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Most Americans are not prepared for a disaster. Now survival kits are all over Instagram.

The Kardashians and the Real Housewives are talking about premade Judy survival kits. Are they any good?

Firefighters monitor a back burn as they work to control the spread of wildfires in California.
Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“I’ve always wanted to put together a box that has everything you need in case of an emergency,” Kim Kardashian confessed to me from her Instagram Stories in late January, her disembodied voice narrating the opening of a massive orange crate. The praise was echoed by her mom, Kris, and sister, Kourtney, both posting their own unboxing videos showing off kits designed to support self-sufficiency after disaster.

It was a bit odd to see the Kardashians pivot from pushing detox tea to preaching the preparedness gospel, but they weren’t the only influencers lining up behind the idea. Popular accounts, including those of Olivia Culpo, Nyle DiMarco, Comments by Celebs, Haylie Duff, WeWoreWhat, Makeup by Mario, and not one but two Real Housewives of New Jersey, posted Stories or photos featuring their own orange gear, part of a new line of preparedness kits called Judy.

In 2017, the global market for “incident and emergency management” was valued at $75.5 billion. By 2025, Allied Research Marketing projects it will jump to $423 billion. After decades of such kits being relegated to “survivalist” subcultures or extreme religious sects, you can now purchase versions created for weathering all sorts of storms at Costco or even Pottery Barn.

It’s understandable why the market for disaster preparedness is growing. We’ve seen some of the worst natural disasters in US history in a recent, alarmingly short window. Concerns over the climate continue to rise. The “Doomsday Clock,” created to warn of existential threats, has inched closer to zero hour than ever before, with only 100 metaphorical seconds left until midnight.

That shift into the mainstream comes with a quite literal price and brings an uneasy recognition of what it will mean for those who can’t afford it.


For many, the idea of stocking up on supplies and planning to survive on your own after a disaster might seem still like something out of an apocalyptic TV show. Your thoughts might go straight to bunkers and canned food, cults and reality TV.

In actual reality, the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests all Americans should be prepared to be “self-sufficient” for at least three days after any given disaster. It’s a suggestion they’ve pushed regularly over the past two decades, after evaluating their ability (and lack thereof) to reach people following large-scale emergencies, like the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Repeated surveys show that the message hasn’t quite stuck. Although according to a 2015 FEMA release, 80 percent of Americans live in counties that have been struck by disasters, surveys regularly show around 60 percent of Americans have no emergency plan in place.

“It’s really hard to move the needle on that. People still don’t understand risk very well,” says Anita Chandra, senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. She’s also the vice president and director of the organization’s Social and Economic Well-Being arm, which analyzes the factors needed to build healthy and economically stable communities. Chandra does think the extreme nature of recent events has caused a shift in awareness but believes it’s still not enough. “We are seeing forward progress. Is it fast enough against our risk? No.”

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, thinks part of the problem lies in the lack of clarity around what it means to be prepared.

“The actual nature of the disaster makes a great deal of difference,” Redlener elaborates. “Are we talking about being prepared to stay in your home in some sort of lockdown situation for some period of time? Are we talking about a kit that you have to take with you?”

Clearly, people need supplies like food and water in the wake of any disaster, but as Redlener sees it, typical advice tends to flatten these events into a one-size-fits-all mold, particularly when you look at prepackaged kits. Take the first kit that appears on an Amazon search. Available for $114.99, it promises a “100% satisfaction guarantee” for surviving for three days after “earthquake, hurricanes, floods + other disasters.” It’s a bold claim, considering the myriad variables not only in the disasters described but also when you take into account who might be purchasing the item and the specific needs they have.

“In some ways, they just somehow misrepresent themselves as being ‘disaster preparedness.’ So people think, ‘I’ll buy a kit for my car and another for my house, and I won’t have to think about it again.’ Really a false sense of security,” Redlener says.

Perhaps surprisingly, Simon Huck, the creator of Judy, agrees.


Simon Huck, with Judy.
JUDY

If you follow the Kardashians, Huck’s name might be familiar. The owner of Command Entertainment Group is a friend of the family’s, even starring in a short-lived reality show about public relations produced by Kim K. His pivot into disaster preparedness, while a significant departure from his other career, allowed him to take his PR prowess and connections (see: the posts from all the celebs mentioned above) and apply them to the concerns he heard around climate change.

“A year and a half ago, I sat down and I started speaking to some of these people who had been in emergency situations, whether it was my friends in California, who had had their homes damaged, or in some cases lost their homes, or my friends in New Jersey, in New York who had experienced trauma and anxiety around Hurricane Sandy,” Huck explains. “The common denominator in all of these stories was a fundamental lack of preparedness.”

He did his homework. He found the stats from FEMA about how few Americans had a disaster plan. He enlisted the help of experts from the emergency preparedness field. He scoured the market for other kits, and, while there are plenty, he felt there was a lack of brands truly building a name for themselves. So he decided to create his own.

While traditional disaster kits come optimized for use — as a whole, unstylish and fitting squarely in the necessity-not-accessory bucket — Judy presents preparedness in a millennial-friendly aesthetic, all bold fonts, bright colors, and punchy memes posted on its Instagram to a following of more than 17,000. Each of the three existing kits, costing $60 to $250, are customized for the unique risks you might face based on where you live. For example, just like the Kardashians (give or take a few million), I’m a Californian, so my recommendations are for earthquakes, floods, fires, pandemics, and terrorism.

