Protecting our Girls from Serial Killers – Part I

“It places the lotion in the basket.”

These seven words immediately send a shiver down my spine as I recall the famous scene from Jodie Foster’s classic movie, “The Silence of the Lambs.”

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The Silence of the Lambs, more than any other movie, shaped my view of serial killers. So are they still around and what do we need to know about them in the year 2017?  I am writing this post from a protective mom’s perspective, so I did a bunch of research to figure this out.

I’m a child of the 70’s and 80’s, so I vividly remember what I call the “outbreak of the serial killers” that spiked in this time period.  It seemed like every other week there was another serial killer on the loose.  These creepy, deranged men were lurking behind every corner, just waiting to kidnap our kids or steal young girls from college campuses.

But here we are in 2017. Are serial killers a thing of the past or still a threat?  And why this post?

I am writing this post because I am a mom and I have two girls who are young teenagers and I want to prepare them to face many different threats.  God is their ultimate protector, but I am their mother and it’s my responsibility to educate them as much as possible so that they can make wise decisions and safely grow up to be young women whom God can use to make this world a much better place.

This post actually started two months ago in August when our family took a vacation to Jackson Hole, WY (you can read about it here), and the place where we stayed for the first two nights did not have a room available for all of us to fit in, therefore we were given two adjacent cabins.  For just those two nights, we let the kids have one cabin, while we had the other (our two cabins were five feet apart). When we tucked them in at night, we stressed the following: “do NOT, under any circumstance, open this door for anyone; keep the door locked at all times.  Call or text us if you need anything.  We will be right next door. Stay in your room. We love you.  Go to sleep.”

And because I’m a child of the 80s and watched one too many scary movies (you can read about that lovely period of my life here:  One, two….Freddy’s coming for you) I had a schizophrenic conversation with myself that went something like this: “Heather, what if there is a serial killer in this small mountain town, who noticed that you left your kids in a cabin next to yours….and what if???  You are a terrible mother, putting your kids at a huge risk like this.”  A moment later another voice would chime in: “Heather, this is a small adventure for the kids.  It’s a quiet mountain town.  The chances of a serial killer being here are slim to none. Pray for God’s protection and trust in the Lord.”

The “pray and trust in the Lord” side prevailed and all was completely well.  There was nothing to it.

But it got me thinking…what’s the deal with serial killers?

And then I thought a bit more deeply about it and a bunch of other questions surfaced as well….

Are serial killers a relic of the past or a current threat to my kids?

Haven’t serial killings gone down over the decades?

How have serial killers changed their methods over the years?

What types of victims do serial killers target?  How often do serial killers kill?

Why do they kill?

Are serial killers just waiting to kidnap our daughters from the local mall, grab them as they walk to school, or steal them from their comfortable beds?  

What about girls from suburbia with doting/loving/protective parents (umm, like me and my husband), are they at risk?

How can I prepare my girls (and my son) for serial killers?  What can I tell them to do/not do, in order to protect them?  And not freak them out?

Oh and by the way, did any girls ever get away from serial killers?  What can we learn from them?

And while I’m at it (for some future posts) what are the other top threats and dangers that this demographic (young, teenage girls and young women) might come face to face with?

Before I get into the nitty gritty of my research, I have three stories to share with you.  I call these my “perhaps/perhaps not serial killer stories.”

(Mom, I’m so sorry if you are reading these for the first time….)

The first one occurred when I was only 22 years old, on an a trip to Europe as a part of a large student tour group.  I was alone in Rome one day when I was approached by an Italian man who invited me, in broken English, to join him for a coke. I politely declined and headed for the underground subway system.  Unfortunately, the Italian dude followed me into the subway (in a very sneeky, creepy manner) but I pretended I didn’t notice him following me.  When the subway pulled to a stop, I entered one of the cars right in front of me while he (sneakily) entered into the next car attached, but hid behind people so I wouldn’t know. I pulled a fast one on him — and at the very last moment — I quickly exited my car right before the door closed.  He was trapped in his car.  When he went past me, we both stared at each other.  His was a look of surprise and frustration, almost anger; mine was a smirk and a “ha ha” — while I laughed at him.  I’m so glad I was hyper-vigilant based on all of the 80s horror movies I watched growing up, but why the heck was he following me in the first place?

Se La Vie, creepy European dude.  

