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In Issue 28 of RECOIL OFFGRID, we wrote a feature on Operation: Dark Winter (ODW) — a senior-level government exercise from June 2001 that simulated a bioterrorism attack in the United States using smallpox as its agent of choice. Its findings were discouraging to say the least.
The results of the ODW study revealed a gut-wrenching reality that many Americans weren’t aware of until COVID-19 found its way here — we as a nation are drastically ill-prepared for pandemics. Problems range from a lack of sufficient training, delays in developing vaccines or drugs to treat a new illness, and the collateral damage it causes to our infrastructure and commerce.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the world has seen firsthand how devastating the effects of a highly communicable disease can be on every aspect of human life. The question now remains, how can we prepare for the next wave or another outbreak with a contagion that’s even deadlier?
The Setup: In a matter of months, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the United States. Businesses and schools closed. Workers were furloughed and laid off. Students and parents had to adapt to online learning. There was a run on groceries; some items sold out immediately with very little replenishment. Firearms and ammunition sales spiked, and first-time gun owners realized how difficult it was to purchase a firearm, not only due to legal formalities, but also because many retailers were left with nothing but empty display cases.
Hospitals were not only overwhelmed with new admissions, but the staff was often limited and, in some cases, quit for fear of exposure. Medical supplies were also depleted quickly due to a shortage in the national stockpile and the fact that many were made overseas. Our economy took a huge hit, and the unemployment rate is still high. With rumors of certain jobs not being reinstated, there’s a lingering fear that another recession is on the horizon.
If another pandemic happened, how would you prepare for it, drawing on your experiences and what you witnessed with the COVID-19 pandemic? What if a new pandemic involved a disease with an even higher mortality rate? What would you stock up on, and how many weeks’ worth of supplies would you keep on hand? How can you better prepare financially for another period of indefinite employment? Who would you rely on for accurate information regarding the status of the pandemic? How would you protect your health during necessary ventures into public places? What can you do to bolster your medical knowledge and preparedness if you’re forced to stay at home and medical help and supplies are limited?
Having just gone through an “easy” pandemic, namely COVID-19, and having tested my preparations on multiple fronts, I have to say that I’m happy to have had a “warm-up round” before the next wave hits us. Not only will you and I be better prepared, but the government and private sector will be better prepared, too.
If and when another pandemic hits and we return to full lockdown, remember that stores will probably remain open, even if with limited hours. You’ll eventually be able to get food, toilet paper, and other basic necessities. The difference is that during the pandemic, things may not be available at will, which is what we’re used to. We have become a society that thrives on “just in time” inventory, which means that most stores have just enough inventory to get them through a few days’ worth of their average sales volume. Beyond that, products usually have to be ordered from the manufacturer. Understanding this business principle will help avoid the panic buying and a repeat of the dreaded toilet paper hoarding incident of 2020.
Use the lessons learned about shortages to stock up on some of your personal staple items. If you have a preferred brand of toilet paper, buy double your usual amount. There’s plenty of toilet paper in the United States, but if people begin hoarding again, you might not be able to get your preferred brand for a few weeks. Additionally, have enough face masks and sanitizing supplies to last a few weeks. And remember, the less you venture out into public, the less you’ll need those masks and sanitizer.
Personally, the only things I’m really stocking up on are food staples — particularly meats, both canned and frozen. The 2020 pandemic hit the meat industry pretty hard, and I was informed that some of the meat processing facilities had employee infection rates around 50 percent. That’s huge, and it did cause some shortages. Again, it didn’t mean that there was no meat to be found, only that my preferred cuts or quantities weren’t always available when I wanted them.
My other staples include rice, beans, flour, yeast, sugar, and baking powder. With a generous supply of these items, combined with various meats and vegetables, I’ll never be without something to eat. I’ll continue to shop as needed, about once every two weeks, and consume the fresh stuff first. If there’s something in short supply at the store, I can easily pull from my stockpile and simply replace that item when it becomes available. In general, I keep about a 60-day supply of my personal food staples at home.
