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Un-Preparedness — How Popular Media Worsen The Effects Of Disasters…

…And The Start Of A Solution

This is more an essay than a quick article. The views hear-in are those of the author, alone.

As a certain writer once said, there is nothing wrong with fearing pain, deprivation and hardship…and I agree. Hence, I am a “survivalist” (rr, “prepper“, if you prefer). No — I don’t have the elaborate underground bunker (I wish!), and no, I do not sit on a mountain of supplies (again, I wish!), but the attitude is there.

I think about it. I plan for it. I continually assess and reassess my options.

No, not just the ubiquitous “government martial law” thing — although that is part of it (to the “no common sense” side of the barn: why do you think the Department of Homeland Security bought over 20 years worth of ammunition [based on the US Army estimating that it was expending c.70 million (rifle) rounds per year from 2004-2008], and almost 3,000 armored, “landmine-resistant”, combat trucks?)

A view of the Kibumba refugee camp, 1994. U.S. National Archives.

…No, I’m talking about more mundane things — you know, like Hurricane Sandy? Or Katrina. Guess who stayed in “temporary” shelters for months? Guess who waited up to 2 weeks (or more) for any help to arrive?

So I wondered: where does this come from? Why have I always been concerned about massive damage, and massive dislocations of society? Am I weird? Disturbed?

Well – I grew up in California, so…Yeah — pretty much…And for all the Californio’s reading this: How many of you remember the “earthquake exercises” we used to do? You know the ones: Do you know where the key is, to turn off the gas in case of an earthquake? So the house doesn’t explode? Did you make up earthquake kits in school? Bottles of water, before it was fashionable, and cans of Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee and Campbell’s Pork-n-Beans, squirreled away in corners of the house, so that at least one or two would be sure to survive a big shaker?

…Then, of course, it was the early 80’s. And yes — I’ve been at this since the early 80’s. I’ve already made all the mistakes you need to avoid.

So, what is the point of all this?

Recently, in the last few years, there has been a rise in “reality” programming of so-called “prepper” shows, chief among them, National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers“, where the show visits various “survivalists” – or “preppers” – and documents their ideas and strategies. Other shows work on a similar format.

The only problem is, the entire thrust of most of these programs is to demonize anyone involved in “prepping” as a paranoid freak, resulting in many people shaking their heads, and turning away from the very idea of carrying more than a tire iron and a set of jumper cables in their car.

This is a disastrous situation, one that magnifies the already terrible effects of a disaster – be it natural or man-made – by planting the seed in people’s minds that it is “crazy” to prepare for a disaster.

How do these shows do this? By highlighting one of two conditions, and magnifying them far out of proportion, for the “Wow!” effect: the shows seek the most extreme survivalists, and seek to show either their “vast” resources or their “extreme” views, or both. Normal, rational people see these views as either unattainable or dangerous and frightening, and stay away from the entire idea…

…Which is usually about the time a major disaster befalls them.

In fact, disaster preparation is much like insurance — a person does not get home insurance because they intend to destroy their home, they get it, in case some disaster (earthquake, fire, flood, hurricane, a car driving through the front wall, etc.) might happen at some point.

Preparing to mitigate the effects of an extreme disaster is no different.

US Navy Lifeboat Survival Kit, c.1943. US Navy photo.

For all that, there are a lot of well-meaning people out there trying to prepare for “Disaster ‘X'”, who are wasting precious resources, money, brain sweat, real sweat and time operating along a very poor planning cycle.

First, there has to be a clear understanding of what I call the “Survival Breadbox” — an interactive rectangle of arrays of items that define capabilities. Most people approach the Box neither knowing what it is, nor really understanding it, and only perceive it in a disjointed fashion; in fact, failure to understand the Box is why many preppers give up, as it looks far too complicated and frustrating. However, once you understand the Box, you can start planning effectively, and – most importantly – successfully implementing those plans.

The reason I describe the Box as an “interactive rectangle” is because there are four points to it…

  1. The “EEK”
  2. The Week-Long 72-Hour Window
  3. The Cantonment
  4. The Panoply

The reason these are in a rectangle, rather than a hierarchy, is that they feed off of each other, and operate together to form a cohesive whole — you can function without one of the corners for a while, but you had better address it, and FAST, before you run into a situation where you.

One of the most common mistakes preppers make is to plan for “Disaster ‘X’“…only to have “Disaster ‘L’” show up. I tend to take this from the point of view that anything that significantly disrupts the nation’s logistical infrastructure for more than a week is the “worst case”.

