How Idaho's Disaster "Prepper" Culture Is Reacting To Coronavirus Fear
An outbreak of the deadly coronavirus has set off alarm bells among public health officials. It’s also kept the phone ringing off the hook for businesses that specialize in disaster preparedness.
Emergency Essentials, a company in Salt Lake City, specializes in helping others squirrel away survival necessities. But for the past few weeks, they've been finding their own cupboards bare.
“A majority of our items are kind of flying off the shelves right now due to the amount of people wanting to get emergency supplies because of the coronavirus,” said Joe Rieck, the company’s vice president of sales.
Americans have been inundating so-called prepper companies with inquiries about dehydrated food, 72-hour survival packs and masks. Reliable numbers on the prepping industry are scarce. But in talking to five prepping specialists around the country, all but one reported a coronavirus-related bump.
It's no coincidence that many such businesses are in strongholds of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While many Americans may think of prepping as a fringe activity, the church encourages Mormons to be prepared to take care of themselves and help their neighbors.
Wendy McKinney lives in Meridian, Idaho and teaches disaster preparation.
“So the basic needs that you have are water, salt, beans, wheat and milk,” McKinney said. “Those are the five.”
She showed me around her purpose-built food storage room in her suburban home.
“These are 44- to 45-pound buckets. We have a lot of wheat,” she said. “We've got the potato soup, which is actually enough for three different dinners.”
Like many Latter-day Saints, McKinney grows her own vegetables and keeps 72-hour survival bags for each family member ready to go.
And something like the coronavirus, which has left millions of Chinese quarantined in their cities, is exactly the kind of emergency McKinney thinks about when planning for the worst.
“I actually thought (laughter) of this scenario a while ago,” she said. “I'm like - well, what if we are in a lockdown, you know, situation?”
John Ramey, founder of the prepper website theprepared.com, says coronavirus has pushed record traffic to his site and piqued interest in prepping for many who hadn't previously considered it. He hopes that helps efforts like Wendy McKinney's become more mainstream.
“We think it's just a responsible part of adulting,” Ramey said.
Whether that momentum continues until the next crisis is yet to be seen.
Boise State Public Radio's Heath Druzin joins Idaho Matters to talk more on the topic of prepping. You can read the full transcript below:
GEMMA GAUDETTE: What is prepping?
HEATH DRUZIN: So, prepping is a term that it pretty much what it sounds like. It means preparing for the worst. So, it’s preparing for a disaster — it could be preparing for a government emergency. You certainly hear of some of the more fringe groups preparing for basically like a government collapse, but it can also be just very simple, or not simple but stuff you would imagine, like an earthquake, a flood, extended power outage. It’s preparing to be self reliant.
GAUDETTE: And how big of a deal is prepping here in our state?
DRUZIN: Prepping is a big deal in Idaho. It’s something that certainly in Northern Idaho there’s a lot of folks who live off the grid up there and actually call themselves preppers and it’s almost a lifestyle where they aim to be self sufficient. They aim to be able to live on their own without going to the grocery store necessarily, or relying on government services or anything like that. But it’s also more of a mainstream thing here because you have a religious tenet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
GAUDETTE: And this is a part of their religion, correct? I mean there is that tie.
DRUZIN: That’s correct. So, as a tenet of faith, you are supposed to be as self-reliant as possible. And there’s all kinds of steps you can take and there’s actually guidelines that the church gives you. And what your ultimate goal is is to be able to get to the point where you can be self sufficient for a year and also have enough to help less-prepared neighbors in case of an emergency.
GAUDETTE: A: This sounds really expensive, but B: I’m thinking of storage for a year. What does this look like? You were actually taken into people’s homes who do this.
DRUZIN: That’s correct, and yeah, there’s logistical limitations: you’re in a studio apartment — this is going to be pretty difficult. But when you look at the church guidelines, they say build up slowly, don’t go into debt, don’t try to be ready for years on end right away, because you could spend tens of thousands of dollars.
