By Lee Zlotoff

[This “MakeShift Challenge” column originally appeared in Make: Volume 06, 2006.]

The Scenario:
You live with your spouse and two teenage children in a rustic, one-story house next to a roaring mountain stream in a steep, narrow canyon. Early one morning, you’re awakened by a serious earthquake. The family is OK, but the power is out. The portable radio tells you that the quake has hit the region hard, and power will probably be out for days. The land and cellular phone systems are out as well, but you don’t get cell reception up here anyway. You look outside and see that a rockslide just below you has not only cut off your driveway, but also dammed the stream, which is rising fast. Your house will be mostly underwater in 15 minutes.

You have two cars, a Toyota Prius and a Chevy Suburban. Both have full tanks of gas and cellphone chargers in the dash, but you have only enough open space up behind the house to keep one of them out of the water, above the level of the rock slide. Your home has typical belongings and a basic set of tools, but all your camping equipment has been lent out to your brother, and it’s been getting cold at night.

The Challenge:
You have 15 minutes to move one of your cars up to dry ground, and tell your family what to collect from the house to ensure that you can all survive up here for at least five days. You also need to devise a way to let the outside world know that you’re here, and need to be rescued.

There’s one other wrinkle:
Your only neighbor, a single guy named Dave, probably partied hard last night and slept through the quake. But his house will flood just as quickly as yours. You can send someone to rouse Dave, but then you’re down one collector, and if you do rescue him, he’ll join you with nothing more than the clothes he has on. Should you factor in Dave, or figure that in a disater like this, it’s every man for himself?

Now, look at your watch again. You need to make some key decisions immediately, and figure out who should do and grab what. Because in 15 minutes, the party’s over, and you’re completely isolated and homeless… Go!

The most plausible and creative solutions won a Make: T-shirts and a SwissMemory USB Victorinox 512MB.

Analysis, Commentary, and Winners:

Most of you saw this as a pretty straightforward survival scenario, albeit with plenty of real-world applications. Some seemed to think it too easy, but those responses revealed a host of underlying assumptions about how quickly the collective infrastructure would be restored and the limited degree of your isolation (i.e. “we could just walk out”), as if reaching the nearest city — which was itself in crisis — was both feasible and would improve your situation, a dubious assumption when considering the safety of your family. But there were ample opportunities in this setup for technically creative as well as social network thinking, which many of you wrestled with … and then, of course, there was the question of Dave.

The first real question was which of your two cars to save, the Prius or the Suburban? Several of the responses were tempted by the extensive battery pack and generating capabilities of the Prius, though few really figured out a way to employ those effectively for signaling the outside world. And, in the end, most opted for the sheltering values of the Suburban and its utility once the road was cleared enough to get out of the canyon, since it was obvious your house was not going to be habitable even after the water subsided. As for what to grab from the house, nearly everyone covered that well with food, potable water (or bleach to disinfect the stream water), and sufficient clothing, blankets, etc. However, given some of the lists submitted, many had an overly optimistic sense of how much could be collected in 15 minutes from a house filling with water. One of the entries cleverly presumed to just dispense with food collection, lay the fridge down on its back so it would float, leave the house doors open, and fish it out of the submerged structure with a makeshift raft once the family was safe and the water had leveled off. Certainly creative, but risky, since if the icebox got trapped by debris or something else, food would fast become a critical issue.

To my thinking, the real challenge in this scenario was not surviving for the week but coming up with a convincing and persistent method for ensuring the outside world would know you were alive and needed help (which is where I imagined the generating possibilities of the Prius might prove really valuable). Most of you gave this aspect short shrift or assumed a simple signaling mirror or sign would be sufficient. Given that the area you’re trapped in was heavily wooded, and that the crisis in the city would command most of the social network’s attention, that struck me as an overly optimistic assumption. You’re in a remote location that could easily be overlooked for weeks unless you can effectively alert the outside world of your presence and thereby force them to investigate. But maybe I’m just not one to presume on the kindness of strangers, which brings us back to the question of Dave.

This was easily the most intriguing aspect of the scenario as it threw a moral and social question into the mix. The vast majority of you opted to rescue Dave, which, in a thought exercise, was easy enough to do (though not everyone was so altruistic). But a surprising number of responses took considerable imaginative speculation (albeit jokingly) about Dave’s character, i.e. Dave harbored designs on your wife, or your kids, or was simply not deemed entirely trustworthy in some respect. Perhaps the fact that Dave “partied hard last night” led to these assumptions; who can say? But I wonder what real questions emerge from the fact that most of us seem to put great stock in the general social infrastructure to be there when we need it, yet are not so sanguine about our next door neighbor? Maybe you should think about having Dave over to dinner because, in an actual crisis, you never know who or what you might really have to rely on.

The Winners:

MakeShift Master – Plausible: Vinny Forgione
MakeShift Master – Creative: Bobby Joe Snyder