Does stockpiling water and guns in a northern Wisconsin cabin truly prepare you for society's inevitable (and/or unlikely) meltdown?

According to James Carafano, an expert in national security at the conservative Heritage Foundation, one’s odds of being killed in a U.S. terror attack are 1 in 22 million, less likely than where National Geographic pegs a shark attack (1 in 8 million), meteorite strike (1 in 1.6 million) or tornado casualty (1 in 60,000). A 25-year Army veteran and former speechwriter for the Army chief of staff, Carafano takes a more scaled-down, homespun approach to preparing for the “zombie apocalypse” and other impending disasters, remembering that one’s master plan should also account for everyday disasters — death by plain old fire is a 1 in 250 risk. His new book Surviving the End is a bit of an anti-prepper treatise that also finds holes in the counsel of such institutions as the Red Cross and FEMA.


“When I looked at the research, most of what I found is it’s not what you do to prepare for a disaster, like stockpiling water and having a bomb shelter. It’s who you are,” he says. “Resilient family structures are more cohesive, and health and fitness is kind of [an obvious factor].  I used to joke, the most likely person to survive a disaster is a high school educated, married yoga instructor.”


We interviewed Carafano last week when he was in town for a lecture at Marquette University.


carafano surviving the endA certain number of people in Wisconsin have cabins up north they use for vacation purposes, and they also use them as places to retreat in case of disaster. They have barrels full of water and food for six months. Is there any value in that?


Yes and no. There are different groups, preppers and survivalists. For some people it’s about living after the zombie apocalypse. For others, it’s about demonstrating they can live off the grid, and it’s a business. There’s a whole culture around this, selling freeze dried food and generators and stuff. It’s kind of a hobby. If somebody wants to do that, and they enjoy it, go for it. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of us can’t do that. For a low income family, for example, you’re not going to get a cabin in the woods stocked with food and ammunition. The other thing is, during the sort of everyday disaster we see in the United States, the earthquake, hurricane, or flood, you don’t need that to survive. And if it’s the apocalypse, you’re not going to survive, anyway.


One of the apocalyptic threats is an electromagnetic pulse. You denote a nuclear weapon in space, and it fries the electrical grid. Ninety percent of Americans die because there’s no electricity, no way to get clean water, no way heat your home. So [you say], “I’m going to survive the EMP because I’m going to have a generator, and it’s going to have a Faraday cage, which is a way to prevent overload.” OK, great. What are you going to do when your generator runs out of gas? What are you going to do when you run out of bullets? You’re not really going to survive the end of time.


The common, everyday things that Americans can do are actually the things they should be doing every day. How do you keep your family together in a disaster – you have a communication plan, a way to contact each other. Or you have a rally point. There are basic, simple things like learning CPR. If you go online and look up the Red Cross and other [sources], there’s always this thing about your “go” kit. You stockpile water and batteries, which most of us never do. I went through and looked at all these items, and 99 percent are in the average home anyway. Rather than having these kits – where the batteries are dead, the food’s expired, the water’s expired, the medical supplies are expired and the whole thing’s useless – know the list of things you should have in your home and make sure they’re replenished on a periodic basis.

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The fitness thing – it doesn’t matter how you get fit – but I went through and decided that of all the fitness crazes, yoga (I do yoga, so maybe I’m prejudiced) is a good all-around way to check all of the blocks for fitness for the average person. There’s absolutely no guidance in any Red Cross or FEMA [guide] about personal protection. And there are lots of scenarios where I might need to protect myself or my family, in a riot, looting, or something else. My answer [in the book] was, after looking at all the data, get a gun. Practically, for the average person, that means a .22. You’re not going to bring down an elephant, but for 99 percent of what you’re going to need a gun for, it’s perfectly fine.


What about shotguns?


