The Big One is coming. The Pacific Northwest is overdue for a cataclysmic earthquake, one that will measure at the upper end of the Richter scale. This is something that most experts can agree on. Of course, nobody knows when the Big One will actually occur, or just how destructive it will be.
Portland residents may be lulled by talk of taking emergency precautions to prepare themselves for a large, destructive earthquake. If a little eye rolling were to occur, it could be forgiven. After all, just how long has there been talk of the Big One being overdue, exactly?
While the violent eruption of Mount St. Helens—and the layer of ash it left around the Portland metropolitan region—may have faded from Portlanders’ collective memory, all you have to do is dig up videos of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan in 2011, or the more recent Hurricane Sandy that flooded lower Manhattan.
The thing about disasters is that they can strike at any time without any warning. If you think, “It won’t happen here,” or “It won’t happen to me,” well, join the club. That’s exactly what apartment dwellers in New York City and the former residents of Joplin, Mo., thought.
While there are many great resources that document various emergency preparedness steps, this story is going to focus on preparing an adequate food supply in case of an emergency—and not just for yourself, but for your neighborhood as well.
72 Hours versus 72 Days
There’s a joke among emergency planners that the first step to developing a preparedness plan is to make a close Mormon friend. The reason being that it’s common Mormon practice to have a year’s supply of food on hand to “be prepared to care for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors in case of an emergency.” Of course, there simply may not be any Mormons in your neighborhood, and setting aside a year’s supply of food may not be realistic for those who already struggle with food insecurity and often face food emergencies.
For those who are able, a 72-hour kit of canned food, dry goods, and clean bottled water is a step in the right direction. Indeed, for instances where power is lost due to downed lines, three days worth of food should be enough to last until the power is restored.
But for instances such as the Big One, there could be major, long-lasting disruptions to our food system (among other things). Roads may be destroyed and bridges may be impassable, meaning our just-in-time food delivery network may not be restored for weeks or months. So while it is certainly a good idea to have a 72-hour emergency supply of food, any preparation for a cataclysmic earthquake should include planning for weeks, if not months. Supplementing your emergency food stash with bulk food purchases is a good idea.
Big box retailers are not the only option available for bulk purchasing. There are a number of food buying clubs available throughout the Portland metro region. Food buying clubs are an excellent option for customers to pool resources, making large-scale food purchases economical. Although there are some neighborhood-specific buying clubs, more areas may look to start their own buying clubs as a recent Food Zoning Code update relaxed the regulations on food buying club drop-off locations.
However, for emergency preparedness purposes, the purchasing of bulk food is just the first step. The next step is to prepare the food so that it is ready to be consumed in case of an emergency.
“It is always great to have emergency food on hand,” says Jeremy O’Leary from Transition PDX. “But you better make sure you can actually digest it.”
In other words, a bulk order of fruit will spoil, while a batch of preserves can extend a fruit’s shelf life. Bulk processing of food is a fun way to build community and bring neighbors together, and large kitchen spaces—like those found in churches and schools—allow for efficient bulk processing. To find a kitchen space near you, Kitchen Commons is a local group devoted to taking inventory of underutilized kitchen space, plus it also offers suggestions on how you can become a community kitchen organizer.
Develop Skills and Develop Soil
There’s an inherent danger in hearing how unprepared, as a community, we are for the Big One, but Karen Wolfgang from Independence Gardens suggests that we focus be on developing skills and developing soil.
“Moving away from an ‘emergency’ food system toward a ‘resilient’ food system,” Wolfgang says, “means working on building up your confidence and transitioning landscape management to organic methods so that it is possible to grow food should it become necessary.”
While constraints like the size of neighborhood lots, homeowner associations, and lack of bulk storage and processing limit the amount of food you can grow, Wolfgang points out the importance of creating good growing conditions as a long-term investment that can serve you in case of an emergency.
Pool Resources and Connect Neighbors
Pooling resources allows for an increased capacity to be shared by a community. Jonathan Brandt from Portland Earth Care underscores the benefits of talking to your neighbors and property managers to find allies and prepare for emergency food planning while also sharing resources and skills throughout the neighborhood.
“For example, you could find you only need one set of canning supplies or one pair of pruners,” Brandt says. “Neighbors connected through food are much more likely to help each other in emergency situations.”
Brandt also recommends developing agreements with local food businesses in the area. A grocery store’s frozen food section won’t last longer than three days, so this food should be cooked immediately and shared with the community to avoid going to waste. And in exchange for security provided by community residents, stores should agree to ration dry goods in response to an emergency.
“Of course, any agreement should be put down in writing,” Brandt says, “preferably between the neighborhood association and the owner of the business.”
Hopefully the Big One Will Wait a Few More Decades
It is my fervent hope that these suggested emergency food preparedness steps won’t be needed for decades to come, if ever. The Big One is already way overdue, so hopefully it won’t mind waiting a little longer before it eventually strikes. At the same time, remember that the victims of Hurricane Sandy or survivors of Joplin never thought such intense disasters would ever happen to them.
Besides, the unexpected results of emergency food planning make it all worth it. As Brandt points out: “With Oregon's high levels of hunger and food insecurity, many of our neighbors face food emergencies on a regular basis.”
By taking the necessary steps, Portland neighbors can work together to address the food needs of different kinds of emergencies, both big and small.