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The Bean Theory:
The Case for Individual and Neighborhood
Emergency Preparedness
by Sally Strackbein

Note: I wrote this essay in 1999 to urge middle class people to prepare for Y2K and any other emergency. Hurricane Katrina sadly demonstrated how woefully inadequate government response is in a large scale emergency. It's not possible to have stores of supplies and equipment ready in just the right place to come to the rescue of anybody, anywhere, any time.

Preparing for pandemic flu or bird flu adds a new dimension to emergency preparedness.

    Substitute "Emergency" or "Pandemic Flu" for "Y2K" and the reasoning is still sound.


In 1999, the Y2K community widely advocated community preparedness. Community preparedness is essential for those who cannot or will not prepare for themselves. But it isn't enough. Individual and neighborhood preparedness is imperative.

I frequently heard individual preparedness efforts labeled "hoarding." We, who were worried enough to be making plans for our families and neighborhoods, were labeled "survivalists." Individual and neighborhood preparedness is about planning for the survival of the neighborhood. If the families in each neighborhood survive, the community will survive. Individual and neighborhood preparedness is not about "heading for the hills." It is about taking responsibility and building cooperation.

This paper advocates survival through diversity. Our world has become increasingly dependent on computers and, for the first time, many of them will experience bugs almost simultaneously. This is the first time we have had advance warning of a catastrophe of this magnitude. We need to prepare in as many ways as possible: individual preparedness, neighborhood preparedness, community preparedness, city preparedness, state preparedness, national preparedness and world preparedness. Diverse preparation by diverse people is essential.

This paper details why community preparedness alone does not work. I urge the leaders of cities, counties, countries, corporations and the Y2K community to do everything they can to educate the public about the Y2K problem.  Community Y2K meetings are not enough.

I urge anyone with any clout to stand up and be counted against the "don't panic the public" messengers. I agree that we don't need panic. We need rational people making rational decisions. We cannot expect the public to make rational decisions when information is being withheld from them. The arrogance that drives people in power to give themselves the authority to decide what is good or right for other people is dangerous. People have the right to make life and death decisions for themselves.

We need to have as many people as possible making contingency plans. The public may be angry if told the truth now. They will be much angrier if told later, when it is too late for them to do anything for themselves or others.

The Problem

The Gartner Group, a well respected, private research firm, presented a report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture which states, "The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has concerns about the Year 2000 (Y2K) remediation project efforts in the various supply chain firms/entities/organizations which comprise the nation's food supply ." The report ranks the level of year 2000 remediation project efforts of the various "topics" in five levels. Level V is "Fully Compliant". Level IV is "Operational Sustainability," meaning the organization can survive the year 2000 threat. The list of topics includes beef, pork, milk, vegetables, fish, seed, fertilizer, General-Line Grocery Wholesalers and more.

    The report shows no area of food production or distribution rated past Level III, the planning/beginning remediation stage. This, alone, threatens our food supply. In addition, the report states, "Little mention of embedded systems is made,". The failure of embedded systems in processing plants can cause the plants to shut down.

Failures or interruptions in electricity, transportation and communication can also result in shortages of food.

Advance Warning

This winter, ice storms across the country interrupted electric power, forcing cold, hungry people into schools for shelter. Newspapers reported that it was miserably uncomfortable sleeping on children's tumbling mats. Some people were not able to get to the schools, so they had to beg shelter wherever they could. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected by the storms.

We experienced an ice storm in January. Our house is all electric, including the pump for our water well. We lost electrical power for two days. No one from the power company or the county came to check on us. We were on our own.

We fared nicely because of our Y2K preparations. We didn't need a shelter. In fact, we were able to help others. We have a wood stove, wood, oil lamps, water, food and flashlights. During the electrical outage, we distributed oil lamps and oil to neighbors and extended invitations to come to our house to warm themselves.

Last October, we began our attempt to mobilize the neighborhood. We held a brunch and sent out three informative newsletters. We thought the response was minimal. Instead, as we visited our neighbors during the power failure, we discovered many had, without telling us, started preparing for Y2K. Some thanked us for our newsletters and showed us they were comfortable because their Y2K preparations allowed them to stay at home during the power failure. They didn't need community shelters.