Another time, Erik and I went to a mall to shop, and while Erik was in a store, I decided to do some people watching; I was on the second floor, looking down at the ground floor. That’s when I noticed a man watching me, partially hidden behind a column.  Several minutes went by where it appeared that I must be completely alone at the mall.  Occasionally I glanced over the man.  He never stopped starting at me. There was something eerie about him and the way he was watching me; almost like he was targeting me.  When Erik came over to me I immediately looked over at him to see his reaction.  His eyes grew big, he ducked completely behind the pillar, and turned and left the mall in a hurry.

I Saw You, Creepy Mall Dude.

The last story occurred in PERFECT serial killer demographic form (more on that in a second).  First of all, this story takes place in CALIFORNIA in the 1990s.  As much as I love California, it has the largest number of victims of serial killers (source here). (Hello, there was even a MOVIE, set in the 1990’s, called Kalifornia, that took place in California, that dealt with…you guessed it….serial killings that occurred in California.)

So in my mid-twenties I flew out to visit one of my friends who lived in California named Marla (I actually interviewed her here) and we decided to drive up the famous Route 1— California’s beautiful coastline — doing some tent camping along the way.  Everything was going well until we ran out of camping fuel and had to stop at a K-Mart in Monterey, right off of Route 1.  We walked into the store and went directly to the camping aisle.

So there we were, two young girls, with little make-up on so we looked extra young, both of us attractive (if I do say so), standing in the camping aisle, looking at camping fuel, alone.

We were easy targets.  

Out of nowhere a man in his 40s approached us and said “hey girls, I am new to the area and was wondering if you knew of a good camp-site or state park that I can go to.  I’m camping like you are, and I would love a recommendation.” Sensing a creeper, I told him, quite bluntly, “sir, you can go down to the Chamber of Commerce and get recommendations for state parks.”

He then proceeded to tell me that he already knew he could do that, but that he wanted to hear our opinion of where we had already gone, and where we were planning to go to, because he needed a good recommendation.

Ummm, no.

I told him of a State Park we had just visited (and had no plans of returning to) and he said thank you and left. Or so we thought.

Unfortunately, Creepy Kmart Dude did not in fact leave but followed us around the store, always staying just out of sight from us.  Marla and I furtively got into the check out line (always looking out for him), and at the last second he was right behind me in line (he came out of nowhere), so we pretended like we had to return the camping fuel, dashed all around the perimeter of the  store, and quickly left.

The last time I saw him he was standing in the middle of Kmart, turning in circles, looking for us.

We Tricked You, Creepy KMart Dude.

Were these three men serial killers?  Probably not.  But you never know. However, these three stories just confirmed to me that I always need to keep my head held high and be alert to my surrounding, and not put myself in foolish situations.

Now onto the questions I asked at the beginning of this post. I am a research nerd and love knowledge and information, so I will put a bunch of interesting research stats in the P.S. section if you are interested.

For the rest of you, I will briefly answer the above questions and then close with a couple of good stories.  After all, my blog’s theme is story-telling.

The Bottom line of Serial Killers today:

Serial killers are still a current threat, but a smaller one.  But before you relax in your easy chair and watch the new Netflix series about serial killers and think “well, that’s from the 80s,” just remember that approximately 50 of them are still out there at any given time, trolling for victims. Serial killings peaked in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

The stat you need to remember is this: somewhere between 3,500 and 5000 persons are killed each year by a serial killer.  (Source: Serial Killers, Peter Vronsky)

But even if serial killings are less common, it seems Americans are still fascinated by them. I guess it’s because of the brutality and sadistic nature of their crimes.  Or maybe it raises up a primal fear in all of us of a worse case scenario happening to perhaps our own teen daughter as she rides her bike home after work or school one afternoon.  Americans like to be in control.  Serial killers make us all feel nervous and out of control.

As far as the victim profile of serial killers, let’s take a look at the girl in the movie the Silence of the Lambs, as she pretty much sums up both the demographic and the method serial killers use.  First, she was in a vulnerable situation (out walking alone at night), she got tricked by a scam of Buffalo Bill, and she was what he was looking for, specifically he was looking for a larger young lady, (although statistically larger-boned or bigger girls are less likely to be targeted).  So the movie got that pretty much right.

Sadly, prostitutes seem to be the number one target of serial killers. Other vulnerable demographics include runaways, hitchhikers, the homeless, and mentally ill.  Basically people that authorities won’t miss for awhile and/or that the killer feels “safe” to exterminate.

Vulnerable situations include, as mentioned, being out alone at night, kids outside with no adult around, hitchhiking (as touched on above), and just plain old super unlucky people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.   And yes, they choose a wide variety of victims including men and boys and the elderly.  For more information on who they target and why, click here and here.

