Monday, February 4, 2008

Chapter One

Like all stories, you need a beginning. The problem lies in figuring out where the story actually starts. Do you introduce the beginning with an action scene, a passionate love scene, or a scene where a mysterious message is delivered or overheard? Do you start with a riddle, a conflict, or a preview of the plot? Or do you introduce the villains, the heroes, or the supporting players?

Perhaps it is easiest for this story if we simply start it with a description of our main characters. Only the reader will ultimately be able to judge whether they are heroes or villains.

First there is Scott and Sissy Chapman, husband and wife, enjoying a traditional marriage and all the perks that go with it. They are practical and stoic without being stodgy or boring. They are in their early forties and enjoy a fairly active lifestyle and a very close relationship with each other and their children. It’s their practicality and inclination, rather than sexism, that has led them to divide their responsibilities along stereotypical lines. They own their own property management business which keeps Scott busy and out of the home five or six days a week and on call the rest of the time. Sissy manages the home and the home office, and since they’ve chosen to homeschool she also manages the education of their children. Scott is very organized and manages to juggle his workaholic lifestyle and fatherhood better than you would expect possible. Sissy spends most of her week shuttling the kids back and forth to various activities, answering the office phone, and researching ways to maximize the family’s budget. In their spare time, what little there is of it, they make plans for when they can retire to some rural acreage and live a quieter and less hectic life.

Next we have the children -- 2 teenagers, a soon to be middle schooler, an elementary aged child, and a toddler. Rose, James, Sarah, Bekah, and Johnnie are all good kids. Their social outlets run the gamut from church to scouts to sports. They are amiable and well liked by their peers without being overly concerned with popularity. They are neither rebels, nor sheep who simple a clique or the latest fad. They also get along well with each other, with very few serious sibling squabbles disrupting the family’s daily routine. The family has no pets but is seriously discussing getting a dog much to Sissy’s chagrin. She was hoping to have left the days of potty training and unfortunate puddles behind her when the toddler finally outgrew diapers.

The Chapman’s choices give them a lot of flexibility to approach life with. Though they work long hours, they get to determine when those hours will be. And because they homeschool their kids they have no rigid attendance rules and can take advantage of the free time when it does come around, even if that is in the middle of the work week. This lifestyle works well for their family, allowing them to maximize their assets, even the non-traditional ones.

The supporting players in this story include several members of Sissy’s extended family, friends that she meets on the Internet, neighbors on their street, and a tenacious reporter who is between assignments when we first meet him.

The primary antagonist in our story is a microscopic avian influenza virus. This little character first appears on the world scene around ten years ago when it killed over twenty people in China. Over the last decade it has gone from long stretches where it appeared to have died out to large animal die-offs. From large animal die-offs primarily involving birds to being able to infect other animals. From fairly regular announcements of confirmed animal infections to occasional confirmations of human infections. The human infections were primarily confined, as far as the public knew, to Far, Middle, and near Eastern countries; then confirmed cases began to appear on the African continent. Now hardly a week goes by without several suspect human cases and at least one confirmed death due to the little villain.

A couple of years ago Sissy discovered that there was a threat to her family in the form of a hypothetical influenza pandemic. This event was expected, in some circles, to be similar to other documented historical pandemic events such as the Spanish Flu of 1918. After Sissy thoroughly researched the threat for veracity – after all there was no sense getting bent out of shape over an urban legend – she determined that the threat is credible and brought Scott into the picture. They spend hours in discussion. While they are not morbid by nature, the facts don’t exactly lead to warm and fuzzy feelings. Especially concerning is the threat to their children. They both determine to take action and find ways to protect their family.

The Chapman family lives in a suburb of Tampa, Florida. This is an area very familiar with experiencing catastrophic weather events. Because of this, “prepping” – as the action of putting food and supplies aside for an emergency is termed – is not that hard for them to apply to this new threat. After some discussion, Scott and Sissy agree to re-work their family's budget so that there are funds with which to acquire items they might need in the event of a pandemic. Their initial goal is to gather enough emergency food and supplies for two weeks, which is what many of the government websites on the subject suggest. They start by buying very basic and relatively cheap staple items like rice, flour, and dried beans. This strategy made an additional two week supply of food in their pantry relatively inexpensive, leaving them more money to spend on protective gloves and well-fitting masks.