The other plus about having extra supplies in your personal stockpile is that you can make less trips to the store during a pandemic. Less trips to the store equal less exposure.
It’s good to have other items on hand, too. I keep a few standard medications, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, decongestants, and naproxen, also with a 30-plus day supply at maximum dosage, per person in my home. My house is on a private well, but there’s also 20 gallons of potable water handy in jugs for emergencies, plus a few cases of bottled water. I keep 40-plus disposable lithium AA batteries in my cache, plus half a dozen adapters to convert AA batteries to C and D size. My batteries are primarily for flashlights and my emergency AM/FM/weather radios. I don’t currently have a backup generator for my house, but I have a vehicle that has a 2,000-watt inverter on board. In an emergency, I can plug in my freezer and refrigerator to keep things cold. Our dog food is also kept at the 60-day supply level.
All items in soft packaging, such as paper or plastic bags, are kept in clear plastic bins in the basement with lids securely attached. This is primarily to ensure that no errant mouse chews through the package, but also helps to keep the packages dry if there’s a water leak. The clear bin makes it faster and easier to find what I’m looking for. Canned or jarred foods are kept in the kitchen cupboard, in the back of the hall closet and on dedicated shelves in the basement. I found that if metal cans were stored on my concrete floor, they would rust much, much faster than if stored on a shelf. A dehumidifier also helps keep the basement, and supplies, dry.
We also take safety precautions with all store-bought supplies that come into the house. If it’s something that can sit outside in the sun for a while, we start with that so the UV can help kill any germs that might be on the package. Then, the item comes inside and sits in a “quarantine area” of the basement for seven days, being careful not to cross-contaminate other items. Items that must come straight into the house are cleaned with a mild bleach solution, by submersion or wiping. While these steps might not be 100-percent effective, every step we take helps lessen our risk of exposure.
I’m not particularly worried about communications problems during a pandemic, but I maintain several communications options, just in case. First, there’s the cell phone with multiple chargers plus a few small rechargeable battery packs. I also keep in mind that the phone can be charged in my vehicle with the standard power port. I’ve also exported my cell phone contact list onto my computer, have a hard copy printed for emergencies, and leave a copy in an envelope at mom’s house. I’ll never forget mom’s number, so I can call her and get whatever important contact info I need from that list.
Other emergency communications abilities I have include two-way commercial radios, both mobile and portable, plus a HAM radio. They’re preprogrammed with all my local frequencies, plus the common FRS, GMRS, and commercial frequencies. I also have a hard copy list of the frequencies and PL tones I might use in an emergency.
One of the most important things to have available during any emergency is an excellent support network close to home. Besides maintaining a great relationship with my neighbors, I’m the chief of my local volunteer fire department. Belonging to a fire department is like having a second family — everybody pitches in to help each other during hard times. We have members who are making shopping runs for other members and some are even preparing meals for those who are self-quarantining. We’re also sharing information about what stores have shortages or surplus of critical supplies, such as sanitizing wipes.
I also have a responsibility to help keep the public safe, and that starts by making sure that my firefighters and EMTs have all the safety equipment and training that they need. Our preparations for the pandemic began in January 2020, mostly with becoming educated on what COVID-19 was, what its symptoms were, how to avoid becoming infected, and how to avoid transmission to/from others. I can say that N95 respirators were already in short supply, nationwide, in January 2020, as government and well-informed private sector groups geared up for what was coming.
In the process of equipping my fire department for emergency response to COVID-19 infected residences, we needed to issue each firefighter protective N95 masks and hand sanitizer. Just as important as having proper PPE is knowing how to use it. We see far too many people wearing quality masks inappropriately, thereby negating the positive attributes of having the higher-quality N95 mask. Whatever level of protective equipment you have access to, make sure you seek out knowledge about how to properly use it.
As the reports of the next pandemic are released, my family will increase our social distancing and remind others to do the same. We’ll also take note of whether our neighbors are following recommended guidelines, and if they are not, we’ll minimize in-person contact with them. We’ll stay out of public contact to the largest degree possible, including preparing all of our own meals and ensuring that as many precautions are taken as possible.
