Laying in provisions for rainy day, not Doomsday
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY
WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. — Like most moms, Debra Burt shops the sales, stocking up on frozen foods, canned goods and meat at the supermarket.
Unlike most moms, she also has half a ton of wheat in her basement.
Following her instincts and the teachings of her church, Burt has stockpiled nearly a year’s supply of Golden 86 hard white wheat — 1,000 pounds in all — to grind into flour, giving her a measure of security in an insecure world.
“It’s kind of been a way of life since I was little,” says Burt, a mother of four and one of 5.3 million U.S. members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons.
As terrorism alerts get hotter and the nation girds for war with Iraq, most Americans are getting their first taste of survivalism, courtesy of the federal government. The White House Web site notes that bad guys may already be out to get us, and government-sponsored billboards and TV ads will soon urge us all to “Be Ready.” Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge says Americans should keep a three-day supply of food, water and medical supplies on hand.
Some may simply buy a case of Power Bars, a few extra jugs of drinking water and a bigger jar of Advil. But serious survivalists like Burt and many other Mormons are already keeping a year’s worth of supplies on hand.
Ready? These guys wrote the book.
“It’s not necessarily about big, national emergencies,” says Orson Scott Card, a popular science-fiction novelist and a Mormon. “You’re supposed to have enough so that, if everything went wrong in your life, your family could get by for a while.”
Part of a pioneering past that stretches back 130 years to when the Mormons migrated west to Utah, the push for preparedness is just common sense, says church spokesman Dale Bills. “It’s not Doomsday, it’s rainy day,” he says.
Burt, who lives in a rural area 28 miles north of Washington, D.C., keeps most of her supplies in a root cellar off her basement. The cool room is stocked with pasta, flour, sugar, oil, powdered milk, bottled cherries and, for now, several cases of Ragu Rich & Meaty spaghetti sauce, on sale at Sam’s Club.
A public school teacher who’s in charge of emergency preparedness at her local church, Burt has always kept portable “72-hour kits” of food, clothing and emergency supplies, but “we’re now in bins and backpacks.”
Many Mormons don’t actually strive to keep a year’s worth of supplies on hand, but for those who do, the church helps them calculate what they need. Web site Providentliving.org, suggests, for instance, that a family of four with a toddler and a teenage boy needs about 750 pounds of wheat, for starters. Ground into flour, that would equal 150 five-pound bags.
Among other suggestions: 225 pounds of beans, 175 pounds of oats, 250 pounds of sugar and 30 pounds of salt.
The church also asks that members live simply, casting off unused possessions, staying out of debt and not getting too attached to a job or dreams of promotion.
“It’s an attitude of expecting surprises,” says Card, who notes that church history is rife with episodes of locals rising up and kicking out the Mormons. “We have the notion that, at a moment’s notice, sometimes you’ll just have to pick up, leave your house and go live somewhere else.”
The church’s preparedness principles were driven home during the Great Depression: Many Mormons say family preparations during the late 1930s taught them as much about self-sufficiency as any church doctrine.
Wanda Franklin, a friend of Burt’s in Columbia, Md., keeps an entire ton of wheat on hand for the six adults in her suburban household — it keeps for decades if properly stored. “We bought a lot of wheat in the ’70s, and I still have some” from then, she says.
While Mormons have been preparing for generations, most Americans didn’t give it a thought until 1997, with Y2K fears of mass computer failures and loss of the vital services they control.
“On the plus side, I think people realized that our society exists on a complicated web of services, which can be interrupted without notice,” says Robin Hanus, a Phoenix Web page designer who maintains a Web site offering preparedness information. “On the minus side, I think many people felt ridiculed for taking preparations for an event that didn’t show.”
When most computers hummed past Y2K, many consumers returned their costly generators and dried foods. But others found that Y2K preparations actually helped months later when a real disaster hit: recession.
“It’s like a cushion,” says a Durham, N.C., preparedness entrepreneur who goes by the name Captain Dave for anonymity’s sake — he has a day job as a pharmaceutical executive. Dave received e-mails from customers who said they didn’t need the food on Jan. 1, 2000, but found it came in handy later — when a family breadwinner lost his job or was hospitalized.
In addition to MREs, military-style ready-to-eat meals that can be eaten hot or cold, Captain Dave’s Web site sells a prepackaged version of a year’s supply of food for four people. Delivered on a wooden palette, it’s 5 feet high and weighs about 1,500 pounds. A mix of dried food and items such as fruit cocktail, applesauce and canned vegetables, it sells for $3,084. He is currently advertising a “special pre-invasion” sale that knocks off shipping costs, bringing the price down to $2,449.95. But “to get these savings,” the site says, “you must buy before the first bomb drops on Iraq!”
Captain Dave, who also sells gas masks, radiation meters, water barrels and chemical suits, says about half of last week’s 500 or so customers were from the New York and Washington, D.C., areas.
Dave Watson, of the Peninsula Emergency Preparedness Committee in Pierce County, Wash., says the committee has been banging the preparedness drum for 15 years, but threats of war and terrorism make its job easy. “People started realizing they’re on their own,” he says. “You don’t have to do the hard sell anymore.”
Stephen Portela, manager of food sales for Walton Feed in Montpelier, Idaho, says large bulk purchases of basic foods such as grains have been “mushrooming” in the past few weeks, following a trend that began on Sept. 11, 2001.
“That afternoon, the phones started to ring,” he says. “They haven’t stopped yet.”
Appearing last week in Cincinnati, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge urged Americans to prepare for possible chemical, biological and nuclear attacks, saying citizens should assemble disaster kits with three days’ worth of food, water and medicine. “We can be afraid, or we can be ready,” he said.
Most survivalists say three days’ worth of supplies is the bare minimum a family should have on hand. Philip L. Hoag, author of No Such Thing as Doomsday, a 1996 preparedness guide, recommends at least a week’s worth.
“How long is it going to take guys in biosuits making food deliveries to your neighborhood?” he says.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends a 21-day supply of food and a gallon of water a person a day for drinking, cooking and washing.
Preparedness experts are divided on FEMA’s recommendation to have precut sheet plastic and duct tape for windows. A few call it helpful, others not. “If you duct-tape yourself into a room, where are you getting your fresh air from?” asks Suzanne Settle of the Ohio-based NorthStar Preparedness Network.
But if the worst happens, Card says, Mormons will look out for one another — and their neighbors. He lives in Greensboro, N.C., and is stocking up on canned tuna, not raw wheat. Card expects he’ll be tapped by local church officials to offer what he can.
“We organize real fast and real well. That’s probably the single biggest strength of our people.”