When Disaster Strikes: Latter-day Saints Talk about Preparedness

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    5 June 1976. Marilyn Gee of Sugar City, Idaho, was unloading grocery sacks when a neighbor ran into her kitchen with the news that the Teton Dam had burst. “Get your kids and get out. There’s no time to take anything with you!”

    Marilyn screamed at the kids to get in the car. “I figured we would be gone three or four hours so I grabbed some oranges and bananas, a box of graham crackers, some diapers for Shawn, and my purse. We pulled out of the driveway, not dreaming we would never see our home again in one piece.”

    Their home was washed away in the flood’s fury. They found it days later—a pile of debris smashed into some trees.

    13 May 1980. Darrell Thomas was watching the sky outside his home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for signs of a predicted tornado. It began to sprinkle and the sirens started wailing. Suddenly he heard a strange sound, his ears popped, and the house began to vibrate.

    The lights flickered as the family huddled together under a heavy oak desk in the basement. “We heard two thuds,” says his wife, Bev, “and then everything seemed lighter. My husband raced up the steps. When he came back, he announced that our attached garage was gone. It took less than three minutes to level the neighborhood.”

    9 February 1971. Walter Sorensen, a Los Angeles fireman, was on duty. The rumble of the earthquake that hit at 6:00 A.M. woke up his wife, Carol, and their three children before the shaking began. “The children were screaming, but I couldn’t hear them,” Carol remembers. “I tried to get out of bed but was thrown back. When I finally made it to the door, I couldn’t get through because the dresser had been thrown against it. I pushed it away, but it rolled back and smashed against the door again. This went on for several seconds (it seemed much longer), and I finally got the door open. I stumbled over fallen debris into my daughter’s room. Then we went into the boys’ room and rejoiced together that no one was hurt.”

    Probably no one ever feels completely ready for disasters. They usually hit suddenly, and then it’s too late to prepare.

    But Latter-day Saints are finding that the preparedness encouraged by the Church—temporal, emotional, and spiritual—helps them feel more secure and cope more successfully with the trauma.

    Coping Temporally

    Temporal preparedness starts with a year’s supply of food, clothing, and, where possible, fuel. Basic foods and nonfoods are the first priority—grains, dry milk, sugar or honey, salt, oil, dried legumes, garden seeds, water, bedding, clothing, first-aid and cleaning supplies, and fuel. Then the supply should be expanded to round out the diet and ensure a proper nutritional balance—including foods the family normally eats and likes. Items such as axes, stoves, lanterns, shovels, and battery-powered radios are also important. (For detailed information on what and how to store, see Essentials of Home Production and Storage, available from the Salt Lake City Distribution Center, 1999 West 1700 South, Salt Lake City, Utah 84104. Stock no. PGWE1125, 35¢. Make check payable to “Corporation of the President.”)

    Paul and Jean Kreiner of Sylmar, California, were glad they had a year’s supply when the earthquake hit. While others were standing in line for two or three hours every day to buy food and necessities, “I didn’t go to a store for a month,” Jean says.

    Their biggest problem was water shortage—all their water containers broke in the earthquake. (They’ve since discovered that cans and bottles packed in cardboard boxes with cardboard dividers suffer little damage if not stacked too high.) “I was really glad for all the plastic utensils and paper cups and plates we had on hand because most of our dishes were broken and we didn’t want to waste water washing the ones that were left.”

    The Kreiners learned other storage tips from the earthquake: (1) Store supplies in various locations in the house so if one part is damaged you still have something left. (2) Have some food available that doesn’t have to be cooked, and a variety of other foods—dehydrated, frozen, and canned. (3) Keep on hand a supply of medicines your family uses regularly, and some consecrated oil. If you wear glasses, have a spare pair, well-packed to prevent breakage.

    Many other families have been grateful they had some supplies on hand. Bishop Alva L. Duvall of Moses Lake, Washington, says that for three days after Mount St. Helens erupted there wasn’t much traffic in or out of the city and grocery stores ran low. “As far as I could determine,” he says, “our ward members didn’t go without food. But nearly everyone found themselves short of one thing or another. It gave us an insight into just what we’d need if something like this went on for a long period of time.”

    Most families find that they don’t have to use up their whole year’s supply before things get back to normal. But it’s good to have extra so you can share with others. Being prepared enables you to reach out and help.