This most recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown many avid preppers and survivalists where the holes in our supplies are. This is both a blessing and a curse. While my area wasn’t hit as hard as others, walking the grocery store aisles with my children and seeing the empty shelves definitely gave me a surprising level of anxiety even though I have a well-prepared stash of items tucked away. Knowing what I know now, there are things that my family would do differently prior to a future pandemic.
Knowledge: To set the stage, having a stash of essential items is critical. Items like basic toiletries, food items, water, medical supplies, and yes, even toilet paper. However, one frequently overlooked resource to add to your supply cache is books. Having a well-rounded library of medical, survival and preparedness, fishing/hunting, and target-hardening literature can be extremely beneficial. Make sure your library is relevant to your needs — in urban environments, learning how to fish, hunt, or build an improvised shelter from fallen logs isn’t as practical as it would be in the wilderness. Having hard copies of resources can be lifesaving. We found a great library of survival resources on www.superessestraps.com and Amazon. Military manuals like the Ranger Handbook, Winter Survival Manual, and The SERE Handbook are also crucial additions.
Toiletries: The most surprising aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic was which items flew off the shelf and how quickly the online vendors ran out of personal hygiene products. Panic buying hit the American people early, and it hit hard. There have been many videos posted on social media of parents searching stores for diapers and wipes for their children, only to leave empty handed. This was one area that I hadn’t adequately prepared for, and it was the first thing to change in preparation for the future. We purchased a case of the current size, and one size larger to be safe, along with a large case of wipes.
Food: Our food supply techniques won’t change much other than gathering more on a regular basis. More is always better. Barring any major food allergies, you can never go wrong with MREs, followed by copious amounts of fiber supplements. They’re compact and can last for an awfully long time when stored properly. Other long-term emergency foods like Mountain House, Wise Company, Augason Farms, Northwest Fork, and Survival Tabs are also great products to keep on hand. We ensure that each person in our family has approximately 2,000 calories per day. We don’t differentiate between child and adult. It’s our built-in surplus.
Water: Water can be a tough one. Water bottles expire (not the water itself, but the plastic as it starts to degrade) and take up a lot of space. Knowing what we know now, I wouldn’t worry so much about water as nothing drastic happened with water supplies in the United States that wasn’t already an issue prior. However, having a few cases of Blue Can Water can never hurt. They aren’t cheap, but they have a 50-year shelf life.
Our rule of thumb is to keep at least three months’ worth of food, water, and supplies on hand and rotate through or add to them as needed. We figure that each person needs 1 gallon of water per day. Again, we don’t differentiate between child and adult. That helps us come out ahead.
Vitamins And Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): I keep a small stock of vitamins, but finding COVID-19 appropriate vitamins was a challenge. It took me weeks to find things like multi-vitamins, colloidal silver, vitamin C, and elderberry supplements. While these aren’t specifically prescribed to help with COVID-19, we believe they help the immune system for those times when we had to leave our home to restock.
Obviously, as many of us found out earlier this year, finding masks, gloves, bleach, and hand sanitizer took the strategy and planning of a war-time sand table. Stocking up on PPE is suddenly at the top of our list. MOPP 4 gear wasn’t necessarily appropriate to wear to our local grocery store — although we considered it going to Walmart a few times — but simple PPE was adequate and even mandatory in some businesses. From now on, we’ll always ensure that we have a case of hand sanitizer, masks, latex gloves, and cleaning agents at the ready.