What about choosing kids?  Certainly, children can be the victims of these killers, but the reality is that the abduction and murder of children by stranger is a very rare crime (approximately 43-147 children are kidnapped by strangers every year).  Most kids who disappear are runaways and most return home. (source: Serial Killers by Peter Vronsky.)  If you teach your kids how to use their intuition and avoid tricky people (I will cover this in part II), you will help your child to be safe.

These killers will most likely not snatch your beautiful 12 year old daughter (or your freshman home from college) from their bed, as long as you lock your doors and windows (and as long as they were not targeted beforehand).  In all my research, if a serial killer broke into a home, it was usually through an unlocked door or window.  They also have preferred “hunting grounds” which are rarely private homes as the chances of being detected and engaged or killed by the residents or neighbors is exceptionally high.

As far as where they kidnap their victims, I would say mainly from public places, and yes, even the mall or just outside (like on the side of the road).  However, I would say your kids and mine are most likely fairly safe as long as they do certain things which I will outline in Part II, but most importantly not being tricked our lured by a bad guy.

Serial killers have changed over the decades in that they use social media a lot more and mass gun violence or gun killings seem to be the new “method” of serial murdering.  (here)

I can speak directly to this as years ago, in October of 2002, the Beltway Snipers paralyzed the greater DC metro area where I live (and in fact, several shootings took place just miles from our home).  I vividly recall passing FBI agents on the side of the road, toting huge assault rifles, inspecting vehicles, looking for the mysterious “white box truck,” while Erik and I nervously drove past.  These two modern day serial killers (John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo) basically paralyzed our entire area for weeks.  I was afraid to go to the store, sit on a bench, or put gas in my car. These two serial killers were later apprehended due to the quick thinking of a truck driver.

The question of why serial killers kill is a matter of much debate, but in a nutshell many believe the following factors could contribute: trauma/abuse/brain injury/social isolation as a child, mental illness, a personality disorder such as psychopathology, and I would add another: demonic possession or oppression.

And now to the one thing I hope you will remember after reading this post:

Most victims of serial killers were lured away by a ruse or a scam by the serial killer.  In fact, 65 percent of serial killers attracted their victims this way. (stat: here.) Many serial killers then took their victim away with their vehicle.

Ted Bundy was a prime example of a serial killers who lured or used a scam.  In addition to being very handsome, smart, and volunteering as a suicide hotline counselor (and a very good one at that, according to his friend Ann Rule who wrote a book about him), he was charming and friendly and caring and had “normal” relationships.  However, he had a super dark side.  If an opportunity presented itself and he saw the “right looking” young woman at the right time, he either a. pretended like he had a hurt arm and then asked these girls to help him with something or b. pretended to be a cop/security guard at a mall and lured girls that way, and then he committed the unspeakable, up to 100 plus times. (His exact victim count is unknown.)

There were at least three young women who did not become a victim of Ted Bundy.  How?   In April of 1974, when Ted Bundy was literally snatching young girls off of college campuses, there were two curious reports that came in.  One girl reported that she was approached by a young, handsome, neatly dressed man with his left arm in a cast who approached her in front of the school library.  He asked her to help him carry his books for him to his car.  She reported that as she approached his car, she noticed that that front passenger seat was missing.  For some reason that she could not explain, she felt suddenly afraid and placed the books on the hood of the car and hurried off, feeling embarrassed by her “irrational” fear.  The second young woman reported that Bundy asked her to help him start his car while he fiddled with the engine in the back (he drove a VW Bug, with the engine in the rear) but she, too, became fearful and suddenly left, saying she was in a hurry and she had to go.

Based on those two stories above, here is my first piece of advice for everyone out there:

TRUST YOUR GUT.

If something feels off, it probably is.  It often takes a minute or two (or sometimes longer) for your conscious thought to catch up to what your subconscious is trying to tell you.  If you’re not sure about something, and you get that weird feeling, run.  Who cares what the other person may think of you.  It might just save your life.

(Gavin De Becker calls trusting your guy “the gift of fear” and writes two books about this, and one is oriented to protecting children and teens: here.)

Our kids and teens can also be tricked especially through social media.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, google “To Catch a Predator” (or click herefor just one way that older men are trolling for your younger daughters.  It’s disgusting.

We all want to protect our girls from various threats and dangers, and while serial killings may be statistically less than they used to be, (and yes other threats may be more prevalent), it’s still good to know how you can avoid them.  I will also be looking for common threads between serial killers and many other dangers that face our daughters and sons today.  For example, I have already shown the connection between serial killers and sex trafficking.  Are there other connections between all of these threats?  If so, what are they? Stay tuned for future posts addressing other threats facing our daughters and sons, such as sex trafficking, gangs, bullying, etc.