    After utility lines in and around Bandera, Texas, had been destroyed by hurricane “Amelia,” a summer youth camp up river from Bandera desperately needed water for two hundred young people. “We were able to put sixty-five gallons of fresh water aboard a military rescue helicopter in less than thirty minutes,” reports Howard V. Lurker, Jr. And since the Lurkers hadn’t been hit as hard as most, they gave away extra clothing and much of their food supply. They washed and dried people’s clothes for them, let them use their showers, and helped to organize makeshift kitchen facilities in a nearby church, preparing meals using their butane cook stove.

    But what if you have faithfully stored a year’s supply and it’s washed away in a flood or carried away by a tornado or burned up in a fire?

    “I found that the mental security of having a year’s food and fuel supply was even more important than the physical security,” says Ruth V. Tingey of Lincoln, Massachusetts. “If our year’s supply had been destroyed, then, having been prepared and having helped others to have their supply of food, I would have felt free to ask for their support, and they would have given it without bitterness. When the Lord promises that if we are prepared we shall not fear (see D&C 38:30), I think he means regardless.”

    LDS families feel that by following the counsel to be prepared they are witnessing to the Lord that they are obedient and that they have faith in his promises. And many, unable to use their own storage, still receive the benefits of a year’s supply—that of friends and family who come to their rescue.

    The experience of the Teton flood impressed many Saints with the need to have something in addition to a year’s supply: a portable emergency supply that’s ready to be thrown into the car at a moment’s notice. It should contain enough water, clothing, equipment, and ready-to-eat food for the family to survive on for seventy-two hours. Cash and important documents should also be handy. (See lists in Essentials of Home Production and Storage, pp. 7, 11.)

    The car should always be in good repair and the tank at least half-filled with gas. And it’s a good idea to have an evacuation plan already decided upon as a family so you’ll know where to meet if family members are away from home when asked to evacuate.

    Everyone old enough should know how to turn off gas, electricity, and water and how to administer basic first aid. Campcraft and Scouting skills often come in handy. And everyone should also know where to go or who to call to get help and where the family’s supplies and first-aid kits are stored.

    Immunizations for every member of the family should be up to date. Personal belongings should be insured and inventoried—perhaps even photographed and labeled. Important papers should be kept in sturdy metal boxes.

    Coping Emotionally

    When the headlined tragedy is over, the real struggle begins. Uncertainty about bills and repairs and safety can cause emotional problems, as can the stress of cleanup. People waiting in lines for food and supplies can become irritable and angry.

    Fortunately, however, most families, neighborhoods, and wards find that disasters bring them closer together instead of pulling them apart. They find great comfort and strength from being together and working out the problems. And little by little, they learn how to cope emotionally with the reality of their circumstances.

    They check first to see that everyone is safe. “We counted our blessings when we counted our families and found that no one had received any major injuries,” says Edwin Sundquist of Sylmar, California. “Not once did we cry over the broken dishes, the antiques, the damaged property, the homes that needed much repair, or the many inconveniences caused by having no electricity, water, telephones, or gas.”

    Of course some aren’t lucky enough to find everyone all right. At such times it’s important to support them with love and encouragement and to allow them a chance to grieve. Temple promises and covenants provide the greatest sense of comfort during these traumatic moments.

    Some families shift priorities as a result of disaster. “We had moved into our home just a year before the earthquake,” says Jean Kreiner, “and had spent a lot of time and money making our dream home as nice as we could. But after losing so much in the earthquake, we’ve changed our values. Our home is comfortable, but we’ve chosen to spend our money on other things, such as family activities and vacations. I still can’t bear to spend a large amount of money on anything breakable. The family and eternal values are the only things that really matter.”

    The key is to put material possessions second without neglecting them altogether. Idaho Saints were encouraged to make things better than before—both physically and spiritually—when they rebuilt after the flood. The physical stewardship shouldn’t be ignored—homes and property should reflect President Kimball’s standards of beauty. But the temporal concerns must take their proper backseat role when compared to family relationships and spiritual concerns.

    Church leaders also urged the Idaho Saints to pay careful attention to and comfort their little children who had been frightened. Families have learned that it’s best to keep their children close instead of sending them off to stay with relatives. They need the emotional comfort of being with their own family and knowing firsthand what’s going on instead of listening to the news about the aftermath.

