I’ve never been a prepper, not even of workweek meals portioned into Tupperware or for the written part of my driver’s exam. I didn’t inherit my dad’s apocalyptic preoccupation. I always figured that if the big one hit the Cascadia subduction zone, I’d rather go down quickly than draw out the inevitable while eating dehydrated food and becoming dehydrated myself.
But the realities of climate change are slapping me in the face. I’ve had personal run-ins with weather disasters for five straight years now, starting in 2017 when my mom’s house burned down in California’s Tubbs fire. This summer, after temperatures topped off at 116 degrees in Portland, Ore., the city I call home, I know the game has changed. If this can happen, anything can. Snow in Houston: Why not? How about a heat wave in Greenland or severe flooding in Germany? Before summer even began, the entire West — extending as far east as Texas and as far north as British Columbia — was laid flat by record-breaking temperatures, worsening drought and an unusually early fire season. For more than two weeks, the Bootleg fire has been burning in southern Oregon, so hot and extreme that it generates its own weather.
The only things predictable about such events is that they will continue to happen, with increased severity and frequency, and they will cause a lot of human misery. They’ve forced me to reevaluate my indifference toward prepping. But I do not know where to start.
In fact, our whole society seems to have been caught off guard by changes that, not so long ago, seemed far off. Here in the Pacific Northwest, people sweltered in houses that aren’t typically equipped with air conditioning. Our roadways warped and cleaved, and power lines melted; hundreds were hospitalized with heat-related illness. In Texas, where my brother lives, state regulators urged citizens to limit power usage during a June heat wave to avoid the massive grid outages that, during a severe winter storm in February, left nearly 70 percent of Texans without electricity and half without water. In New York City, heavy rainfall flooded stretches of the subway system this month; in Miami, the construction of properties on a dissolving shoreline no longer seems sound.
In the face of these infrastructural and governmental inadequacies, people resort to improvised, often subpar measures to stay safe. Last fall, when wildfires surrounded Portland, awarding us the worst air quality in the world, YouTube videos on how to make DIY air purifiers circulated on social media. Though a box fan and a furnace filter panel were the only things required — items typically found at any hardware store — the entire city was sold out.
My dad’s prepper mentality came to mind again for me when temperatures soared a few weeks ago, and I drove to four different locations looking for ice because our refrigerator had started smoking. (According to my landlord, mine was the third refrigerator that needed replacing in less than 24 hours.) At my last stop, the cashier shook his head apologetically: “Everyone’s trying to stay cool.” This time, city residents were slapping together jury-rigged swamp coolers with large bowls of ice and those perennially versatile box fans. I’d run up against the limits of what the marketplace could provide. In a moment of desperation, I asked my neighbors two doors down if I could store my perishable goods with them. Though they kindly accommodated, it made for awkward interactions later when I had to knock on their door and ask for my coffee creamer or salad greens. After a while, I decided I didn’t really need those things after all.
But what do I need? I would think that, by now, I’d have a master list: ice, those furnace filter panels, an extra box fan. Truth be told, I feel more clueless than ever. I have doubts about these penny-sparing life hacks. If circumstances suddenly worsened — if, say, the electricity went out and store shelves were wiped clean — would they make a meaningful difference in my comfort? I’m reminded of the clip-on crampons I bought after a winter storm four years ago, when I’d slipped and injured my wrist. They are still in their packaging, a waste of the money I don’t have much of, and a waste of steel and plastic that will end up in a landfill.
Prepping isn’t only about purchasing things, of course. When my mom and stepdad escaped their soon-to-be-ashes home in 2017, it was the middle of the night. The fires swept in fast and unexpectedly, meaning there was no early evacuation order. Cars sat gridlocked on the roads, getting blasted with gusts of embers and blinding smoke as the inferno surrounded them. “Sometimes it seemed like we were driving directly into the flames,” my mom told me afterward. “It was a nightmare.” She and my stepdad later talked about how crucial it is to know the routes out of town, to have a few backup destinations, a tank full of gas.
Since losing their home, they’ve also lost trust in insurance agencies and electrical companies, but they have renewed faith in their own strength and adaptability. They have remained in Santa Rosa, Calif., just down the hill from the house that burned. I’ve asked them numerous times what it would take for them to leave. “Where would we go?” my mother has asked. “Nowhere is safe anymore.” They’ve taught me to equip myself with a better attitude: Be flexible and light on my feet, willing to abort the mission and do an about face on a moment’s notice.
Despite my father’s insistence and my mother’s example, I still haven’t packed a bug-out bag. Perhaps I can’t bring myself to truly prepare for the worst-case scenario. It’s not lost on me that this has been the problem all along: We, collectively, have been unable to internalize these possibilities for the future, our future.
I, perhaps, will take catastrophe in small increments, like the frog in a pot of water set to a slow boil. I’ll integrate these events (somehow both regular and freak) that shut down the whole city or upturn my whole life or, at best, make me miserable or inconvenienced for a few days, into everyday reality. What I once believed were curative steps to combat climate change — recycling, forgoing straws — seem futile. Right now, I’m prioritizing palliative measures: I’ll try to keep cool with wet bedsheets, a box fan, a matinee at an air-conditioned movie theater. I’ll try to keep cool until I can’t anymore.