Finances: Financially planning for another pandemic takes patience and sacrifice. Many of us already feel this in our finances even without being insecure about our jobs or ability to put food on the table. My family follows a modified version of Dave Ramsey and The Budget Mom techniques for financial preparation. Essentially both schools of thought want you to have a $1,000 to $5,000 emergency fund, then pay off all consumer debts, then have three to six months of expenses (not income) in a savings account or money market. It won’t always be easy to reach this point, but it can aid in having cushion if your hours are cut, if you don’t know when unemployment benefits will kick in, or if you want to stock up on items in the early days of a disaster. I strongly recommend following both individuals on social media and getting Dave Ramsey’s book, The Total Money Makeover. At the very least, it’ll give you guidelines to start building what will work best for your family and your unique situation. While researching what financial preparedness method works for you, also research unemployment options should you ever have to file and keep up to date on new unemployment benefits (like the ones during the COVID-19 pandemic) to know to what to expect.
Information: During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak it seemed like everyone on social media was now suddenly an infectious disease expert. It made finding relevant and accurate data incredibly difficult. It seems like there’s a scientific publication to back up anyone’s opinion on COVID-19. New data may fluctuate, but common sense and a little bit of science goes a long way. The presidential addresses are a good place to start for an overview of the latest medical information.
Because of all the ever-changing data, it’s increasingly difficult to abide by any stringent rules. Stick to the most consistent information rather than focusing on sensational headlines and outliers. Speaking with medical professionals in your area is always a good course of action as well.
Community: The stay-at-home order was the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a work-at-home parent being able to go to the library, the park, a MOPS group, or a friend’s house was a godsend. With all our outlets taken away, it made occupying and entertaining my kiddos a challenge. My advice is to connect with friends via Zoom, Facebook Messenger, Facetime, or Skype often. Getting together in person is a calculated risk that must be assessed by each party; but seriously, nothing virtual can replace a hug from a close friend. Also, be sure to let the kids talk to their friends — they need their tribe also.
Building a sense of community is paramount should another pandemic hit the country. Text or call your neighbors, friends, and family often. In my community, someone started a public Facebook group called, “Oops, I ran out of…” This group was created to help community members find the items that they were searching for without having to drive to a dozen different stores. This enables grocery shopping to be a group mission rather than a free-for-all. It also presents opportunities to barter and trade to gather supplies that you may be missing. Neighbors can also help you lock down your street if riots and looting are happening in your area. Emotional and mental aspects are important, but they don’t matter much if you don’t have safety or food to eat.
Safety: Having a home that’s alarmed is just smart these days. When the alarm is tripped, it calls dispatch for you, which allows you to manage the threat until law enforcement arrives. Installing a Ring or Nest video doorbell is a great option as well. While alarms aren’t always a criminal deterrent, they can buy you precious seconds to respond to danger.
Most criminals don’t want to be seen, so investing in exterior motion-activated lighting that can be secured to the exterior of the property can also mitigate a specific level of criminal.
During an uncertain time, awareness of what’s normal and abnormal in one’s surrounding environment is critical. We should never be afraid to say that something is abnormal or to respond accordingly. If something feels off, don’t let normalcy bias persuade you to rationalize it. Investigate further and be ready for the most dangerous outcome.
Communication: Communicating with others wasn’t a huge challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, Zoom calls were overloaded or slow at times, but communications were fairly uninterrupted. That being the case, having a secondary or tertiary method of communication is always wise. Satellite phones, ham radios, walkie-talkie systems, and CB radios are always a great choice, if you have a method of charging and/or replacing the batteries.
Preparation: I remember being at Home Depot back in 2017 when the forecasted track of Hurricane Irma was shifting toward my home in Tampa Bay. My town suddenly and collectively realized that we were all about to have a bad time. Shoppers pushing their carts looked around bug-eyed, watching for signals of a stampede from the rest of the herd. Tense conversations and cart-bumping spilled into every aisle of the store, as everything even remotely related to survival and comfort got picked off. No more generators or gasoline containers, no more solar lights. When the plywood sold out, folks started buying decorative siding and trim — anything to help Band-Aid their homes against the storm. It made me realize what many of our readers probably already knew: The panicked animal inside all of us isn’t very far underneath the surface.
Personally, I consider having two weeks to a month of supplies to be appropriate. Non-perishable food and water are a given. I have many cans of Chef Boyardee and Campbell’s soups, as well as Mountain House freeze-dried meals and a little Jetboil stove. Besides food and water, the other thing I have to constantly remind myself of is to make sure I have a month’s supply of whatever prescription medicines the family needs.