    And it’s important to talk about the experience and to give each other a chance to express feelings and fears. “We discussed the importance of always keeping the commandments so you can call on the Lord in times of need,” Sister Kreiner says. The attitude of parents greatly affects the children. As parents gain strength and confidence through prayer, their children also grow. “I have more confidence in myself to handle an emergency because of our experience,” says Sister Kreiner. “And the two older children have said at times of personal difficulty, ‘Well, if I lived through that earthquake, I guess I can handle this too!’”

    Playing “what-if” games (what would you do if there were no water, what would you do if you heard our fire alarm go off in the middle of the night, etc.) can help the whole family learn from their experience and prepare for future disasters. And teaching family members to let each other know where they are at all times can increase feelings of security.

    During times of disaster, the extended family often draws near, sometimes traveling many miles to be with and help loved ones—or taking them into their homes for food and comfort. Neighbors also seem more willing than usual to help each other. Together they clean up debris, dig mud out of homes, rebuild, clear volcanic ash off each other’s driveways and roofs, and share meat and frozen goods.

    Church members also grow closer. “They tended the children while we cleaned up after the tornado,” says Beckie Johnson of Cheyenne, Wyoming. “They brought in food until the electricity was back, and helped us rebuild the house and fence.”

    And Church members typically don’t limit their help to other members. “When they came with gas saws to help us out of our mess,” Bev Thomas recalls, “they just moved right on down our street helping everybody else. Later our neighbors asked if we knew who those men were that cut the trees from their roofs and garages and then moved on. It was wonderful to say that they were members of our church.”

    Ward leadership moves quickly in the wake of a disaster. After the earthquake in San Fernando Valley, Bishop Edwin P. Sundquist immediately went to the homes of his counselors and worked out a plan to check on everybody in the ward, active or inactive. “Since the phone system had been destroyed,” he says, “this meant a personal visit to each home. Many of the roads were impassable, and it was difficult. But by the end of the second day, every ward member had been accounted for. Their needs were assessed, and we organized our resources to give aid.”

    Besides offering physical help, Church members give each other moral and emotional support. “Even though Henry Walker, our elders quorum president, had a lot of damage to his home,” says Carol Starr of Sylmar, “he and his wife had people over to visit and have refreshments. It really helped to socialize with others who had the same problems and were as frightened as we were.” And the organization of the Church has a calming effect: “Our meetings and callings went on as usual—and they provided a sense of normalcy to our lives.”

    After the Teton flood, Marilyn Gee’s ward met every evening for instructions and advice. “Sometimes the spirit of being together and being directed by the power of the priesthood brought tears to my eyes. People would stand at the doors, look in at our meetings, and listen to us sing. Many were amazed at how the flood victims accepted things and could smile and joke in spite of the mess. It was that unity that kept everybody going.”

    Coping Spiritually

    The most important item in a year’s supply, says President Marion G. Romney, is personal righteousness. (See Ensign, April 1981, p. 6.) Church members are encouraged to build “spiritual strength to meet life’s challenges with confidence and stability by learning to love God and communicate with him in personal prayer. … Social-emotional and spiritual strength is increased by living the principles of the gospel.” (Welfare Services Resource Handbook, 1980, p. 19.)

    When disaster strikes, the first response is to pray. “During the terrible hours of the storm, we knelt in prayer several times,” recalls Julia Ince of Mobile, Alabama. “We were so grateful for our knowledge of Heavenly Father and for the fact that prayer was not strange to us.”

    Vessa McGrath, a grandmother in Duncan, Arizona, found spiritual comfort in the hymns. Her husband, Vernon, had been home from the hospital only a few days when a flood washed through the town. Then six weeks later, Vernon died,

    “My problems compounded,” says Vessa. “I was in a dark cloud so far as knowing what to do about the business and many other things. Every day I prayed earnestly to find a solution. One night, while I was lying awake trying to make some decisions, it suddenly seemed like I was looking at a screen with words on it: ‘When through the deep waters I call thee to go, The rivers of sorrow shall not thee o’erflow, For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.’

    “No words have had greater impact upon my mind. The next morning I found them in the hymnbook—‘How Firm a Foundation.’ As I read the rest of the hymn, it seemed that every word was written especially for me.

    “My personal relationship with the Lord became more important to me,” Sister McGrath says. “Without his help I could not have made it, even with all the kindness from people and the concern of my family.”