In part II, I will tell you what you can do (or teach your kids) to reduce your chances of becoming a victim of a serial killer, and what we can learn from women who got away from them.  

In closing, as I was debating writing a post about this topic, I was channel surfing one night when I caught the very end of the movie called The Lovely Bones about a fourteen year old girl who is lured by a serial killer into his underground bunker and murdered (her body was never found).  The part that got to me the most is when her mom finally went into her bedroom for the first time since she vanished.  Her mom looked around her bedroom, which was untouched since the day she had disappeared, and then tears welled up in her eyes.  She felt her daughter’s presence and said to her:

“I love you, Susie.”

I cannot even imagine what it must be like to lose a child to a serial murderer.

That’s when I decided to write this post, if only to educate myself and my kids.

The movie closes with the following lines:

When my mother came into my room, I realized that all this time I had been waiting for her. I had been waiting so long. I was afraid she wouldn’t come.  Nobody notices when you leave.  I mean, really leave, when you choose to go.  At best, you might feel a whisper, or a wave of a whisper, undulating down. 

My name is Salmon, like the fish. First name: Susie. I was fourteen years old when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

I was here for a moment, and then I was gone.

I wish you all a long and happy life.

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To read Part II in this series: The Top Ten Ways we can protect our kids from serial killers and other bad guys — Part II

To read Part III in this series: The Five Ways to Survive a Serial Killer (part III – protecting our kids)

P.S for all the research nerds, and those who are secretly fascinated with this subject, here are some more interesting serial killers stats:

  • A serial killer may be on the loose in New York City as we speak (click here.)  Also, the person or people responsible for the recent deaths of six women in Ohio remain at large (read the story here).
  • Concerning the number of victims: there are more than 185,000 unsolved homicides committed since 1980.  I can almost bet that a significant number of those homicides were the work of serial killers.  So between that and the fact that known serial killers do not always admit to all of their victims, and that many of them have never been caught, the stats, in my view, are off.
  • Women accounted for 70 percent of the 1,398 known victims of serial killers since 1985. By comparison, women represented only 22 percent of total homicide victims. (please see this article).
  • U.S. serial murder cases with prostitute victims accounted for 32% and/or 35% of all U.S. serial murder cases involving female victims only, 1970-2009, according to these sources: here  and here.
  • And as for the age that they target, the average age of a serial killers victims was 34 years, with the median age was 29 years and mode being 22 years. (here)
  • After peaking at age 29, the chances of being murdered by a serial killer dramatically decrease in one’s 30s, 40s, and 50s. (source here)
  • Serial killers sometimes choose a wide variety of victims.  It’s hard to completely peg the victims of serial killers, as sometimes serial killers choose unique demographics, such as a straight serial killer choosing gay men as his victims, or hospital-staff-turned-serial-killers choosing elderly patients. And yes, there are women serial killers too.
  • And yes, they sometimes target men and boys.  There were many young men that died at the hands of John Wayne Gacy and others.  Again, these boys were out walking alone at night and/or lured because Gacy pretended to be a police officer or wanted to hire them for a job.  He tricked a lot of young men in different ways. Male victims tend to be young men either hitchhiking or seeking work. (To read about this, click here for about 40 different serial killers who targeted men or boys.)
  • However, in the course of doing research I found this: the most common circumstance surrounding serial murders in the U.S., however is a home invasion. Roughly 1,500 Americans have been killed by a serial killer during a home invasion since 1900. (source here). However, in a book I read called Serial Killers – The Method and Madness of Monsters by Peter Vronsky, only 10 percent of serial killers invaded their victims homes (page 307).
  • There were cases of kids walking to school, or going to the mall, or just outside riding a bike or walking to the store, who just disappeared and were later murdered by a serial killer.  In fact, in my local area, they just closed a 40 year old case where two little girls walked to the mall in the mid 70s and were never seen again. (you can read about the Lyon sisters here).
  • There are several theories as to the decline in serial killings but it boils down to better police work, technological advances, they-can’t-get-away-with-it-as much-as-they-used-to (due to Internet and surveillance cameras), lack of the celebrity status and air time serial killers used to receive.
  • There are three theories of why serial killers kill: some type of childhood abuse or neglect, mental illness or personality disorder (such as sociopath, psychopath) and brain injury (source here.) In my research, it also seemed to extensive bed wetting, cruelty to animals, being bullied or excluded by other kids, etc. that were factors to them becoming future serial killers.
  • After the serial killer has tricked and distracted his victim, oftentimes he will quickly smash them over the head with a heavy object. Once they are unconscious, they are moved to another location.
  • Serial killers are generally thought to be very approachable and friendly and are able to mimic decent and kind human behavior.  Most of them don’t “look” or “act” like a killer.  They are charming, handsome, community leaders, and suicide hotline volunteers.  They can live next door to us and we’d never know.
  • An example of serial killers who targeted: there were serial killer cousins who would troll Florida’s coastline looking for women sunbathing on a beach all alone.  They would disable her car in some way and then patiently wait.  When the woman came back to her car and it wouldn’t start, there the sadistic cousins would be, being super nice, and offering her a ride. If the woman took their offer for a free ride, it ended up being the last ride of her life.  (To read more about David Gore and Fred Waterfield, click here.)
  • The source for the first point about serial killings being statistically less came from the FBI’s report Serial Murder: Pathways for Investigations and Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database. Updated 9/4/2016.
  • Some serial killers pretended to be men in authority.  David Allan Gore used his auxiliary sheriff’s badge to trick girls into obeying him. (see source above.) And finally, John Wayne Gacy and the Hillside Stranglers also used a police badge, among many others.
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Interview with a Preparedness Expert/Mom