After reaching that first goal however, and after reading about school closures that could last as long as three months in their state’s pandemic plan, they feel additional prepping is prudent. Even though school closures would not affect them directly, there could possibly be lots of indirect effects. It could cause other people work difficulties if they couldn’t find someone to watch their children while they go to work. Less work could mean that their tenants would have less money to pay their rent with. This, coupled with other economic factors of a pandemic, could make it very difficult to afford what they needed from the grocery stores. They also read a report by US Homeland Security recommending ninety days of supplies. In the end, they decide to strive to have four to six months of supplies for their family. Reaching this goal takes longer than they had anticipated but their success is twice as satisfying as they know now that they are not only set for any weather threat, but health and economic threats as well, regardless of their origin.

Because they are prepping for a much longer time frame they are forced expand their food selections to include pastas and sauces, broths and soups, canned vegetables and fruits, dried and canned milk products, as well as numerous other ingredients. Even after reaching six months of preps, Scott and Sissy continue to add things here and there like solar powered equipment and comfort foods. Its not like anything will go to waste after all as their mottoes are “store what you eat, eat what you store” and “make everything dual purposed.”

Then Scott and Sissy begin to go through their “what if” scenarios to try and figure out how to have enough water on hand to meet the demands of various situations. Typical emergency advice is to have one gallon per person per day. That means that their family, at a bare minimum, needs to have the ability to draw seven gallons of water per day. Looked at another way they need a minimum of 49 gallons per week or 210 gallons per month. And that is only for cooking and drinking. Since Sissy cannot conceive of what would happen if they were unable to clean for a whole week, much less for a whole month, she insists that they invest in some water storage devices.

To begin addressing their water storage problems, Scott picks up some cheap, food grade barrels at an out-of-the-way roadside flea market that cost $15 per fifty-gallon barrel. When he picked them up, the seller told him that they had contained Greek peppers. After inspecting the barrels, Sissy assured Scott that the smell from the inside of the barrels made this an obvious statement. Sissy appreciated Scott picking up three of the barrels regardless of their smell. Sissy does what she can by ordering a couple of collapsible containers called “Water Bobs” that fit into any standard bathtub. These can be placed in a tub and filled with little work, and hold 100 gallons each.

Easier, and far cheaper, is that Sissy starts saving all of the empty two-liter soda bottles she can get their hands on. She even goes so far as to request that friends and family save them for her. Of course these containers are quite bulky to store, but they are so light when empty that they can be bagged or boxed up and stored at the very top of their closets; out of sight but close at hand. Scott figures that when all is said and done, they have over 400 gallons of drinking water capacity if the power goes out. This doesn’t even include filling up all of the miscellaneous Tupperware like containers that Sissy has a multitude of. Nor does it include emergency water sources like their 80-gallon hot water tank.

In addition to water storage, Scott investigates the potential for using a 12v or deep cycle cell battery system to operate their well. The major electric work at their rental properties is normally farmed out to licensed and bonded electricians because of Florida’s building code laws, so this is fairly new territory. However, thanks to advice and diagrams they acquire on some discussion forums on the Internet, they decide to give it a try.

Basically their system consists of a solar panel/module, a charge controller, batteries for direct hookup for DC current systems and an inverter to use with AC current systems, and some way to mount the solar panels/modules so that they can be turned into the sun. How it works is that the panels collect energy from the sun. This energy is routed via a charge controller, which prevents overcharging or reverse flow of energy, into the batteries where it is stored. The batteries can charge a system that uses DC current directly. However, if what you are trying to charge requires AC current, then you use the inverter. The number of panels/modules and batteries that the family ultimately invests in will determine what they can and cannot charge.

Having reached a personally satisfying plateau in food, water, and other supply areas of their plans, Scott and Sissy sit down and try to deal with the business continuity issues they will face because they operate their own business. This business is their sole source of income. Property management, the nature of the family's business, requires dealing in both the financial arena and the public arena on a daily basis. Since he is the primary technician for the business, Scott has concerns about potentially bringing a flu virus home. Both spouses are aware, due to financial, legal, and moral reasons, they cannot just drop everything and run for the hills like some of Sissy’s Internet friends have plans to do.

