In an uncertain world, are you ready for the next curveball? The first in a series of articles to help you evaluate and improve your preparedness.
At the very least, the COVID-19 pandemic gave the entire world a preparedness gut check.
“Those runs on groceries and paper goods and water were so telling,” observes BYU food science professor Laura Jefferies, noting that people certainly didn’t appear ready for that type—or perhaps any type—of emergency.
“The pandemic was definitely a wake-up call,” agrees her colleague, BYU nutrition professor Rickelle Richards.
These two, along with former BYU professor Michelle Call, could have predicted the panic. Just a few years before the pandemic, they embarked on a yearslong project to study US household preparedness across three groups: the general public, those receiving food assistance, and—perhaps of particular interest to the readership of this magazine—members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Their results, published in three papers during 2021 and 2022, reveal preparedness strengths and blind spots as well as some surprising findings about Church members.
Think back to March 2020 and take stock: How did you do? Were you ready physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually? If you had to run out for an item, if you were worried about layoffs, if FaceTime ever fell short of real human connection, there are readiness action items for you in the suggestions that follow.
In fact, there is one crucial item that these researchers found that nearly everyone had wrong—and it’s not toilet paper. Plus, there’s a financial necessity BYU Marriott dean Brigitte Madrian is worried that alums are underestimating.
In a world where the number of disasters has increased by a factor of five over the last 50 years (according to the World Meteorological Organization) and in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports the United States is continually setting new disaster records, it’s good to take inventory—again and again—of all your resources. Time to prep.
A Frightening Rise
A fascinating—and bleak—chart on climate.gov breaks down the number of billion-dollar disasters in the United States from 1980 through 2021. It color codes every type of event: drought, fire, cyclone, flood, etc. The upward trend is exponential.
According to statistics and studies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one type of event is far outpacing all others: severe storms that are now being “supercharged” by climate change.
As disasters have accelerated, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been encouraging US households to be prepared through its Ready campaign, which includes recommendations for emergency kits and supplies that can last for three days. FEMA’s guides are in step with what Church members have heard for years.
“The best instruction is to follow the prophet,” says Jefferies. The Church has always emphasized self-reliance and emergency preparedness, she notes. That said, the research team began to wonder: With all this effort and emphasis put into preparedness, how are members in the Church of Jesus Christ actually doing?
With funding from a BYU Religious Studies grant, Richards, Jefferies, and Call set out to evaluate how well US citizens are following FEMA guidelines and how Latter-day Saints—with their long history of focusing on emergency preparedness—stack up.
The Latter-Day Saint Advantage
“You go into data analysis not knowing what you’re going to get,” says Richards, who thought—even hoped—that members would shine in this area.
She was not disappointed.
The Latter-day Saint advantage was significant. The Church-specific study, published in the Journal of Religion and Health in 2022, showed that members of the Church of Jesus Christ are seven times more likely to have a disaster-supplies kit (also known as a 72-hour kit) and five times more likely to have long-term food storage than non-Latter-day Saints. They also were four times more likely to report feeling connected to their neighborhood and community, a boon in times of uncertainty.
What surprised the researchers was that Latter-day Saints did not think they were prepared, even though they were more ready than the public at large. Church members’ readiness perceptions were about the same as the general public’s or, in some categories, even lower.
“We talk about preparedness so much inside of the Church that maybe we perceive it differently,” suggests Richards, noting that perhaps members’ expectations are higher. This can’t hurt, she observes. “We are doing well in many areas. But do we have room for improvement? Yeah.”
The Universal Weak Point: Water
Oddly, the most indispensable item for survival is also the one everyone struggles with most.
“No question,” says Richards, “in all of the studies, water storage is the weakest aspect.” That’s across Latter-day Saint populations, those on food assistance, and the US population at large.
Richards and Jefferies’s US household study, published in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness in 2021, showed that only 53 percent of respondents had a three-day supply of water; however, among those who had water stored, about 72 percent had water stored for more than three days. The Church, for the record, recommends storing two weeks’ worth of water at a minimum, which equates to 14 gallons per adult.
“The easiest thing for people to do to get started is to buy a case of water for each person,” says Call, a coauthor on the BYU studies.