I’m not a big fan of shotguns. The gun is there mostly for its deterrent value, or if you have to shoot someone, you want something that’s going to be valuable in an active shooter scenario. But with a shotgun, there could be civilians around, and you want to make sure you hit what you’re shooting at. There’s just much more versatility in the .22 for the average, everyday American, if not for the survivalist or the person who wants to survive the zombie apocalypse.


I’m going to put you on the spot. What do you do in your own life for disaster preparedness?


Nothing. I do yoga. I wrote the book for people like me. I don’t have a “go” bag or an arms locker. I personally don’t own a gun. But I know the basics. One of the things I talk about in the book is the proper way to make a 911 call. I realized I had never made one, so I did some research – and about two months after the book came out, I was riding the bus, and the bus driver said, “Oh my god, did you see that.” And he pulled the bus over. A car that was passing in front of us had hit a pedestrian and driven away, and the poor guy was just lying in the street. Everybody else did what you do in disasters, which was to get out of the bus and stare at the guy. Before I got out of the bus, I made a perfect 911 call and waited until the ambulance came.


How badly was the guy injured?


I’m not sure. As soon as the ambulance arrived, I left. If there’s something going on in an emergency situation, and you’re not actively involved, the best thing you can do is leave. You’re getting out of the way, and second, if this is a terrorist attack, one of the common tactics is to set off a car bomb. And when everyone runs to see what’s going on, you set off another one. In the [hit and run] situation, the ambulance came up and beeped at a person who was standing in the way. I had to walk up to the woman and say, “Could you get out of the way?”

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In a city like Milwaukee, people say, who’s going to bomb the U.S. Bank tower? Is that valid?


No. Look. On one hand, the odds of anyone, anywhere being killed in a terrorist attack are very, very, very, very small. On the other hand, they’re not zero. We have a database of Islamist-related terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11. By our count there are 84 plots that were attempted. Most of them were thwarted. If you look at the preponderance of those, it’s Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and the eastern corridor. There’s a few in Chicago. But there have been cases in other places and material support cases all over the country. The odds aren’t zero.


Is this an unsafe time to travel to Europe?


Well, don’t be stupid. Don’t go to a place where you know Americans are at risk, and those are fairly easy to determine if you look at State Department’s travel advisory website. Beyond that, you want to adapt responsible security practices. High traffic tourist sites are the biggest places for the hacking of phones. You never want to use an unsecured WiFi in Times Square or Disneyworld or Paris or London. Your odds of being hacked go up astronomically. The first thing you do when you book into a hotel is look at the evacuation plan. Never stay on the top floor or the bottom floor. The bottom floor has the easiest access, and on the top floor, you’re kind of trapped.


A few years ago, I interviewed a national security expert who said we’re too worried about atomic this and that; we need to be more worried about biological weapons.


I’ve got a chapter on all the things that scare people. I’ve got one on bioweapon attacks, nuclear attacks, and terror attacks, and what are the common, everyday things someone can do. In a nuclear attack, if you’re far enough away to survive an initial attack, the primary threat to your life is mass fire. Mass fire is actually a bigger destructive agent than the explosion. How do you survive a mass fire? Actually, it’s no different than a forest fire or if you were trapped in a building. It’s basic fire response stuff.


On [biological warfare], one of the things I really focus on is self-diagnostics. There’s a lot you can do. There’s so much medical stuff you can do without a doctor or emergency room or hazmat suit. Threats are much more damaging if they can enter the body – eyes, nose, throat, ears, vectors for pathogens of all kinds. Don’t breathe the smoke, don’t eat things, don’t put your fingers in your mouth.


Are population centers inherently more dangerous?


Not necessarily – they have more resources and capabilities. It depends on the catastrophe and the incident. FEMA once asked, Where are you safest? OK, you don’t want to be on the East Coast because of hurricanes, and you don’t want to be on the West Coast because of earthquakes. The safest place to live is a place like Wisconsin in the summertime, but not in a tornado zone. In the winter you want to live in a place like Arizona, so you’re not exposed to extreme weather.