I mentioned yesterday I was in Birmingham for the Glenn Beck-sponsored event "Restoring Unity" over the weekend. I'm back in Austin tonight, worn out after five days of overnight travel.
On the flight home this evening, I re-created the hastily written notes from yesterday's event for my own edification and well as to see what ideas could be gleaned from the event regarding the creation of a preparedness culture. I realize Glenn Beck isn't everyone's cup of tea - although I would suggest most of the people who criticize him do so without any knowledge of his actual political positions and central message points.
I believe we're called to learn from anyone and everyone we can. Sometimes this means I learn from those with whom I disagree vehemently. I think we owe it to ourselves to listen to other view points with an open and objective mind from time to time.
And so tonight, I'd like to share a few thoughts with you from this weekend's event as to how that messaging can be applied to the preparedness movement; specifically, we need to appreciate how those of us in it could do a better job promoting the movement. My thoughts include:
If you're a prepper, what are you doing to create a culture of preparedness? What are you doing to become a better citizen? A better leader?
I'm in Birmingham this weekend, attending the series of events for "Restoring Unity." It's been a fantastic experience, and I hope to share some thoughts about it with you in the coming days.
Last night before going to sleep, I read this piece in Politico by former FEMA director Michael Brown entited, "Stop Blaming Me For Hurricane Katrina." Being a self-authored account of his performance on the anniversary of the massive storm that killed hundreds of people (and having never read anything written by Brown before), my skepticism detector signaled that the article might not really give us an objective picture of his actions during that horrific storm.
Now having read the article, I urge anyone who studies preparedness, public administration and organizational behavior to read it and share with others.
Brown is very objective, citing a number of mistakes he made in the process. Some of the ones he cited include:
He's also critical of a number of people as you might imagine. He reserves some of his harshest criticism for Michael Chertoff, the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security at the time. In Pivot Points, I cite Chertoff's comments about Katrina as a reason people are skeptical about the government's ability to prepare for disasters:
“[We assumed that] there would be overflow from the levee, maybe a small break in the levee. The collapse of a significant portion of the levee leading to the very fast flooding of the city was not envisioned.”
Yet such a breach had been predicted and the results of such a breach extensively analyzed by the New Orleans Times-Picayune and others long before Hurricane Katrina.
There's a lot for us to glean from the Politico article, but I do want to share one paragraph from it that we as citizens and preparedness advocates should hear and share with others:
"The American public needs to learn not to rely on the government to save them when a crisis hits. The larger the disaster, the less likely the government will be capable of helping any given individual. We simply do not have the manpower to help everyone. Firefighters and rescue workers would all agree the true first responders are individual citizens who take care of themselves."
Regardless of what you think of Michael Brown and FEMA then or now, we are regularly reminded of the agency's limitations after every large disaster. You'll recall that the agency took some grief for being closed "due to weather" after Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast in 2012. I don't point that out to be critical of FEMA, but rather as evidence that our main federal disaster relief agency cannot rescue every disaster victim in short order, hand them some FEMA debit cards and rebuild their house in a matter of hours. At the end of the day, we need to be ready to be those "true first responders who take care of ourselves" as Brown indicates.
Furthermore, in your preparedness efforts - as well as your daily and work life - do you apply this level of scrutiny when evaluating your own performance? It takes a tremendous amount of character, in my opinion, to come out and admit your mistakes, especially given the impact those mistakes had on the situation after Katrina.
No doubt many will continue to criticize Brown as part of a "I hate Bush, and Brown worked for Bush, and Katrina was a mess" mantra. I don't know about you, but I cannot claim to have never made a mistake in my professional career. Insisting on perfection from anyone is simply unrealistic.
Are you prepared to be your own first responder as Brown suggests? And are you objective in evaluating the weaknesses in your preparedness plan?
Tonight at dinner with some coworkers, the conversation predictably turned to Paul's-latest-and-greatest-doomsday-theories-for-this-week. Of course, I suggested that the best theories available at the moment are the ones being promulgated on CNBC.
