You know you’re all grown up when you finally start procrastinating preparation for natural disasters. I did for years! And then you know you’re getting downright quadragenarian when you finally actually have an emergency kit. I’m really not all that big on actually surviving, though. Any situation bad enough to threaten my survival is probably going to make life so unpleasant for so long that it’s not clear to me that I am actually interested in surviving it.
Comfort, though — now that’s another matter altogether. Seriously, most “emergency preparedness” is not about survival at all, but about maintaining some modicum of comfort and sanity (“first world problems”) in the aftermath of a super inconvenient earthquake. (Earthquakes are the only serious natural disaster concern in Vancouver.) As long as my wife and I have water and a few cans of soup, we’re going to survive. The only question is how much will we suffer while things get back to normal? Will we, for instance, be able to keep our iPad charged for long enough to watch season 3 of Game of Thrones? I certainly don’t want either of us to fail to survive unnecessarily from a preventable infection or a large but patchable “hull breach,” so we do indeed have plenty of hydrogen peroxide, gauze, and medical tape in a red nylon bag in the hall closet. But mostly we have a comfort kit, not a survival kit. And much of it is about storing power. Lex Friedman described the frustrations of his family’s life without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy: “With great power comes great responsibility; with no power comes a house of pain.”
My first attempt to put together an emergency kit was in about 2006. The main result of that was that, in the event of an earthquake between 2008 and 2012, we would have had a large bin full of power bars so far past their best-before dates that we could have used them as bricks for reconstruction, or perhaps thrown them in self-defense during the food riots. “Starving marauder at 2 o’clock!” Thwap! “Now he’s trying to eat it, the poor devil!”
Even the bottled water was expired when I finally got around to checking on the kit. (It didn’t even occur to me that bottled water could expire. Is that a real thing? Expired water? What goes wrong, exactly? It starts to taste so much like plastic that its imputable? Do things grow in it? And if it wasn’t antiseptic to begin with, do I want to know that?)
And the bandages! I had stocked the kit with bandages that were probably a little decrepit even back in 2006. By the time I checked them in 2012, most of them had degenerated into little paper packets of sticky residue.
Still, the original disaster kit wasn’t a complete disaster. It also had some half-dead D-cell batteries, a couple fully evaporated camp stove fuel cannisters, a dust mask, and a Swiss army knife!
In the summer of 2012, I set out to restore the dignity and utility of our kit. I’ve worked hard on this! And spent quite a bit. For about four months I went on shopping trips every couple of weeks solely devoted to this. I spent about $2500 on stuff that is mostly useless to us unless Vancouver has a Very Bad Day.
Here are some selected lessons I’ve learned:
- I have a lot more disposable income than I had in 2006. And a proper comfort kit uses a generous slice of it.
- Absolutely everything degrades (and at an alarming pace). You don’t “have” a kit, you “maintain” one. It’s a process, not a thing.
- Vancouver is a shitty geographic location for charging anything solar powered from late September to early July.
- A modern “comfort kit” is mainly all about making sure you have as much electricity as possible in the aftermath of a disaster, so that you don’t have to go down to the local Apple store to charge your iThings with all the other suckers who didn’t think ahead.
- You can flush a toilet by pouring water into it! Who knew? (Actually, I did, but that sounded funny to me.) Ergo, your post-disaster life will be significantly less disgusting if you keep a good-sized plastic container of toilet-flushing water around. And if you use a container with a really good lid, guess what you can use it for after running out of water?
- Always check across the street at Safeway for ridiculously cheaper batteries before buying an entire packsack full of them at London Drugs. They look at you really funny when you dump that many batteries on the customer service counter at London Drugs.
- Lithium batteries hold their charge in storage the best, by the way.
- What you want for a disinfectant in an emergency kit is hydrogen peroxide, not alcohol. Alcohol disinfects, but it stings! A couple bottles of HP is good low-hanging emergency kit fruit.
- A UPS (uninterruptible power supply) for your computer is like a really big power bar with a battery in it — if you do anything important with your computer, this could come in very handy during a period of unreliable grid power after a disaster.
- There is no affordable, reliable large “power bank” product in existence. Trust me, I’ve already wasted the time looking. (Goal Zero’s stuff comes close, but it’s not even close to “affordable”?) And so, despite spending well over $2000 on our kit so far, I still don’t have anything that can keep a refrigerator going for even five minutes, let alone a couple days.
- Dynamos! Get some handy things powered by a crank. Producing power with a teensy little dynamo is about as tedious as it gets.
- Headlamps! Easy win. Hands-free light comes in really handy in most disaster situations.
- No food is truly non-perishable, and the closer it gets the less you want to eat it anyway. (So don’t buy “emergency food” and put it in a container and forget about it for half-decades at a time: buy extra normal food that happens to be less perishable and relatively easy to prepare on a camp stove.)
Incredibly, all this and more is still just the tip of the iceberg. “Being prepared” is a bottomless pit. There’s really no limit to how far you could take it, even without worrying about survival. If you were truly serious about post-disaster comfort or survival, you’d have to build a posh bunker in wilderness, heavily provisioned with food, good booze, fuel and of course a complete copy of the Internet. And then you’d build three more, for redunancy.
A couple things I still want to deal with…
- Sustaining refrigeration and heat with generators and/or big battery packs is obviously critical to really getting the most out of the aftermath of a nice natural disaster.
- A good, medium-sized Faraday cage for some electronics. In case of a big solar storm, I will be just about the only person in the city with a working laptop! Of course, this will actually require buying an extra laptop just to store in an EM shield …