A government billboard motorists see when driving north on Route 31 toward McHenry encourages residents to be prepared for a disaster.
Some may view the message as a general reminder to stay safe, others as the first step in protecting themselves from the end of civilization.
Americans have a never-ending list of disasters to worry about, ranging from the loss of a job to the more catastrophic earthquakes, tsunamis and meteor strikes.
"People are waking up to the fact that a disaster can happen to them," said Tom Martin, founder of the Sandy, Utah-based American Preppers Network. "It was always just something that happened to someone in a far away land. Now everyone knows someone who has been through one."
Some type of preparation is recommended, most experts agree, but to what level continues to be debated as natural disasters and mass shootings, among other incidents, remain in the public eye.
The website ready.gov urges residents to create a kit of emergency supplies that could last at least three days, if not longer, that focus on fresh water, food, first aid and clean air.
The bug-out bag, or go bag, as it is commonly referred, can travel with a resident in the event of a disaster or mass evacuation.
McHenry County Emergency Management Agency Director David Christensen has three locations where he keeps supplies on hand – the office, his car and at home.
He keeps things like a shaving kit, extra water and a change of clothes at the office and a shovel and extra water, food and fuel in his vehicle, and he rotates 20 gallons of water, food items, extra blankets, flashlights and lanterns at home.
The county’s EMA has four full-time employees and approximately 50 volunteers available during an emergency situation, making it that much more important for residents to be prepared, Christensen said.
“If a quarter [of people] are taking care of themselves, think how much easier it will be for us to help the most needy,” he said. “Some type of basic preparedness helps everyone.”
Martin agrees with having at least three days worth of supplies, but he goes a step further at home.
“I’ve got six months worth of supplies at home, and carry around three months with me when I am on the road,” said Martin, who created the APN as a way for people to exchange ideas and information on how better to be prepared for any type of disaster. “I also have some basic survival and foraging skills. I could last indefinitely.”
He encourages residents to start by stocking three weeks worth of supplies and slowly building up to three months, or even a year’s worth.
Tom Dorsch, a former special agent with the U.S. State Department, ran a survival school for more than 10 years in Wisconsin and Colorado, where he taught a variety of outdoor skills including hunting food, finding water, navigating on land and identifying plants.
He is now director of operations at On Target Range & Tactical Training Center in Crystal Lake, and believes prepping has increased in popularity because of government distrust among Americans.
“There are a lot of people who feel that the government is not working in their best interests,” Dorsch said. “It could be a natural disaster like a food shortage or plague that sweeps the land, or a manmade disaster where the grid goes down. This is what the ‘preppers’ are waiting for.”
An added element to prepping in some cases includes the stockpiling of weapons and ammunition. That choice has grown in visibility following the Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., shootings, which has created a national debate on gun control.
It has also been sensationalized with reality TV shows like “Doomsday Preppers,” Martin said, which airs on the National Geographic Channel.
“Each person has to evaluate his or her own situation,” said Martin, who declined to state whether he had guns or not. “If they feel weapons are needed, get the proper training and learn the rules and regulations.”
That training includes any type of weapon, from knives, mace and pepper spray, all the way up to handguns, rifles and shotguns.
At On Target, training session participation and gun sales have been increasing during the past several months, Dorsch said.
The business trains its customers to use a weapon as a last resort.
“Our theme is never how to make a person a killer,” he said. “We teach what things people need to know to be safer, to protect their family.”
The government-run ready.gov website, which includes an option to call 800-237-3239, also recommends a family emergency plan that includes an escape route with an out-of-town contact because in the case of a natural or manmade disaster, a long-distance phone call may be the only option.
“Communication between the family is probably the most important thing,” Christensen said.
Making an emergency kit
Recommended supplies to include in a basic kit include:
• Non-perishable food
• Battery-operated or hand-crank radio
• Weather radio
• Extra batteries
• First-aid kit
• Filter mask or cotton t-shirt
• Towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties
• Wrench or pliers
• Manual can opener
• Plastic sheeting and duct tape
• Important family documents
• Any unique family items such as prescription medication or baby formula