The discussion sub-topic sparking the most interest was my habit of carrying a small amount of gold and silver coins during certain business trips. This seemed to pique the curiosity of some of my co-workers and raised a lot of questions, so I'd like to spend a few minutes this evening discussing my thoughts on this.
Why carry gold and silver coins? Why not just regular cash?
There's nothing wrong with carrying cash for emergencies. I think that's prudent. I read a interview of Porter Stansberry a while back, and he tells the story of how a business associate needed to get home from Argentina immediately to tend to a sick child in the hospital. The only problem was that he didn't have the $80,000 cash that the pilots of the Gulfstream jet were demanding to pick him up and fly him back to the U.S.
One of his traveling companions, however, did.
Cash can solve a lot of problems. My parents travel outside of the United States on a regular basis, oftentimes to underdeveloped parts of the world. One of the lessons they learned from one of their traveling companions years ago is "cash can solve a lot of problems." And it can.
But there are two main advantages precious metals have over cash in emergency situations:
By value dense, I mean you're carrying a lot of value in a small amount of space. A half ounce coin weighs, well, just a half ounce. Yet it's worth several hundred dollars - or perhaps even thousands of dollars in a crisis.
So what kind of crisis would we have to be in before people would accept gold and silver before US dollars?
First, let me state for the record that I believe that the likelihood of a crisis where the US dollar becomes worthless to the point other Americans won't accept them is slim. However, as there are discussions (albeit small ones) to move people away from physical currency, it's not inconceivable that there could be a situation where people elect to stop transacting business in currency and would prefer to do so in precious metals.
And again, I think the likelihood of people preferring precious metals to dollars is slim. There's a more likely scenario that warrants our attention, however.
A disruption in the credit markets and/or a series of bank holidays that make it difficult to conduct business and travel. Lest you think this is only the sort of thing you'd see in a dystopic movie, consider this speech from Vice President Joe Biden in 2009 when he was talked the prospect of bank holidays in the United States.
Last year, I had dinner with a friend of mine. We were both on the road, out away from our respective hometowns. My friend is a honest to goodness rocket scientist with a MBA - a really, really smart guy. He's beginning to have many of the concerns I have been having with our financial system for sometime now. We talked about why I carry coins when I travel far away from home. Consider this exchange:
Friend: So why do you carry coinage or extra cash when you're away from home?
Me: Let's suppose something really bad happens in the credit markets overnight, to the point the credit card systems and the online credit systems that large businesses use shut down. No one is getting credit. And maybe even the online banking system is shut down, too. Banks are closed, and ATMs are offline. How are you getting home to your family?
Friend: I have a return ticket on my airline for my flight home?
Me: So let's suppose your connecting flight arrives at the airport and pulls into the gate. The plane will likely need fuel to top off for your flight home. Your airplane captain doesn't hand the fuel company a wad of cash for the fuel the airline buys for that flight. That's all done on credit. And if the credit systems freeze up for whatever reason - financial IT system crash, cyber attack, massive disruptions in the credit market fundamentals, whatever - how is the airline going to buy the fuel it needs to fly you home?
Let me suggest one way you could get home - if you had cash or coinage on you, you could go buy an old beater car and exchange some silver coins for gas, food and water along the way. Or maybe you trade the gold coin outright for a seat on a private jet that's flying to your part of the country.
I don't know if my friend made any changes to his travel protocols after that discussion, but I think he understood my reason for carrying more than a few dollars on me when I am traveling long distances.
Explain how you might use a gold or silver coin in a transaction. Walmart isn't going to know what to do with it.
There are a couple of ways to use gold and silver coins in these situations:
Let's talk a bit about the first option. In the event that commerce has stopped - airlines, bus lines, passenger trains aren't working, grocery stores can't swipe your credit or debit cards, ATMs don't work and banks are closed - places that regularly trade gold or silver coins for cash would be the places you'd want to locate. Places like:
I would find some of these places, and if they aren't actively buying gold or silver coins in exchange for dollars, I'd be asking them who in town might do so.
