The Yuppie FEMA Plan

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says that “Even though it is unlikely that an emergency would cut off your food supply for two weeks, consider maintaining a supply that will last that long.” And later on in the same document they say “Consider storing at least a two-week supply of water for each member of your family.” Using this document as an authority, we can say that being prepared for two weeks is the Boy Scout level of preparation. If you are at this level, nobody can consider you paranoid because you are just a good little citizen doing what your government recommends that you should do.

But what does it really mean to be prepared for two weeks cut off from resupply of food and water? Honestly speaking, if your sole goal is to stay alive then you likely don’t need to do anything. Most everyone would still be alive if all power, sewer, clean water, and other supplies were cut off for a period of two weeks. The frail might die, but everyone else has enough spare fat and could drink bad water if they had to. At the end of the two week period many people might be sick and weak, but they would not be dead.

If your goal is a little higher than just staying alive, then you have to define what you are looking for. Do you want perfect comfort just as if the disaster never happened? Do you just want to remain healthy until the cavalry arrives to saves the day? On the other paw, you also have to consider what you are willing to do to achieve your goals. After all, if money is no object, we would all pick riding out the disaster in perfect comfort. But it takes effort and money to prepare for things and we all have a finite supply of both.

What follows is two separate “FEMA Plans” constructed as a thought experiment to aide me in my ponderings of the subject. One plan is constructed for a yuppie family of four living in a suburban environment. The other plan is constructed for a rural working poor family of four. What differs between the two plans is budget and assumptions as to the capabilities of the theoretical family in question. What both plans have in common is the following…..

1. Both plans are designed to enable the theoretical families to remain functional and to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Comfort is not a goal. Rather, the goal is being healthy enough to function normally and having the equipped needed to do things that would make the situation better.
2. The plan is based around what is theoretically necessary to accomplish the above goal in a situation where there is no utilities, no sewer, no gas for vehicles, and no outside emergency support services for the duration of those two weeks.
3. All the stuff listed in these plans needs to be functional and ready to use 10 to 20 years in the future even if forgotten and ignored up until it is needed.
4. All the stuff in one of these plans should be able to fit into a closet. This is more about defining the amount of total storage space sacrificed to disaster preparedness and it is not a requirement of the plan that everything be suitable for storing in a closet. In the abstract it would be better for me to say that total space needed by the plan should be no more than 126 cubic feet (3*6*7) but it is easier to envision a closet then that amount of space in the abstract.
5. The assumption behind both plans is that the families live in the northeast and have to deal with weather and water resources typically for that region.
6. Budget for both plans is defined ahead of time and items are chosen to fit within that budget. For the “yuppie” plan the budget for this plan was derived from the one year cost in annual premiums if a healthy 30 year old male signed up for whole life insurance to the tune of $500,000. Buying life whole life insurance seems like a very middle class thing to do so the assumption is if they can afford to do that on a regular basis then they can afford pay that amount out once to prepare for FEMA style emergencies. At the time this plan was put together, that premium cost was estimated to be $4015 per year and so that is our budget number to stay under for the yuppie plan. For the rural working poor plan the budget is $800 on the grounds that seems to be roughly the amount that they spend on a “vacation” if they don’t have a lot of money but are gainfully employed

We will consider the “yuppie” plan first.

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World War II, Food Insecurity, And the Modern Situation.

The lack of sufficient food and outright famine was widespread problem in World War II although it is not something most Americans are aware of. Typically, the urban areas had it worst. This was partially because those in the countryside were growing their own food and partially because of German policy. Take the “Hunger Plan” for example……

The German “Hunger Plan” called for “the annihilation of what the German régime perceived as a superfluous population (Jews, and the population of Ukrainian large cities such as Kiev, which received no supplies at all); extreme reduction of rations for Ukrainians in the remaining cities; and reduction in foodstuffs consumed by the farming population.”

Now this plan was not fully implemented, but there were massive famines in the Ukraine. And from everything I have read, those in the countryside faired far better than those in urban areas in part because it was impossible for the Germans to get farmers to grow food for them and at the same time prevent the farmers from feeding themselves. Also, disruptions in supply lines from the fighting impacted the urban areas that needed to import their food a lot more then it impacted the rural areas that grew the food. We can see this same dynamic (urban famine, rural areas doing comparatively better) all over Europe.

