Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
I was too late. The shelves of Major Surplus and Survival had already been picked clean. Just minutes before I arrived at the army supply store, a husband and wife had bought the last six gas masks for their family.
Fortunately, one of the first lessons I learned as a journalist was to always go to the source. So I decided to call the distributor that supplies the army surplus stores.
Again, I was too late. “We sold in excess of twenty thousand gas masks in three days,” Pamela Pembroke of CORP Distribution’s sales department told me. “Even our supplier overseas is out. There’s just no more supply.” She paused, then added, “If it’s going to be that bad, I don’t want to be around.”
After a few more hours of research, I found an emergency-planning company called Nitro-Pak. This time, I called and asked to speak to the president, Harry Weyandt. It was easy to find his name because there was a thumbnail picture of him on the Nitro-Pak website. He looked incredibly normal, like the proud parent of a high school quarterback.
Within thirty minutes after news of the attacks spread, Weyandt told me good-naturedly, the phones at his company were ringing off the hook. Sales doubled on Tuesday and Wednesday, then tripled on Thursday. “By Friday they went up by seven hundred percent,” he continued, “and in the last few days, they’ve gone up three thousand percent.”
“It looks like you’re in the right business,” I said in an attempt to befriend him before begging for a spare gas mask.
“It’s been a wake-up call for all of us,” Weyandt said. “We all pooh-poohed Y2K because nothing happened. Anyone who got prepared was seen as foolish. But now people who were prepared are seen as prophets.”
I suppose I had to agree with him, especially since buying beef jerky and a Bible made me sort of a prophet by his definition. St. Slim Jim.
“So,” I finally asked, “do you have any gas masks left in stock?”
“I called eight of our suppliers, and every single one of them is sold out.”
“I figured. It was worth a shot.”
“But,” he continued, “I was able to eventually find some Israeli civilian gas masks that are being shipped to us now. We’re probably the last ones who have any.”
“Are those reliable or just collector’s pieces?” It seemed too good to be true.
“They’re the masks the Israeli government issues to every civilian. They’re very popular and easy to use, and they’ll give you six to ten hours of clean, filtered air in case of a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack.”
Sold to St. Slim Jim.
“The other thing that’s been very popular is the Evac-U8 smoke hood,” he continued. He knew a sucker when he heard one. “It’s the size of a soda pop can, and in the event of—heaven forbid—there’s a hood that protects you from heat and flames and takes out carbon monoxide. If you ever use it in an emergency, the company gives you a free one as a replacement. It’s only sixty-nine dollars, so that’s cheap insurance.”
As he spoke, I searched for the smoke hood online. It looked ridiculous:
I may have been paranoid, but I wasn’t that paranoid. Maybe I’d made a mistake trying to befriend him. I felt like I was talking to a car salesman. The difference is that the car business benefits from optimism and wealth. The survival business benefits from fear and tragedy. It sells not speed, but longevity.
And since life is something I enjoy when I’m not taking it too seriously, I let Weyandt talk me into several additional items that were only slightly less preposterous than the Evac-U8 smoke hood.
A week later, I received two space blankets, a heavy-duty tube tent, two waterproof ponchos, a thirty-six-hour emergency candle, a box of waterproof matches, twenty-four purified drinking water pouches, a first aid kit, an AM/FM radio, an emergency survival whistle, a pair of leather gloves, a random nylon cord, and, just to ensure that every human need was cared for, a small cardboard folding toilet. They were all part of a seventy-two-hour emergency kit, conveniently squeezed into a black duffel bag in case I had to evacuate my home during a crisis.
In addition to the kit, I also ordered a box of twenty-four ready-to-eat meals (MREs, in military parlance), which contained beef stroganoff, chicken stew, cheese tortellini, and other entrées and snacks, all freeze-dried in small packs and made to last roughly seven years unrefrigerated. I had no idea at the time that exactly seven years later, I’d find myself eating those meals.
I brought the supplies to the garage, hoping I’d never have to use them. My precious gas mask, in particular, looked daunting. It was packaged in a cardboard box covered with red Hebrew letters and handwritten numbers. Inside there was a rubber gas mask, a filter secured by a silver sticker tab with more Hebrew writing on it, a piece of white plastic that looked like a miniature toilet seat, a metal cap, and a cardboard ring.
I had no clue how to use it, and the Hebrew instructions weren’t helping any. So I called David Orth, an assistant fire chief I’d once interviewed, for pointers.
That’s when I learned I hadn’t actually bought survival. I’d only bought the feeling of safety.
“A gas mask is iffy, so I wouldn’t depend on it,” Orth told me as soon as I asked for help.
“What do you mean?” My heart sank. “Do you know how hard I worked to get this thing?”
“The filters are really designed for basic irritant gases and won’t protect you against a nerve agent,” he continued. “It won’t really protect against a biological agent either, because those may not be purely an inhalation issue.”
“What other kinds of issues are there?” My chances of survival were shrinking by the second.
“Skin contact with anthrax is a more common cause of infection than inhalation. With sarin gases, also, there’s a threat of skin contact. As firefighters, we wear positive-pressure self-contained breathing apparatuses, so I wouldn’t use a filtering-type mask as any guaranteed protection.”
“So I’m basically screwed?”
“It’s a false sense of security,” he concluded.
For a moment, I wished I’d bought the Evac-U8 smoke hood. But only for a moment. The company later recalled the smoke hood when it was discovered that it didn’t completely filter out carbon monoxide.
When I first relocated to Los Angeles in 1999, my boss at the New York Times, Jon Pareles, had advised against the move, warning me about earthquakes and riots. Now, after 9/11, Los Angeles actually seemed like a safer place than New York. Not only was the city too spread out for a single target to immobilize it, but, unlike Manhattan, it had no single building or monument that symbolized the nation.
However, when I called Pareles to discuss the possibility of another attack in New York, he seemed nonchalant.
“Aren’t you worried living there now?” I asked. “I mean, it’s the terrorists’ number one target. And it’s a small island with only a few bridges and tunnels for escape. It would be easy for terrorists to shut it down or take it out.”
As if the answer were obvious, he replied, “Who wants to live in a world without New York?”
I suppose, then, that there are two types of people in the world: the captains, who go down with their ship, and the rest of us, who jump off with our loved ones.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, my plan was to stay on the ship. Not only did I halt my fast-growing collection of anti-American propaganda, but I began to feel, for the first time, a sense of patriotism welling inside me.
I first noticed it when I heard friends from other countries calling Americans obese, rude, or uneducated. Instead of agreeing, I found myself arguing with them. Suddenly, negative stereotypes of Americans seemed not only dehumanizing, but also dangerous.
When I spent six months working in Nashville for the Times, I found it odd that people there identified themselves as Southerners. After all, growing up in the North, we never thought of ourselves as Northerners. We were simply Americans.
But after 9/11, I understood why Southerners were so proud. As Northerners, we’d never been marginalized in our lifetime, so we’d never had to unite and prove ourselves to anyone. Now, as Americans, we were marginalized, and it was time to prove to the world that it was wrong about us.
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.