October 6, 2005
US Mormons prepare for worst by storing supplies
By Laura Zuckerman
REXBURG, Idaho (Reuters) - On a mild October day, disaster
seems unlikely to strike this Mormon outpost in Idaho but that
does not stop residents from preparing for the worst.
Americans have begun to ponder how they would cope with major
disaster. But for many of Rexburg, Idaho's 22,000 residents --
roughly 90 percent of whom are members of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints -- the question of who will provide
if calamity strikes has long been settled.
A decades-old Mormon practice of storing one year's supply
of food for each family member has been expanded to include the
purchase of emergency-related equipment and a recommendation to
have health, life and property insurance.
"There was a time when we were considered kooky
survivalists," said attorney Greg Moeller, unsalaried head of a
group of congregations, known as a stake, in Rexburg. "Now
perceptions have changed."
Storing emergency supplies is linked to a church doctrine
by founder Joseph Smith: "If ye are prepared ye shall not
fear." Additionally, Mormon leaders say persecution of early
members of the church, established in the 19th century, helped
create a tradition of preparing for emergencies.
A church that advises its 13 million members to prime
themselves for disaster is poised to provide for others, its
leaders say, adding that the broader society would benefit from
adopting its model. They point to trucks loaded with food and
hygiene kits the church sent to the Gulf Coast after Katrina
struck and before government agencies arrived.
Residents of Rexburg, home of Brigham Young
University-Idaho, have some understanding of what hurricane
victims have suffered. The town was nearly destroyed in 1976
when the Teton Dam failed, flooding 300 square miles, killing
at least 11 and causing $1 billion in damage.
The flood claimed the house of Dean Arnold, 84. "I lost
everything but the people from the church came from all over
Utah and western Idaho with their food and other supplies and
we had plenty," he said.
Web sites maintained by the church contain hundreds of
pages of information about types of food and drink to store.
One site provides an interactive calculator to help families
determine how much food is required for each member.
Similarly, government and disaster agencies offer a wealth
of information on Web sites about emergency preparedness. The
U.S. Department of Homeland Security is charged with educating
the public about personal planning and preparedness, but it is
unclear if its message has reached a mass audience.
By contrast, Mormon admonitions about preparedness mesh
with a prime church directive that members be self-reliant.
When the Bush administration promoted faith-based
initiatives, officials at church headquarters in Salt Lake
City, Utah, declined to apply for government funding to help
fuel the church's multimillion-dollar welfare program.
Stretching across 13 acres in downtown Salt Lake City, the
church's Welfare Square contains food and milk-processing
plants as well as canneries and an employment center.
Idaho Falls, 30 miles southwest of Rexburg, is home to one
of church's 108 food storehouses across the United States and
Canada. Like Welfare Square, the Idaho Falls facility has a
cannery manned by volunteers and maintains warehouses stacked
with goods ranging from chicken-noodle soup to strawberry jam.
Charles Olsen, the Idaho Falls facility manager, said the
practice of producing at church-owned farms the food it offers
to the needy and to members to store for emergencies is another
example of "practicing what it preaches."
"We tell our members to rely on themselves, not government
aid, so it's only natural the church doesn't accept government
assistance," he said.
The storehouse allows church members to pack goods for
storage and provides staples such as bulk grains and dried
fruit. Labels indicate nutritional value and shelf life.
Doyle Batt, who heads a 3,000-member stake in Idaho Falls,
said his family maintains a year's supply of food and 72-hour
kits with essentials for emergencies. Batt says he often
reminds members to prepare for calamities.
"We're hearing about major catastrophes with greater
frequency -- famines in Africa, the tsunami in Asia, now
hurricanes in this country," he said.
Katherine Isaacs and her husband recently made the 10-hour
drive to Idaho Falls from their eastern Montana home to package
food for storage and to fill food orders for members of their
congregation. "I think we're going to need it very soon, if not
for ourselves, for others," Isaacs said.