    Many Saints have experienced dramatic proof of the Lord’s concern for them. “The worst damage literally zigzagged around us,” says Jean Kreiner. “Eighteen neighbor families moved away because their homes were so bad. Ours, though severely damaged, could be lived in. Our older daughter’s room was the most severely damaged; she would have been injured if she’d been there instead of being on her way to seminary. Our twelve-year-old was getting up to go to the bathroom minutes before the earthquake hit, but was prompted to stay in bed. Later, someone with the same floor plan as ours told us that his face was badly cut up in the bathroom during the earthquake. Our nine-year-old found herself in bed with her feet where her head usually is. The head of her bed was covered with books and other objects from the shelves above her. Our fourteen-month-old son slept through the whole thing. The plaster by his crib was broken but didn’t fall on him. If the chimney had fallen in on the house instead of away from it, it would have crushed three children.”

    Testimonies are borne by people who prayed for their homes to be spared: the Lord answered their prayers in the midst of surrounding destruction. But all homes aren’t spared, even when similar prayers are offered. Marilyn Gee had pleaded for her home to be safe before she and her family fled, but when they returned, all that was left were the foundation and the front steps. “I wondered why my prayers hadn’t been answered like I wanted them to be,” she says, “but I knew that sometimes the Lord says no—that maybe we needed a little trouble so we could see what we were made of.”

    So instead of dwelling on how the Lord hadn’t blessed her, she focuses on how he had: “How grateful I was for our lives. How glad I was for a strong husband who I knew could take care of us. I thought about why we were on the earth—to be tried and tested. And I realized that this trial was nothing compared to how it would have been if we had lost any of our family.

    “I suppose the story of the flood will never really be over,” she continues. “We’ll feel its influence for the rest of our lives. As we evaluate this experience, we know that materially we were hurt for only a ‘small moment.’ The flood was more of an inconvenience than a disaster to us. Spiritually we learned so much that it was almost worth going through what we did. We have an ever-increasing trust that the Lord will care for and protect us. We learned that bad things can turn into good. We learned the power of compassion and love. We learned how much our neighbors and friends mean to us. We learned that no matter what happens, it will give us experience and will be for our good.”

    After a disaster is over, the Saints start again. They are grateful for their lives, for their faith, and for a chance to do better. Most feel a need to draw closer to the Lord and to be even better prepared in the future—temporally, emotionally, and spiritually.

    And although the cleaning up and putting back together isn’t easy, they trust that the Lord will help in that process, too: “We don’t know at this time how we’re going to meet our financial obligations caused by the disaster,” declares Bishop Alva Duvall, “but we know the Lord won’t forsake us.”

    Speaking of Preparedness …

    In 1979 a personal and family preparedness survey was sent to 600 members in 60 U.S. wards. 78% of the people responded, most of them active members of the Church. Here are some of the findings:

    “Of the 244 adult members who answered the questions about home production and storage … 209 (86 %) reported that they have some type of home storage program.”

    The following chart compares recommended amounts of basic supplies to what the average member has stored:

    Item

    Recommended Per Person

    Average Stored Per Person

    Grains (wheat, rice, beans, etc.)

    360 lbs.

    147 lbs.

    Powdered milk

    75 lbs.

    16 lbs.

    Honey/sugar

    60 lbs.

    29 lbs.

    Salt

    5 lbs.

    4 lbs.

    Water (2 weeks’ supply minimum)

    14 gallons

    23 gallons

    “The inventories of food storage were analyzed using a computer program … to determine their nutritional content. The results of the analysis showed that members are not storing a full year’s supply of most needed nutrients. Furthermore, … most family storage programs provide a very imbalanced supply of needed nutrients. …

    “If a family’s production and income were cut off by emergency circumstances such as a lost job, illness, natural disaster, etc., the average family completing the survey would be able to live for the following number of weeks on each of the commodities listed.”

    Storage Item

    Average Supply Would Last

    Food

    26 weeks

    Fuel

    .5 weeks

    Clothes

    52 weeks

    Water

    2 weeks

    First-Aid Supply

    8 weeks

    (Information taken from Personal and Family Preparedness, Vol. II, Home Production and Storage, Presiding Bishopric Assessment Services, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, March 1980, pp. 1, 3–5.)

    [photos] Photography courtesy of Deseret News