So let's say you have a half ounce gold coin you want to trade in for cash. This evening, gold is trading around $1,145 per ounce, so you'd be holding approximately $572 in your hand. Expect to pay a commission for the trade, which will reduce your actual cash back (maybe as much as 10%, or perhaps even more in a crisis). At a 10% commission, you'd walk out with around $515. You could use those dollars to buy food, water, a small used motorcycle, some gasoline, whatever.
Of course, if things are that bad, there's a decent likelihood that half ounce gold coin will be worth far more than $572 an ounce. Gold went from around $200 an ounce in January 1979 to over $650 an ounce over the course of the next twelve months, in large part due to the Iranian hostage crisis. As irrational as that increase in price might have been, the reality is that the price did spike dramatically. And if it spiked dramatically over a crisis thousands of miles from us, what might happen to the price of gold for a crisis at home? Gold went from around $270 to around $293 on September 11, an 8.5% increase in one day, remaining at those levels for nearly a month.
So why carry both gold and silver coins? As my friend Jerid likes to say, "The gold is to buy your way home, and the silver is to feed and hydrate you along the way." You'd be using the greater value coins to pay for that beater car and some gas, and you'd be using the silver coins for food and water. Most likely, you'd be converting these coins into cash at a coin or pawn shop and buying the things you need with cash. Alternatively, you'd be using the coins for option number two above.
In that situation, you are actually trading the gold coin for the car, and the silver coins for food and water. As you can probably surmise, this tends to lead to some inefficiencies in the transaction. For example, if you have a one ounce gold coin worth $3,000, are you really going to hand it to a guy to buy his $1,500 car with it? Depending on the situation and how badly you want to get home, you may very well do that.
Again, we're not talking about doing this at a time when the economy is functioning normally. We'd be doing these things during a crisis.
If I go to a coin or pawn shop to trade in my coin for cash in an emergency, how do I know I'm getting the right exchange rate? How do I keep from getting taken?
First of all, it's always a good idea to have some sense of what the markets are doing. I don't think you need to check them every day, but you want to have some idea of what gold and silver prices are - often called the spot price for the metal.
Secondly, these places will be getting quotes regularly from various markets. There will likely be some fluctuations in the price throughout the day. If you think you're getting low balled, it's your right to go to another vendor and see if they will offer you more money.
Is carrying high value coins safe? Won't I get robbed?
It depends on how you look at it. Is texting while driving safe? Is driving above the speed limit safe? How about going jogging or walking at night with earbuds or headphones on?
There are risks everywhere. That's not paranoia; that's simply stating the obvious. Tonight, I went for a walk wearing headphones listening to loud music. In the dark. On a busy street. Is that risky? Some would say, "absolutely!" while others would simply shrug their shoulders.
Many of you - especially ladies - wear expensive jewelry when you're away from home. Or expensive watches. You leave your purses and briefcases in your offices unattended.
There's a degree of risk to everything we do. You have to decide how best to manage that risk.
And rest assured- security at the places where you'd be changing the coin for cash will be very tight. It's bad for business if people are getting jacked while they are there to buy or sell coins. I have little fear of harm coming to me in a coin or pawn shop in that situation.
What kind of coins should I buy for this purpose?
I only purchase two kinds of coins. I like American Eagle gold coins in one ounce denominations, and Mercury silver dimes. Keep this easy. Coin dealers and pawn shops will easily recognize these coins and their value.
Do you carry coinage with you everywhere you go?
Oh no. I even go out of town, overnight, without it. It really depends on how far away I will be and where I am going. If I am going to a place where I know I will have resources to get home in an emergency, I will likely not take any coinage with me.
Isn't all of this overkill?
It's like I always say - I'm crazy until I'm not. Preppers are regularly portrayed as taking extra, if not unusual, steps to mitigate dangers. I sleep better when I'm out on the road, a long distance from home, knowing that if things were to get bad suddenly, I have the means to get home. I know how to fly a small plane, ride a motorcycle, and drive a decent sized truck if need be. Combined with cash or coinage, I have options to ensure my odds of getting home to my family in an emergency are good.
