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Buried Alive: How Long Can You Live without Food or Water?

Mar 29, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

It's the hardest question for rescue and recovery teams: When to stop searching after a natural disaster and let the bulldozers go to work. In Haiti, the answer came 11 days after the ground shook. On Jan. 23, the Haitian government declared the search and rescue phase was over because there was little hope of finding more people alive.

And yet, on Tuesday, fully two weeks after the quake, U.S. troops pulled a man alive from the rubble. The survivor, Rico Dibrivell, was covered in dust and wearing only underpants. He suffered a broken leg and severe dehydration.

[UPDATE: On Wednesday evening, the AP reports, French rescuers pulled a teenage girl out of the rubble of the destroyed College St. Gerard in Port-au-Prince, a stunning recovery 15 days after the quake.]

These stories story raise the question: How long can anyone survive without food and water? The answer: A surprisingly long time especially if you're healthy and can protect your core body temperature. Oh, and a little luck can make a big difference too.

In a natural disaster, typical healthy humans can last around one week if they're well-nourished and hydrated and aren't seriously injured. Survival up to two weeks is possible if conditions are favorable. Aa 2003 earthquake in Algeria, CNN reports, "a 13-year-old female who survived four days was reported to have been trapped with the pancakes that she sold for a living. A 97-year-old female who survived nine days in Iran had access to food that had been next to her before the 2003 earthquake occurred. A man rescued from a Philippines hotel gym two weeks after the 1990 earthquake had daily access to rain water."

What are the secrets of surviving a natural disaster? In almost any emergency, the US air force believes two magic numbers can help save your life. In its grueling survival course at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington, the first number instructors drill into your head is 98.6. The most important survival priority is to protect your core body temperature. In this regard, Haiti's warm climate offered some protection to lucky survivors who weren't crushed or injured by the quake or aftershocks. Haiti's humid weather also may have slowed the pace of dehydration for survivors trapped in the rubble.

The air force also teaches what it calls the Magic Number 3. Whether you're an F-15 fighter pilot or in a car accident, experts say remember the number 3 can help keep you alive.

The Rule of 3 states that you can't survive:

> 3 seconds without spirit and hope.
> 3 minutes without air.
> 3 hours without shelter in extreme conditions.
> 3 days without water.
> 3 weeks without food.
> 3 months without companionship or love.

As we saw in Haiti, some people lasted longer than 3 days without water, but the air force insists these rules can help you focus on your survival priorities and manage your time and energy in a crisis.
Never forget those numbers, the air force says: 98.6 and 3. In the fog of war or the ruins of a quake, those magic numbers keep your focus clear and help you stay alive.