The Beginner's Guide to Preparing for the Worst

In the wake of disasters, things get unpredictable.  Ordinary goods and services are suddenly unavailable and competition for limited supplies becomes intense, even dangerous. 
Growing up in Miami, I sat through a few hurricanes in my youth.  It wasn’t until I was an adult, though, sitting through Hurricane Andrew at ground zero, that my preparedness gene awoke with a vengeance.  It’s a sad truth.  When things get tough, desperate people do some bad things and bad people do heinous things.  The chaotic aftermath of Andrew threw into high definition just how thin society’s veneer really is, something many didn’t understand until they watched what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 
Most, I’m sad to say, still don’t get it.  Many Americans cloud reality with unrealistic expectations.  They want to see the best in someone but, in doing so, take the potentially fatal next step of assuming they can trust each person until and unless that person breaches that trust.    It’s a normative view, essentially supplanting ‘what is’ with ‘what they want it to be.’  Combine that wishful thinking with the entitlement attitude of so many Americans today and imagine hundreds of thousands of these folks – even millions of them – with no food or water and no prospects of obtaining supplies for days or even weeks.  This scenario terrifies me.  I’ve seen it first-hand on a tiny level.  On a wholesale basis, mayhem would be a euphemism.  
Often, the only thing standing between chaos and our civilized lives is law enforcement and the availability of basics for everyone.  Take away the basics and America has a problem.  A serious problem. 
I learned many things after Andrew.  One thing I came to understand was what I call the “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” system we have here for responding to disasters.  America predicates her responses to disasters on the assumption that the affected area will be able to draw help from unaffected areas.  People pour into disaster areas from throughout the country with skills, supplies, systems.  They work side by side with local officials to ensure that the affected area doesn’t spiral into collapse.  But what if the entire country becomes the ‘affected area?’  One possible consequence of the rocky economic road America is walking right now is a nationwide economic shock.  Even if it were a temporary one, help wouldn’t be coming from other areas.  Each area would be on its own.
New York City residents just awoke to tons of snow and the realization the government can’t do everything for them.  Sometimes you have to do things for yourself.  And sometimes, you have to be prepared to wait things out for days or weeks.   
The key is to prepare for foreseeable events in advance.  This includes, among other things, shoring up family discipline, team building, acquiring critical supplies, managing those supplies properly, developing contingent plans including sheltering in place and going to alternative sites, and practicing carrying out those plans.  And by preparing for foreseeable events, you’ll also be prepared for many unforeseeable – even unimaginable – ones.
One of the most common complaints I hear in the preparedness context is, “I can’t get my spouse on board with this.”  Can you tell your family members to do something and they’ll do it without engaging you in a five-minute debate?  If not, figure out a way to convince your family that the potential for problems is real.  Sit your family down together, in a no-nonsense meeting, and show them some of the potential problems you believe you could face.  Show them how people in New York City can’t move, days after this recent snow storm, because they couldn’t figure out how to dig themselves out.  If you’re in that situation, maybe your family can start a movement on your block to arm every resident with a snow shovel so you can work together as a team of hundreds to clear the entire block after a storm.  Remind them of the blackout in the northeast several years ago and ask your family how the people of New York City would have handled this snow storm had another blackout accompanied it.  Ask them how many pipes could have burst, how much destruction there might have been – how many people could have died — due to lack of heat. 
Show them footage of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, with thousands of people standing in water with no idea how to get drinking water.  Show them how prices are rising in the food store in leaps and bounds, even as our government tells us inflation is very low.  Ask them what rising prices mean to Americans in general and individual families in particular.  Ask them what they think would happen if food prices were to rise, say, thirty percent or more in January.  Explain how that could set off anger, possibly panic, and what could happen in such a situation.  Show them coverage of the riots in Rome and the UK – those people are objecting to future rising educational costs.  They’re not even hungry.    
Explain to them how we’ve seen gas prices rise twenty five percent in the past few months and how those prices rising, combined with other prices rising, put severe pressure on poor to middle class households.  Explain to them how, when gas prices leaped several years ago, independent truckers were starting to park their rigs because they faced the real possibility of losing money on every trip.   Show them how just-in-time delivery works and what that means to availability of basics if a good number of these truckers stop delivering due to the high gas prices.  And if they still can’t see it, show them footage of empty stores in the aftermath of local disasters and ask them to explain to you how your local stores could remain stocked if supplies aren’t moving in sufficient quantities to serve all Americans.  Or even most Americans.
While you’re getting your family on board, you should be outlining and refining plans for whatever might happen.  You’ll need a plan for staying in your home for a lengthy period of time and at least one other plan for going somewhere else if your area becomes so unsafe that you can’t risk staying.  Do you have somewhere to go?  If so, can you get there if the roads haven’t been plowed or people are blocking streets, protesting something they think the government can fix?  Are you sure that place will still be there for you?  Do your family members know their roles in any such move?  Have they practiced them?  Have you stored supplies at your alternative site?  Do you have supplies stored at home?  Do you know what you should store and how?  Can you purify water, if necessary?  Can you heat your shelter?  Do you have a way to get to where you’re going without a vehicle?  Can you and your family defend each other and your critical supplies?
If you live in a city or suburb and things get bad, your best bet is to recognize the escalation in risk quickly enough to allow you to get out before a dire situation becomes full-blown.  If society is starting to break down and you have to venture out, your risk profile escalates dramatically.  That’s why, if you’re going to leave, you need to be able to do so before the major downturns occur.  My sister found herself in the middle of a robbery stand-off just a few days after Hurricane Andrew.   She didn’t understand the way criminals operate after disasters.  She assumed the National Guard’s presence would ensure normalcy and she ventured out to top off a few things.  She ended up getting thrown to the ground by a protective National Guardsman because she’d unwittingly walked into the line of fire.  She hurried home after that.  She realized things would improve – after all, it was just a local disaster so help was pouring in from all quarters.  And she had enough in her home to get through that tough period. 
By having your home and alternative site properly stocked, you can stay in place rather than insert yourself into the mayhem around you.  This is the cornerstone of preparedness – having essential items in your home/shelter that will permit you to stay there plus having a stocked alternative site and plans for getting there safely.  Your last resort in any bad situation is leaving your shelter.  Once you’re outside, criminals, government bureaucrats, law enforcement officers, and unforeseeable situations can change your plans for you fairly easily.
I used to prepare for weather disasters. But over the years, I’ve developed a generic preparedness profile – a set of things, information and plans that will help me weather many of the most likely threats, both external and internal.  Preparing doesn’t just help you make it through a storm.  It gives you skills and supplies that can save you in a variety of scenarios.  By being prepared, you have backups should you lose your job or you have a sudden unexpected major expense.  It gives you a cushion if someone in your family gets ill and you find more of your income going to medical bills.  And it might even allow you to avoid the masses that inevitably crowd your local stores right before a hurricane or blizzard descends upon you.  It can save your life if the power goes out for three weeks in January and you live in the north, or if an international event shoves the price of gas to $5.00 per gallon and store deliveries slow to a trickle or stop. 
Preparing also makes the transition a lot easier if your aging parent or adult child suddenly has to move in with you or you find yourselves about to add a surprise baby to your household.   Given the number of foreclosures here in the USA, many families are consolidating under one roof.  If you think a relative might come to live with you after losing his or her home, wouldn’t you want some extra supplies on hand?
Still on the fence?  If so, I have a question for you. Do you buy insurance? Do you have, for example, auto insurance or home insurance? Maybe you have a renter’s policy or some life insurance.  Hopefully you have health insurance.  Some even have health insurance policies on their pets.  And the list goes on – disability insurance, long-term care insurance – these policies have one thing in common. They are all forms of risk mitigation.  When we talk about preparing, that’s exactly what we’re talking about.  Developing skills, plans, and physical things that will help you survive dangerous situations is risk mitigation.  Preparing is simply a different type of insurance policy.


