I was born prepared. I remember the Cold War, when my ever-diligent parents stocked our small house with a large emergency cache. I thought of this recently when I came across an old Civil Defense pamphlet my mother had passed along with other artifacts from my childhood. What to Do When the Signals Sound: A Family Action Program is as much a part of my early memories as The Cat In the Hat. Looking at it now, I realize my city apartment is nothing like the pamphlet’s cute suburban Cape Cod house. I don’t have a back yard to sink a bomb shelter into, nor do I have a basement to hide in until the all-clear signal blows. And most definitely I have no plans to move 15 miles away from New York City, the “major target area” I call home.
Still, the lessons of A Family Action Plan stuck. As a young adult, I always had a flashlight and a few cans of soup tucked away in even the most cramped studio apartment. I was also ready on September 11, 2001. The downtown apartment I shared with my husband and children had a storage room where I kept hand-crank flashlights and radios, solar phone chargers, and a generous supply of extra water and food. But despite that, in the days after the attack we relied not so much on my stockpile as on generous friends who, unlike me, had not prepared for such a day. They simply opened their doors and shared what they had.
Nonetheless, I kept preparing. Our emergency supplies in the room we had renamed “The Bomb Shelter” grew at pace with escalating warnings. I added rolls of duct tape to other new provisions like face masks (to filter the air), iodine pills (to protect our thyroids from dirty-bomb fallout), and doses of ciprofloxacin (to treat anthrax). But I drew the line when it was suggested we stock up on cat litter to create makeshift port-a-potties. If it comes to living in my storage room and toileting in a hatbox full of kitty litter, I’ll take my chances on the other side of the duct-taped door. My family joined in this change of attitude by stocking items that we would miss at the end of the world. Chocolate was big. So were cookies. Champagne. Lots of wine. More chocolate.
In the years that followed, the Northeast blackout (2003) and storms Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) improved our shelter preparations. All of this experience culminated in the presentation of our co-op’s first official Emergency Plan at last year’s annual meeting. Its author, the board vice president and my husband, included the best practices as provided by city agencies and the fire and police departments.
Decades from now, our co-op’s grown children might stumble on a copy of my husband’s plan. What will they make of it? Will they learn to open the dark, silent refrigerator only rarely and strategically? Will they come to appreciate a gas stove as never before? Will they put holiday folding chairs into service as rest stops on dimly lit fire stairwells for seniors on their slow, painful descent to the basement? Will they store both water and wine in The Bomb Shelter? And will they know to store cookies and chocolate? If you are going to die in a bunker, canned tomato soup should not be your last meal.
Perhaps I can convince my husband to include in his next Emergency Plan the importance of freezing an extra lasagna at Christmas, so you can at least have one final, fanciful supper with family and friends before the lights go out.