Helping to ensure mere survival is good, but I try to go beyond that to determine what will make my life much more comfortable if things get shut down. Many of us are used to 48-hour deliveries from Amazon. However, we all saw how quickly the supply chain can get shut down, or simply redirected to other priorities that are considered more essential. To figure out what I should plan on stockpiling, I take a good look around my home and see what we’re actually using on a daily basis. When I do this, I find many things that go beyond what I’d really consider “survival” items, such as those that make me feel better and keep my spirits up. This includes items like shampoo, dental floss, and coffee. The more little “nonessential” goodies you already have in your house, the less you’ll be tempted to leave your house and expose yourself to potential infection. Also, you’ll have a better means to trade with your neighbors.
After waiting eight days for my power to be restored after Hurricane Irma, I paid for a natural gas line to be run to my house from the neighboring street. Now, I have both electric and natural gas availability at my house. The main point of the natural gas was to run a 22-kilowatt Generex generator. Simply installing propane tanks would’ve been less expensive, but I didn’t want to worry about getting refilled when a disaster hits, and I also figured the below-ground installation was less prone to damage or vandalism. Although my house is mainly powered by electricity, my water heater is powered by gas, as are my firepit and outdoor lamps. If the power goes out, I could boil water and cook food over the firepit. Also, I purchased 10 or so inexpensive solar security lights from Amazon and stuck them all over the perimeter of my house. It’s nice to be able to see where I’m going at night, and if we lost power, we’d be able to charge them during the day and use them for at least part of the night.
In case our cell phones go out, I use a Garmin inReach Explorer+, which allows me to message anyone from anywhere, and also provides navigation capability.
On Site: When a disease reaches pandemic levels, I do my best to take no unnecessary risks. I try to reduce trips to the store, avoid enclosed spaces with crowds, and generally follow Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations. I also avoid nonessential activities that might inadvertently send me to the hospital. For example, I’m not getting up on the roof just to blow leaves off. I’m not doing heavy lifting yard work and risking throwing out my back. The nonessential “honey-do” list can wait until the pandemic is over.
To stay informed, I source my information globally from outlets such as the BBC and Al Jazeera to get more than just an American perspective. If there’s a story that sounds like it might be politically motivated, I simply Google it and try to look at it from several websites to get a broader picture. I use social media to keep up with friends and hobbies, not as a news source.
During a disaster or any national crisis, I pay special attention to watch for scammers and those who try to exploit the vulnerable. There will always be someone trying to make money off of disaster victims or play off of people’s fears. Mr. Rogers told us that to feel better we should always look for the helpers. I believe that, but I also know we need to keep one eye out for the scoundrels who are never far behind.
Crisis: When facing an unprecedented situation like this, we give ourselves the best chance of success if we practice preparedness as a mindset. I used to keep my bug-out supplies in the garage, trying to save space for something that (hopefully) wouldn’t be used very often.
What I eventually realized, though, is that when it’s in the garage I just forget about it. I never bother to check on the items or think about if I should add something to it. And worst of all, I don’t notice if things are deteriorating. Obviously, anything you may be entrusting your life to should be stored in the best conditions possible.
I currently store my bug-out supplies inside of my air-conditioned house, and not inside of a closet, either. I like to have them out where I can see them. I think it helps me keep a preparedness mindset if I have to walk by the gear every day. In a way, it’s almost helpful if you store gear in an inconvenient place. Like a blister on my toe or a thorn in my thumb, to me it’s a daily reminder of the next unknown threat that could be quietly coming down the pipe any day.
I store my especially valuable gear in a gun safe and scatter a few low-dollar items which appear high-dollar — such as a broken laptop computer and a fake Rolex — out in easy sight in the hopes that a would-be thief would take the bait and leave the rest of my valuables alone. I also use an inexpensive Wyze Cam system to keep an eye on the house and have scattered an area of functioning and non-functioning webcams around the outside to give the appearance of a seamless security system. For me, it’s not really about stopping the thief who is truly prepared and determined to rob me. Instead, it’s more about trying to look like a better-defended house than the one down the street.
