texasmonthly.com: What got you interested in worst-case scenarios? What do you hope readers will take away from your article?
Anne Dingus: I became truly interested in the topic of Texas’s worst-case scenarios when I realized that most of these potential problems are, in fact, everyday risks. They aren’t freak accidents or extreme situations. Who hasn’t dealt with, at the very least, a major munching by fire ants or chiggers? And I expect nearly as many people have had a brush with heatstroke or a surprise visit from a spider or snake. In other words, any modern Texan, no matter how urban, is highly likely to end up in one or more of these predicaments. You don’t have to be living in a hovel in the country to clash with nature—and lose.
texasmonthly.com: Did any of this article’s insights come from your own experience?
AD: I hate fire ants. Thanks to them, you could connect the dots on my feet and calves. (I’m not sure what the picture would end up looking like, but there sure are plenty of dots—red, itchy, ugly dots.) I am Amdro Annie because I religiously bait the fire ant mounds in my yard. So far I’m not winning, but then again, neither are the nasty little buggers. So it’s a draw (but “draw” as in “even,” not “draw” as in using a pencil, à la dot-to-dot art). Texas has more than its share of stinging residents, both plant and animal, so I’ve had several acres’ worth of bumps, lumps, and rashes. When I was a kid in the fifties and sixties, fire ants were not yet a statewide pest, but I did get stung regularly by jellyfish when I visited Matagorda Beach. My siblings and I just couldn’t resist messing with the ones that got washed up, and the nematocysts that inhabit the tentacles are still active even after the creature is dead. I’m also maddeningly allergic to poison ivy, and I have stupidly handled prickly pear and gotten those tiny little semi-invisible spines all over my hands. The only non-stinging example of a worst-case scenario that I’ve personally witnessed is a tornado. Once, when I was in high school, I saw a funnel form, drop down out of the clouds, then draw back in and disappear.
texasmonthly.com: Where do you go for research on an article like this?
AD: I read hundreds of articles on the Internet as well as several books, and I also interviewed dozens of people, many of whom are experts in their fields. I actually expected to be more grossed out and horrified than I was, but the medical experts and the search-and-rescue people were surprisingly calm and confident about their work. If I ever get lost in Texas, I think I want to be lost in Big Bend. One of my great sources was Laura Van Inwagen, a ranger at the national park there, and she talked to me at length about visitors who get hurt or become disoriented and what those people should do to maximize their chances of a safe return home. Her final advice for the lost hiker was incredibly comforting: “We will find you, and we will get you out of there.”
texasmonthly.com: How did you discover the recipe for Skunk Shampoo?
AD: I stumbled on it while doing Internet research. The recipe has been around for years, so the old spouses’ tale about tomato juice being an effective skunk-odor remover is hooey. One reason I was taken with this shampoo recipe was that it reminds me of the old elementary school science experiment for making mini volcanoes, which result from combining hydrogen peroxide or vinegar with baking soda. It “erupts”—that is, foams up—like crazy. The procedure is very entertaining for kids, even if your neighborhood is blessedly skunk-free.
texasmonthly.com: Were there any worst-case scenarios that didn’t make the cut but indeed are worst-case scenarios Texans should be aware of?
AD: I ended up with a total of 27 worst-case scenarios, but the only reason 10 didn’t make the cut for the magazine was sheer lack of space. Fortunately, those 10, which include some doozies like black widow and brown recluse spider bites, are on our Web site. And by the way, those 27 are all nature-related—plants, animals, germs, the elements. I’d have fun doing an urban worst-case version, with such things as, say, maximizing the likelihood of surviving a holdup or escaping from a pursuing driver who’s operating under road rage. I could get really horrendously detailed: “You are zipping down Interstate 35 at 65 miles per hour in your spiffy little sports car when suddenly a huge semi ahead of you jackknifes across the freeway, and you realize you are going to drive directly under the trailer. What do you do?”
texasmonthly.com: In your intro you allude to the fact that modern conveniences have changed our interaction with nature. Is that in and of itself a worst-case scenario when it comes to dealing with natural worst-case scenarios?
AD: Good point! Yes, it is. Modern Texans—and Americans in general—are so shielded from nature most of the time that we simply aren’t prepared when the worst happens. We spend some fifty weeks a year dashing back and forth between the artificial environments of our houses, offices, and vehicles, and then for our few days off, we try to get back to nature and we’re just not accustomed or prepared for what that entails. We rely too much on our cars and our cell phones; we don’t expect the transmission of one to break down or the transmission of the other to break up. And I’m willing to bet that very few Texans keep water in their cars, but in a part of the country that can become so perilously hot, that’s essential. Because my car is elderly, I store bottled water in it at all times; if it dies on the road in the middle of nowhere, I’m at least going to be able to stave off thirst for a spell. (Plus, there are probably a few petrified french fries on the floor for sustenance.)
texasmonthly.com: Were you surprised by any of the solutions to these worst-case scenarios?
AD: Overall, I was surprised by how often the correct response is to do nothing! In many scenarios, the best thing the victim, or his friends or family, can do is merely get to an emergency room as fast as possible. This isn’t sexy advice, but it’s accurate and doable. We all remember bits of folk medicine that have survived for decades, and even a lot of authentic, professional first-aid advice has changed dramatically in the past twenty years or so. For example, the recommended treatment for a rattlesnake bite is simply to wash it with soap and water and call 911 or get to an ER pronto. But a lot of people—especially baby boomers—still swear by outdated info such as using a tourniquet, cutting X’s into the skin and sucking out the venom, or using an ice pack on the bite.
texasmonthly.com: Of all the research you did on Texas’s worst-case scenarios, what discovery made the biggest impression on you?
AD: For some reason, I was most horrified by the fact that during a flood, more people die in their cars than anywhere else. To me, that is a grisly thought: to be trapped inside your car—what we all think of as a second home of sorts—as it slowly fills up with water and . . . well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. After discovering that Central Texas, where I live, is the flash-flood capital of the U.S., I put an iron rod in my car. Because the doors of a submerged vehicle can be impossible to open given the intense water pressure of a flooded creek or crossing, the driver may need a tool to break out a window and facilitate escape. Whew—at least I’ve got that covered! Maybe, now that I’m prepared, I’ll never need to use that rod. Except to smush a fire ant or two.