One example would the be the “Great Famine” in Greece. As Wikipedia puts it (emphasis mine)…..

The nutritional situation became critical in the summer of 1941 and in the autumn turned into a full-blown famine. Especially in the first winter of occupation (1941–42) food shortage was acute and famine struck especially in the urban centers of the country. Food shortage reached a climax and a famine was unavoidable. During that winter the mortality rate reached a peak, while according to British historian, Mark Mazower, this was the worst famine the Greeks experienced from ancient times. Bodies of dead persons were secretly abandoned in cemeteries or at the streets (possibly so their ration cards could continue to be used by surviving relatives). In other cases, bodies were found days after the death had taken place. The sight of emaciated dead bodies was commonplace in the streets of Athens.

The situation in Athens and the wider area with its port, Piraeus, was out of control, the hyperinflation was in full swing and the price of bread was increased 89-fold from April 1941 to June 1942. According to the records of the German army the mortality rate in Athens alone reached 300 deaths per day during December 1941, while the estimates of the Red Cross were much higher, at 400 deaths while in some days the death toll reached 1,000. Apart from the urban areas the population of the islands was also affected by the famine, especially those living in Mykonos, Syros and Chios.

There are no accurate numbers of the famine deaths because civil registration records did not function during the occupation. In general, it is estimated that Greece suffered approximately 300,000 deaths during the Axis occupation as a result of famine and malnutrition. However, not all parts of Greece experienced equal levels of food scarcity. Although comprehensive data on regional famine severity does not exist, the available evidence indicates that the severe movement restrictions, the proximity to agricultural production and the level of urbanization were crucial factors of famine mortality.

We can read similar things about the Dutch famine during World War II. Again, going by Wikipedia (emphasis mine) …..

Food stocks in the cities in the western Netherlands rapidly ran out. The adult rations in cities such as Amsterdam dropped to below 1000 calories (4,200 kilojoules) a day by the end of November 1944 and to 580 calories in the west by the end of February 1945. Over this Hongerwinter (“Hunger winter”), a number of factors combined to cause starvation in especially the large cities in the West of the Netherlands. The winter in the month of January 1945 itself was unusually harsh prohibiting transport by boat for roughly a month between early January 1945 and early February 1945. Also, the German army destroyed docks and bridges to flood the country and impede the Allied advance. Thirdly, Allied bombing made it extremely difficult to transport food in bulk, since Allied bombers could not distinguish German military and civilian shipments. As the south-eastern (the Maas valley) and the south-western part of the Netherlands (Walcheren and Beveland) became one of the main western battlefields, these conditions combined to make the transport of existing food stocks in large enough quantities nearly impossible.

The areas affected were home to 4.5 million people. Butter disappeared after October 1944, shortly after railway transport to the western parts of the Netherlands had stopped in September due to the railway strike. The supply of vegetable fats dwindled to a minuscule seven-month supply of 1.3 liters per person. At first 100 grams of cheese were allotted every two weeks; the meat coupons became worthless. The bread ration had already dropped from 2,200 to 1,800 and then to 1,400 grams per week. Then it fell to 1,000 grams in October, and by April 1945 to 400 grams a week. Together with one kilogram of potatoes, this then formed the entire weekly ration. The black market increasingly ran out of food as well, and with the gas and electricity and heat turned off, everyone was very cold and very hungry. In search of food, young strong people would walk for tens of kilometers to trade valuables for food at farms. Tulip bulbs and sugar beets were commonly consumed. Furniture and houses were dismantled to provide fuel for heating.

In the last months of 1944, in anticipation of the coming famine, tens of thousands of children were brought from the cities to rural areas where many remained until the end of the war. Deaths in the three big cities of the Western Netherlands (The Hague, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam) started in earnest in December 1944, reaching a peak in March 1945, but remained very high in April and May 1945. In early summer 1945 the famine was brought quickly under control. From September 1944 until May 1945 the deaths of 18,000 Dutch people were attributed to malnutrition as the primary cause and in many more as a contributing factor.

