Disasters as Experiences of Care: How to Pack a Go Bag, Give Mutual Aid in Crisis, and Rethink Queer Preparedness

When I was a teenager, my parents prepped for the y2k crisis. Anticipating a global meltdown on January 1, 2000, they bought a farmhouse on land in rural Virginia. On most weekends in 1999, we left our white suburb in Richmond for “the y2k house” so my dad could plant and hand thresh wheat, hunt deer and squirrels, put up shelf-stable supplies, and fix up the bonus room in case more people needed shelter.

This apocalypse was born when programmers predicted global chaos resulting from a software bug. Older computers abbreviated the year in dates to two digits—so “2000” becomes “00.” This meant that on the first day of the new year, some systems could act as if we were back in the year 1900. Mainframes, medical systems, and government tech were all at risk, experts said. My parents agreed.

I believed what I was told. And yet the chores I was assigned at the y2k house felt impossible. I didn’t want to help my mom double-dig vegetable beds in the front yard. I hated helping my dad organize buckets of food in our basement storehouse. Ashamed, I hid in bed to write in my notebook. Ironically, my inner life centered on computers. I envisioned myself as a programming wizard and sketched the magical characters I roleplayed in chatrooms (ah, the wild early days of internet life!) on my PC at home. I could see no place for myself amidst our family’s preparedness fantasy, so I associated myself with our narrative of threat, while also imagining myself uniquely empowered to fix it.

The eve of the rollover arrived. Prince’s “Party Like it’s 1999” played over and over on the radio. We watched the New Year’s celebrations on TV, wondering if the power would cut midway through, plunging us into darkness. The lights stayed on, though. We switched them off ourselves when it was time for bed. Since the dates changed at different times around the world, my parents said, the shutdown might not happen for a while. But time passed, and our new millennium arrived with a surprising lack of fanfare—or tragedy. We waited a day, and then another. We listened to the news. Nothing changed. Eventually, my parents packed up the Dodge pickup truck and we made our way home.

Was I relieved? Not exactly. My future still felt shapeless, as it had been before the world was supposed to end. The fact that there had been no apocalypse didn’t change the fact that I was queer. What did change for me, though, was my perception of safety, self-sufficiency, and readiness for disaster. I want to live a life that isn’t defined by fear, I told myself, even if that means living under dystopia.

Years later, COVID-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020, and a few months after we entered lockdown my friend Nina Budabin McQuown, an editor, writer, and producer, asked me if I’d co-host a podcast. The name would be Queers at the End of the World, and the idea was to explore stories of apocalypse, dystopia, and survival through the lens of queerness. Yes, we would be discussing the very narratives of paranoia my parents had fed me throughout my childhood, the stories that had informed our family’s preparation for a false apocalypse. And through those conversations we would try to make queer art.

As little as I wanted to revisit the psychic bunker that had defined my coming of age, I also desired a way to tell my version of that story. So I agreed to the project, and Nina suggested we begin by talking about go bags. Also known as a bug out bag, a battle box, or a personal emergency relocation kit (PERK), a go bag contains the supplies—food, water first-aid, tools, maps, light, masks—you need to survive for several days in a crisis. Even though we agreed it was a smart idea, especially during COVID-19, neither of us had assembled one yet. “I don’t do preparedness,” I said to Nina. But could we change that? Was openly facing disaster, violence, and a climate-changed future something I could do?

When we interviewed organizer Kalaya’an Mendoza, who works with the justice collective Across Frontlines, he told us he didn’t like the term “prepper.” He explained, “The thing I see a lot, especially in the States, around disaster preparedness is the hoarding of supplies, or ‘gotta get all my guns,’” he said. “But the only thing that has allowed our species to survive all of the trials that we have experienced, from colonization to plagues, is building community with one another.”