For income, I’ve done my best to diversify my revenue streams and not just rely on my day job. I’ve earned additional certifications, and I’ve learned a side hustle or two just like so many others have in this gig economy. If I thought I was in for a truly disastrous dry spell, I’d maintain my checking account by putting everything I needed on credit cards until they got shut off. The long-term bankruptcy issue could be handled once I no longer had to worry about the short-term survival of my family.
A safety net is about more than what you can do on your own, though. It’s invaluable to maintain the best possible relationships with your neighbors and strengthen a local support network. Bring them booze at Christmas, mow their lawn once in a while, and actively search for how you can contribute to their well-being. Having a blood-relative 50 miles away isn’t nearly as valuable as having a good neighbor one mile away. So, think in terms of maintaining resources (like good neighbors) within walking distance. Because when your city gets locked down, walking distance may well be the furthest you can go.
This “What If?” column hits close to home for me, and I’m writing this as much to myself as to our readers. I’ve no doubt that another pandemic will visit us again — it’s just a matter of time. And, to my shame, enduring a globe-crossing infection of this size was something I never really thought would occur. I suppose that if this were 1920 and I had just seen the ravages of the 1918 influenza pandemic, I might’ve been better prepared. But time washes away all of our collective memories, and it’s tough to keep threats in mind that seem more like stories and legends. It’s made me appreciate this magazine more and be glad I held onto my back issues.
Working as a structural engineer and Urban Search and Rescue specialist deployed primarily to hurricane events, I naturally compare any disaster to a hurricane. And in the case of COVID-19, the effects on my world have been similar. I’ve watched this thing shutter my local businesses and put a damper on my own livelihood in the construction industry. Neighbors get sick and go to the hospital — some come back. Even my wife contracted the virus; watching her struggle to breathe gave me a feeling of helplessness I hope to never feel again.
Those who choose to procrastinate their survival planning will be the first to experience the world’s indifference to their situation if they’re caught with their proverbial pants down. Socking money away, stocking up on supplies, checking multiple sources for information on an outbreak, and above all, remaining level-headed will pay dividends for you when the unprepared masses start running around like headless chickens.
Preparing for a future pandemic doesn’t have to be a scary process, but it does have to have a level of precision and forethought. If you’re new to survival and preparedness, always start with the basic pillars of survival: food, water, fire, shelter, and medical. Having a good supply in each of these categories will help build a foundation that can handle just about anything. Also, remember that survival isn’t just about what you have; it’s about what you know and the skills you’ve developed. Seek training in key areas such as first aid and self-defense and practice these perishable skills frequently.
The good news is, there are actions we can take for next time. Although we can’t control the outcome of the game, we can make sure that we give ourselves the best possible odds going into it.
Joey Nickischer is a retired detective with the New York City Police Department. He currently works as a lead technical rescue instructor with several different companies covering topics from wilderness search, high angle rope, mine rescue, and off-road operations. He serves as a team leader with the Westchester County Technical Rescue Team and is the commander of the Putnam County Technical Rescue Team, as well as serving as chief of department with the Patterson Fire Department.
Nila Rhoades and her husband, Tim, operate Resilient Security Solutions, in Wyoming. She blogs at www.milspecmom.com on topics such as survival, self-defense, firearms, and tactics. Nila also loves taking any firearms training courses that she can weasel her way into. They have three children. She loves running and peanut butter ice cream.
Andrew Schrader is a structural engineer and an Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) specialist for the State of Florida’s USAR Task Force. In his role as a Structures Specialist (StS), his job is to advise firefighters and technical rescue teams on the least hazardous means of searching for, locating, and extricating live victims in collapsed buildings. Trained by FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he has been deployed in support of rescue operations for Hurricanes Hermine (2016), Irma (2017), Michael (2018), and Dorian (2019).