In one of the last places to likely see coronavirus, disaster prep is a way of life

David and Sue Gillmore
David and Sue Gillmore pray before eating lunch at home in Shelley, Idaho.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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It was January when David Gillmore went to Home Depot for face masks before logging onto Amazon, where he bought a plastic sign that read, “DANGER: KEEP OUT QUARANTINE.”

There were no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. at the time, and, at 61, he was healthier than ever, having recently lost dozens of pounds on a potato-based diet.

Sue Gillmore
Sue Gillmore, an herbalist, checks her food and herb stock. She and her husband have two greenhouses at their home.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

But Gillmore and his wife, Sue, have been preparing for a disaster for decades. They were certain that store shelves would empty as danger spread. They stuffed the masks in the basement, next to hundreds of rolls of toilet paper and dozens of cans of fruit and boxed grains neatly arranged on chrome wire shelves.

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They held hands and prayed, thinking over words from the 19th-century Scripture that guides them: “If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear.”

Shelley, a town of 4,409 in southeastern Idaho between the Snake River and Blackfoot Mountains, is likely to be among the last places to know the coronavirus. Less than two square miles, the village of potato farmers is hours from the nearest confirmed cases in Washington, Utah and Wyoming. Downtown’s State Street is quiet most days with empty storefronts. It’s rare to have a visitor from another part of the country, let alone another part of the world.

But this is also the center of Mormon country, a community where nearly every resident is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a state also long-known as a haven for survivalists. For Mormons, preparation for disaster has been part of the faith since the 1850s, when church leader Brigham Young told followers to store wheat to avoid winter starvation after settlers colonized the rough Utah desert.

Today, the church advises members to have between a three-month and one-year supply of food, water and cash. And it runs bulk warehouses that sell items at cost to help.

The Gillmores have enough to last them four years. They grow much of it themselves.

Army Supply Warehouse
Supplies at the Army Supply Warehouse in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Owner Dana Colins says the store ships supplies around the world and has had an increase in sales since the novel coronavirus outbreak.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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“You never know what is around the corner,” Sue, 63, said recently as she fed kale to hens in her backyard coop.

“Better to be ready than be sorry,” said David, as he watered a bed of strawberry plants that were nearing bloom.

The Mountain West is home to some of the least populated states in the country with — so far — the lowest infection rates.

Yet few places may be better prepared than the heart of Idaho’s Mormon-heavy potato region, where the population of Shelley triples each September for the “spud day” festival and the high school mascot is the Russet.

The football field-sized Army Surplus Warehouse on South Daisy Lane, one of the largest in the nation, sold 100,000 face masks in February, two weeks before President Trump said he would shut down most travel from Europe, where an outbreak has sent Italy into lockdown.

At the church-run Home Storage Center in Idaho Falls, 5.5-pound cans of black beans are advertised year-round in big letters for $6.25 with a “30-year shelf life,” but the pallets have gone empty as the minority of non-Mormons have given up on big-box stores to find alternatives.

solar panels
The Gillmores’ 3,240-square-foot house runs on solar energy.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
David Gillmore
David Gillmore at home after attending church.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Far down a dirt road, the Gillmores have an address that requires GPS coordinates to find on a map. Their 3,240-square-foot house runs on solar energy, is heated by a wood-burning oven, and the water comes from a well with a backup hand pump. In the backyard, two 800-square-feet greenhouses allow a bounty of avocados, onions, peppers, kale, loquat and grapefruit to grow in temperatures that feel like a spring day on the Central Coast. They eat the fresh food and can the rest.

Sue, an herbalist, tends to a garden of dozens of spices and flowers that she dries and stores downstairs, including chamomile, echinacea and lavender.

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David, a former scoutmaster, spends his days teaching online marketing to small-business owners via Zoom, and runs a YouTube account called “LDS Prepper.” He sold water filtration systems online until a few weeks ago, when supplies ran out.

Mormons believe in self-reliance, with the church encouraging “the ability, commitment, and effort to provide the necessities of life for self and family.” The tradition comes in part from the fact that Mormons for much of their history faced persecution for their belief in prophets they say came after Jesus and, for a time, in polygamy. The practice is banned today in the faith of 16 million people, fewer than half of whom live in the U.S.

For the Gillmores, preparation also comes from experience.

Growing up outside Sacramento in an Army family, David always had a ready supply of food. So did Sue, who was raised in San Luis Obispo by a botanist. But seven years of marriage passed before they began to go beyond the average Mormon family.

David and Sue Gillmore
David and Sue Gillmore recently downsized from a Texas gated community to an off-the-grid neighborhood where deer and coyote roam.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It was 1989. They lived in Salinas when the magnitude-6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake struck. Homes crumbled, roads cracked and electrical poles snapped. As communities returned to normal, the couple filled a rental truck with boxes of wheat, cereal and powdered milk to bring back home. They’re still stacked, unopened, floor-to-ceiling in their Idaho basement. The Gillmores don’t believe in expiration dates. “The food can still be fine; it just may not taste as good,” David said.