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Marla is a regular mom with a great skill set — family emergency preparedness — and one of my best friends from high school. I visited her last year at her home in Southern California.  We are standing on a picturesque hill directly above their home in the above photo.  Crazily, the entire area where we are standing caught on fire a few months after this photo was taken.  The out of control wildfire traveled downhill and almost burned down her house.  Read the full story below.

Marla is a preparedness expert/mom who lives in a major wildfire and earthquake zone: Southern California. I met Marla at the start of ninth grade when I took a two year break from public school to attend a small, Christian private school in Syracuse, NY (where I grew up).  Ironically, I was going through my rebellious/class-clown phase during those two years (not so compatible with a strict Christian school), and Marla was my very first friend; we met at my locker.  We’ve kept in touch all these years and I visited her a year and half ago at her home in California and that’s where this interview began. In this interview, Marla discusses the top three ways a family (or individual) can be prepared for a disaster, how to approach thinking about the unexpected, the number one thing you need during an emergency, social unrest and the zombie apocalypse, and how her house literally almost burned down due to an out-of-control wildfire.  I interview her from her well-stocked underground bunker in California.  (Kidding…her garage is well stocked, but no bunker.)

Heather:  Marla, last year you had a wildfire almost burn your house down.  Please tell us what happened.

There were some wildfires in my general area, but due to the wind direction, we were told that our home would probably be ok.  I was at a garage sale in town when my friend’s husband who was fighting the fire said I better get home, because he was pretty sure we’d be evacuated soon, so I drove home.   I could smell smoke and the sky turned a very dark but also a weird orange color as I drove.  I arrived home, and power was out, so no AC, but because of the smoke cover, what would have been 104 + degrees was about 80 something…we packed a few things in the car easily because I had our valuables gathered, consolidated and organized. My new neighbors on either side of my home were pretty panicky. They admittedly couldn’t think straight- so I was able to have the privilege of talking them through what they needed to do and how to prioritize. I asked if I could pray for them and prayed for God’s peace to be known to them.  That was pretty instantaneous after praying. He is a present help in a time of need 🙂  Awhile later I looked out the window and saw a huge plume of black smoke barreling down on our house.  I went out to my back yard to pack up our chickens and just as I finished, I heard a sound like rushing wind — almost like a tornado, and a loud crackling sound.  It was the wildfire coming over our hill behind our house!  My girls and I got in the car and drove out of there, and like an idiot I was almost out of gas and the roads were really backed up.  My husband and some other husbands decided to stay at the house and fight the fire with their garden hoses.  At that time there was no firefighter support. The fire was super close to my house at this point, and according to my husband, had reached a fort my kids had built and it all had to be aflame. My one neighbor came up to my husband and she prayed something like this: “God, you have power over the wind and waves, and over the fire. We ask you to push this fire back, preserve their home and land, do a miracle, and keep the hill from burning.”   And God answered.  All the things that my husband and neighbors saw, with their own eyes, as being consumed by the flames, were not even burnt.  Or near burnt.  Our house was saved.  It was a miracle.
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Above: the wildfire that was coming straight down the hill towards Marla’s house.  It was a miracle that her house and land were saved.

