The Cost of a False Sense of Security: One $95 Earthquake Kit

When a small earthquake passed through New York on a hot afternoon in August 2011, I was home from work, reading a novel in bed. The bookshelf above my feet rattled, and for a few seconds the building went liquid. The rattle I immediately attributed to my roommate’s sex life, but when the walls seemed to slide my annoyance turned to fear. Our landlord was a former building inspector, which we understood to mean our apartment had never been officially evaluated. “Is the building collapsing?” my roommate called out from the living room. “I think so!” I replied. We ran out into the street and stood on the sidewalk barefoot; I looked down to find myself clutching, of all things, an uncharged laptop.

This flagrant display of emergency unpreparedness came to mind last spring, when I moved from New York to San Francisco. I worried a lot about earthquakes — still do! — but did nothing productive to address this anxiety. Addressing it, after all, would legitimize the reality that California is due for a massively destructive earthquake in the next thirty years; perhaps by refusing to stockpile Clif Bars I would stave off the inevitable. As such, for my first few months here, being earthquake-ready just meant spending a lot of time on YouTube. I watched footage from the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, footage from earthquake simulators in museums, and footage from Roland Emmerich’s 2012. I knew all the different ways a person could die in an earthquake, and yet I did not buy so much as a flashlight. Then, in a particularly vulnerable late-night moment, my anesthetized panic led me to a website called the Earthquake Supply Center.

The Earthquake Supply Center is basically the motherload for people like me, by which I mean people who grew up in places like Brooklyn, a generally un-quakable city, who get too paralyzed by their own anxiety to walk three blocks to the grocery store, buy a few packs of batteries and a handful of energy bars, stuff the lot in an old backpack, and call it a day.

The site’s slogan is “Preparedness is an Act of Love!”; a few days after I found it, I engaged in a lavish act of self-love and purchased a backpack prepacked with a “three-day emergency supply of food, water, and necessities.” I am embarrassed to admit that though I was living alone and was single with no romantic prospects to speak of, I deliberately purchased a kit designed for two people: an inelegant collision of wishful thinking and utter dread.

Here is what you get in the Earthquake Supply Center’s “Two-Person Streamline Kit”:

• 24 4.2 oz emergency water pouches (exactly what they sound like)
• 2 2,400-calorie “food bars” (scary; brick-like)
• 3 body warmers (like for a ski boot)
• 2 emergency blankets (marathon runners and the nearly-drowned get these for free)
• 3 12-hour light sticks (will give to Burning Man friends post-earthquake)
• 1 flashlight with batteries
• 1 box waterproof matches
• 3 dust masks
• 2 rain ponchos
• 1 emergency radio with batteries
• 1 pair work gloves
• 1 flat whistle, branded with the Earthquake Supply Center logo
• 1 generic red pocket knife
• 2 hygiene kits (travel-sized toothpaste tubes, brushes, and razors — !)
• 2 smushed rolls of toilet paper
• 1 trash bag (for the toilet paper?)
• 1 golf pencil
• 1 “How To” first-aid / “survival guide” (but like — if you have to read it, it’s too late, no?)
• Red backpack with niche labeling

Here is what I bought this past weekend, to supplement:

• 12 cherry-something Clif Bars ($17.88)
• 6 gallons of purified water, which do not fit anywhere in my apartment ($8.34)
• 6 cans of Amy’s soup ($16.74)
• 4 gigantic candles ($25)
• 1,000 matches ($1.29)

I ordered these things using Instacart, because I do not own a car and am not muscular enough to carry six gallons of water plus whatever else for several blocks. Also, the last time I bought a handful of Clif Bars for my emergency kit (since consumed), it was closing time at the local Whole Foods and I was so self-conscious that I would not stop making apocalypse jokes to the cashier, as if it were the only reason a person would buy a Clif Bar at 10 pm on a weekday; as if he required an explanation. Instacart did not have a delivery fee but did have a delivery person, whom I tipped $10 for his troubles, and also out of some guilt and embarrassment for having someone personally deliver my emergency supplies. I should have tipped more.

While I do not know how to price pouches of water or blocks of food concentrate, I have no doubt that this would have cost probably one-third of the price had I assembled the kit on my own at Home Depot. Joke’s on me, but still, the whole thing brought me some peace of mind (what’s the price on that!) and I did not need to roam the aisles of the hardware store in anticipation of a trembly demise. The truth is I’ll be lucky if the worst-case scenario is that I’m stuck in my apartment for a few days, with my boyfriend and a can opener and some cold soup to keep us company. That actually sounds fine. That sounds like camping. But earthquakes are terrifying: unpredictable, unpreventable, irreparable. If the situation is dire, a backpack in the closet is likely to seem frivolous or impotent.