Even without purchasing a kit, you can punch in your zip code to receive free planning PDFs, which offer basic advice for before, during, and after your prescribed emergencies strike. You can also opt in for text alerts to receive regular preparedness reminders, like to change your smoke detector’s batteries, and respond to that number with any questions you might have. It’s this additional layer of tailored information that Huck believes truly sets Judy apart.

“We learned really early on in our research phase that the act of buying an emergency kit isn’t enough to get you prepared,” Huck says. “It’s the first step, but it’s arguably not the most important. The most important thing you need to do is to have self-knowledge and awareness and education around what to do in an emergency.”

Or, as one Judy Instagram caption puts it: “There’s so much in life we can control: our Spotify playlist, our Sweet Green order, our next Netflix binge. One thing we can’t control? Natural disasters. That’s why you need JUDY, a preparedness brand here to help you deal with the unexpected: emergencies big and small.”

It’s a nice idea — disaster preparedness as a concept as digestible and accessible as Netflix and chill.

“People don’t want to talk about preparedness, and they certainly don’t want to talk about worst-case scenario situations,” Huck says. “So unless you do in a way that doesn’t scare them, that empowers them with the tool kit to be prepared, they really shut down to the category altogether.”

It’s that ease that makes these kits overall so appealing in the first place, despite being regarded with skepticism by experts like Redlener and even by product review outfits like WireCutter. In the site’s list of recommendations for emergency preparedness items, it noted that these kits might be the “easiest way to feel prepared,” but that “none of them are worth your money.”

“Certainly, having a premade bag is a lot better than having nothing,” notes WireCutter’s Kalee Thompson in the review. “But for the money, it won’t be half as good as a kit that you assemble yourself with careful consideration of your own family’s needs in mind.”

Redlener also believes a homemade kit is king; his concern is the personal items that companies can’t account for in mass-marketed kits but that can prove truly critical.

“Each individual in a family unit is going to have certain kinds of needs as you’re putting together your plan,” he says, offering a few examples. “Like having medications for your chronic illness or making sure that you have supplies for your babies and children, which means formula and diapers.”

Recommendations for building your own kit are easy to find across government websites and from the American Red Cross. Still, as Judy winks at in its caption referencing “things we can control,” people like to have things done for them. Can you pick your order at Sweetgreen? Sure. Are you paying a high markup to eat a salad you could have put together at home? Absolutely.

Another impetus in ordering a Sweetgreen salad is, of course, its branding, and Judy is clearly trying to similarly cash in on being “cool.” Instead of being introduced to potential customers through the lens of government officials or disaster experts, who, Huck says, have consulted in its creation, Judy is largely being marketed as a trendy new tool your favorite influencers are excited about. The success of that approach hinges on the fact that Americans are keener to follow in Kim Kardashian’s footsteps than FEMA’s. This, despite the fact that she exists in an income bracket that is less likely to be deeply affected by climate change.

There was a point in 2018 when it felt like all of California was veiled in a layer of smoke. Multiple wildfires were tearing through the drought-dried land, including the Camp Fire in Northern California and the Woolsey Fire on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The latter managed to make headlines not just on the nightly news, but also on TMZ for its proximity to celebrity homes, including that of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The entertainment site noted that the couple’s mansion survived the blaze thanks to private a team of firefighters. It’s a tactic that’s become increasingly common, a perk some insurance companies provide to customers with high property values.

That same year, a study compiled by government and private sector experts warned of the disproportionate impacts of climate change lower-income communities will experience due to climate change.

“Impacts within and across regions will not be distributed equally,” warns the report summary. “People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts.”

“If you’re living hand to mouth and paycheck to paycheck, then setting aside these kinds of resources is really tough to do,” Chandra summarizes. In the US, lower-income communities are also already dealing with a higher rate of pollution in the air and in their water sources, which makes them more vulnerable to any additional issues brought on by climate change. Globally, a similar situation is playing out between higher- and lower-income nations.

If the emergency items market continues to grow as projected, it’s hard to imagine the costs won’t continue to increase, as well, responding to a more competitive and eager market — potentially pricing out the consumers that need them most. That stark contrast in who is able to afford to not only evade disaster but also to recover from them is already clear in the postmortems of recent disasters.

Those who can afford insurance, those who can’t. Those who can afford to relocate from areas with toxic water or air, those who can’t. Those who can afford a kit for each family member, those who can’t.

Recognizing these inequalities, Chandra believes the key to more equitable preparation isn’t just to equip individuals with supplies and information but to focus on broader communities. If one neighbor can’t afford certain items, maybe another can. If one neighbor doesn’t have a certain skill, maybe another does.

“It’s taking a moment to take stock, which is what the preparedness kits can do, but also taking a moment to to to know who’s in your community, and how you can help and how they can help you,” she says. “Not only be prepared for really, really bad things, but to also be prepared for the day-to-day stress. And so you’re investing when you’re doing this and not just, ‘Oh, well, when is the big, big bad thing going to happen?’ You’re actually doing something that makes you and your community healthier.”

It’s something Huck has considered as well. Despite the potentially prohibitive prices of his products, he repeatedly says he wants Judy to reach people from “all walks of life,” whether it’s through buying the kits or using the free resources. The day we spoke, he was in Los Angeles, having hosted a preparedness course at an office the evening before. It’s something he says he hopes becomes a larger part of Judy’s brand in the future.

It was a private event, but snippets and photos from the evening did make it onto social media. You can see Huck, front and center, addressing a well-dressed crowd. In the front row was Kourtney Kardashian.

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