Roadway damage, Oslo, MN, May, 2009. FEMA photo.

Why? Because the country functions on its logistical infrastructure — you might garden, but how many reading this grow their own cotton, harvest it, process it, and make clothing out of it? How many people reading this can go out to a local store, and buy a metal object that was made locally, that went straight from raw ore to a finished product, “locally” being defined as “within 100 miles from where you live”?

Based on that, chances are good that the person reading this got every single thing in their house from off of a truck, something that was made somewhere else, and rather far away…including the food in your fridge. And if the system that makes all that flow smoothly is disrupted, everything will quickly get seriously out of whack, as every business requires a steady flow of widgets to function — and even if the place that makes Widget A still functions, and can get its product to its customer, that Widget is useless without the other 30 or 30,000 widgets that make the final product work.

Most preppers recognize this at some level, and don’t know what to do about it…so they try hard to ignore it…

Let’s look at each point in the Box.

First, is the “EEK” — the “Escape and Evasion Kit“. This is almost always currently referred to as a “bug-out bag“, or a “Get Out Of Dodge” (GOOD) kit. I casually detest both terms. Why? Because they put people in the wrong mindset.

If you are “bugging out” or “getting out of Dodge“, this implies that you will have some warning, so it might be appropriate to take “whatever you can carry“…

…Folks – you’re not packing to go hiking at Aspen. So why, oh, WHY do you carry five ways to start a fire? This isn’t the Scouts.

If you actually need to use a kit like this, things have gone ‘BLOOEY‘ in a major and surprising way, and you suddenly need to get from Point A to Point B — on foot. Now, if the ‘BLOOEY‘ has happened, just how many other people do you think are going to be trying to get to an area somewhere near Point B?

Then WHY ARE YOU DRAWING ATTENTION TO YOURSELF WITH A FIRE? Worse – COOKING?! People who are scared and hungry will come after you like a moth to a flame. Why? Because sound, light, and smell all carry a LONG way, and while someone alone might not want to risk a confrontation on Day 1, what about Day 2? Or Day 4? What happens when their children are hungry, and you don’t have enough food to share?

Now, the truly selfless will try to help as many as they can, as quickly as they can – and that’s a good thing…under normal circumstances. What happens when things are no longer ‘normal‘? What happens when you have to decide between the children of a person you’ve never met, and your own children? Not as easy a question, now, is it?

Ain’t moral dilemma’s great?

First rule of the EEK: Do NOT draw attention to yourself.

Second rule of the EEK: Travel light!

What should be in an EEK? Everyone will customize it, but try this yardstick: if your EEK won’t fit into a common student backack, you have too much stuff in it…

  • A military-spec rain poncho
  • A first aid kit
  • A multitool and/or a Swiss Army Knife
  • A 4″ lock blade Knife
  • Two methods of purifying water that do NOT involve fire
  • At least one quart-sized water bottle (like a Gatorade bottle or a military-style canteen)
  • 100′ of 550 “parachute cord
  • A roll of duct tape
  • A three-day supply of food

Now, most preppers have seen this before, and are thinking that is waaaay too light for three days. Yet, you can in fact carry a three days of food in a small day pack, if you are using USCG Ration packs…you don’t even need to carry too many extra condiments.

As well, let us not discuss the person with the fifteen knives (seriously — the video will leave you slack-jawed) in their kit.

Remember: The EEK is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B, on foot, in 3 – 5 day’s time. Planning on anything else means that you need to use the next tier…

Next, we’ll look at the “Week-Long 72-Hour Kit“.

Preppers frequently talk about the “3 day’s worth of supplies“. I’m not entirely sure why. In fact, the only reference I know of about this time-frame comes from a now-outdated FEMA flyer…Refer to Hurricane Sandy.

This is your “standard” disaster kit. It is intended to help you survive-in-place until help arrives. FEMA says “a few days”; 5 is realistic; 14-90 days is not a bad idea.

Note that this is not intended for you to carry — the amount of supplies and equipment is too great to carry on your back, and if you plan on being on the road for longer than three days to reach your cantonment (q.v.)…you need a better plan.

The only “prepper”-type features you will likely see in this kit are 55-gallon water barrels (based on 5 gallons of water, per person, per day; yes, you can get by with one gallon per person/day, but you won’t like it) and various types of stoves, grills or Dutch Ovens for cooking without electricity or gas.