Obviously my hope is to never have a need for this kit, and instead I can use it to throw a very weird party in five years when it all expires. At its worst, though, it has allowed me to believe I’ve taken some steps in keeping myself a little safer. It was, in any case, cheaper than an hour-long session with a San Francisco therapist.

Earthquake Supply Center “Two-Person Streamline Kit”: $94.95
Weekend earthquake binge, total: $69.25 + $10 tip = $79.25
Total cost of being earthquake-prepared, if not earthquake-ready: $174.20

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12 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#22)

A little earthquake safety advice from the west coast: running outside is probably the most dangerous thing you can do during an earthquake. Most injuries and deaths during a quake aren’t from buildings collapsing, they’re from people getting hit on the head by falling bricks our tripping while running around.

Lily Rowan (#70)

“2,400-calorie “food bars” (scary; brick-like)”

…We all saw Snowpiercer, right?

Marille (#5,933)

Oh, emergency preparedness! As someone who grew up Mormon, this subject is near and dear to my heart (even though I do not currently have ANY of the stuff I should). It’s my goal once I am set up in a city I want to settle in to get everything: my 72-hour kit, a week’s supply of drinkable water, and 3-4 months’ non-perishable food (which has the added advantage of being useful in the case of non-apocalypse situations, like losing a job or whatever). I will do my non-existent pioneer ancestors proud!

Allison (#4,509)

It only occurred to me at about 25 that not everyone had “earthquake kit” as part of their back to school supplies in elementary school. All I remember were the space blankets and poptarts.

haverwench (#7,400)

Here in New Jersey, we don’t really have earthquakes (I’ve lived here for 40 years and I’ve never experienced one), but we have snowstorms and thunderstorms all the time, many of which result in prolonged power outages. My emergency kit is a well-stocked pantry, a few dozen 2-liter bottles full of tap water, a good battery-powered lantern and a couple of flashlights (plus extra batteries for both), an ample supply of candles and matches, an emergency radio that can operate on hand-crank power if necessary and can also recharge my cell phone, and a big box of chemical hand warmers. All this stuff served us well during Superstorm Sandy, but a more recent series of power outages in mid-winter convinced me that we really need a better source of emergency heat than the chemical packs. (http://ecofrugality.blogspot.com/2013/10/our-emergency-plan.html)

As for those “food bars,” are these the same ones that Captain Reynolds said on Firefly could feed a family for a month, or two if they don’t like their kids too much?

@haverwench I was just coming down here to say, earthquake kits aren’t just for earthquakes!

Non-anonymous (#1,288)

@haverwench For what it’s worth, here’s one idea I’ve heard for keeping warm in a winter power outage: pitch a freestanding tent inside your home. Put a few blankets on its floor and your sleeping bags on top of them, and you’re all set.

drydenlane (#5,919)

I live in (and do not love) Portland, OR and there’s been a lot of talk of the impending earthquake here, too. My boyfriend’s plan is for us to hike east to the forest and live off the land (I really hope he’s joking). My plan is to somehow (car? plane? haha yeah right) get back to the east coast and finally have made my departure from Portlandia.

We have no emergency supplies, but it’s something I think about.

Non-anonymous (#1,288)

Hey, why does the “Two Person Streamline Kit” include THREE body warmers and THREE dust masks?

Allison (#4,509)

@Non-anonymous redundancy?

AllisonLouise (#2,194)

Ughhh I have such a love/hate relationship with earthquake preparedness kits. I live in Alaska, and they happen quite frequently here (sometimes volcanoes erupt and screw everything up, or hurricane force winds knock the power out for a couple days, too). It is one thing to have a stash of water, food, wood, and other supplies in your home. We do, and they are easily accessible and very important. However, there is something that just irked me as a child about being required to compile a kit at the beginning of the school year for a teacher to store in a giant rubber bin, and then bury at the back of a closet. If an earthquake was SO BAD that we were stranded at the school for a long period of time, and our parents couldn’t come get us, the last thing on my mind would be a clean change of underwear, or expending all the energy digging through the rubble to reach said kits. My mother and I had the idea one year to send every school board member in our (then small) town their own kit, complete with boxers with hearts on them, life savers, and other “survivalist” novelties. They were not impressed. My mom is pretty cool. Also, Costco often has great deals on their emergency food ration kits.

Panamanda (#2,713)

Emergency Manager here- San Francisco is actually really on their game! This website:

http://www.sf72.org/home

is super useful and has lots of great information for preparing yourself in a cost-effective way. And it’s all good information for non-SF people too!

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