To this end they develop several layers of protection that will be enacted as any hypothetical threat from a pan-flu event begins to be realized.

>At the first sign of efficient human-to-human transmission anywhere in the world Scott will begin the strict use of PPE and antiseptics when dealing with house calls, especially when handling money or doing plumbing repairs.
>They will complete buying any supplies that they are still in need of.
>They will begin construction of an disinfection station outside of the door that leads to their home office.
>A packet of information will be distributed to tenants with suggestions on how to reduce their risk of infection, possibly the document called Influenza Pandemic Preparation and Response: A Citizen’s Guide.


>When efficient human-to-human transmission occurs in the USA, Scott will begin to disinfect prior to entering the home after being at work, utilizing their disinfection station which will include an outdoor shower.
>Additionally, Scott will make a concerted effort to hire outside mechanical and electrical help at this point so that he is exposed less, but they recognize that this may not be possible or may not be financially feasible. Scott will also encourage the people he hires to use PPE.
>At this point a notice to tenants will be distributed informing them that normal maintenance items will be done on an "as needed" basis, at the discretion of the property owner.
>They will enact a twenty-four hour, last-minute prep run, assuming it is feasible.


>When efficient human-to-human transmission occurs anywhere within their state, very stringent repairs and maintenance criteria will be put in place and Scott will have to decide how much he will ultimately be leaving the house, if at all.

The major problem with their plans is that the rapidity of advancement of infections may be so quick that they have to jump from normal operating procedures to their highest level of disinfection protocols virtually overnight.

Scott is convinced that the business continuity plan will continue to evolve until a hypothetical pan-flu event actually occurs and that the plan must to be as flexible as they can make it. The difficulty lies in dealing with so many independent contractors and households that they have so little direct control over. There is no way that they can afford to prep for every single worker that they occasionally employ. Nor can they force those independent contractors or casual laborers to buy PPE for themselves. And there is only so much influence that a landlord has over the cleanliness habits of his or her tenants. This is a huge gray area in their plans that they feel they will have to address on the fly, as any situation develops.

They also spend as much time as they can hardening their other investments like their IRA and a 401K plan left over from one of Scott’s previous jobs. They are unsure what kind of access they will have to these investments during a severe pandemic.

In addition to planning, one of the more time consuming tasks of pandemic preparation is inventorying what the family has been able to set aside. Sissy usually keeps a running tally of what they have, what they use and what they need. But once per month she does a physical inventory just to make sure her spreadsheets are correct. At the same time she rotates any items that are getting close to their expiration dates. And she also checks to see that she has correctly tallied calories for the items that she is stocking. It is not a perfect system, but it gives a more realistic idea of how long her stockpiled food items should last the family. This month’s physical inventory reveals that the family has reached the seven month mark for food preps despite having dipped into their supplies quite heavily over the last couple of weeks due to having to pay taxes and insurance expenses for their rental properties. The deteriorating economy, precipitated primarily by corrections in the housing market, is also a troubling influence on their finances and doesn’t leave them quite as much money to spend as they had anticipated.

Even though seven months sounds like a lot, their food plan only averages 2000 calories per day per family member. Sissy worries that might not be enough, especially if they do a lot of physical labor or their kids hit a growth spurt. The plan also doesn’t make any allowance for nervous eating, or eating because there may not be anything else for them to do. With this in mind, and the concern over any potential additional economic downturn occurring after a pandemic event, Scott and Sissy agree to continue to expand their food prep inventory.

Their next plateau goal is twelve months. And, in addition to the canned and dried foods, they begin to explore more ways to have a self-sufficient lifestyle in the suburbs where they will likely be stuck during a panflu event. Some of their research finds that this is called Urban Homesteading. They aren’t sure if they want to run a farm in their backyard, even if they could get around their county’s code enforcement rules, but its worth a few experiments. Even the kids get in on the act. They try:

>Container gardening
>Water catchment system(s)
>Home food preservation
>Edible landscaping
>Composting and garbage disposal methods
>How to make their solar energy storage system more effecient
>Solar charging for batteries including for cell phones and laptops

They also work out ways that they can continue cooking and doing other household chores in the event that the attack rate and CFR of the hypothetical pan-flu event interrupts normal municipal services and utilities. They build a small, stone grill and stock charcoal that they can use in it. They buy their first ever large propane grill and are eventually able to stock five of the twenty-pound propane tanks. They upgrade their camp stove to one that uses one-pound propane cylinders and has better wind flaps than their old one. They even buy a small, collapsible oven that fits on top of one of the burners that makes wonderful biscuits and casseroles.