If you're on the road, hundreds of miles from home, and the credit and banking systems seize up for a few days, how are you getting home? How are you feeding yourself in the meantime?
It doesn't take much - a storm, a change of political parties in power, or a financial crisis - for news feeds to be filled with articles warning people to take action in anticipation of dystopian conditions. Today's article in the UK Independent reminded me that fact.
Such articles beg the question: if such items and guidance are good to have in anticipation of the coming storm/crisis/revolution/zombie invasion, then shouldn't we already have them in our homes? In the article linked above, a former adviser to U.K. prime minister Gordon Brown suggests people have food, water, cash and a plan to get family members home in the event transportation and communication systems break down. Don't get me wrong; I think this is very sound advice. But why is it that we see media stories like this only when things seem perilous?
The answer, of course, is because we are accustomed to our lights, ATMs, water, internet, and grocery stores to work flawlessly and with ample supply all the time. Such features and utilities have become more reliable over time, and so we naturally become conditioned to expecting them to work.
But those niceties don't work from time to time. And because we can run to an ATM or grocery store anytime and pick up some cash or a gallon of milk on a very reliable basis, we never contemplate that we might not be able to at some point. And as a result, when we cannot, the problems caused by such outages are amplified....because no one has made any provisions for that contingency.
So to sum up:
I travel a lot for work. I cover a seven state territory, stretching from Salt Lake City all the way to Baton Rouge. I'm in state capitals the vast majority of the time I am on the road (with the exception of Texas, when I can be in a number of cities). So I'm usually in medium to large cities most of the time I'm on the road.
Over the last year or so, I've been asked what I carry with me on the road to help me be better prepared to deal with various emergencies. I'm somewhat limited by the fact I rarely if ever check bags, meaning there's a lot of useful items (such as pocketknives and multi-tools) I don't bring with me. However, those items can be purchased if needed in a pinch (although there's something to be said for carrying a good folding knife for self defense purposes, as my friend Chuck Rives of Martial Blade Concepts can attest.)
So what do I routinely carry in my carry on suitcase that is TSA-friendly?
Now - do I carry all of these items, every time I travel? Nope. I adjust the gear list based on where I am going and how long I will be there. It does seem like a lot of items, and collectively they do take up space and add weight. But they also provide me with a number of resources to deal with problems when I'm hundreds of miles from home.
What do you carry when you travel?
Check out this piece on FEMA Director Craig Fugate.
Since taking the position in 2009, he has implemented a number of changes that reflect the realities in which the agency operates. A tenured emergency manager prior to his time at FEMA, Fugate made news when he began implementing no-notice exercises - which he calls "thunderbolts" - for his staff.
Preppers often criticize FEMA, and let's be honest - who doesn't like saying the term "FEMA Camp" every now and then? But let's give credit where it's due. Fugate's efforts at FEMA have made a dramatic improvement at the agency, including the enhancement of programs to help citizens get better prepared.
The challenge FEMA has at the moment is the fact so few Americans are working on their own preparedness. We need to be mindful that government agencies can only do so much. Those of us in the preparedness movement need to be doing our part to help set a good example and to be change agents in our own communities.
While we're at it, what can we learn from what FEMA is doing these days in their own operations? For example:
“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
My wife and I watched Kingsman: The Secret Service recently. It's a fantastic movie; I highly recommend it. In the movie, the hero's mentor shares this Hemingway quote with him. It's good for us to ponder its truth as well.
This story in Chicago Magazine reminded me of Hemingway's thoughts of nobility. The Week even picked the story up for an excerpted version, entitling it Preppers: Meet The Paranoid Americans Awaiting The Apocalypse.
