No one really can predict when or where the worst is going to happen, but disasters — whether they be fires, floods or earthquakes — tend to be wakeup calls for those who were fortunate enough not to be affected.
Today a not-so-small cottage industry is now built around disaster preparation. While it never hurts to be prepared, say experts, how much of this industry is actually playing into people’s fears? And is there a line between being adequately prepared and just wasting money on over- priced goods?
“Disasters can happen anytime, anywhere, but anyone can reduce the impact of those emergencies by taking a few simple steps now to prepare, such as developing a communications plan to ensure family members know how to get in touch with each other, putting together an emergency kit, and staying informed of potential risks in your area,” says Rachel Racusen, FEMA spokeswoman.
She adds that having a prepared public is critical to ensuring that “as a nation, we can respond to and recover from disasters more effectively.”
While no one would suggest that being unprepared is the best course of action, does this mean it is necessary to purchase an expensive specialty emergency kits, or to stock up on water and buy MREs — Meals, Ready to Eat — in bulk?
“There are too many people that focus on fear motivation with the sole purpose of marketing and selling overpriced and oftentimes useless equipment,” says Paul Purcell, vice president and lead security analyst for InfoQuest Investigators in Atlanta. “Instead of spending money, you should focus on things you can do economically to protect you and your loved ones.”
However, the truth is that most Americans are probably not really prepared for a disaster, and those who adopt a survivalist mentality serve as the opposite extreme.
“Generally, the American public, and for that fact many businesses, are not well prepared for disasters,” says David M. Neal, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University. Neal adds that there is an important distinction when it comes to be prepared.
“They may think of being prepared but the real issue is, how many will take that though and turn it in action,” he says.
The biggest consideration when planning is to understand that in most situations disasters don’t leave people cut off from civilization. Even in the worst case, taking that survivalist mentality is not necessary.
“There is such a thing as overkill,” says Martin Kuritz of Active Insight and author of the "Disaster Preparedness Guide." “You don’t need 10,000 gallons of water in case of fire. Instead, it is better to think of the stuff you can grab and go should you need to evacuate.”
Kuritz, who lives in California and has had to evacuate three times because of brush fires, says that even in the worst disasters aid tends to arrive well before most people would need to rely on their cache of canned food and survival equipment.
“The worst earthquake isn’t going to leave you high and dry for months,” says Kuritz, “And even following the recent tsunami in Japan the first responders were there in hours and everyone who survived had foods within days. The truth is that a couple of miles from many sites life goes on and places are typically open for business.”
However, with each new disaster comes new awareness, and this creates a type of post-disaster mentality where people stock up and then forget about it.
Neal says the practice is actually counterproductive, but suggests that some can serve as a model to the right way to prepare as part of a normal routine.
“One group that prepares well and effectively are the members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints,” Neal explains, noting how it is common for members to have certain amounts of food, water and other supplies stockpiled in case the worst does happen. “However, they have a means to use what is stored and to replace what is used.”
The key, say most experts, is to prepare for a disaster by simply buying what you would normally use, but keep a reasonable stockpile. Just as it is a good idea to buy milk before a snowstorm, it is a good idea to have food on hand that is regularly replaced.
After the start of 2000, or the predicted panic of "Y2K,” Purcell says “it wasn’t all that uncommon to find that people had panicked, stashed away food and other items and it reached the expiration dates, becoming essentially useless. It was an unnecessary investment and much worse, it was a wasted investment. I tell people to keep the pantry full of food that they consume on a regular basis.”
While experts cannot quantify how much is spent on disaster preparedness each year, they say many traditional-use products are marked up when offered as part of a disaster survival kit.
Purcell advises that rather than buying expensive items marketed specifically for a disaster, consumers should look for the solutions that are already there.
“It isn’t necessary to break the bank on specialized equipment that you hope to never use. Most home ovens as well as the clothes washer and dryer can actually make good storage for items you can’t bring along if you need to evacuate from a fire. These tend to be the last things to burn up.”
An online search yields no shortage of disaster preparation kits and many specialty items that typically have very specific uses. The Water 2Go 16 oz. portable bottle with filter retails for nearly $22. For the same amount of money an entire case of water could be bought.
Likewise, the Stansport Deluxe Emergency Preparedness Kit, which is available online, offers many potentially useful items, including a sleeping bag, propane stove, and portable radio, but costs nearly $250. Bought individually from camping supply stores, these items cost far less. Likewise, say the experts, these pre-packaged kits often include items you might not need.
Additionally, what may be useful post-earthquake often won’t be useful for those in flood-prone areas. Thus many pre-packaged items may be too generic.
The other issue is whether a preparedness kit will even be accessible when it is most needed.
But being prepared shouldn’t cost a lot of money. Doing some research should be the first step in being prepared for a disaster, and FEMA offers some good tips as a starting point.
These include having water on hand, food that can last at least three days and, just as important, be easily prepared, and first-aid supplies. While a full workshop of tools isn’t necessary, basic tools that can be used to shut off water or gas lines to a house should be available, along with a flashlight and batteries, plus a non-electric can opener. Clothing, bedding and sanitation supplies should also be readily accessible as weather conditions could change following a disaster.
“I think using the preparedness guidelines set forth by the Red Cross and Department of Homeland Security makes a good starting place,” adds Neal. “If you see companies advertising items not on these lists it should certainly raise a red flag.”
Neal adds that so many products, notably items such as gas masks, which offer very specific threat protection, Kevlar vests and other absolute worst-case items are probably items most people will never need.
“In short," says Neal, "the shopper must beware."