FEMA now recommends storing only commercially packaged water, says Richards. Per the BYU studies, containers that are personally filled aren’t being properly sanitized (only 20 percent of those storing water this way even attempted sanitization), and most people are not writing dates on the containers, which makes it hard to replace the water every six months, as advised. Commercially packaged water comes dated.
That said, Call’s own research, in which she sampled water from people’s real-life food stores, did not prove the six-month rotation imperative. “Our research suggested that rotation may not be necessary,” she says, “although there is always room for further research.” She noted that 91 percent of the water she tested, including some that had been stored for years, was safe for consumption. Further, the water she tested that had been stored in clear soda bottles—which are FEMA approved for storage (milk jugs and juice bottles are not)—even when stored for more than 18 months, did not exceed EPA limits for antimony, the chemical of concern in the plastic.
“Having some water stored is better than none, even if you don’t do it perfectly,” says Call. That water can be boiled or treated with bleach before consumption, or put to secondary use, such as washing.
Call laughs as she recalls visiting one home during the study and asking the homeowner where his stored water was. “The guy just pointed to his kitchen sink,” says Call. “We are fortunate to have a consistent, clean water supply, but you never know what’s going to happen.” Infrastructure ages and municipal treatment plants can fail. Just this past year, residents in Jackson, Mississippi, went without clean water for seven weeks.
The bottom line? Store water. Have some in amounts you can carry; giant drums are not portable. And don’t rely on Pinterest for proper protocol, she cautions. For the best info on container choice, cleaning, sanitation, and shelf life, the experts point to ready.gov/water.
Adequately Insured, Cash on Hand
A cash reserve is a staple of emergency preparedness, and the Church encourages members to work toward saving up enough to meet six months’ worth of expenses. Per the BYU research, though, only a quarter of US households—and one-fifth of the Latter-day Saints surveyed—had that; around 40 percent of households (both Latter-day Saints and others) didn’t have even one month’s worth set aside.
“We as a society have made it really easy to spend money,” says Madrian. “Think of how easy it is to get and use a credit card or a debit card relative to the time involved to open up a new savings account. It actually takes a lot of effort to save.”
Prior to joining BYU Marriott, Madrian codirected the National Bureau of Economic Research’s (NBER) Household Finance working group, which hatches policy ideas to help families make better financial decisions. In an NBER piece published in Behavioral Science & Policy, she proposed leveraging “fresh-start moments” to begin a new saving habit. These moments, such as tax time or the start of a new job, provide a perfect opportunity to automatically deposit a portion of a refund or a paycheck into a savings account. Similar opportunities could be seized at pivotal life moments, such as the birth of a child, a promotion, or a deployment.
Deciding ahead of time to save, Madrian emphasizes, eliminates the burden of the choice in the moment. Her rule of thumb: save three to six months of your current compensation, not just expenses, “so if you get laid off, you have resources to cover you for a period of several months, because that’s how long it could take to find another job,” she explains.
A car repair, a skiing accident, a tornado tearing off your roof—countless unexpected expenses can pop up at any time that could become financial emergencies. “I’m guessing a big blind spot is being adequately insured,” says Madrian. You want a rainy-day account plus college and retirement savings, she says. “And then you want the right kind of life insurance, health insurance, and car insurance.”
A big mistake Madrian sees is the tendency to procrastinate financial decisions, such as what insurance to buy or when to draw Social Security. “A lot of these financial decisions are not easy, even for people who have a lot of expertise,” she says. “And there’s no deadline for getting it done. So too often, it’s just put off.” She has seen years of employer-matching contributions to a 401k forfeited or families left vulnerable from a parent unexpectedly passing, all because of procrastination.
Looking for a saving opportunity in your budget? Check the tab on your media consumption, says Madrian. “We’re purchasing a lot of that on automatic renewal. I can watch less, but Netflix still bills me.” Similarly, small expenditures people make every month, in isolation, may not seem like much, “but the cumulative amount you spend eating out, on entertainment, things like that, add up,” she notes.
Prudent saving not only insulates you and your family from certain hardships, it also allows you to seize unexpected opportunities that may enrich your lives, says Madrian. She shares the example of her own parents: because they lived within their means, they were able to accept a mission president call when her father, 44, was the sole breadwinner for a family of seven.
“If I was going to say something particularly relevant for this readership, it’s that we are in a better position to serve the Lord in all the different ways He can use us if our financial homes are in order,” she states.
