Welcome back, muchachos.
As things seem to get worse and worse out there, from the weather—which is always unpredictable whether you believe in ‘climate change’ or not—to terrorism and natural disasters, I can’t help but see more and more references to a ‘movement’ in America taken up by a certain group of people. You see them referred to in the news as ‘survivalists’ or, in a not so cynical term, preppers.
They even star in shows like Doomsday Preppers and strong elements of the idea behind being prepared pop up over and over again in themes from Armageddon to Deep Impact to The Colony, BBC’s Survivors, and the biggest one lately, The Walking Dead. If you actually start looking, you’ll see post-apocalyptic “fantasy” all over the place on the big and small screens (San Andreas, anyone?). And there’s more and more out every year.
As this is something near and dear to my heart, I thought it’d be fun to write a series of blog posts on preparedness. So here goes!
Preparedness: What is it?
Why are there so many shows and movies recently with a strong undercurrent of survival/preparedness/end of the world drama? Because there is an audience for it. Evidently a large one, judging by the popularity of The Walking Dead and the recent splurge of zombie movies (don’t focus on the zombies, the story is really a tale of survival—replace zombies with super-flu and you have the basis for my Wildfire series…).
Just as recently as a few years ago, anyone into ‘survivalism’ was probably listed a nutjob or worse (according to the main stream media) a ‘gun nut’, hoping for the end of the world so they could get a chance to loot and shoot.
I wont’ say there isn’t anyone out there that fits that bill, but I have to believe that the vast (and I’m talking 99% of the people not involved in the ‘let’s-overthrow-the-government’ militia movements or fringe racist groups) majority of people who subscribe to the prepared lifestyle are decent, honest, God-fearing Americans who truly get what this country was founded on. They are the modern day descendants of our pioneer ancestors.
I know what you’re thinking… “Pioneers? WTF?”
Stay with me for a second here. Think on this: at the turn of the 19th century, America was still an infant nation, largely consisting a few “big” towns on the eastern seaboard like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, a vast swath of farmland and smaller communities, and the unknown hinterland, full of bears and natives.
Many people lived on the edge of the civilized America. They could look out the back door of their log cabin house and see a cleared field of crops, then spot a solid wall of trees, hiding the dark secrets of what lies beyond. Maybe those farmers took a break on a sunny afternoon from digging in the fields and felt a trickle of fear run down their spine. Is there someone out there watching from the trees? Is the local hostile tribe about to launch a surprise attack on the homestead?
Why did they work so hard anyway, slaving away out in the hot sun scrabbling in the dirt to grow crops in hostile territory, beset by natives and wolves or even bears or other animals that didn’t appreciate the intrusion in their territory? Because they knew if they didn’t work and sweat and bleed in the spring, summer, and fall, they’d die in the winter. When the snows came, it didn’t take much, for example in the Shenandoah Valley, to block passes and make travel by carts or covered wagons impossible. Sure you could still venture out on a horse, but how would you transport your pregnant wife to a doctor (answer: the doctor had to come to you…maybe…if you could find him and bring him back to your house on his own horse) or raise the hue and cry if that local tribe did launch a raid if the snow got too deep for even a horse? Or what about sleet or hail? What happens to your crops when there’s a catastrophic storm that sometimes happens in the winter?
The answer: if you don’t have enough grain stored away, and a safe place for your animals to survive the winter, and a solid stock of dried meats or salted meats, etc., put away in the root cellar, you probably starved to death.
The resourcefulness, frugality, self reliance, and general preparedness of our ancestors—especially the ones out on the frontier—is a shining model of how to survive. For if you don’t survive first, you can’t thrive, and if you can’t thrive, you and your community/state/nation will fail.
It’s only through our modern technology, medicine, and the ever-present nature of electricity that we have as a species (in general—I’m not talking about people in 3rd world countries or subsistence farmers, or any of a number of people who live in Alaska, etc.) have gone soft. I count myself in that group too—I’m in no shape to go all Neanderthal and survive in the snow that’s currently falling outside my windows or live in a cave and kill and skin a deer with nothing but a flint stone or a spear. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no weapons expert either, though I know how to shoot a pistol and a bow and I can probably ruin someone’s day with my sword. But I have the mindset to prepare.
The mind is your greatest tool. Use it.
What exactly does that mean? I look back to the Boy Scouts—they ingrained in my mind the idea that you should always Be Prepared. To survive, to render aid, to lead, to escape, whatever—you should always be ready. I remember learning how to start a fire without matches or lighters. I remember learning to build primitive shelters in the woods and how to filter water (granted, at a very basic level) and make rope and use my pants as a life preserver and tread water for hours on end…the list goes on. At the time, I chafed at the idea of jumping into a pool fully clothed, or learning how to drag a drowning person back to shore (without them pulling me under too!). I hated the idea of CPR and possibly cracking someone’s ribs to get their heart going. But now, looking back on that knowledge gives me some comfort when the nightly news tries to give me a case of night terrors.
I’d rather have and not need something–be it a tool, weapon, skill, or knowledge–than need something and not have it.