Preppers seek a sense of nobility - to be seen not as "paranoid Americans awaiting the apocalypse" but rather as good citizens doing what they can to ameliorate the various risks we face in a modern society. Make no mistake - I don't believe anyone featured in the linked articles is taking irrational measures. We should all be as aware of the world around us as these citizens are. Our social media feeds and grocery store magazine racks are filled with self-help and self improvement articles. Why is improving your fitness or diet acceptable to the masses while improving your readiness to handle crises a symptom of a mental illness?
Yet preppers struggle to shake off pejorative terms and descriptions like "paranoid" and (from the article) "who otherwise seems like a perfectly reasonable man." The clear implication is that someone who is taking active, robust measures to improve their resiliency is not a "perfectly reasonable man" or woman.
Of course, the people the author interviewed and attempted to interview for the article didn't exactly project a chamber of commerce mentality. Many are reticent to share their thoughts on preparedness and the details of their efforts.
There's good reason for this. OPSEC, or “operational security,” dissuades many in the preparedness movement from sharing information or knowledge with others, lest their stored supplies be discovered and requisitioned. Before you cast aspersions on people who feel this way, consider the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has deemed bulk purchases of MREs, waterproofed match containers and flashlights as “potential indicator of terrorist activities.” Is it any surprise that many people prefer to keep their preparedness efforts confidential?
I certainly sympathize with those who have OPSEC concerns. I am frustrated by the fact that one federal agency (FEMA) tells us to “make a kit and have a plan,” while another agency (the FBI) simultaneously asks disaster preparedness vendors to report purchases of items that would be handy to have in an emergency. Apparently, there’s a certain amount of preparedness items the federal government wants us to have. What that amount is, of course, remains a mystery.
Despite these concerns, if the preparedness movement is going to attain the nobility it seeks, it will require many of us to put aside our OPSEC fears and become leaders - public leaders - in the movement. That means some of us need to be willing to identify ourselves as preppers and be willing to talk openly and frankly with others in an effort to get people to make preparedness a priority.
I realize what I am advocating borders on heresy. Rule number one about prepping is "don't talk about prepping." I would submit to you that rule is utter nonsense. If you want people to stop thinking we're "paranoid" or saying we're "otherwise perfectly normal," we have to become apostles of our movement. We need to be setting an example so that others can see the benefits of what we are doing - building more resilient families and communities to better endure the risks we face.
All of you who are taking steps "in the face of the coming apocalypse" think that Y2K "was kind of a downer."
I'm frustrated by the media's insistence on portraying those in the preparedness community - those who are trying to mitigate the effects of problems like we regularly see on the news - as societal outliers.
That's why I believe it is critical that the preparedness community needs to be out doing more - getting involved in local civic and charitable activities, school boards and city councils, houses of worship and youth programs. We need to be out setting an example not only of preparedness but good citizenship. We need to be having conversations with people whose political beliefs are different from our own. We need to be doing these things not only to be in a position to encourage others to become more resilient, but because our nation needs a fresh approach to civics and community activism.
Preppers are uniquely qualified to be a part of that much needed discussion. We identify potential problems and address them. We do our own research. We are willing to learn new skills and ideas. We want to be an asset to our communities.
But for a number of reasons, we shy away. We shy away because we don't believe we can actually make a difference.
Look around your community this evening and ask yourself, "How is this working out for me? Should I be doing more in the community? How can I be of help?"
Today I attended a presentation by Texas Law Shield, a legal defense program for self defense shootings, on recent changes to the Texas gun laws pertaining to concealed carry and open carry of handguns.
Much of the discussion centered around the advent of open carry (OC) of handguns in Texas. Despite the state's reputation of being a gun-friendly state, Texas will become the 44th state to permit open carry in January. We are way behind the curve on this.
One of the biggest issues that came up in the open carry debate in the Texas Legislature centered around the ability of law enforcement to stop someone engaging in OC and ask to see their concealed handgun license. License holders generally fall into two camps on how best to respond to such inquiries - either they say they will refuse to comply (citing their Fourth Amendment rights) or who will provide them everything they ask for (claiming they have nothing to hide.)