There are a lot of other similar stories that could be told about World War II but the bottom line is that food scarcity was an issue in many areas during World War II and it always seemed to hit hardest in the urban areas. Now I think to a lot of people this is sort of like announcing that water is wet. Who would expect anything differently?

But the fact that the experience of World War II accords with people’s natural expectations is precisely the problem. The things that enabled rural areas to do better during times of food shortages at the time of World War II no longer hold true and yet I don’t think people have updated their thinking to account for the changes.

As Chelsea Green’s “A Short History of the Agricultural Seed” says (emphasis mine)……

These changes didn’t “take” with farmers overnight. First of all, many of these inputs were expensive, and most farmers were not operating on a cash-intensive system—they produced all or most of their own fertility, feed, and seed for their farms. Pesticides, nitrogen fertilizer, and even tractors wouldn’t become commonplace on North American or European farms until after World War II, and even later in other parts of the world. The main source of fuel on the farm was the grain and hay produced on-farm for horses. It’s hard to believe now that only 100 years ago, even in countries that were rapidly industrializing, most of the population lived on farms that were largely self-sufficient, breeding their own animals and growing their crops from seed they had grown.

I don’t think many people have fully internalized how unprecedented modern times are compared to most of recorded history. Urban areas have always been vulnerable to the collapse of complicated supply lines since the time of the Bronze Age collapse. Rome famously lived in fear of its grain supplies being cut off just as much as Great Britain feared submarines. But at the time of World War II a farmer in Great Britain could feed himself even if there were not enough famers in Great Britain to feed the largely urban population of what was one of the most urbanized countries in the world at the time. But now a farmer cannot feed himself without the aid of a long and complicated supply line anymore then a city dweller can.

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Some Thoughts on Preparedness

I know a good man who has some serious health problems that were sadly predictable. He worked for a long time in a very dusty environment. He knew that was a health risk and whenever his son helped him he made him wear a respirator. He had the equipment to protect himself and he had the knowledge that it was dangerous. But for whatever reason, he did not make use of those things.
You see that a lot. There are people who know that smoking is dangerous but only get serious about quitting after they get lung cancer. There are people who know that that tree work is dangerous but only become serious about safety after their brother is killed by a falling limb. It is human to know something, to have no real doubt that what you know is true, and yet to still fail to act on it.

The book of James mocks those who profess to have faith and yet fail to act on it. The same sort of logic can be applied to knowledge. We all dam ourselves by what we say we know and being flawed as we are, we can never totally avoid it. But it is worth making an effort to avoid condemning ourselves by what we say we know.

This is a particular danger for me because I am a very judgmental man. I look at the middle class in Lebanon and wonder how they can be crying in the newspapers about how they losing all their savings. Didn’t they realize they were living in a country that is a byword for instability? How could they have money in the bank but no food in the pantry? I feel the same way about the middle class panic buying in the shops in South Africa because they are afraid that the riots might cause supply disruptions. You live in Africa and you are not prepared for the stores to be empty for a few weeks?

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How Come The EPA Emergency Guidelines On Using Pool Shock To Purify Drinking Water Are So Unclear?

Today’s lecture is on the difference between understanding the reasons why authorities tell you to do certain things rather than simply being content with what they say. The authority in question for this particular lecture is the EPA and their instructions on how to use pool shock to disinfect water.

Now before we start I want to make it clear that I am not out to bash the EPA on this particular issue. I think it is a good thing that some bureaucrat took the time to go through all the steps and all the committees that it took to get this on a public facing federal website. It is true that it is poorly written but good writers are hard to come by and I imagine that what good ones the EPA had were needed for higher profile subjects. But fundamentally, I think it is a good thing that a federal agency is letting the world know that it is okay to treat drinking water with pool shock in the event of the emergency.

The problem that I have is that some (many?) people who are interested in preparedness are simply content to accept that “the EPA says it is okay” without understanding why the EPA says it is okay. I would think if you were interested in being prepared you would want to know why the EPA thinks it is okay and how it works rather than be simply content with “the government says so.”

So we what we are going to do is pick apart the EPA instructions to try to figure out “why” they say what they do. Our first step is to look at the EPA directions as they are retrieved on 7/17/2021 (they could change them and probably should make them a little clearer).

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