The most fun the family has though is in designing and building several different homemade solar and reflector ovens. All of their projects use recycled material. The simplest is the traditional box oven that layers aluminum foil over a thick cardboard box. The fuel is charcoal briquettes. That design cooks a cake or pizza as well as a traditional electric oven will. They also make buddy burners and hobo stoves from old tuna cans and #10 metal cans. That set up works more like a skillet and you have to be very careful, it can get very hot. One of the most useful projects they make is a reflector oven made from sheet metal Scott has left over from a construction project. This reflector oven is also able to fold down for easy storage, and can use almost any heat source to cook with. Their most expensive project is also probably the most useless. They take a metal trashcan and convert it to a portable grill or smoker. It works, but its usefulness during a pandemic is a little questionable. All of the plans for these projects are found on the Internet, so even the plans cost them nothing.

Since a hypothetical interruption in electricity could also affect the availability and price of fuel, they begin to create flexible plans to address their transportation needs. There is no getting around needing a van for their property maintenance business, but they do everything they can to keep the vehicles they have maintained and as fuel efficient as possible. They also stock all the gadgets and gizmos that they could possibly need to repair the van if they have to do it themselves … belts, motor oil, sparkplugs, fuel and air filters, fuses, transmission fluid, coolant, freon, etc. They already have a trailer that they use for hauling stuff to the dump, and they make sure to pay as much attention to the simple axle and bed set up as they do their van storing things like WD40, axle grease, and replacement tires. For travel much closer to home, they have their bikes, but again, they make sure to have replacement parts on hand including chains and inner tubes for the bicycle tires.

Heating isn’t much of a concern for their part of Florida, but they do begin to build up nearly a cord of split wood just in case, storing it well away from their house and shed to avoid any problems with termites. Cooling is a much greater concern so they buy a few small, battery-operated fans and some hand-held bottles that they can use the evaporation-cooling technique with by spritzing themselves with water.

Lighting has been addressed by acquiring numerous “shaker” flashlights at a local flea market. They also acquire two solar charged lanterns and a lantern that runs on propane cylinders. For redundancy, they have lamps, lamp oil, and candles, but those are options of last resort due to fire hazard issues.

Despite all of their efforts, they think that it will take another year for them to reach their goal of twelve months of supplies and food. They could throw more money at the issue, but they don’t want to stop living their lives. They want to continue to plan for a bright future, which includes college educations for their children. They want to continue having a little fun, so they don’t spend every spare penny on prepping, opting to go to the occasional movie or eating out every once in a while. Nor do they intend on going deep into debt by maxing out their credit cards. That path just leads to a whole lot of trouble. After all, no one knows for sure when a pandemic will occur. Slow and steady wins the race. This is a marathon they are running, not a sprint. They are worried, but still cautious in their approach to prepping.

Its not solely a money issue either. They must put a lot of effort into finding the room to store all of their food and equipment. There is just no way that months worth of food for seven people will fit in their kitchen cabinets. Sissy envies her friends and family that have basements that can be utilized for storage, but in Florida the water table is too high; no basement or underground storage for her. Storage in the attic or shed isn’t much of an option either, at least for food and paper products. Heat and humidity would cause too much spoilage.

They have found several other places to discreetly store and hide their supplies through out the interior of their home.

>Under beds
>In the top of closets
>Out of sight under the sofa
>Behind rows of paperback books on bookshelves
>Inside the box spring part of their mattresses
>Behind the drawers of a captain’s bed
>On shelves in their utility room

Despite limited space, even apartment dwellers can store a significant amount of preps if they are willing to use some creativity. But the more you plan on storing, the more creative you need to be.

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