Take Stock of Pantries
The number one question Call is asked when she presents her findings: Is my old food still good?
It’s a question she and BYU professor Oscar Pike took up two decades ago in their “ancient food project,” as Call calls it. “I collected oodles of old food from crawl spaces and cellars across the state,” she says. After testing it for safety and nutritional value, she and Pike used the food in recipes and ran taste trials. The result was a new “life-sustaining shelf life” for many types of food that extends well beyond best-by dates; for wheat, rice, cornmeal, beans, oats, pasta, and potato flakes stored in sealed cans, the food was still acceptable even 30 years later.
“Nutritional value may drop off, but it’s still calories in a survival situation,” says Call.
Proper storage is necessary to maximize shelf life. Pike coined the acronym HALT, a reminder to keep food away from humidity, air, and light, and in stable, cool temperatures. Of these considerations, temperature is the most crucial.
“You don’t want to keep food in the garage,” says Call, who is constantly looking for ways to better utilize her storage space. “If you’re short on space, consider finding a place for a shelf or making space under a bed to store food and water.”
Most people, even 90 percent of households that receive food assistance, according to the BYU research, have enough food on hand to meet the FEMA-recommended three-day supply. The Church, however, encourages maintaining a three-month supply. “And the Church’s counsel on knowing how to use your food storage is so important,” says Richards. “That’s part of preparedness too—not just having it but knowing how to use it, how to prepare it in ways that are palatable.”
One item the researchers found is often overlooked: fuel to run alternate cooking sources such as propane stoves or grills. Better campaigns are warranted, they emphasize, to encourage citizens to stock fuel; care should be taken to check with local fire departments about how much fuel is approved to store and how to store fuel safely.
As for what food we store, the researchers found that most people are not storing some basic FEMA-recommended items, namely liquid or powdered milk and juice.
“Since starting this research,” says Richards, “I have made sure, looking at my food storage, that I have all food groups.”
Finally, says Jefferies, remember the food you store for longevity is not always accessible during or after a disaster; for instance, refrigerated food could spoil with a power outage or get contaminated in a flood. “You’re going to want lighter-weight things that are higher in calories in a situation where you have to flee or can’t access your storage. There are different needs. Being prepared for one situation doesn’t make you prepared for all situations.”
Start a Kit or Two
Some 60 percent of Latter-day Saint respondents in the study said they had a disaster-supply kit. The flip side: some 40 percent do not.
Kits can be crucial in emergencies. And in fact, experts keep multiple kits ready—one at home and one at work, along with varied supplies in the car.
What goes in a kit, besides food and water? “The Church and different government agencies have multiple lists of recommendations that can be slightly different, so it can be a little confusing,” acknowledges Jefferies, “but they’re not grossly inconsistent.” In addition to consulting these lists, she suggests “just thinking of when you’re on a trip, and you go, ‘Oh, I forgot my. . . .’ That should probably be in your kit.”
Those types of items include a supply of necessary medications, contact lenses, and a first-aid kit, says BYU nursing professor Blaine Winters. “You can ask your physician to write a script for an extra five-day supply for an emergency,” he suggests.
Check and replenish kits every six months. “Find some kind of reminder, some trigger,” says Call, such as every time general conference comes around.
When stocking your kits, Call has a word of advice: imagine the world without your phone. “Cell service may be down, and power may be out,” she says. Things to consider might include packing a portable phone-charging bank, exporting and printing phone contacts, and printing pertinent maps. Pack these in addition to copies of important documents. Another tip: print pictures of family members to keep in your kit. “If you got separated, you’d want a picture to show people,” she says.
Finally, she notes, try to always keep your gas tank at least half full. The last thing you want to do in an emergency is to be stranded in a line at the pump.
There’s one no-cost emergency prep step everyone can take, says Winters: make a family emergency plan and practice it.
“In emergency medicine, we do a lot of simulation. The muscle memory of practice is important,” says Winters, who worked for years in an ER and continues to volunteer for the Red Cross and to help oversee a mass-casualty training event on BYU’s campus every year.
“Parents, practice with your kids what to do in an earthquake, or whatever the likely calamity is in your region,” he continues. “Practice often enough that you’ll remember.” Do the physical actions. Drive the alternate routes. Assign a designated meeting place, and have everyone make their way to it.
