Staying prepared: How to be ready for a disaster even after the disaster

Preparation comes before catastrophes strike, not after

Published: Monday, Nov. 5 2012 10:22 p.m. MST

Doug Ellis stands in his food storage pantry, which contains about $5,000 in food, 300 gallons of water, all to keep his family safe in a disaster.

Joey Ferguson, Deseret News

It wasn't fear of a major disaster that motivated Doug Ellis to stock up on $5,000 worth of food, 300 gallons of water and a generator that could power his house for a week.

"My motivation is my family, but my fear is economic downturn and, here in Utah, an earthquake," said Ellis, who is raising four kids with his wife, Robyn.

Most people aren't like Ellis and his family, who are prepared for any possible disaster. A majority of Americans at least somewhat agree that they are not prepared for a major catastrophe, according to a January 2012 National Geographic study.

At least half of respondents to the study believe there will be a significant earthquake, hurricane, terrorist attack or financial collapse in the next 25 years.

Experts say the problem is that, unlike with Ellis, motivation for emergency preparedness is often the product of fear after a natural disaster, not before.

A smoking gun

"We always see a peak in disaster preparedness when there is a disaster," said Ryan Longman, manager of the state emergency preparedness organization Be Ready Utah. "Then a couple of months later, it drops off again."

Traffic to the site BeReadyUtah.gov rose by 64 percent after Sandy made landfall compared to the week prior, and grew by 230 percent the day after.

When word of a possible meltdown at a nuclear plant in Japan following the tsunami in March reached Utah, traffic increased by 412 percent.

The spike in traffic shows that people tend to care more about preparedness after a disaster strikes elsewhere, Longman said.

"We see a lot of people who are into the idea, but it's about actually taking those steps to get physically prepared," Longman said.

Tomorrow's Harvest, a food storage company based in Kaysville, Utah, has seen its sales dramatically increase since 2008, Mike Porenta, the company's co-owner and chief operations officer, said in an interview for a recent Deseret News article.

Revenue at Tomorrow's Harvest has jumped by 900 percent since 2009, Porenta said, while declining to give specific figures.

Porenta is also the chief operations manager for the American Preppers Network, one of the biggest online forums and resources for people stocking up on food storage.

The group had its biggest sales year ever in 2011, and Porenta expects 2012 to be even larger.

The company sells freeze-dried food and other items for emergencies. It did 50 percent of its business east of the Mississippi in 2011 and just 5 percent in the first quarter of 2012 was in Utah.

"That is new for our industry. We've always just dealt with the West," Porenta said. "I think the financial crisis of 2008 really started pushing people, and the movement swept."

Jason Hall, manager of the website UtahPreppers.com, has also seen this trend of fear-based preparation at the time of disaster.

"It's just like any other difficulty in life; you don't want to deal with it until you have to," said Hall, who uses the skills he learned from his parents with his three children and wife, Kelly. "Obviously something like a storm brings reality into people's faces."

Hall says emergency preparedness is a lifestyle rather than a one-time purchase of food and water.

"Don't be reactionary but be proactive and thoughtful about what you're doing," Hall said. "That's really the art of preparedness. Making those decisions yourself and not being motivated by some outside influence."

A real danger

Using FEMA's earthquake modeling software, called HAZUS, the state of Utah was able to estimate the damage if a 7.0 earthquake were to hit the Wasatch fault line. The numbers are only estimates and not predictions.

The state estimates more than 10,000 buildings would collapse and 285,000 would be damaged, according to BeReadyUtah.

There would be an estimated 2,300 people killed and 30,000 more injured if an earthquake were to hit. Another estimated 350,000 people would be displaced due to damages to property.

The quake would cause $35 billion in damages and 160 fires, according to the study. Water could be cut off for months.

FEMA considers an earthquake the biggest threat to Utah mainly because the state hasn't experienced a major one before, Longman said.

Not just hurricanes, earthquakes

Hall says that preparing for earthquakes and hurricanes is important, but that's not as common as other problems that could beset a family.

"Most people don't like to think about it, but the more common cases to prepare for are job loss or reduction," Hall, a 36-year-old software engineer, said. "The same skills that go into getting ready for a disaster, like a Hurricane Sandy, are the same things that will help you if you lose your job for a couple of months."

Being prepared

Ellis says he has lived most of his life feeling that he and his family are safe.

He and his wife have been setting aside food, water and other preparedness items since they were married in 1992.

"It's a gradual progression," Ellis said. "It's not something you can wake up and one day say, 'Hey, I'm going to do food storage.' This is something that is a constant rotation. You have to eat what you store and store what you eat."

Ellis is now the emergency preparedness specialist for a group of congregations in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He helps members of the LDS Church in his community develop emergency plans.

"I don't think people really know how to attack it," Ellis said. "It's not something you just do tomorrow and you're done."

What to get

The Utah Preppers blog has many posts on how to get started on emergency preparedness.

In a phone interview, Hall gave a list of the most important things to focus on when bracing for an emergency.

Ensuring that your family has plenty of water is top priority.

Establish or purchase a 72-hour kit, which will provide basic needs for you and your family.

Make sure that you and your family have sufficient medications on hand if anyone needs them. For example, if someone needs insulin, make sure there will be enough.

First aid training and materials are important in case of injuries.

Keeping your family safe from the elements if you lose your home is crucial. Make sure you have a place to stay safe from the elements.

A store of food is important, but relatively low on the priorities because of the human body's ability to go without food for long periods of time.

Financial preparation is a matter of using it wisely and saving properly, Hall said. You and your family should be able to afford a hotel if you need one.

"The essence of preparedness is trying to mitigate a disaster down to something you can get through," Hall said.

EMAIL: jferguson@desnews.com TWITTER: joeyferguson

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