After the storm, when the power came back on, other neighbors came asking questions. We explained how and why we are preparing for Y2K and we invited them to tell us their concerns and ideas. More neighbors are now preparing in their own diverse ways. Each is committed to educating their immediate neighbors. We are learning about our neighbors' varied skills and talents.

When neighbors come together to work toward a mutual goal, magic happens. Solutions no one has yet imagined may appear when millions of people prepare in their own ways. If Y2K is a non-event, at least we will live in a community of friends instead of a community of strangers.

Disaster Preparedness

Last October, I began buying oil lamps and oil. Wal-Mart had lots of lamps at a good price. Prior to taking as many as I wanted from the store's shelf, I asked when more would appear. "Tomorrow," was the answer. I took less than I wanted and went back the next day. Sure enough, the shelf was full. In December, after the North Carolina ice storms, but before the Virginia ice storms, oil was difficult to find and the lamp shelf was empty for weeks. The moral of this story is:

  1. When you purchase an item before you need it, supply can meet demand because the demand is spread out enough for the manufacturers and distributors to catch up. Before the shortage, taking the item from the shelf causes another (or two) to appear soon.
  2. When everyone needs an item at the same time there are shortages. When you take the item from the shelf during a shortage, someone else doesn't get one.
  3. We know when the Year 2000 will arrive. We know there will be shortages.
  4. Start making Y2K purchases now, before you need to. Help prevent shortages.

Call to Action

The Year 2000 community sounds a call to action. The action is community preparedness: "make sure the schools are equipped to provide water, food, cooking and a warm space through the winter." The calls for community preparedness also mention churches, community centers and other facilities.

As I listen to the people advocating only community preparedness, I perceive a bias against middle class families preparing for possible Y2K related disruptions. Advocates for community preparedness imply that when a middle class family prepares, it somehow interferes with the preparations necessary for the less fortunate or the less prudent.

Many authorities recommend preparing for 72 hours of disruption. This recommendation is ludicrous. If disruptions in power, water or natural gas last for only 72 hours, most families will cope by pooling resources with relatives or neighbors. It only makes sense to motivate the public if you believe the problem is serious enough to cause longer and wide spread disruption.

    When natural disasters, such as the ice storms, occur, hundreds of workers from other states help restore power.  This is mutual aid. When Y2K disruptions occur, there probably will be no one unaffected to help. Some computers everywhere will be confused. Technicians and programmers will be fixing their own problems and will not be available to help others.

Even if the risk of prolonged (2 weeks or more) disruption is small, the risk of not preparing is enormous. Spread out over millions of people, the cost of preparing is small. The risk of Y2K disruptions is far greater than the usual risk of your house burning down. Preparing for Y2K is equivalent to buying fire insurance. If Y2K is a non-event, eat the food you buy and drink the water later.  You have little to lose and so much to gain.

The key to preparing for Y2K disruptions is knowing that everyone will be affected. It is possible that no one will be able to collect food and water in one town and send it to a town in the next state. Although grim, this is the scenario we must anticipate and prepare for. We must prepare for the worst to insure it doesn't happen.

The Bean Theory

The following illustrates why it is absolutely imperative for the middle class to prepare for the onslaught of Y2K disruptions. This paper is not intended to be scholarly treatise. It is intended to stimulate thinking about the impossibility of taking care of the whole population in the schools, churches or community centers. Let's use Fairfax County, Virginia, as an example.



    Fairfax County Population (1997)


    School Enrollment 1997-1998


    Number of Public Schools and Centers


    Average Number of Students per School


    Average Total Population per School






Nutritional charts show a 10 year old child needs about 2000 calories per day. I use this number because it works for the average adult too.

Beans are an inexpensive and readily available source of nourishment. They provide enough food value to keep a person alive for a while. Because canned beans don't need to be cooked to be edible, they can be served even if no cooking facilities are functional. Beans are not a complete source of nutrition, they merely illustrate the impossibility of storing enough food and water in schools to feed the whole population.

An institutional size can of pork and beans holds 3250 calories of food and weighs 7 pounds, 2 ounces. The following examines what it would take to store enough institutional size cans of beans to feed people in shelters if they cannot or will not prepare for Y2K.