And speaking of water, make sure to not simply store a few bottles of it – you need ways to purify it, preferably ways that do not involve fire. These methods involve bleach (16 drops to the gallon, per FEMA), or some sort of filtration system…As an aside, you should really look into your local laws concerning the capture and retention of rainwater — you may be both alarmed, amazed, horrified and outraged at just what some of these laws actually say. Forewarned, etc.

One of the advantages in this, similar to the Cantonment, is that you can eat what you are accustomed to eating normally, albeit with different cooking methods. If you’ve never tried to make rice on a Weber Grill — you need to get on that.

Since you’re not planning on moving, you also do not need to worry overmuch about things like cold storage, unless you take medications that require refrigeration. For that, you may want to look into either a solar PV power station, or a small gasoline-powered generator, to run a portable fridge.

Since you’re already at home, you don’t really need to acquire too much in the way of “special” foods, although you do want to make sure that you maintain a 5 – 14 day stockpile of food, minimum, of the kind of foods that will keep for a long time. (Hint: The expiration dates on canned goods are there for two reasons: to get you to rotate stock, and to absolve the manufacturer of legal responsibility if you are stupid enough to eat from a bulging or stinky can.)

Properly sealed canned goods, in cans that are not badly dented, will keep and be both edible and nutritious (I did NOT say “Will remain tasty”!) for up to 10 years; however, this DOES NOT apply to high-acidity foods like tomatoes.

Another important aspect of this kit that is shared by the Cantonment is the easy access to distraction materials — i.e., books and games.


Role-playing dice set.

Hey, if a disaster has happened, and things are in the process of going back to normal, you are going to have a lot of downtime; it’s not like you’re going to be at work. Without power, your laptop/device batteries will die out fast, and roll-up PV panels only go so far. So…Have “distraction tools” ready to hand: boardgames, cards, RPG’s (the paper and pencil kind), and most importantly, BOOKS.

Third, we’ll look at the “Cantonment“.

This is a word derived from military use to describe a permanent or semi-permanent installation. In the early 80’s, when big-S ‘Survivalism’ was in the public consciousness, this was called the “Survival Retreat”.

The main idea goes like this: You have a workaday life and home in The Big City…but you have a “cabin in the woods”, or a patch of undeveloped land that you pull an RV onto to “camp” every now and then. However, you realize that if anything truly terrible happens, and things go south with a quickness, staying in the Big City is a B-A-D idea. The Retreat, or Cantonment, is the place you are going to “take a sudden vacation” to as things go ‘BLOOEY!’ In the event of a sudden-onset disaster, you may find yourself using the EEK, above – or even the Panoply, below – to ‘exfiltrate’ (i.e., “Get the F— OUT, NOW!“) out of the City.

Does that sound paranoid to you? You certainly don’t seem to think that it is, if you’re still reading this, this far in…That’s because you are likely old enough – or at least Net-savvy enough – to re-watch the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and/or the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles to realize that, if things go south badly, even if order gets restored eventually, what condition are you going to be in, if you try to “stick it out” at home?

Now – just imagine what will happen when “…order will not be restored for ‘some time’…maybe as long as three to six months“. (That, incidentally, is a verbatim quote that I got once, I kid you not, not from any wild-eyed, ‘tin-foil-hat’ person, but from an executive of a major international corporation, in a public meeting…)

The Cantonment is a piece of property set out “in the sticks” (which is different, depending on who you talk to). It could be a bare spot of land, an empty-appearing field with a bunker buried underneath, or it could be an actual “Summer/Winter Home“…But one well-stocked, with a good deal of supplies socked away.

Whatever Cantonment model you choose, its location should not be more than one half-tank plus 10 gallons of gas in your primary vehicle in distance from your home; for most people, this equals about 400 miles, at the low end. Really, you shouldn’t be driving more than 200 miles if things are breaking down, unless you are making the Cantonment your full-time residence.

Whatever the case, the Cantonment needs to have some kind of land on it, even a measly quarter-acre. This is because, when things go ‘BLOOEY!’, you will need to get a ‘Victory Garden‘ going, and fast…

Victory Garden, 1943. Library of Congress.

Note that I said ‘Victory GARDEN‘. Singular. You might be able to plant two or three plots, maximum, but unless you already know what it’s like…don’t plan on being a “farmer”. If you haven’t worked the job, you have absolutely NO idea how back-breaking of a job it truly is. You need to get on the gardening bandwagon now, if you haven’t, already.