Mendoza, who identifies as queer, Filipinx, hard of hearing, and as an immigrant, seems nothing like what I imagine as a “prepper.” Nina and I found him on Instagram, where one post in his feed depicts Mendoza serving as a bike marshall at protest. He’s wearing a DIY hot pink onesie made from a safety vest and short shorts, and definitely looks like someone I wish I was cool enough to be friends with. Later, another post depicts Mendoza’s go bag, providing a detailed breakdown of the supplies he’s put inside.

In Mendoza’s view, preparing for an apocalypse isn’t that different from getting ready for a protest. When we asked him for an alternative term for preparedness work, he said, “I like to think of the folks who are looking out for the community, one another, folks doing mutual aid, as protectors.” This term, which Mendoza says comes from the native organizers at Standing Rock, poses preparation as healing justice, something we can all participate in together.

Later, I asked Mendoza about the origins of his interest in safety. How, I wondered, could anyone be obsessed with something I so powerfully wished to forget? Mendoza related a memory of the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which struck when he was a child. “I distinctly remember how our community—we lived in a small apartment complex—made it really fun for the kids. All the parents came out with their barbecue grills and we cooked for one another.” In his memory, I realized, disasters are linked with experiences of care.

I don’t mean to imply that Mendoza thinks crises are fun. Rather, I think he has a nuanced understanding of what dangerous circumstances can offer us. I told him that, in my past, fear seemed like it was the enemy, a force to be battled and resisted. Mendoza replied, “I invite folks to think about fear as a teacher. Fear teaches us how to be safe. How to survive.”

Cate Steane, who runs Make it Happen Preparedness Services in Santa Rosa California, also connects the idea of apocalypse with potential healing. This ability, to see opportunity in moments of crisis, seems shared among queer folks for whom preparedness is an obsession. Steane comes at preparedness from a different angle, consulting with larger businesses and essential businesses like homeless shelters and in-home care services on how to rebound after a disaster. But her approach was still all about giving care.

“For an organization,” Steane said, “you have to assume that people’s first impulse is going to be to take care of their families.” Since the continued operation of a business relies on staff returning to work quickly, Steane tells those businesses to support the safety of their employees’ families. “I encourage businesses to give their employees materials on how to develop a family plan. And then offer incentives, where if they bring back in a completed family plan, you give them a starter emergency kit.” Like Mendoza, Steane approaches preparedness by acknowledging community ties, and inventing ways to strengthen those ties in the face of disaster.

For me, though, the best part of talking to Steane was learning about her alternate identity, the Safety Freak. She told me, “I was part of a hiking group that would go on camping trips in the summer and part of our tradition was a talent—or lack of talent—show. Somebody had called me ‘safety freak’ and I’m like, I can hang with that.” She put together a skit, arriving on stage as a superhero in a cape, a helmet, and a leather belt stuffed with supplies. Safety Freak became a recurring character who appeared at Steane’s trainings to explain the dimensions of disaster readiness through comedy. How perfectly queer, I thought, to celebrate this obsession with safety by getting into costume. Maybe I can hang with that too.

The threats Mendoza and Steane focus on are different, even though their love for safety is similar. Mendoza talked about mutual aid during COVID-19, and the state-sanctioned violence he had witnessed at BLM protests in New York City. Steane was interested in the earthquakes and fires that put Californians in danger every year. This difference helped me see why go bags were important to each person. Preparing one isn’t some general queer obligation. It’s a tactical response to a specific threat, and it puts you in conversation with your region, your community, and your future.

If you’re ready to build a go bag of your own, Cate Steane has a guide to go bags and stay supplies on her website. I’d also recommend checking out the New York Times climate risk map Steane shared with me. It’s a good basis for identifying the most pressing climate change-driven threats to your local community. Finally, Mendoza suggested including in your bag “something portable that makes you feel safe — emotionally.” This could be a book, a stuffed animal, or a family photo. “Because when I talk about safety and security,” Mendoza said, “it’s not just physical. It’s also emotional, mental, and spiritual safety and security. That’s the only way that we’re able to move past trauma and towards healing.”

