by jefftkjefftk2 min read21st Jan 202013 comments



If there were a natural disaster tomorrow and it took about two weeks to get things working again, how many people would be ok for food, water, and other necessities? I'm guessing below 5%, but I think this level of preparedness would be a good goal for most people who can afford it. Why don't people plan for potential disasters? Some possibilities:

  • They don't think disasters are likely. On the other hand, I also don't think disasters are likely! While we have extra water in the basement, I think the chances we'll need it sometime during my life are only maybe 2%. Since it's not expensive, and if we do need it we'll be incredibly happy to have it, I think it's worth setting up.

    It does matter a lot whether the chances are ~2% or 0.0002%, but if you think your lifetime chance of being impacted by a serious disaster is under 1% I'd encourage you to think about historical natural disasters in your area (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, etc) plus the risk of potential human-caused disasters (nuclear war, epidemics, civil war, economic collapse, etc).

  • It's weird. Most people don't do it, and a heuristic of "do the things other people do" is normally a pretty good one. In this case, though, I think we should be trying to change what's normal. The government agrees; the official recommendations involve a lot more preparation than people typically do.

  • They can't afford the money, time, or thought. Many people are in situations where planning for what's likely to happen in the next couple months is hard enough, let alone for things that have a low single digits chance of happening ever. This can't explain all of it, though, because even people who do have more time and money also haven't generally thought through simpler preparations.

  • They don't think preparation is likely to be useful. If there's a nuclear strike we're all dead anyway, right? Except most disasters, even nuclear ones, aren't this binary. Avoiding exposure to radiation and having KI available can help your long-term chances a lot. Many disasters (nuclear, earthquake, epidemic, severe storm) are ones where having sufficient supplies to stay at home for weeks would be very helpful. If you think preparation wouldn't help and you haven't, say, read through the suggestions on ready.gov, I'd recommend doing that.

  • They're used to local emergencies. We generally have a lot more experience with things like seeing houses burn down, knowing people who've become unable to work, or having family members get very sick. These can be major problems on a personal scale, but families, society, government, and infrastructure will generally still be intact. We can have insurance and expect that it will pay out; others in our families and communities may be able to help us. Things that affect a few people in a region or community at a time are the sort of things societies have the spare capacity for and figure out how to handle. A regional disaster works very differently, and makes planning in advance much more worthwhile.

  • They expect to see it coming. Forecasting is good enough that we're very unlikely to be surprised by a hurricane, but for now an earthquake could still come out of nowhere. Others seem like the kind of thing we ought to be able to anticipate, but are tricky: it's hard to see an economic collapse coming because economic confidence is anti-inductive and we tend to suddenly go from "things are good" to "things are very much not good". Paying attention is valuable, but it's not sufficient.

  • They're not considering how bad things can be. For many of us our daily experience is really very good: high quality plentiful food and drink, comfortable and sufficient clothing, interesting things to do, good medical care. When you consider how bad a disaster can be, things that would improve your life a lot in very rare circumstances can make a lot of sense.

  • They're not sure what to do. This is pretty reasonable: there's a ton of writing, often aimed at people who've gotten really into prepping, and not much in the way of "here are a few things to do if you want to allocate a weekend morning to getting into a better place". Storing extra water (~15gal/person), food (buy extra non-perishables and rotate through them), and daily medications, however, goes a long way. For a longer list, this guide seems pretty good. (Though they're funded by affiliate links so they have incentives to push you in the "buying things" direction.)

None of these seem very compelling to me, aside from cost, and the cost of basic preparations is pretty low. I think most people who can afford to would benefit a lot in expectation to put some time into thinking through what disasters they think are likely and what preparations they would have wanted to make in advance.


13 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:01 AM
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There is another type of disaster that is not mentioned: war.

Not nuclear war, but more or less "ordinary", or civil war.

I think, that most of those who read Less Wrong believe that civil war or neighboring country invasion is highly improbable for their countries, and that the chances of a nuclear strike are even higher.

I live in Eastern Ukraine, and when in 2014 the war began, it was a complete surprise and shock for everyone.

I live in the region adjacent to those where military operations are ongoing, and in 2014-2015 the question of preparing for some kind of emergency actions in case the war reaches us has become practical, not theoretical. My own plans (fortunately, the need to implement them did not arise) and communication with refugees showed that the most important are:

  • Car (old and reliable, because a new one will be confiscated) and gasoline supply
  • cash
  • friends or relatives (with whom you have a good relationship) who live in other cities or countries and are ready to help you start living in a new place
  • warm clothes for the whole family.
  • "alarm package" with documents and medicines.

