As events in Japan this past March showed us, Big Ones really do happen. Richter 9 is about as large as they come, an event so enormous it takes away the breath of even a geologist like myself.
It's no comfort to think that quakes of that same general size are likely along the western boundaries of the Lower 48 and also in the region where Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee come together. In short, major quakes here in the U.S. simply must be expected.
And there are other "big ones," too. As we've seen this spring, tornadoes and flooding are most unfortunately a natural part of our world. And electrical outages sometimes shape the man-made landscape in which we live.
Partly because I'm a geologist and know a bit about seismic Big Ones, I've done some work to get my household ready for emergencies. But recently I put myself to the test by comparing my paltry efforts with those of some of my Mormon neighbors. A local Latter-day Saints congregation was kind enough to educate me at an emergency preparedness fair they held for the public.
While I won't follow all the LDS advice -- nor were the Mormons saying I should -- I learned some pointers I will put into practice as time and my household budget permit.
There are many daunting questions to consider when it comes to emergency preparedness. To start simply, would you have water available if your tap water supply was interrupted? Just FYI, a gallon of water per person per day for two weeks is considered a standard by the American Red Cross. (My 5-gallon water jug in the basement surely doesn't look like much, does it?) My Mormon mentors also recommend having water filters or purification tablets on hand.
Could you heat your home next winter for a few days without electricity? Remember, a forced-air natural gas furnace won't run without electrical power. (On the question of emergency heat, I'm OK because I put a woodstove in the front room when I bought my house. Breathe a sigh of relief on that front.)
If the electricity fails, could you boil water to cook pasta or rice -- and most importantly of all from my point of view, make coffee? (In the winter I could use my woodstove to heat water. In the summer I'd be coaxing water to a slow boil on my tiny camping stove. That would get old fast, for sure.)
If the grid failed, would you have any lights? (I've got two kerosene lamps, but they surely aren't bright. Somewhere I've got that LED light I used to wear strapped to my forehead for walking at night along the river. But where did that go?)
Here's another biggie: How long could you feed your household with supplies on hand? If the grid goes out, you can eat from your fridge the first day and from your freezer for perhaps two more days. Then it's on to your shelf-stable supplies. But some of them, of course, will require cooking and water, which brings up earlier questions.
If you want to know the gold standard of preparedness when it comes to food, be advised the goal of many Mormon households is to have two years worth of staples in storage. But one reason for that high figure, I'm relieved to report, is that LDSers suspect they'd have to feed some of us heretics if a mega-disaster strikes.
So, if you do nothing else to get ready for an emergency, my advice is that you cultivate friendships with good Mormons.
Even if you never strive for the two-year standard of food stores, it can be useful to upgrade what you have on hand. A good pantry can be both economical and help buffer your household from a furlough at work or a cut in pay. And a well-stocked pantry really can buy you some peace of mind.
Having plentiful food stores on hand could also help make possible some extra donations to your local food bank when it's in special need. That, at the end of the day, might be the sweetest part of preparedness.
E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at email@example.com.