One thing most people thinking about a Cantonment do not think of is ‘community’. Believe me – ‘No Man Is An Island’ is the name of the game, here. You, the ‘significant other’, two kids and the dog do not an effective defense force make. Get to know your neighbors – NOW – and try to get a good idea of where they stand and what they plan to do. If they plan on sticking around, bring them in gently, and ply them with their favorite “tasty beverage”. If things are going to hell, friendly neighbors with a joint plan beat the heck out of the alternative.

This brings us, at long last, to the fourth point: the Panoply.

The US Army Soldier Protection System, 2019. US Army photo.

The word ‘panoply’ comes from the Greek word ‘panopilia‘ (πανοπλία), meaning literally, “all arms“. The Panoply was the complete ‘fighting kit’ of the ancient Greek fighting man, the Hoplite. It included his weapons (spear, sword and dagger), his armor (shield, cuirass, and greaves), his sandals if he wore any, and all the rest of the gear he wore on the march.

…”Oh, no! Here we go, with the “militia” rant! I KNEW it was coming!”

Yes. And?

Look — I appreciate the idea that people generally do not wish to do violence to their fellow human beings. I get that. Really. However, I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but a whole lot of your fellow humans to not feel the same way — make them hungry, tired and scared, and it will be infinitely worse.

We haven’t even started discussing already-organized gangs.

One of the basic principle of Western culture is the concept that a free person should “armed, and trained to arms“. That idea has been much-criticized recently, mostly by a certain sector that enjoys the freedom to criticize such “outmoded notions” while hiding behind the guns of those who do not subscribe to the idea of “situational ethics“.

Okay so, politics aside, what is in the modern Panoply? Well, at first glance, it will look a lot like the EEK, but there are important differences, differences that are based on psychology.

The panoply is about one thing, and one thing, only: fighting. While the EEK is designed to help you flee, the panoply is intended to make you orders of magnitude more effective at defense than simply standing in your doorway with a double-barreled 12gauge.

I’m not overly worried about the anti-gunners who read this, who are already frothing at the mouth — one of two things applies to these folks: a) you’re kidding yourselves, and you are just going to learn the hard way, or b) if the ‘BLOOEY!’ happens, you won’t last long enough to have to worry about it.

There’s no point in couching that with an apologia, either — it is what it is. You will either make the (very minimal) effort to save your own life, or you won’t. I have no input on that, whatsoever. That’s all on you.

I sincerely hope that no one else’s life is dependent upon your choice.

If you’re reading this, and you live in the US or Canada, you have a very limited time (especially if you live in Canada) to get the ‘big-ticket’ items that you require, because there are a LOT of people out there in positions of authority who want to remove your ability to obtain these things. That’s not politics — that’s on the news, if you care to watch it at all.

So, let’s get the ‘big tickets’ out of the way, first. What do you need: a rifle, a pistol, or a shotgun?

I’m going to take this from the premise that the reader has little-to-no experience with firearms as they read this — so all of the “gun guru’s” out there, yes, I appreciate that you have an opinion, but this is MY article…write your own.

If you have only limited experience with firearms, stay away from handguns of any type, at least at first — pistols take a great deal of training and practice to use effectively, and even after shooting from the age of 5, I do not consider myself to be any kind of expert.

“Long guns” – rifles and shotguns – are MUCH easier to learn, and arguably more effective at what you are trying to use them for: pistols are ultra-short range weapons, and are suitable only for last-ditch self defense. Yes, I know a lot of people carry concealed handguns legally — I don’t carry at all, as a matter of personal choice — and that police and some Special Forces units carry them as a primary “offensive” armament…But take a good, long look at where those folk’s targets are: within 50 feet, and usually a LOT closer.

This is something you REALLY want to avoid. Trust me, here.

Small Arms, Panama, 1989. USMC photo.

A shotgun would be a good place to start, but there are some disadvantages: while it does use a variety of ammunition types, its range is usually limited to about 100 yards, maximum (and usually under 40 yards with any accuracy, for most people), and shooting accurately requires a lot of practice to master.

Rifles, on the other hand, require comparatively less time to become proficient with. Also, they are accurate all the way out to 300-1,000 or more yards, depending on exactly what you are carrying…And no, you’re probably not going to need anything that shoots more than 300-500 yards — unless you get good enough to make the long ranges work.

So — what to buy, in a rifle? An AR-type? An AK-type?