So yeah, I went to Wendy McKinney’s house and it’s a house in a suburban neighborhood in Meridian. It’s nothing dramatic — there’s no huge basement or anything. Essentially it’s a purpose-built storage room attached to the garage. It’s a pretty big storage room: you’ve got shelves and shelves of dry food in 55-gallon drums, there’s a lot of aluminum cans up there, kind of industrial sized, and just kind of practical items like camping gear and stuff, in case you have to sleep rough or be on the move for a bit
GAUDETTE: So what was the most interesting thing you saw on Wendy’s food-storage shelves?
DRUZIN: I think the most surprising thing wasn’t even a food item. In the grab bag she had single dollar bills for everyone and that struck me because there was so much attention to detail and she explained to me in an emergency, people might not be able to make change. And she had thought it through that much, so all the kids’ bags — and the adults’ — had these single dollar bills in case you needed to buy something basic at a gas station so you didn’t just like waste your 20 dollar bill. Now, depending on what type of emergency it is, I don’t know if cash is going to be helpful, but you never know. She’s talking about preparing for everything from a flood to something we can’t even imagine.
GAUDETTE: Was there something that surprised you the most reporting this story?
DRUZIN: I think what was most surprising and might be surprising to people was that I’m in a planned community in Meridian, you know? This a very sort of organized, neat suburban community — this is not an off-the-grid compound out in the woods, this is not a survivalist community. It’s what you would imagine in Meridian, Idaho and there are folks in urban settings who are doing this and it is becoming a little more mainstream.
GAUDETTE: And that’s part of it, because I think in the past we would think of, as you talked about, a lot of folks in North Idaho who live off the grid, survivalists, that makes sense that they would do this. Then you have this religious component. But is that part of it, is that it is just becoming more mainstream within our society?
DRUZIN: Yeah and in the story at the end you heard from someone at this website called theprepared.com, and this is actually a Silicon Valley startup that is trying to make prepping more mainstream and they actually really kind of push back on the fringe-y reputation that it has. They’re basically trying, ‘Hey, everyone should be prepared for a certain amount of self reliance and here’s how to do it.’
GAUDETTE: So you mentioned a website for preppers during the story. So what kind of guides did you find on the websites or on social media?
DRUZIN: So yeah, so I’m looking right here at, that’s just about 20 of the 40 pages of—
GAUDETTE: Oh, only 20 of the 40?
DRUZIN: Yes. And I will spare our audience all of them, You can look it up.
GAUDETTE: We have an hour.
DRUZIN: So this is a sort of prepping for beginners guide and it gets into great detail. But you know, there’s some highlights. I think one of the interesting things is, because these are widely available it says, ‘Don’t buy off-the-shelf kits. 98% of them are not worth buying.’ And there’s just kind of interesting mental tips, like, ‘Don’t let prepping overwhelm or defeat you. It’s important to enjoy the good life now, and not go down a dark spiral of doomsday depression.’
DRUZIN: And what I really liked was, ‘Avoid zombie and Rambo fantasies.’ (laughter) Focus on realistic dangers.
GAUDETTE: Okay, so let’s get to the coronavirus really quick because, are there guidelines from the state or the federal government for having supplies on hand? I mean we know people are being quarantined due to this virus.
DRUZIN: Right and I mean, I don’t know if there’s necessarily a specific coronavirus repsonse, but I know, growing up in California, you tried to have basically a 72-hour kit, kind of like what Wendy was talking about, where you just had enough supplies for three days. I mean it’s basics, right? It’s non-perishable foods, it’s water or water tablets — water purification tablets being most important because you might not have access to fresh water. And then you know, a warm sleeping bag, especially in the colder months, and Wendy pointed out, it’s nice to have something to entertain yourself with, even if it’s a card game or something, you know, think of all the things. But yeah, a 72-hour bag that you can carry. That’s also important.
GAUDETTE: That’s a big thing. Thanks for talking to us about this. It’s a fascinating story.
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