How prepared to you think you truly are?

Recently our Stake Presidency did something I would consider quite unprecedented…

One week before each ward conference in the Stake (on the preceding Sunday), under the direction of the Stake Presidency the Bishop selected 2-3 families from each ward, invited them into his office, and gave them this assignment:

Over the next 72 hours, we would like you to participate in an emergency preparedness exercise. You are to simulate that a large earthquake has just hit our neighborhood. You have no power at your house — please go home and shut it off — you have no central heat (this was in March in Utah — it was still snowing/freezing outside), there is no way to refuel your vehicles so you can only drive with the fuel you currently have on hand, and NO water, etc. and you are not allowed to buy anything. You must only use the supplies that you currently have on hand to survive over the next 3 days. Don’t tell anyone in the ward what you’re doing, but during Ward Conference on Sunday, we’d like you to share your experiences with the ward.

At least that was the gist of it; and the exercise began as soon as they left the Bishops office. No last minute shopping trips — this was suppose to be real.

When I learned about this in my ward, there was one family in particular that I thought shouldn’t be asked to do this assignment. I consider them as one of the most prepared families in our ward/stake, and I just thought it wouldn’t give a realistic perspective. They live on an acreage, raise cows, have the largest garden I’ve ever seen, have a massive food supply, tow trailer, 500 gallons of diesel, a stream in their backyard, etc… they are what I in many ways aspire to be in the future in terms of preparedness. A truly self-sustaining/self-contained household. But they are an extreme outlier in our Stake, and I just didn’t think that would be a fair comparison.

Of course, I don’t make decisions and as fate would have it, they were one of the families asked to complete this assignment. The other family I think was much closer to the norm, but still more prepared than many. As I sat there during ward conferences and heard the assignment these poor families had been given, I confess that I was truly excited to hear about their experiences (no matter how painful they might have been). As I listened to them explain that they couldn’t use any utilities (no water, gas, electricity, etc), I started to go through a mental checklist of my own to think about all the potential ramifications and what supplies I had to cope with various situations. I starting thinking about how cold it was outside, and how long it would take for the internal temperature of the house to drop to extremely uncomfortable levels. I also thought about the victims of the Earthquake/Tsunami in Japan — who were left homeless, in the middle of winter, with homes flooded and destroyed. This exercise was nothing by comparison, and yet it also wasn’t a joke. This could be really tough.

What about children? Pets? Medications, etc. No stores, no utilities, nothing… How prepared to you think you truly are?

So, the super-prepared couple in our ward are close friends of mine. After listening to their remarks I followed up with some additional questions. My first question was, “What was the most striking thing about this whole experience?” (Remember, these guys are super prepared).

The most striking thing to me was how extremely inconvenient the whole experience was. How difficult it was. I thought it would be a cakewalk… I consider myself very prepared. But this was hard… really hard. You begin to realize all the little things that you have taken for granted. All the conveniences we have free up our time. As soon as those are taken away, most of your energy gets spent on survival.

In his remarks, he pointed our several areas that people often don’t think about. For example, because they had no running water, how are you going to flush your toilets? The first flush was free, but after that, you had to provide the water needed to flush. Because they had a stream in there backyard, John would go out and scoop up a bucket of water and leave it next to the toilet. But that was a pain. The other family didn’t have that luxury. They figured out exactly how much water it took to flush the toilet but had to use water they had on reserves if they wanted to flush. Soon they implemented the old “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” But what if the toilets weren’t functioning or the sewage were damaged. What is your strategy? This was only one example though. Water in general was troublesome, even if they had it stored. Brushing teeth was another commonly mentioned item, but also what happened if you needed to wash cloths. What if the disaster was more than 72-hours. How would you do that?

Lighting was another big deal. Both families talked about not having adequate lighting around their home once they lost power. Candles were soon rationed so they’d last the three days (and in a real disaster, you don’t know how long it will be). One family had a hurricane lantern tha they said was amazing, but wished they had 3-4 others.

Then there was cooking. Now, both families had propane stoves/portable camp stoves to cook with (in fact one family had three) — however, both of them talked about maintaining and testing that equipment. For one family, 2/3 stoves weren’t in working condition. That left them with only a single stove. They also talked about how different gases could leave bad marks/residues on their kitchen cookware.

Heat was another common theme. Both homes began to get very cold. People were walking around in ski gear, and bundling all the blankets they could find to stay warm at night. Both families said people should look into indoor propane heaters with carbon monoxide safety systems built into them. I recognized this was a serious omission in my own disaster planning.

Other items mentioned were:

  • LED Flashlights/Lights (was better for battery usage)
  • Medical Prescriptions
  • Soaps, toiletries, etc.
  • Pet Food

On a positive note, both families noticed that they spent much more time talking with one another. All of the normal diversions (computers, TV, electronics, etc) had gone away. They played cards, board games, and just talked to one another.

I also quizzed a friend of mine in a neighboring ward who had been asked to participate. This was one of his closing comments from his email, which I thought was a very appropriate reminder:

Overall, I think this kind of test is a very good one to let a family look at things, go over the scenarios, and make plans to improve things. I still think that our stake plan is a great one. I think people in the church get discouraged because other people keep talking about large, expensive, time-consuming, life-altering things that “must” be done to be prepared. Most people I talk to just get discouraged and throw up their hands up “It’s too complicated and too much”. Even in our discussion about this test, people were raising their hands and saying outrageous things that nobody is going to do unless they have lots of time, money, land, and space. It needs to be more practical. I look at all the actual disasters that have happened in the last few years and how long it took to restore access to food, water, electricity, etc. and whether or not people stayed or had to leave their houses. I also think we have to look at scenarios for where we actually live and not ones that are impossible or improbable. I think that being well prepared for a solid 3 months would cover almost all likely scenarios for our area (not the doomsday ones). It is also likely that we would have to leave, so the grab-and-go scenario is important to prep for. If we got everyone to level 1 on the stake plan, we would be the most prepared population on the earth!

This is a great reminder that it doesn’t have to take a lot of money to prepare, but it does take a bit of planning. Going through an exercise like this helps to expose the weaknesses in your own planning. I thought it was an exceptional exercise and extremely beneficial for those families, and for us as members.

At the close of the meeting, our Stake Emergency Preparedness specialist got up and said that at our next ward conference, the Stake would be holding a similar challenge, but said he couldn’t offer any details. However, he provided us with a huge hint, and put a backpack on the table that looked an awful lot like a 72-hour kit…

Geeze — if you thought living in your home for 3-days was bad… imagine grabbing your backpack full of MREs! I’ll let you know how that goes.