The answer is — something simple. Something that is fun to shoot, is reliable, reasonably accurate ‘as is’, with no mechanical modifications, that uses a commonly available caliber.

The later-production AR-15’s (the ones with the 20-inch barrels…just trust me, here – copious amounts of “adult beverages” are needed for that technical of a discussion) are perfectly fine — as are the AK-47’s…but don’t limit your options. There are plenty of fine weapons out there that are not AR’s or AK’s, that will more than fill your needs. Don’t turn your nose up at a bolt-action rifle, or an SKS carbine because some pundit called them “outdated antiques”.

Once you have a firearm, you need to practice with it. That may seem obvious, but people raised on a steady diet of “first-person” shooting games seem to think that firearms are like USB connections – pick it up, and just “become accurate”. No…Just…No — Remember: The “…train to arms” part means that you need to TRAIN with whatever weapon you obtain.

After you decide on a rifle, you need ammunition, and not just ammunition to train with.

Ammunition comes in boxes or cases — rifle ammo comes in 20-round boxes, pistol ammo in 50-round boxes; cases generally run from 500 rounds (for shotguns) to one or two thousand rounds for rifles, depending on caliber and manufacturer.

I won’t get into reloading, here, although the economics of reloading your own ammunition will quickly become apparent to the new shooter, especially if your weapons are in heavy or odd calibers.

Loaded M-16 magazines, 2017. US Army photo.

In general, for a rifle, you’re going to need about 600 rounds “ready” — about 200 rounds to carry with the rifle, plus two more reloads; this also includes magazines sufficient to carry those 600 rounds…Think about that, the next time someone wants to restrict magazine sizes, Stephen King notwithstanding []. This is the bare minimum, but if you started off by buying a 1000-round case, that leaves you c.400 rounds to start practicing with.

After that? It depends on your wallet, how much you intend to practice, and exactly what you’re preparing for.

After that comes “gear”. A lot of this looks remarkably like the EEK, and there is, in fact, a great deal of overlap between the two.

The BASIC kit for the Panoply looks something like this…

  • A rifle
  • 200 ‘ready’ rounds for the above rifle, with another 400 as a ‘ready reserve’
  • A military-spec rain poncho
  • A first aid kit – i.e., something intended for combat, that has more than just Band Aids and a triple antibiotic in it
  • Two methods of purifying water that do NOT involve fire
  • At least one quart-sized water canteen or bladder, and preferably two or more
  • 100′ of 550 paracord
  • A multitool and/or a Swiss Army Knife
  • A 4″ lock blade
  • A machete, hatchet, and/or a military entrenching tool
  • A three-day supply of food
  • A large, preferably milspec, backpack
  • Some type of “load bearing equipment” to distribute the ammunition and magazines (if your rifles uses magazines – see “bolt action rifles“, the “SKS” or the “M1 Garand“) more evenly across your body.

Should you buy camouflage uniforms? If you intend to operate with a unit of some type, it’s a good idea, because it makes it that much easier to identify your friends. Uniforms are not about some arcane, male power fantasy — like a shovel, they are a practical tool, nothing more.

What camo is ‘best’? Whatever works for your environment — ex-US “Woodland BDU” is excellent, if a little on the common side, although Vietnam-era Tigerstripe is usually better. The current rage is for digital pattern camo or the newer Multicam pattern. Really, it depends on your environment, and common sense: don’t wear a desert pattern in the Tennessee forest, and don’t wear Woodland BDU in the desert.

Do you need a gas mask? If you live within 5 miles of an operating railroad line, you do — those tanker cars aren’t carrying milk, and when a train derails and they start evacuating, they’re doing it for a reason.

If you can afford body armor — BUY some. If not — you’re going to have to take your chances without it. Practical, affordable body armor in the firearm era didn’t exist before the early 70’s, so you’ll be in good company.

And BOOTS — Ye GAWDS, but don’t forget GOOD boots! If you have to spend $200 on a pair of boots, but they are the best thing out there…DO IT! You feet will thank you later.

…Despite what some people will try to tell you, there is no hard and fast rule about gear and equipment — the regular military makes it easy: you wear/carry what you are issued. When you’re not in the regular military, you have to customize as a matter of course — find what works for you, by going to an Army-Navy surplus store (or even the local ‘Chinese Consulate‘…a.k.a., “Walmart“) and trying things on before you plonk down the hard cash for this stuff.

Good night, good luck, keep your powder dry.

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