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Utahns stocking up — just in case

Water, toilet paper and other items for emergencies selling like hot cakes

A number of Utahns flocked to stores to buy emergency supplies this week to prepare for a war against Iraq. Others, who already have food storage and supplies, say they have done nothing out of the ordinary — but still feel prepared.

Water, toilet paper, emergency supplies and army meals were selling like hotcakes — even better, actually — at Salt Lake area stores this week.

In Taylorsville, the Army Navy Store was completely sold out of MRE ration entrees (Meals Ready to Eat) and 72-hour kits. And Mylar blankets, light sticks, matches, fuel and water purification tablets were "going fast," according to store employee Vicky Berry.

Business at the military/survival store has been twice as brisk as normal — and comparable to how busy it was after Sept. 11 and before Y2K — since President Bush gave Saddam Hussein a 48-hour ultimatum Monday.

"Big time," Berry said when asked if the store had seen an increase in customers. "We've sold everything. In the last two days, it's been an extreme trend."

Roxi Olson, a Draper mother of three young daughters, hauled five cases of 32-ounce bottles of water on a flat cart along with bulk-sized bags of long grain, dry beans, rice and flour at Costco. On Tuesday, she bought three 55-gallon jugs of water.

"And I'm coming back tomorrow to buy more," she said. That despite the fact that "people look at you weird."

Olson has been a proponent of food storage since she was a little kid, so this was nothing new for her. But the war and worries of potential terrorist attacks on U.S. soil prompted her to beef up her supplies.

"Yeah, I'm freaked out," she said. "I have kids. I want to be prepared."

Shannan Wainwright admits she might have a false sense of security, but she doesn't think there is a need in her house for a room outfitted to withstand a biological or chemical attack.

"We're not a coastal state. We're not in New York or Washington D.C. What's Utah?" Wainwright said.

And she's not even in Salt Lake City. She lives in a quiet neighborhood in West Bountiful.

Location is at least partly why she chose not to follow recent instructions from the Department of Homeland Security to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to create a safe room in her home.

"By default we have duct tape," for odd jobs around the house, she said. She has plastic too—left over from a recent remodeling project.

The duct tape is in the garage while the plastic is tucked away on a shelf inside her food storage room — a room that provides Wainwright with a real sense of security in an insecure world.

In that 10-foot by 10-foot space, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, Wainwright has the means to feed her family of five for six months: 100 2-liter bottles of water, 400 pounds of wheat, hundreds of pounds of rice and pasta, and more.

"We probably wouldn't be eating like kings, but we could survive," she said.

In the same room, Wainwright has individual emergency grab-bags prepared for each member of her family with food, clothing and supplies for 72 hours.

And she has done so for seven years — long before February's instruction from U.S. Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to keep a three-day supply of food, water and medical supplies on hand.

Food storage is habit and almost even a hobby for Wainwright and many other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Orem resident Randal Ellsworth, who has a year food supply, said he was taught the importance of preparation by his parents.

"For more than a hundred years, church leaders have taught members to store grain and other essentials that would sustain life in times of drought or famine," said Michael Otterson, director of media relations for the LDS Church.

But with increased terrorist alerts, media interest in LDS preparation methods has increased.

Ellsworth's cousin Debra Burt from Maryland was featured in a USA Today article in February.

"Some might think it is strange," Burt said. But like her cousin Ellsworth, she says food storage has been a part of life since childhood. "I was raised this way. My mom had food storage and taught me how to do it."

Ellsworth also has a supply of antibiotics to treat the members of his family in case of exposure to anthrax.

But Otterson says the principle behind Church preparation is more about saving for a rainy day than preparing for doomsday.

Verdi White, Utah deputy commissioner of public safety, agrees.

"So far, we have not had a specific terrorist threat for Utah," and it is unlikely there will be one, White said.

"I have duct tape, but it is in the garage and I have plastic to cover the floor when I paint, but I don't have any to put around the house or anything like that," White said.

What Utahn's need is enough supplies and food to live "relatively normal" lives for a number of days in case of an emergency elsewhere, he said.

"A terrorist attack in California could slow the flow of truck loads of food and supplies that come to Utah," White said. "Everyone should stock-up on daily essentials just in case."

But still there are plenty of Utahns, LDS or not, who don't have a three-day supply, White said.

"Our goal is to change that before the day of need comes," he said.

Though seeing shoppers leave warehouse stores with globs of groceries isn't uncommon, Costco sold at least two times as much water as normal before the strikes on Baghdad began Wednesday night.

"People have been walking out with a lot of water," said Thomas Cantrell, Costco's food supervisor. "More than usual."

The other most popular item: T.P.

"That," Michelle Crowley, of Draper, said, "is something I do not want to be without."

In time of war. Or not.


E-MAIL: jparkingson@desnews.com; jody@desnews.com