My wife and I used to live in Florida. They get these really big wind storms down there—you may have heard of them, they’re called hurricanes—and every now and then they’d clobber our area and knock out the power/water. Granted, our first year in the Sunshine state saw us smacked by 4 hurricanes (living in an area that hadn’t seen one in decades), so we got a crash course in how to survive, you might say. The first storm, I was wary. I had seen people in the neighborhood boarding up houses, bringing in furniture, etc.
Keep in mind, this was our first house. We didn’t have a) the money, or b) the time to buy and fit sheets of thick plywood to our windows. We were too busy working to make enough money (see (a)) to pay the mortgage.
I was young and felt pulled by the obligation of my job to help prepare the store (I worked as a department manager at the Beyond at the time—I’ll post about the mindset of the customers I saw the day the storm struck later) and besides, I didn’t have the tools necessary to reduce 4×8 sheets of 1” plywood down to fit my windows.
We read all the newspaper stories, watched the warnings on TV and took in the advice of my parents who’d grown up in Florida and lived through countless hurricanes, including the big ones. We bought bottled water (1 case) and a few canned goods, but without a plan and without real first hand knowledge, just kind of winged it.
As it turned out, we had plans to be in Illinois when the first storm (Charley, 2004) hit our house. We skipped out of town and flew from Miami on the last flight north (they had already closed the other airports and we had no choice but to reroute our flight south, closer to the approaching storm). The pilot announced they’d closed the airport, just a few minutes after he went wheels up and we climbed, shaking in the turbulence, to our cruising altitude.
Luckily the house was undamaged on our return, but we could find precious little information on the fate of our friends and local area while we were way up in the land of corn. The upper Midwest just didn’t care—most people didn’t even know there was a hurricane at the time.
But the second one of the season—Frances—taught me some real lessons. I learned that my store of bottled water (one case, leftover from the few weeks past when Charley hit and we were out of town) was woefully inadequate for even two people for more than a day or so without power. The areas around us and just north of us lost power for weeks in the aftermath. I think we lost power for maybe an afternoon and part of the night, but that was it. Other than flickering lights, we stayed fully powered throughout the storm and aftermath. Lucky.
What else did I learn? When the power goes out, you better keep that fridge closed. Yeah, I didn’t think about that and instead of taking an inventory at the beginning of the outage, we kept forgetting what we had and opened and shut that door many times. We lost a decent amount of food in the few hours we lost power. Rookie mistake.
I learned that canned beans and cheese and ground beef and Tostitos can make a pretty bitchin’ nacho dinner. I cooked everything while the power was flickering, on the off chance that we’d lose power—which we did—and it was a pretty good, filling meal. And I got to use some of the canned stuff we bought for the storm.
But when the power went out? We had nothing but things we could eat ‘off the shelf’. Some fruit, some dry cereal, bread, and soups, etc. It was an eye-opening experience. We certainly didn’t go hungry, but as I looked at the pantry by flashlight when the sun set, I realized that should the lights not come on quickly, we’d be in pretty bad shape in a few days.
Lady Luck stayed with us through the night and the little tea lights we had (for a decorative wall candelabra we got as a wedding present) kept us from being in complete, humid, darkness. We couldn’t open windows because the rain and wind would have drenched the interior of the house, so we left some cracked for ventilation and had to sweat it out and try not to move much. Another lesson learned: have plenty of batteries (and flashlights!) and candles for when the lights go out—because they will at some point in the future.
Each storm that hit, Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeane, tested me in different ways from the one before. Charley opened my eyes about the need to learn evacuation routes, watch the weather closer and plan travel accordingly (instead of waiting and hoping and rushing). Frances taught me to learn the signs of the house in distress, how the roof creaks in the wind and how not to panic. She also taught me to be ready for flooding—I’ve never seen so much rain in my life. Ivan rehashed the evacuation plans—most of the roads leading out of town were jammed—people had learned lessons from Charley and Frances and decided to skedaddle. And Jeane brought home the lesson that even when you think the coast is clear, it’s usually not. She hit us once, twice, and nearly three times as she wandered back and forth across Florida, trailing flooding and destruction in her wake.
These events got me in the proper mindset to be prepared. Prepared to protect myself, ensure my survival and to fulfill the sacred vow I sworn—just a few weeks before Charley hit—to protect my wife. I read a lot, a learned, I remembered, and I planned. I started to increase our canned goods stockpile. I bought more water. I practiced evacuation routes, I watched how people reacted in the aftermath (the lines at gas stations when fuel delivery was interrupted were classrooms not to be missed) and I remembered how they acted just before the storms. I quickly figured out the best time to hit the stores for last minute supplies like milk and bread before the masses of people who waited too long decided to follow my lead. It took 3 hurricanes to figure that out, but when Jeane hit, we were prepared enough that we ignored the storm and installed flooring in our house. I still remember cutting laminate flooring in the garage with my jigsaw and watching the garage door bend and flex like the side of a giant beast, breathing in time with the wind gusts that buffeted our little house.
