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

by Anna Wiener

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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