Helen Sherman Wade has done her best to get ready for the Big One, that geologic equivalent of death and taxes.
Following last year's Northridge earthquake, the Studio City speech pathologist stocked the bedrooms of her home with survival kits for her three children, herself and her husband. The backpacks contain food and water for a few days, first aid kits, flashlights, blankets, rain gear, radios and family pictures, the last mainly to comfort the kids should any be trapped in the wreckage of the house. Wade also tucked a survival kit in her car and stashed a large supply of food and other essentials in the garage.
Yet Wade doubts her emergency planning will help much in the aftermath of a much-predicted monster quake that might transform Los Angeles into an instant urban wilderness. The survival kits are, she says, partly a talismanic gesture, a perhaps forlorn attempt to calibrate hope and luck.
"I think it's kind of stupid. . . . If everything crumbles, how are you going to get to the backpack?" Wade asks, supplying the obvious answer: "You're not." Even if the family survives and has access to the supplies, she figures, the emergency provisions might not sustain them through the days or weeks it could take for rescue and recovery efforts to kick in.
Wade's reflections highlight a subtext of modern life in the Golden State: Perhaps not since the heyday of the atomic fallout shelter more than 30 years ago has sheer, primal survival been such a commonplace consideration. Years of catastrophes in California and elsewhere have forced millions to think about self-sufficiency; of living in a world without electricity, gas, running water, transportation, telephones, medical aid, supermarkets and civil authority. Consequently, by now hardly anyone in Los Angeles and other disaster-prone places has not thought, at least fleetingly, about that mundane yet sinister item designed for coping with the sudden, presumably temporary shutdown of normal life: the survival kit.
Once mainly a semi-exotic accessory to hazardous ventures such as combat flying and exploring restaurant-free terrain, survival kits in recent years have seeped into everyday life, outwardly practical objects that also inspire grim meditations on the fickleness of fate and the fragility of civilization.
The osmosis has been assisted by every seismic download, hurricane, fire storm, blizzard and civil disturbance, or threat or report thereof. Basic survival kits--usually containing food and water for three days--now are sold at the supermarket and the carwash, beside the air fresheners and steering-wheel covers. Children frequently are required to bring their own survival supplies to schools and day-care centers. Many businesses also have catastrophe stores.
Particularly in California, freeway-savvy commuters carry life-support units in their cars. On arriving at work, these average citizens may also have another set of emergency goods in their desks.
Meanwhile, federal, state and local governments dispense checklists for supplies and other advice on prepping for calamity, including warnings not to expect help too soon. "We know the Big One's on its way and there is no way government or law enforcement can take care of everybody," warns Joyce Harris, who directs Los Angeles County's Earthquake Survival Program. For at least the last year, Harris says, her office has been recommending that individuals and families have one to two weeks' worth of supplies on hand.
One example of this supply-yourself-till-you-drop syndrome occurred last winter when motorists were advised to add blankets to their survival gear because street and freeway flooding might force them to bunk down in their cars.
Tellingly, survival kit retailers also have sprung up over the last few years, often operating from warehouses stacked with the kind of stuff once restricted to lifeboats. And it is in these places that the complexities and contingencies of survival condense into neatly arranged displays of nifty gadgets, brightly colored prepackaged backpacks and shiny chunks of shrink-wrapped emergency rations advertised to taste like a cookie. (A taste test found this claim to be almost true.)
"I personally believe that day is going to come when people who have procured provisions are going to need them," says Paulette Sims after showing a visitor around the showroom of Simpler Life Emergency Provisions in the City of Industry. She adds: "You may be sitting out in your front yard with your three-day survival kit and you may have to eat that food. . . . This is about survival. It's not steak and lobster."
Founded in 1981, Simpler Life is an old-timer in the survival trade. But Sims says that demand for its wares continues to grow, prompted mostly by California's string of earthquakes beginning in the late 1980s. "With every earthquake that we have, this industry tends to grow," she says.
Over at S.O.S. Survival Products in Van Nuys, president Jeff Edelstein endorses that opinion. He adds that disaster consciousness among the general public has transformed his 6-year-old firm's sales from a series of peaks and valleys into relatively steady demand.
"The Northridge quake has sustained business at a constant level," he says, noting that sales tended to fall off about six months after previous earthquakes. Lest anyone forget the power of nature, the S.O.S. showroom is graced by a framed panoramic photograph of a flattened and burning San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.
A novice browser in these emporiums might initially enjoy the novelty of picking through a selection of portable radios that will operate on either batteries, a hand-cranked generator or solar power, all for about $20. Or deciding on the necessity of a "hooligan tool," a $145 hybrid crowbar / pickax / battering ram for punching through debris.
But reality may quickly bleaken the shopping experience. For example, one wall at S.O.S. is devoted to a display of emergency medical supplies, including triage tags labeled "minor," "delayed," "immediate" and "deceased."
Survival catalogues also offer evidence that staying alive could be a dismal ordeal. Those furnished by Simpler Life and S.O.S. offer a welter of such evidence--trauma dressings, bodily fluid disposal kits, respirators to screen out viruses, sanitation supplies including "privacy screens," and bags for disposing of feces and urine.
Survival kits themselves come in a bewildering variety of styles, priced from under $10 for a student model to kits designed to serve 50 or more people. Survival retailers say the bulk of their business is to other businesses, which buy supplies in discounted quantities and may store them in cargo containers. On a smaller scale, one fairly new twist is a so-called light search and rescue duffel bag kit for digging friends, family and neighbors out of rubble.
When a reporter observes that being truly prepared might require a small mountain of supplies even for small groups, Edelstein agrees that survival kits have evolved and expanded from the days when water, food and athletic shoes were deemed sufficient. "After every one of these disasters, you find more and more things people need to live off of," he says, listing portable stoves, tents, crowbars (for opening jammed doors), heavy gloves (for handling glass and sharp objects) and increased water supplies as particular legacies of the Northridge quake.
Survival kit retailers acknowledge that their principal service is convenience. By offering tidy "grab and go" kits, they save customers the time and hassles of making their own packages. "It's been thought out for you," Sims says. Edelstein adds that he encourages customers to think about their needs and put together tailor-made kits. He also acknowledges that the aftermath of disasters has spawned fly-by-night vendors who sell "junk survival kits."
Partly because of potential price-gouging, Los Angeles County's Harris has mixed feelings about ready-made survival kits. "I feel that some of them are a little bit overpriced," she says. But she adds that it's better to have a prepackaged kit than none at all. Her own office recommends a 12-month, 12-step program of earthquake preparedness that includes safety drills, evacuation plans and emergency lighting measures, as well as building up stocks of food and water (information:  974-1166).
Meanwhile, the survival question has evoked an innovative response abroad. In the wake of January's Kobe earthquake, Radio Japan recently reported that that country is planning to stock ships with emergency supplies. These floating survival kits would steam to the port nearest the crisis, the announcer reported.