 

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A helicopter sprays water and chemicals over the wildfire.
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Keep your valuables (documents, keepsakes) in one place for easy grabbing.  Marla was able to quickly put those important items into her car, and leave her home, in a moment’s notice.

What did you learn from that experience?

Keep between half and a full tank of gas in your car.  Keep your keepsakes, important documents, and valuables in one place so you can quickly grab them.  Prepare your neighbors for peace (more on that in a moment). And honestly, nobody came to tell us to evacuate; there was no announcement that I was aware of.  Sometimes you have to trust your instincts and not necessarily rely on the authorities to tell you what to do.

Why did you become interested in preparing for a disaster?

Because I do live in a place with earthquakes (Southern California, near the San Andreas fault) and that terrifies me.  I didn’t think much of it and put it off, even after I had children.  Until there was actually a little earthquake one day and I had two little tiny kids in a shopping cart.  It made me realize that I would have no idea where to go or what to do or how to get ahold of my husband or how to get home if the roads were blocked.  And I was in Walmart, in the camping section, so I was very thankful for that.  So I grabbed a few things and left.  But that got me thinking that I should really think a lot more about preparedness.  So I learned a lot about it, took some classes, and started a website.  (Her website is here.)

Let’s start with the two recent devastating hurricane events.  How would you advise a family to be prepared for a hurricane and its aftermath?

First, if you live in area prone to hurricanes and if you haven’t taken the time to make sure you’ve assembled an Emergency Supply Kit, build one now! A few other things: board up your windows, fill the bathtub with water, go over the evacuation plan with the family, and know the location of the nearest hurricane shelter. If you are instructed to evacuate, do so!  You cannot be certain that help will come later if you find yourself in a deadly situation after evacuations have taken place.  Remember to do the following when you prepare to leave home: turn off lights, gas appliances, heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems, keep refrigerator/freezer turned on (and turn it up to the coldest setting), and of course, lock your home!

(For more information on hurricane preparedness, please go directly to Marla’s website. CNN.com also had a great article on this topic; some of the information above was taken from the article: here.)

What are some questions that individuals and families should be asking about being prepared for a disaster?

What are the dangers we could have locally?  What are the natural disasters that may be prevalent in our area?  What kinds of man-made disasters could we face?  What would I like to do in those situations?  Do we want to high-tail it out of town?  Where are we going?  Is that place stocked with what you need?  Natural disasters include hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, flooding, and wildfires.   And in some locations, a tsunami. Man-made emergencies include power grid problems, terrorist attacks, EMPs, etc.

What are some simple ways a family can get prepared?

I think families are loathe to prepare for emergencies because you would rather not think about those difficult scenarios.  But I have three words of advice for you:  SKILLS TRUMP STUFF.  Knowing how to do things is better than having stuff.  The first order of business is coming up with a plan. First, come up with a fire exit plan.  In about four minutes a fire can be raging and almost impossible to escape.  If you live in an earthquake region, practice an earthquake drill.

Figure out where your family is going to meet up in case of a natural disaster or social unrest.  Maybe you work in one corner of the city/county, and your spouse works in another area; maybe your kids attend school in another area.  How are you getting them?  Where are you meeting?  What if traffic is blocked up?  Do you have good walking shoes in your car? Do your kids have extra water, sneakers, and a food bar in the car?  Even schools need to have good supplies in the event of a lock down situation, including a privacy screen.

I will bottom line it for everyone: what are the Top Three Ways to get prepared for an emergency?

First, make a family plan (see above); talk to your family about what you can do to prepare.  Learn about what you already have that can prepare you. For example, big garbage bags can line your toilet for sanitation when there is no plumbing (for sewage purposes, if it comes to that).  Learn how to get water out of your hot water heater.  What are all the water sources in your house? And trust in the Lord.  Secondly, make sure you have a 30 day minimum of WATER (one gallon, per person, per day).  And if there is a big disaster in the city, the Suburbs are the last area to be addressed.  It’s the high density populations that gets addressed first.  Where I live, about 40 minute outside of a big city, they told us it will be two to six months before anyone is able to get out here to address anything.  That’s a long time. Thirdly, have a month’s worth of food.  Start with two weeks and then incrementally increase it.

How do people get started preparing for difficult scenarios?

Start with the basics. Most houses have anywhere between one and two weeks of food.  You need to think: how am I going to cook it with no electricity?  What is my fuel source?  Do I have enough canned food?  STORE WHAT YOU USE AND USE WHAT YOU STORE.  Rotate your food. Know that children and elderly are more prone to starve in a time of distress.   Take small steps.  Be a little more prepared today than you were yesterday.  Preparing for the apocalypse is completely overwhelming and impossible.  Don’t become obsessed and fearful.  If you sense the Lord nudging you to become more prepared, that’s wisdom.  Take small steps.