Let's compare two scenarios: unprepared individuals and neighborhoods as compared to semi-prepared individuals and neighborhoods.

Sardine Scenario:
The average school in Fairfax County serves a population of 3901 people, including adults and children. Assume all 3901 people need shelter at the school because everyone believed the Y2K optimists and made no preparations. This is called the Sardine Scenario because it provides for 6 times as many people as the schools were designed for, crowded like sardines in a can. Imagine a normal classroom with 6 times as many people in it, lying down, trying to sleep, coughing, snoring, crying, farting…

This is what will be needed if those who can prepare don't.


1 Day

3 Days

14 Days

People to feed




Total calories required




Number of cans of beans




Weight of beans (in pounds)




Cubic Feet of beans
(approx. 5 cans per cu. ft.)




Gallons of water
(drinking and washing)




Gallons of water
(1 flush per person a day)








Storage Required




20' cargo containers needed to
store only beans (1171 cu. ft.)








Semi- Prepared Scenario: Let's assume many, but not the majority, of families have prepared for themselves. Assume the number of people sheltered at this school equals the number of students who attend the school. Assume the other people either stay home or go to the homes of prepared friends or relatives. This scenario will only work if the majority of families prepare for Y2K.


1 Day

3 Days

14 Days

People to feed




Total calories required




Number of cans of beans




Weight of beans (in pounds)




Cubic feet of beans
(approx. 5 cans per cu. ft.)




Gallons of water
(drinking and washing)




Gallons of water
(1 flush per person a day)








Storage Required




20' cargo containers needed to store only beans (1171 cu. ft.)









Winter is the flu season. Sick people, who would ordinarily be home in bed, isolated, will spread their germs, infecting other people in the shelters. Proximity and minimal sanitation spread disease. We will be lucky if flu is the only disease to contend with.

If we assume that community preparedness is required and that the disruptions will last for only two weeks (a conservative estimate), Fairfax county would have to rent 1404 cargo containers or to store the required beans to take care of the whole population. A warehouse would help, but then the beans would need to be transported to the shelters.

Even if every county in the country could find space for enough beans for 14 days, it is doubtful that those in authority will act in a timely fashion. The refusal to act in a timely way is why we have a Y2K problem in the first place.

The above scenarios do not include toilet paper, blankets, diapers, tooth paste or any other essentials. It does not provide for the storage of water. Neither does it make arrangement for human waste disposal, required in case of water shortage.

I certainly do not care to leave the planning of my family's personal needs to someone who thinks of us as only numbers. I would rather look around my home and remind myself to buy a little extra of what I know my family needs.

    The only solution is to urge individual and family preparedness.

The Dilemma

If the public is not alerted, community preparedness is the only option. Who can we count on to get the job done? The President's commission reassures us that there will be little or no problem. There certainly appears to be no action forthcoming at the federal level. I spoke at two town meetings attended by Virginia state senators. At each meeting, a different senator brushed off concerns about Y2K with comments that Virginia's state computer systems would be fine, and there was no need for us to worry.

    How can we reasonably expect people with this mindset to help or at least not hinder community preparedness efforts?

The Solution

Most average middle class families have the resources to prepare if they buy just a little bit extra each shopping trip to the grocery store for the rest of 1999. They may have to cut back on some fast food or movies or candy, but most can do it.

The better prepared the middle class family is, the smaller the number of people who will need shelter in public facilities. Therefore, individual family preparedness is good for the community. Food stored in individual homes does not need storage space in public facilities. The same holds true for water.

While neighborhood cooperation is preferable, individual families, in isolation, stocking their pantries with extra food and water is far better than not having them prepared.

It is imperative to alert everyone, especially middle class families, as soon as possible that they need to begin preparing NOW! Plan for the community to take care of those unable to prepare for themselves and urge those who can to prepare. This is how we can truly avoid panic.


Permission is granted to print and distribute this article so long as it is printed in its entirety, including attribution.

Copyright © Sally Strackbein
www.EmergencyKitchen.com sally@EmergencyKitchen.com

Copyright ©  Sally Strackbein
Permission is granted to reprint a few
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"Sally Strackbein is a speaker and author.
She can be reached at 703-262-0361
or www.EmergencyKitchen.com"

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