Steph Niaupari, a founder of the Washington D.C.-based food and body liberation movement Plantita Power, also touched on the notion of an internal go bag when we talked. I’d sought out Niaupari because I wanted to talk about community work that wasn’t specifically focused on disasters — but still met head on the threat of dystopia, chaos, and danger. When I asked them to speak on their concept of preparedness, Niaupari said, “I see it more as what skills do I have, or what skills do the people in my group or pod have. We ourselves are our own go bags, because we’re going to figure it out wherever we go. As we have been.”

When they formed Plantita Power in 2019, Niaupari sought to create a community agriculture space where QTBIPOC folks could feel respected. But gaining access to land in D.C. was nightmarish. “The process behind it, the bureaucracy, is ridiculous, and it takes years, and you have to have the connections in order to do it.” Besides, Niaupari added, creating harmony in any private space is inherently fraught. “I wanted to make sure we weren’t replicating the violence we had experienced in other gardens,” they said. “It came to a point where we said let’s just stay at your space. Let’s create a garden in your backyard, on your porch, wherever it may be. And that’s how we started with the collective gardens.”

What would have happened if, in the late 90s, my family had built a community garden instead of a private bunker? As Niaupari said, gardens are not utopias. But I do imagine a world where, when the next disaster hits, I have a keener sense of who to give support to, and how—and who I can lean on when I’m facing grief and chaos. I’m realizing the heart of preparedness involves knowing, and really believing, that you are not alone.

At the end of my conversation with Niaupari, we ended up talking about this cart used by folks in their community to distribute resources at BLM protests—food, water, and even binders. Niaupari, who models for gc2b, was able to secure a supply. At that event, the sign on the cart read, “Water for the revolution, food for resistance, and free binders because we’re fucking fabulous.” When I said that this cart resonated with my musings on go bags, Niaupari let me know I wasn’t the only person inspired by it. In fact, the cart is going to be featured in Syan Rose’s forthcoming illustrated oral history of queer and trans resistance, Our Work is Everywhere (Arsenal Pulp Press).

It’s tempting for me to call Niaupari’s queer cart a “go cart,” but I actually think it’s critical to keep the two things separate. Preparedness might begin with a go bag, but it’s sustained through efforts like Niaupari’s, and those of the other queer community safety leaders I talked to in order to understand what being ready really means. I think, ultimately, it’s something that queers are already pretty good at—as Niaupari said, “figuring it out.” This is not about lingering in paranoia. It’s about being fucking fabulous, together.

When I think about preparedness, part of me will always invoke the “prepper.” Like Steane’s safety freak, he’s become this outsized character, an apparition who helps me understand my relationship with paranoia, isolation, and the hoarding of supplies. A gun-toting sheriff, this guy cleverly anticipates dystopian chaos (because masculinity!) and stands behind the fortified walls of his compound, deciding who will be let in and who will be deemed a monster.

Lately, I’ve been building a compost bin for the community garden on my block in New York City. And much as I’d like to avoid encountering my bearded specter as I enter these grounds, he’s inescapable. Even if my parents didn’t always resemble this awful fellow, he’s part of our history. I think about him when I plant vegetables, and when I dig my fingers into soil. Facing what he represents is a challenge, but when I do, it helps me see my future. I’m no longer occupied with compounds, and which side of the wall I’ll end up on. Preparing is something we will do together, as a community. As Mendoza says, “We keep us safe.”

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Nat Mesnard is a writer and game designer based in NYC. The co-host Queers at the End of the World, and have published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in Bodega, Blackbird, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. New work includes poetry in WE WANT IT ALL, an anthology of radical trans poetics from Nightboat Books, and a tabletop roleplaying game, BUSINESS WIZARDS, from 9th Level Games. Nat teaches Narrative Design at the Pratt Institute, and has taught at the Hudson Valley Writers Center, and with the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop.