Planning can make all the difference: When the 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado, driven by high winds, ripped through their neighborhood, the Gourgouris family knew what to do. They had lists of what to grab, broken up by room and based on different time frames: a 15-minute, 30-minute, or one-hour evacuation order. “My wife handed a copy to every member of the family, and we divided and conquered,” says Elia Gourgouris. “If it weren’t for this list, our evacuation would have been haphazard at best.”
Winters also advocates taking CPR and first-aid training classes through the Red Cross, which offers courses regularly, and learning how to prevent the spread of infection, which is a big problem in emergency shelters. “The huge thing to remember is handwashing,” says Winters. That’s a lesson we all relearned in 2020. “We want to keep it up,” he says, noting that physical health is part of preparedness too. “If you had to leave your house, could you do it? Could you carry your kit and carry a child?”
Build Emotional Resilience
Food and water—physiological needs—make up the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the ones we’re told to attend to first. But there’s more essential preparedness that needs to be done.
“What I see,” says Derek Hagey, a program manager for the Church’s Family Services, “is if I’m not healthy emotionally, I may not be taking care of myself physically.” He suggests that all of our needs—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—are interconnected.
The isolation of COVID-19 exposed this, he says, pointing to the wide range of responses exhibited as individuals grappled with uncertainty, loss, anxiety, loneliness, and more. “You might have expected that all citizens would respond roughly the same way, that they’d wear masks, that they would want to get vaccinated,” says Winters. “A big takeaway from this pandemic is that in a stressful situation, there are going to be a lot of people acting differently than one might expect they would.”
Hagey agrees. “Maybe you saw some people kind of lash out at others who disagreed with them,” he points out. When people are struggling emotionally, this kind of intensity is often a yearning to feel in control of their lives. Much of emotional resilience, he continues, is learning to control what you can and accepting what you can’t—which is often “easier said than done,” he acknowledges.
To better prepare for life’s challenges, Hagey and Winters recommend identifying the coping strategies that work best for you, preferably before a disaster, diagnosis, or crisis. “These are actual skills you can build,” says Hagey—skills Church leaders have seen such high demand for that they created a new manual and free self-reliance course, Finding Strength in the Lord: Emotional Resilience. Hagey, who helped write the manual, likens it to an emotional first aid kit, with tactics such as gratitude writing, relaxed breathing, and mindfulness as well as identifying people you can rely on or going through exercises to think differently about a situation. The course is offered through stakes nationwide.
If a higher level of care is needed, Hagey says, reach out to a therapist. “You can do a needs assessment with a therapist just to see where you’re at and what you can work on. It’s an opportunity to take stock, to ask, ‘Am I where I need to be for myself and for others around me?’”
Seek Spiritual Safety
For decades members of the Church have been asked to store food, water, and financial reserves; preparedness has always been a hallmark of the Latter-day Saints. President Russell M. Nelson acknowledged this in his October 2020 general conference address “Embrace the Future with Faith.”
“But I am even more concerned about your spiritual and emotional preparation,” he observed.
In this midpandemic address, the prophet made the plea, first, to create places of security where you can feel the Holy Ghost, starting with your home.
President Nelson also pointed to “the stakes of Zion” as a refuge
and to the temple as “a place of security unlike any other.” The spiritual fortitude to weather life’s storms, it seems, must be forged in the right environments and under the right conditions.
Second, President Nelson asked us to prepare our minds, namely by immersing ourselves in the Book of Mormon, calling it “our latter-day survival guide.” We can stock our spiritual shelves with each reading.
In every aspect of preparedness, experts and Church leaders encourage starting small. Call suggests doing something every day, even if it’s just cleaning a bottle, making a list, or, as the prophet asks, reading the scriptures.
“The future is always uncertain,” said President Nelson in his closing address at the April 2022 general conference. “Weather changes. Economic cycles are unpredictable. Disasters, accidents, and illness can change life quickly. These actions are largely beyond our control. But there are some things we can control, including how we spend our time each day. . . .
“Now,” said the prophet, “is the time.”
Written by Brittany Rogers
Illustrations by Eric Chow
About the Author
Brittany Rogers, a freelance author, lives in American Fork, Utah, with her husband and three children. There is a ridiculous amount of Nutella in her food storage.