting up some sort of morgue requires space, appropriate furniture, likely electricity for cooling, etc. That’s a topic for further discussion.

“Deal with it.”

Even well-staffed CERT groups often neglect this issue. Why? Because it’s a very negative situation to imagine or to dwell upon. And in reality, few people know how to deal with dead bodies in a disaster situation.

But it is part of preparing for a major disaster. Ignoring it will not make it go away. As with everything associated with preparedness, the more you know abut something, and how best to cope with it, the less upsetting it is.

Here’s what our neighborhood group has done in this regard.

We have a number of CERT graduates and a whole team of pretty sensible folks. At the same time, we’re a senior community. We know dealing with dead neighbors might become an issue.

We purchased a dozen body bags of various sizes, and at one of our training sessions we opened one up to test it. Our smallest female member climbed up on the table and crawled inside. We zipped her in and then tried lifting the bag. Surprise! Even 6 able-bodied group members had some trouble handling the weight!  (Mostly because the bag we were testing was soft-sided, not like a door or a box or a stretcher where there’s something to grab hold of.)

Yes, there were expressions of distaste as this training started. Lots of nervous laughter. But everything settled down quickly when it came to really handling the bag.

My recommendation for YOUR group? Don’t overlook this important preparation for a disaster.

Share this Advisory. Bring up the subject at a training meeting. And if at all possible, lay in a supply of body bags. They can be bought individually at a cost of $15 – $35 or so, depending on the size, thickness of the material, type of closure, how many handles, etc.

Below is what looks like an excellent choice, available at Amazon where we are Associates. I selected it because it is extra long, has 8 handles, and a central zipper. I include it here as a start for your shopping list, because you may wish to have a selection of bags of different qualities and sizes.

Primacare BB-3201 Body Bag Stretcher Combo with 8 Side Handles and Center Zipper, Waterproof Bags for Outdoor Camping Hiking and Sleeping, Polyethylene Cadaver Disaster Pouch, 90″ x 36″, Black

As I said, we haven’t experienced a major disaster here — yet. If you have experience with dead bodies and body bags that would be appropriate to share, please do.

In the meanwhile, please make plans to add this topic to your disaster preparedness planning.

Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

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  1. clare