Their collection grew each time they moved to be closer to family in bigger homes and as and nature won more battles with modern life. Snowed-in by the mountains in El Dorado County near Sacramento. Hit with an earthquake near Gig Harbor by Puget Sound. And, living outside Houston in 2008, surviving off a generator for two weeks after Hurricane Ike.

Empty-nesters, they downsized from a gated Texas community five years ago to off the grid in a quieter, no-frills neighborhood where deer and coyotes roam.

Sue Gillmore
Sue Gillmore prepares organic feed for her chickens.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“I want to live my life as stress-free as possible,” David said. “We sleep better when we’re not worried about what will hit.”

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He and Sue still have the decades-old boxes of Frosted Flakes they had stored away for their daughter and three sons, each now adults. One son runs a survivalist business in Idaho Falls, where he sells bags to protect computers from electromagnetic pulses. A nearby daughter works at an attorney’s office and goes no further than storing food. A son in San Diego has perhaps a few months of food, and another son lives in Arizona, where he keeps no supplies.

None take matters as seriously as David and Sue, who these days embrace an unusual sense of vindication. Still, the coronavirus is different than anything they’ve seen before, bigger and more cosmic.

It’s something they are seeking to avoid, while realizing it may not be possible.

No more are Friday date nights at Smokin’ Fin, their favorite seafood restaurant 20 minutes away in downtown Idaho Falls. The same goes for most church services. On the rare occasion that David has attended Sunday sacrament meetings, he’s sat in the back pew so he’s not surrounded on all sides and washed his hands immediately upon returning home.

Sue had a tooth infection a few months ago, and has been worried about her immune system being weak since she went on antibiotics. The coronavirus has added to her concerns.

The Gillmores
The Gillmores’ preparedness comes not only from their faith, but also from their experiences, having lived through several natural disasters.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

On Thursday, the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City announced that all services worldwide would be canceled indefinitely.

“The Bible talks about plagues and pestilences and the end times,” Sue said recently, sitting at her dining table surrounded by framed paintings depicting Latter-day Saint history — Jesus looking over Galilee; the temple in Nauvoo, Ill., that was the second built by Mormons; and the faith’s 19th-century prophet, Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma Smith. “The last 100 years if not longer would be classified as the end times.”

“When Christ comes is a long time from now,” David said. “But it’s all the garbage you have to go through between now and when he comes… A lot of people believe they will just prepare spiritually because that is ultimately the most important thing. My plan is, hey, I can live through all those and help other people so when Christ comes, I benefit and they benefit.”

If the virus hits, they will post the quarantine sign in the space between their garage doors, next to the notice about trespassers being videotaped. David will sleep in the greenhouse. Sue will stay with her collection of tinctures and herbs in the house. The masks will come out. The hazmat suits might, too.

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greenhouse
Sue Gillmore works in the greenhouse.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

For now, they spend the days warning others to get ready. Some listen. Others don’t. David recently needed to buy 100 pounds of fertilizer for the garden. Instead, he ordered 2,000. He sold portions to his neighbors for no profit, telling them to grow their own food in case stores run low. He has also helped his bishop install a ham radio antenna on his roof for emergency communication. Sue has researched herbal remedies to treat coronavirus symptoms, though she’s found nothing that can battle the novel disease.

On Monday nights, David sits in his home office, sets his laptop screen to a global map of coronavirus infections, and grabs his microphone to advise local preppers of the danger as they practice their ham radio skills.

“You can’t be a Johnny-come-lately if you are looking for emergency supplies. Prices are going up,” he told listeners recently before suggesting they buy water filters. “Just be aware there are things going on and there is information available you will not be hearing.”

David Gillmore
David Gillmore broadcasts on a ham radio in his office.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

He also shared his wife’s recipe for raspberry-chamomile syrup, saying it could be used to soothe a cough.

A few years ago, David watched the film “World War Z,” the 2013 thriller in which Brad Pitt plays a U.N. worker battling a rapidly spreading virus that turns people into zombies. He thought of the movie recently. Date night was coming up, and he suggested they could study the film once more. When he first saw it, he took notes on “lessons learned.”

This week, he reviewed those lessons once more:

Your government won’t tell you until it is too late... Have a bug-out bag. Don’t go shopping with all the other desperate people. Bad people turn worse quickly...The police aren’t going to help. YOYO = You’re on your own.

Some good people will always be good. Have a HAM or sideband radio… Not everyone is going to make it... If you can fight, fight. Help each other. Don’t leave the house without your medications.

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Don’t live in a big city. Be aware of what is going on around you... Wherever you live, have an exit plan... Keep informed. You’ll find out how important your family really is to you.

Learn how to improvise... Make sure you are talking to the person in charge... Be prepared for anything.

Our war has just begun.