I had some valuable experiences, I gained a lot of knowledge—but was I prepared? Was I fully invested in the lifestyle? Was I ready to become self-reliant?
Not completely, but every time I started to relax my guard, my subconscious kicked memories to the forefront that kept me focused. Like the blizzard in the early 1990s that crippled my home state and shut everything down for miles and miles. We had to hike through our neighborhood, through snow up to my knees (I was tall for my age in high school) to the grocery store for supplies after we began to run out of food three days into the event. The roads weren’t plowed (Delaware only had 3 plows, I think) and the stores were open, but they didn’t have a lot. We had power and a wood burning fireplace, so we had water and warmth.
September 11, 2001. I was working on my law degree at the time and remember the horror stories broadcast on the news, watching people stream away from downtown NYC in a massive horde of fear, all covered in sweat, blood and that creepy-as-shit white gray dust that seemed to be everywhere. I remember watching the news live when the second tower fell and that wall of smoke and debris rolled down the street right at the camera, then everything went gray and all you could hear was coughing and that eerie whistling-beeping of the first responders locator alarms. I remember stepping out on my balcony and watching as F–16s screamed overhead on their way to NYC from Dover Air Force Base. Everything was surreal. And it got me and a LOT of other people thinking—what if that had been me stuck in downtown New York? What the hell would I have done? I thought a lot, I made a lot of lists, I learned, I planned.
Then came the great northeast blackout of 2003. I watched that from my apartment and took a lot of notes. Some of you may have read a bit about that in my book Alea Jacta Est. But again, it didn’t affect me directly—I was in Florida, 1,000 miles south. But I watched, I learned, I planned, and most importantly, I thought about ‘what if’. I think that’s why I write my books—they allow me to explore ‘what if’ safely and see what lies around the bend should disaster strikes.
By then I was married—no longer was I beholden only to my own hide. I had to think about my wife—what would happen if both of us were trapped at home? What about if one of us was at work? I had to think up how we’d communicate, where we’d meet—do we bug out or in? What does that even mean? The responsibility grows exponentially for every person added to your family or group. I learned to control anxiety and stop worrying and start doing. Either lists or stockpiling or shopping—doing something to get you closer to your goal of self-reliant living helps. Tremendously.
The Unprepared Person’s First Mistake
Why did I (do I) want to be self reliant? Isn’t the government going to take care of me in a disaster?
Answer: when seconds count, the police are only minutes away.
Corollary: See Hurricane Katrina, the aftermath.
The government is there to protect us from big things like invasion (there are many who doubt they can do that effectively—don’t get me wrong, our military is more than capable of doing so if left to their own devices. I wouldn’t bet against the men and women who wear the flag on their shoulders. Ever. But the politicians who tell them where to go and what they can and can’t do…they’re the ones who’ll get us all killed). They are not there to prevent an earthquake or stop a hurricane. Hell, they can’t even get to you all that fast afterward because they have to use the same roads to bring in equipment. They have to land their helicopters somewhere else because of the downed power lines and trees.
In the end, when you look at blizzards, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods…the first responders are always the average Joe Sixpack who lives next door. They live there, remember? Your neighbors, though they’re suffering just as much as you, are by proximity, going to be first on the scene. Remove yourself to somewhere out in the boonies and yeah, the first responders will be actual first responders. But I digress.
The Army isn’t going to show up at your door in the first hour after the hurricane passes. You’ll see Bob across the street first, shout “You okay?” or “Hey, my wife is hurt!”, etc., and start working from there. Then, when you’re sweaty and halfway through clearing the tree from your driveway that blocks the road, the police may show up or a helicopter buzz overhead.
The serious government “help” that arrives with food and water usually doesn’t seem to show up in the first 24 hours unless they’re ready and waiting for the disaster (like they try to do in the post-Katrina FEMA world). Even then, it’s hit or miss—and do you really want to trust your life and the lives of your family to ‘hit or miss’ government help?
To me, self reliance is not define literally. I don’t mean being an ‘army of one’, living off the land, shunning interaction with the outside world while setting up a hermitage. Self Reliant to me means being able to care for my family and those around me for short to medium time frames (which include months, but not necessarily years). If I have to take care of my family through my own preparing for years, we’re talking a TEOTWAKI (the end of the world as we know it) event and that’s a whoooooole other can of worms. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that when we get to post-apocalyptic fun.
I want to take care of myself and my family (especially now that I have children) as I see fit, not shuffle to a shelter and get packed into a warehouse with other refugees during a crisis. For that, I must endure the stigma from those less prepared or educated or intelligent that something is wrong with me. Luckily, the times we live in now are awash with people like me (and with the terrible things going on in the world today, who can blame us?) and you—if you’re reading this blog (especially to the end of this post) you’re probably a fan of my books. And if you’re a fan of my books you probably know exactly where I stand on being prepared. So I guess I should change that ‘me’ to ‘us’.
Welcome to the movement.
Next time, we’ll delve deeper into labels—why ‘they’ call us what they do, and why that shouldn’t trouble you at all—or maybe it should.
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