Apocalypse box part two: Apocalypse box

Bummer, but at least I've got chili.

Bummer, but at least I’ve got chili.

Yesterday I posted part one of Apocalypse Box, in which I wrote a bit about the communication problems surrounding the reactor disaster in Japan. I concluded with saying that just because something is unthinkable doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

It was with the unthinkable in mind (as it were) that Mrs. Imagethief and I set about reconstituting our household emergency kit in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Six years ago, when all the world believed that lethal bird flu was but a sneeze away, the wife and I assembled a reasonably comprehensive household emergency kit. This consisted of two weeks of non-perishable food, drinking water, and various household supplies such as batteries, candles, gloves and such. I called this our “apocalypse box.” To be clear, the box (technically, two boxes) was not really designed for the apocalypse, so much as it was designed to enable us to withstand a run on supermarkets and a temporary disruption of services. But “apocalypse box” sounds cooler than “temporary disruption of services box.”

There was a return-on-investment calculation at work. Let’s face it: If civilization actually collapses Roland Emmerich style, a couple of cans of Dinty Moore stew and a Bic lighter are probably not going to make the difference between survival and being devoured by feral dogs (just for example). For that kind of Mad Maxery you need a crate of assault rifles, a cave in Wyoming and, of course, the last of the V8 interceptors*. And liquor. Lots of liquor.

But the investment required for that level of extreme preparation measured against my relatively low estimate of the chances civilization actually collapsing Mad Max-style in my lifetime rings up no-sale. Two plastic bins of food and general supplies measured against the possibility of a run on supermarkets or a temporary disruption in power and goods distribution looks much more rational and less militia-nutcase. Especially in China. It’s not that it might not be useful to have a crate of assault rifles and a fully stocked cave in Wyoming, just in case. It’s just that it seems to me that the resources I would have to invest in such a level of preparation is better spent on, oh, health insurance or rent or cat food (can always eat the cats).

There is some family precedent for this preparation. I grew up in California where we all heard as children that someday the Big One would come, the state would drop into the sea and that would just be tough shit. Or variations on that story. When I was in high school my mom used to keep a large bin of provisions and bottled water in the garage. My brother used to keep beer hidden in the tool closet. But that wasn’t really for survival purposes so much as to keep my mom from finding it.

In 1989 I was living in Santa Cruz during the nearby 7.1 Loma Prieta quake. Crouched on my kitchen floor as the cupboards emptied out I actually rather expected to drop into the sea, which wasn’t very far away. (Although as we have learned a couple of times in recent years, in these situations it turns out the sea may come to you.) In any event, Loma Prieta wasn’t The Big One, though it was Pretty Big and did do a lot of damage. There was in fact a smallish run on supermarkets in Santa Cruz after the quake, although everything was back to normal within a day or two. Having also been in Singapore during the  SARS epidemic, I’ve long thought it made sense to have a certain basic level of preparation for extra-weird times. It took the bird flu phantom to kick us into actual preparation, but then we moved to Shanghai and back in 2007 and the apocalypse box went by the wayside for four years.

I had actually been thinking about the old emergency kit quite a bit over the last few months, and mumbling about doing something about it in the same way that one mumbles about getting one’s teeth cleaned or other disagreeable but virtuous chores. But Fukushima and the great Beijing salt run of ’11 kicked us into high gear. I know from experience that I can go without food for some time, but to leave Mrs. Imagethief hungry is to dice with death. We made a pass through Wal-Mart and Jenny Lou’s and assessed where we stood. Where we stood was on a pile of mostly canned legumes and absolutely no Beano. This begged the question, if the apocalypse actually did strike, would anyone in our house still want to be alive after 24 hours of the farts?

In fact, on review the whole assortment seemed very conventionally western. If you’re really going hardcore, you’d want to lay in some things with local value so that they could be traded for ammunition, gasoline, breeding age females, or whatever it is you may need for your bunker. In China that argues for an emergency kit stocked with dried cuttlefish, melon seeds and baijiu. But one of our guiding principles was that the apocalypse box should contain food we’d actually want to eat. This is both so that we’re not completely miserable in the event of an emergency (who wants to be sitting in the light of one guttering candle, banging your hands together for heat and morosely staring at a bag of deep-fried crab snax?), and also because things need to be rotated out and eaten periodically as they reach their expiry dates. Yes, I have a spreadsheet with all the expiry dates.

Some recalibrating of the supplies yielded a more balanced though rather salty mix of canned meats and vegetables, and calorie-dense dried fruits, nuts and chocolate and such, with the idea being that at least some of the supplies be easily portable in the event of an evacuation.

That’s right, evacuation. Perhaps I’ll regret this someday, but I am not actually paranoid enough to keep a “go-bag,” a pack with the essentials you’d need to carry in the event of  sudden evacuation. Like the cave in Wyoming, this is just a touch too Jack Bauer for me. But I am paranoid enough to keep a “go-list”, which is designed to save me the trouble of thinking under pressure and tells me exactly what we should pack for two kinds of evacuation.

The first is a walking trip to the airport (roughly a day’s walk from where we live). The other is an indefinite walking evacuation to points unknown. Both include essential documents, specifics on clothing, a list of easily portable food items, basic tools and such. The indefinite one trades laptops for more food and clothing and some backpacking supplies and such. Alas, the cats come out poorly in both scenarios. I also keep current documents in the cloud and an annual backup of all my important data in the United States, just in case. I mean, who wants to re-rip all those CDs just because someone dropped The Bomb?

Let me be clear: I don’t think my family is in danger. If I did, we wouldn’t live here. The point behind the apocalypse box is to take a reasonable level of precaution for unforeseen events. It was a couple thousand RMB plus some things I already owned, and it all fits into two stacked bins that double as an end-table in my son’s room. The evacuation go-list has a marginal cost of zero, other than a little thinking ahead. Two weeks ago I had lunch with a journalist friend who’d just returned from reporting in Japan, and he showed me the unused bunny suit his newspaper had issued him. This made me feel completely rational.

The spreadsheet on which I keep track of all this stuff is public on Google Docs. Feel free to check it out – there are three sheets (hold your jokes). Don’t take that document as definitive – it’s just where we stand now and not meant to constitute advice to you or your family. But maybe it will give you some ideas. Or maybe you’ll see stuff we’ve missed. Or maybe you’ll think –perhaps with some justification– that I’m a complete idiot. But, should the worst ever happen and the supermarkets empty out for a few days, I’m gonna be loving me that chili. And when you’re trading your children to me for chocolate bars, we’ll see who’s laughing.

*A piece of history. Be a shame to blow it up.

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