In this series of articles, I want to help you devise a plan for putting together essential supplies and tools so you can remain in control even when things around you spin out of control.  Of course, the only way anyone can truly control his or her situation is to have an isolated spot, fully stocked, with infallible security.  Most of us don’t have that.  But everyone can improve their preparedness profiles and mitigate, at least somewhat, the risks they face. 
I suggest starting with an assessment of your needs.  As a first step, start a log.  Write down everything your family uses in a week – rolls of toilet paper, Ziploc bags, shampoo, laundry detergent, floor cleaner, loaves of bread, aspirin, vitamins, cans of vegetables, pounds of meat – everything down to the last ounce of salt.  Estimate how much water you use.  That’ll be a big shocker.  Also, estimate how much energy you use daily.  You can use your electric/gas bills to do that for now, and fine-tune the information later. 
Second, inventory your emergency assets.  Some of them are posing as ordinary comforts like candles, barbeque grills, a solar battery charger, that nice little patch of oregano you planted three years ago – broaden your imagination and go through your possessions, asking, “could I use this in an emergency?”  Create a list of those things and how you might use them.  Don’t forget to think about ways to heat your home, cook your food, and create light if the power goes out.  Here’s a cool example.  How many of you have those cute little solar lights dotting your front walkway?  In an emergency, you can leave those outside during the day, then bring some of them in at night for light. 
In the next article, we’ll talk about putting together a two-week supply of basic essentials that will allow your family to stay put without any outside help for that length of time.  Fair warning:  that’s just a start.  Your goal should be to have far more than that in your sheltering place.  If you’re independently wealthy, you can amass supplies quickly.  If not, you can do it in stages.  Some stages will be slow; others can be achieved in gulps. 
What are these basics?  Your primary needs will be water, food, shelter, heat, clothing, medical/hygiene.  Alternative energy would be very helpful, as well.  If you’ve never lived without power, try living in your home for twenty four hours with no electricity.  It’s humbling to realize how we count on electricity for the most fundamental needs.  Everything is more difficult without electricity.
So let’s get started.  Do your risk assessment.  Be honest as you do it.  Assess your supplies for emergency usefulness.  And meanwhile, check the sales.  If there’s a good deal out there on anything canned, dried, or that otherwise has a long-term shelf life, grab a whole lot of it and stick it under your bed for now.  If you have a fireplace, make sure you have matches or other firestarter and some firewood.  If you don’t use these things right away, they’ll become part of your long-term preparedness plan!


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