Nat has written 1 article for us.

13 Comments

  1. So goooooood!!! I particularly loved the end, and will be thinking more about your use of the word “occupation.” It makes me consider how I as a white folk/body am also “occupied” by the (white supremacist, isolationist, individualist) mentalities and archetypes of my past/my ancestors…and that we all (white folks too/even/especially) have much to learn from folks whose ancestors pass forward different lessons.

  2. I woke up this morning to the sound of fire-fighting helicopters and thought about packing a go bag while I chatted with my mailman, walked the dog, and prayed for the hillside. This was the perfect read <3
    Your article reminded me of playing with the neighborhood kids during blackouts and spending an evacuation at my aunt's house, in addition to the annoying thought that there are people who holed up in their million dollar bunkers at the beginning of the pandemic instead of supporting their communities.
    (the fire has been contained, btw)

  3. Oooh, thank you Nat. So grateful that you get into the difference between ‘prepping’ as a me/me and my family thing, and community preparedness <3 As a solo prepper (in my head at least) I can't hear this enough. Just diving in to your podcast! Love that you kicked off with Parables :)

    Also – I'm sure you're well aware of adrienne maree brown's Parables (with the wonderful Toshi Reagon) and How to Survive the End of the World (with Autumn Brown) podcasts, but to anyone enjoying this post who hasn't discovered these yet…go go go.

  4. I’m not a prepped really, but I do have some basic emergency planning supplies. I was once caught in a large building with others during a snowstorm and had to use the supplies in my car to help others. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to not focus on myself because I had supplies and instead think about how to be useful helping others. Preparation CAN be optimistic and come from a place of love and not fear

  5. Nat, you are so right about preparedness being about community. After the 2017 Northern California Fires, someone asked me what the top three things were that made a difference in how people fared. I said insurance, cloud backup, and networks. The more communities you’re a part of, the more opportunities you will have to receive and give support. Remember that, just like a potluck, in the communities that emerge in response to emergencies, you need to bring something to the party. It can be skills, supplies, food (the universal language of love), or connections. The simplest way to prepare is to develop more of whatever it is you bring to the party. Because if there’s one thing queers know how to do, it’s how to throw a fabulous party.

  6. Such a great read for a topic at the front of a lot of our minds right now. I added “invest in emergency preparedness” to my goals for 2021; I think the convergence of the pandemic with the myriad of other crises we’ve experienced in the past few years have really sharpened our awareness of how important preparedness is, both for ourselves and our communities.

    I actually took a class during my library degree about disaster preparedness in libraries. Public libraries in particular are often critical resources in the aftermath of a disaster (power, computers, internet access, centralized distribution, etc.) but we’re often overlooked when communities put together disaster plans. That class really changed my perspective on how I can serve my community in moments of crisis, and also highlighted why it’s so important to make sure I’m prepared within my personal life. When we’re prepared to handle an emergency, we can more quickly secure our own safety and shift our focus to the safety and needs of others.

    • Mikayla, thanks so much for bringing up libraries! I do emergency preparedness for a living and I had never thought about the roles libraries can play. We have so much to learn from each other.

  7. My girlfriend grew up in an apocalyptic cult (Jehovah’s Witnesses), so your childhood story sounds a lot like the ones I hear from her. Climate change is going to hit Australia a lot harder than other places, so preparedness is something I’m thinking about a lot lately. A good book for that has been The Handbook: Surviving and Living With Climate Change by Jane Rawson. Something that’s tricky for me is to think about the possible ways in which everything can go wrong without despairing about everything actually going wrong.

    • Despair, like fear, comes from feeling like you have no control over events. The way to fight it is to build your skills, knowledge, community, and supplies so that you do have some ability to respond well. As you build your competence, your confidence will grow. And don’t think you have to do it all at once. Just take small actions consistently, so that every week you’re a little more prepared than you were the week before.

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