We learned from the presenters - both of whom were experienced criminal law attorneys - that law enforcement agencies in Texas are going to push their officers to ask all OC practitioners to show proof of their CHL. Law enforcement officers in San Antonio are reportedly being told "CHL holders were good guys yesterday, but you don’t know if they are today.”
Aside from legal issues stemming from such stop and ask policies, it's clear to me - someone who lobbies legislators for a living and monitored the debate on open carry closely - that the first six months of 2016 will be critical in determining the future of open carry in Texas. I am recommending to anyone who will listen to think like the Mormon missionaries we see from time to time: be as polite and as helpful as you can to everyone you meet, particularly when you are engaging in OC. This especially applies when dealing with law enforcement asking to see your CHL if you are openly carrying a firearm. We want law enforcement officers to quickly surmise that those of us who are CHL holders are good citizens who are simply taking initiative for our own well being. And we want the rest of the public to think that those who are in the OC crowd are the nicest people you could meet.
Perusing the August 5 issue of the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, I came across this piece on Radio Freedom - the community radio station for Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. When a report of an airplane wing - possibly from missing Malasyia Airlines Flight 370 - came from a caller to the station, local responders quickly reported to the area in question.
Growing up in rural Tennessee in the 70s and 80s, I remember when community radio stations played an important role in sharing news and information with the listeners throughout the county. Most of these stations - low wattage AM stations that only transmitted during daylight hours - carried not only syndicated talk radio shows, but also local news and call in features. Many mornings on our way to school, our father would tune into the local "Swap and Shop" show on WLIJ in Shelbyville, TN. Think of it as a very primitive version of Craig's List. Callers would get on the air and announce what they had for sale - livestock, farm equipment, lawn mowers, used cars, mulch, children's clothes and other items. They'd give out the phone number, and the host of the show would dutifully take notes for when people would call the station later and inquire about a particular item for sale.
My mother's parents - Nannie and Papa - would regularly tune into the local AM station in Sparta, Tennessee to hear that day's obituaries. As a teenager with no real appreciation for my own mortality, I found that a bit odd. There was no internet in those days, of course. The fastest way to get local news was from the community AM radio station.
The article in the Journal made me think about the role community radio plays today. My childhood friends, Rusty and Anita Reed, now run both AM stations in Shelbyville. In addition to announcing school closings and severe weather warnings on the air, they also utilize Facebook to get the word out as well.
Even in larger markets, AM radio provides real time information during various emergencies. While FM tends to be clogged with stations that play mom rock and teeny bopper music (for those who have yet to migrate to satellite radio), many AM stations continue to provide local news and weather information. These stations often leverage technology by relaying information now available from the internet (such as severe weather alerts) at much greater speeds than they could just twenty years ago.
Yet most folks don't utilize AM radio. My stepdaughter recently "discovered" the AM/FM radio that's been sitting on the kitchen counter for several years. Her first question - typical for a teenager today - was to inquire how she could plug her smartphone into it. Needless to say, she was rather disappointed to learn that the twenty year old radio did not have an aux port for her phone.
When I ask her about AM radio, she looks at me a bit puzzled, only to recall that there's a button on her car radio that labeled "AM." Of course, she has no idea what that button does.
My wife, on the other hand, does know what AM radio is...and never listens to it. Why listen to news and talk radio when you can enjoy Elton John and the J. Geils Band on a variety of Sirius/XM stations?
To ensure they both have access to news when things get bad, I've programmed their first AM radio preset to the 5,000 watt daytime/1,000 watt nighttime station KLBJ (which at one point was owned by LBJ, hence the call sign) based in Austin. When things get bad, I've told them, punch the AM button and then press "1."
Even if you listen to satellite or FM radio exclusively, make sure you know the local AM stations in your town (large or small) and have them programmed into your vehicle's presets. Make sure the others in your family who have vehicles have their AM presets programmed as well.
Finally, if you travel a fair amount, pick up a small AM/FM transistor radio for your suitcase or briefcase. In the event of a power outage or other local emergency while on the road, having a small radio can really key you in on what's happening in real time.
Here's where I tell you what I think about things I think about.