What can people do to help their community prepare?  

So make your plan for fire exits, make your plan for a couple of natural disasters, then say to your neighbors, “Hey guys!  We’ve never met, we just drive into our garage, but I wanted to give you my contact information, if ever there is an emergency or something suspicious, and hey we made a fire safety plan, and one for a hurricane, if you want we can all brainstorm together and be prepared as a neighborhood.”

People don’t love it.  They are kinda slow and suspicious.  Neighbors can feed and save each other.  There are plenty of stories about the Northridge earthquake where everyone pulled their grills together and grilled all of their meat before it rotted and fed the entire community.  That’s a beautiful thing.  However, 20 percent of the neighborhood will do 80 percent of the work.

What is the number one thing people need access to during a disaster?

Water.  You need to access water.  You can live three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food.  We came home one day and our water had been off all day.  And if that had been prolonged — you realize in those moments where your water is: in your ice cube trays, in the back of your toilet tank (not the bowl!), etc., but how long is that going to last me?  You realize how badly you need water for so many things!  Watch out for those foil pack waters – they taste wretched after a short period of time, and your kids won’t drink them.

Is it important to have access to a local water source such as a lake?  Should you purchase a hiking water filter like Erik and I have for our back-packing trips?  

Here’s the challenge: everyone is going to go to that lake or stream to get water.  There are really great tools like the UV Water purifier.  Like a huge thick pen with a filter; they are battery powered.  You can stick it in your cup of water to purify it.  Have your bottles of water; have your gallons.  Don’t set them straight on concrete, though, because that leeches in.  Sometimes you can use tablets and drops.

(Heather’s note: honestly, if this is the one thing you take away from this interview — think about water.  Do you have a nearby water source?  And do you have a dependable water filter? If not, order a water filter today (google “water filter for back-packing.”) If there is no water source nearby, go buy water at the grocery store and store it in your basement or garage on a shelf.)

Can you talk a little bit about situations that can lead to social unrest?

Extended power outages, “social justice” issues, rioting political protestors, EMPs, terrorist attacks, power grid problems, terrorist attacks.  You could have localized black outs with a nuclear power plant problem or an aged electrical grid. I get paranoid about social unrest.  I have a quick story: the power went out in a grocery store one night.  The doors wouldn’t open; you had to pry the doors open because there was no power.  Everything was pitch black except a flickering green light.  In a very short time I started to hear people chant, with nervous laughter, “Loot the store!”  I left my cart of groceries and got out of there.  I got to my car in pitch blackness.  Did I have anything to light my path?  Or keep me safe? I really didn’t.  When you don’t know the time when things will resolve, people get crazy.

I had wished I had a flashlight on my keychain that didn’t need constant pressure to stay on, and maybe a whistle. Happily- I didn’t need either.

But can’t we all go to a cabin in the woods?

A really nice idea, but your biggest problem is actually getting to the cabin.  And eventually the hungry hoards are going to come looking for food.  People will say “I want an RV.”  You can’t go off-roading in an RV.  Roads are going to be clogged.  What are my back ways of getting there?  How much gas do you need?  Keep your cars half to three quarters full of gas at all times.

(Heather’s note: everyone will come after the RVs, people, just like in the movies and on TV. But I’m not going to lie, I totally want one anyway!  I have heard people say that if the roads are clogged or blocked, try driving over the railroad tracks.)

Marla, let’s talk The Walking Dead.  End of the World.  Zombie Apocalypse.  What then?

Honestly, you’re a goner.  I mean, there is nothing you can do for that stuff.  It’s going to chaos and mayhem.  And you have the Lord; like….that’s it (and really, what more do you need?).  Your days are numbered; He knows when your end is going to be.  Some, even Christian believers, are like “I will kill anyone I have to – to protect my family.”  Others are like “absolutely not. I know where I’m going; if we get taken out, we get taken out.  We are not going to wipe someone off the planet before they have a chance to repent and turn to Christ for salvation.”  I feel like in those times of crisis it’s an opportunity to lead as many to Christ as possible.  It’s our last chance to bring people into eternity.  Our life is fleeting and short; this body is temporary.  That is what I am trying to tell my girls.  If you don’t believe that, I have no help for you.

