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Emergency Unpreparedness
By Aaron Johnston September 28, 2005

Ring! Ring!

I pick up the phone. "Hello?"

"Yes," say two female voices in unison. "This is Katrina and Rita with your wake-up call."

It's sad that it has taken two catastrophic hurricanes to remind me of how incredibly unprepared I am for an emergency, but it's true. Were an earthquake to strike in my neck of the woods tomorrow--and that's the most likely natural disaster to confront me since my family and I live near a fault line--I'd be waterless, food-less, flashlight-less, helpless.

In short, I got nothing packed.

My seventy-two hour kit, which my wife and I assembled years ago, and have been scavenging from ever since, is now a seventy-two seconds kit. (It would take me that long to rummage through it, realize there's nothing there of value, and then unleash a slew of shameful profanities.)

To add insult to injury, my stake president recently told me about an interview he had read several years ago with one of the directors of some federal emergency response agency. (It might have been FEMA, but he couldn't remember).

In the interview, which was given before 9/11, the federal worker said that the top three disaster threats in the United States were:

1. A terrorist attack in New York City.

2. A devastating hurricane striking below-sea-level New Orleans.

3. A massive earthquake in California.

Quite the prognosticator. Two of those three threats have occurred.

Which leaves only one: the earthquake.

I politely thanked the stake president for giving me something else to keep me up at night (If you couldn't guess, I live in California), and then went home to wait for the walls to crumble.

And in the meantime, I've asked myself: Why is being prepared for an emergency such a difficult commandment to keep? And I think we can all agree that it is a commandment--or at the least a very strong suggestion. We've been told to have our year's supply for some time now.

But instead of actually getting our year's supply, many of us simply watch the news as it broadcasts images of laid to waste countryside and think, "Golly, I'm glad I don't live there."

So what keeps us from doing it? Why do many of us drag our feet on emergency preparedness?


The biggest and best excuse is likely money. Keeping a stock of needed supplies is an expense, and not a cheap one at that. Food supplies have to be replenished periodically--even the long shelf-life items. Leave them to sit for years, and they might go bad.

So new cans of vegetables must be bought. New batteries must be purchased. New beef must be jerked. (And that's the verb, by the way: jerk. Not jerkied. I had to look that up. Maybe you already knew that, but it made me wonder: Why do we call it beef jerky and not beef jerked? Hmm. A question for another time perhaps.)

And if you're starting from scratch on your food storage, the expense is even greater. Flashlights. A little gas stove, maybe. Some big containers of water. A flare gun (optional, of course, but sure to be the coolest thing in your pack).

Plus you need something to hold it all in, a cabinet, a backpack, a trunk. Something.

All of that adds up real quick. And if you're like me, who lives check to check and who does a happy dance if the savings account gets any surplus, finding the cash to take the big leap can be a real challenge.

But here's the good news: according to the First Presidency, you don't have to do it all at once. In a letter to the stake presidents and bishops of the church regarding a year's supply of food, they said:

"Some members do not have the money . . . for such storage, and some are prohibited by law from storing a year's supply of food. These members should store as much as their circumstances allow. Families who do not have the resources to acquire a year's supply can begin their storage by obtaining supplies to last for a few months. Members should be prudent and not panic or go to extremes in this effort. Through careful planning, most Church members can, over time, establish . . . a year's supply of essentials." [First Presidency, January 20, 2002].

So preparing our food storage should be an incremental task. A little bit here. A little more there. We add to it over time. But that's the second problem.

Remembering To Do It

If you're like my family, most trips to the grocery store are for a few items only. A gallon of milk perhaps. A loaf of bread. Oreo ice cream. You know, the essentials.

Only rarely do we go and stock up, filling a grocery cart with the food we'll eat for the next few weeks. Part of that is due to the cost of living in Southern California--a box of Fruit Loops costs about $300, if I'm not mistaken--so big grocery lists almost never occur.

And when we make our small grocery lists, the last thing on our minds is a large container of powdered milk or some other food-storage item. "We'll get that later," we tell ourselves. "Next trip to Costco," we tell ourselves.

But the Costco trip comes and goes and still no powdered milk.

My wife and I would do better if we had a device that reminded us as we left the grocery store to buy something for our food supply. A little beeper in the car perhaps with an electronic voice that said, "No powdered milk detected. No powdered milk detected."

Or more dramatically, "I'm sorry. You cannot start the vehicle without powdered milk. Please return to the store and make your purchase."

Or even more dramatically: an ejection seat that jettisons us from the car and lands us in the powdered milk aisle.

Or even more dramatically, a powdered-milk-man thug who rides shotgun wherever we go and breaks out the brass knuckles whenever mommy and daddy forget the food storage.

OK, you see my point. We need help remembering. Our feeble little minds are too easily distracted by other things for us to remember to buy . . . Hey look! A shiny thing!

Sadly, the First Presidency offers no advice for people who simply can't remember to do it.

If they did, the letter would go something like this:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Remember to do it.


The First Presidency

Because what more can you say than that? We simply have to make food storage a priority. If we don't have a testimony of it, all we need do is speak with anyone who desperately needed their food supply and either A. had it or B. didn't. Either way, they'll swear how important it is.

And if that doesn't motivate us to remember, nothing will.

Finding Space

My family and I live in an apartment, so finding space to store food and supplies can be a real doozy. Empty closet space there ain't. Every crevice and corner is occupied.

In the letter from the First Presidency I've already mentioned, the Brethren acknowledge space as a concern and basically say, "Do the best you can with what you've got. Be prudent."

Again, comforting advice.

My wife and I have discovered the wonder of the tub. And by that I don't mean we've only recently learned to bathe ourselves. I speak of the plastic tub, the storage bin.

Tubs come in all shapes and sizes and can fit anywhere: at the bottom of closets, under beds, on closet shelves, behind furniture. They're the wonderfully adaptable storage unit.

There are plenty of retailers who offer these plastic wonders, my favorite being Ikea (, which offers a wide selection of colors and sizes. Some with lids. Some without. And even if you're not interested in their products, Ikea has wonderful ideas on where to store household items and how to maximize space.

If you're storing dry goods, suggests you use PETE plastic containers, which are clear containers with good oxygen barrier qualities. So the dry goods will stay dryer longer.

In fact, I should mention that has a lot of excellent suggestions. The site is run and managed by the Church and is a must for anyone wanting to begin or maintain a food supply.

But as anyone who's experienced a disaster first hand can tell you, a good food supply is only one of many necessities.

Which is why the Church encourages us also to stay out of debt, save for the future, and have good insurance.

All that and more will help us be ready for whatever challenges life will bring. Because if I've learned anything from watching hurricane news coverage recently, it's (1) A lot of on-camera male reporters wear far too much makeup, and (2) Life brings challenges whether we're ready for them or not.

So we might as well be ready. Otherwise the wake-up call will come, not in the aftermath news coverage, but as the disaster rages around us.

And should a disaster come before I'm ready, look for my flare in the sky. It's a desperate plea for you to come over and bring me some powdered milk.

Copyright © 2005 by Aaron Johnston

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