And it is extremely important:

  • surround yourself with attentive, adequate and strong people. My first plan included a series of arrangements with friends who were also involved in martial arts. (In fact, all the agreements and the Plan began as a strategic game about what to do if zombies attack we played several years before.)
  • do not become attached: to home, things and work. Do not buy real estate as main investment in your future.

I'm curious about two things related to Julija's comment here -- not about what she said but what those reading it actually did. It is clearly the most highly voted contribution but does that mean anyone up-voting the comment really updated their own view, priors or plans?

If so, in what sense did you update. If not, why?

"When in 2014 the war began, it was a complete surprise and shock for everyone" is the most interesting part to me. People often think variants of "it couldn't happen here" or "we would have plenty of warning".

I think I have enough food (non-perishables and some emergency rations) and water (from hot water heater and a survival water filter) to last two weeks, but not if neighbors start knocking on my door. Not sure what to do about that.

I'll be knocking on the neighbour's door to drink out of their swimming pool. I can't speak for anywhere else, but there's more than enough water for more than 2 weeks.

I have some food, but I could go without food for two weeks. Most people could, even if they were unhappy about it. The bigger problem with food is that if power goes out then so does refrigeration, so you're going to be stuck cooking and/or eating a lot of food quickly. People aren't used to how quickly food spoils because they're used to refrigeration and other modern preservation techniques.

What is the "total cost of ownership" of supplies? keeping a stockpile fresh requires ongoing maintenance. In addition to direct cost and space required, you regularly have to devote time and attention to it. It just doesn't seem practical, specially a large supply of fresh water.

An additional cost is the hassle of moving/selling/giving away your stockpile if you move. If you have deep roots in the place you live, this might not be a large consideration, but I've moved at least once every 6 years all my life, some times considerably more often (future projection: even more often). "Unnecessary" stuff like this just adds an extra burden to an already burdensome time.

How would you say the value of having supplies changes as you reduce from 14 days to something smaller? It's non-linear for sure, so maybe there's a lower point that's a good compromise, e.g. 3 days of food and water. Another way of phrasing the question: where does the "two weeks" reference point in your post come from?

The ongoing maintenance for food and water is pretty low:

  • For food, when I open containers of non-perishables I take them from the front of the line, and when I buy new ones I put them at the back of the line.

  • For water, 14gal/person is two 1ft^3 water containers. I've set a recurring reminder to swap the water out every five years.

An additional cost is the hassle of moving/selling/giving away your stockpile if you move.

For water you can just dump it out and refill at your new place. For food it's pretty small compared to the rest of what you're moving, maybe two ~1ft^3 boxes per person?

Just curious, how much would you be willing to pay for a mail-based, yearly subscription to a service that takes care of the more onerous things you mentioned: planning, logistics, rotation; one that ensures you always have a one-week supply of essentials available (something to eat, medical, charger, etc) and manages their disposal (reuse and recycle) and refreshing on a regular basis?

I'm sure it's not necessary to have entire populations be prepared as long as enough individuals can help the rest (like the example of a neighbor with a pool), so I'm wondering how low the barrier for preparation needs to be to reach that amount of people, in monetary terms.

Water doesn't make much sense to do by mail, since a full water container is so much heavier and more hassle than an empty one.

Food that you buy and keep until it expires and needs to be thrown away is much more expensive than food you rotate through, and is less useful in cases where you forget to go to the store and want some extras of things. It also doesn't let you buffer occasional trips to cheap stores or buffer buying things on sale.

Medicines are tricky legally (I want to write a follow-up about this) and are different person to person.

I'm not seeing much of a market here?

Medicines are tricky legally (I want to write a follow-up about this)

Follow-up: https://www.jefftk.com/p/emergency-prescription-medication

I am a uni student from Scotland. At home, I have been snowed in for a few days. There, there would be enough food to last 2 weeks. If we got really desperate, there are always hens, and around a sack of grain in the garden. It probably wouldn't come to that, as there are large supplies of dried, tinned and frozen food, and of course sugar flour jam ect. This isn't a disaster prep, it just makes sense to keep a stockpile of long lasting food when you have plenty of storage space, and the shops are several miles away. There is also a stream for water and refrigeration if needed, and a ton of firewood, and trees and tools if we need more ect. All in all, a pretty good place to hole up.

At uni on the other hand, I have a small room rented for a year. Everything I want has to fit into the room, and has to be removed in the summer. There the calculations for somewhat, but not very useful items is different. Besides, the area is not known for hurricanes, wildfires or earthquakes. Rich first world governments tend to do things like dropping food in by helicopter if they really have to.