I fantasize about setting up a bunker; I’m not going to lie.  It’s nice to find like-minded people with whom you can live in community if it comes to that. But it is really going to take a lot of financial investment and a lot of educating yourself in order to prepare for that. And is that really what you’re here on earth for? Maybe. Maybe not.

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I’m not sure if an RV, a bunker, or a cabin in the woods will protect us from zombies or normal people who act like zombies during a period of social unrest. So let’s spend the little bit of margin we all have to store about a month’s worth of food and water (and a few other necessary items — including a water filter — see the list below), and pray that the above scenario never happens!!

You’ve touched on this a little bit, but should you help people that run out of food in a crisis situation?  

That’s lovely, but you only have so much.  Also, when people find out that you have food and you help, more people are going to come, most likely.  The best thing you can do is to help your community be prepared.

How do you know when it’s time to leave your home?

I always say to my husband: “what is our clue that things are getting bad and we need to high-tail it out of a situation?  What would be the catalyst?”  So we would leave and have a two week or two month vacation, and maybe we would come back and maybe we won’t.  I think that is where you have to be led by the Spirit and not led by fear.  It’s a delicate balance.  Perfect love casts out fear, but we also want to be prepared and protect our family.

Advice for how the faith community should approach preparedness and social unrest?  

Christians have an opportunity to be more prepared for PEACE.  So we help those around us more effectively, and be a light in a dark world.  Jesus is the prince of peace.  We want to be deliverers of that peace.  And ultimately knowing that your life is in His hands brings peace.

Joseph’s life is a cool example. God showed him to prepare for hard times ahead and when famine came, not only was Egypt saved but many people from far away received aid.

Closing thoughts?

You cannot avoid the inevitable and unpredictable, but you CAN plan for SOME of it.  You have to prepare yourself mentally before you are out of time. Remember two words: peaceful preparedness….anyone who is a little more prepared or has put a little bit more thought into how something might be like is going to be calm when that thing happens.  SKILLS TRUMP STUFF.  We hate thinking about it….but thinking about it is going to get you further along than buying an emergency pack at Walmart and never looking in it or figuring out what its lacking for you is practically fruitless.  Know things.

Preparedness in one sentence?

There is a quote in the book of Proverbs that I think sums up preparedness well: “A wise person sees danger ahead and prepares for it.”

A little bit of wisdom goes a long way.

Thank you Marla for sharing your tips with us!

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Marla and me on a beach, when all was well in the world and there was no emergency to think about.

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Closing thoughts from Heather:

If you are a back-packer/hiker or love to go camping, you will already have a bunch of preparedness items in your basement or garage (think camp stove, propane, water filter). The one thing I cannot stress enough is: do you have a plan to access water?  I think my biggest take away, after interviewing Marla, is that I actually don’t have much of a family plan in place in case of a disaster.  My kids go to school across town and in case something happens, and the streets are clogged or shut down, I’m not really sure how to get to them.  A couple of other takeaways:

  • It’s good to pack sneakers and water bottles (and protein bars) in the car – just in case.
  • I’m glad I already have a water filter and live near a lake.
  • I’m glad skills are more important than stuff.
  • I need to organize all of my keepsakes and important papers in one spot.
  • I need to remind the kids about the fire plan we made a long time ago.
  • I hope I can get to the grocery store before everyone else does. 🙂
  • I have a long way to go.

One last note: when you are making any sort of plan, please don’t forget your pets!!

Thanks for reading!!

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For further resources:

Click here for the Red Cross, which already has emergency kits put together for you: here.

The CDC also recommends you should have an emergency kit prepared.  Whether or not you actually do that, scan the list below to make sure you have most of these items around your house in case of an emergency.

Please go to the CDC here.

The CDC recommends the following:

At Least a 3-day Supply of Food and Water

Water – one gallon per person, per day

(Heather: I am adding in water filter right here.)

Food – foods that are easy to make and won’t spoil, like canned soup, dry pasta, and powdered milk

•Manual can opener

•Basic utensils to prepare and serve meals

•3-day supply of all medicines, at a minimum

•Medical supplies like syringes, a walking cane, or hearing aids with extra batteries

•Soap

•Toothbrush and toothpaste

•Baby wipes

•Contact lenses or glasses

•First aid kit

•Emergency blanket

•Multipurpose tool (that can act as a knife, file, pliers, and screwdriver)

•Whistle

•Flashlight

•Radio (battery-powered, solar, or hand-crank) for updates on the situation

•Cell phone with chargers

•Extra batteries and cash.  Find out where your gas, electric, and water shut-off locations are, and how to turn them off.

There is more to this list, so please visit the website.