Why 72 Hours?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

Seventy Two Hours

As I follow the unfolding Y2K story Im beginning to see the number 72 hours used more often as a measure of how long we might expect problems to last. Quasi-governmental and even government agencies now tend to use this number quite often, as in we should expect most problems to be fixed within 72 hours.

What is used to arrive at this number? Is this a prediction based on fact -- or is it merely someones dream?

I can offer several thoughts. Any of these might be partially correct, but Id like to hear other peoples opinions.

First, in an early column, Dick Mills offered the idea that any electrical power problem could be fixed within 72 hours, therefore if power goes out, it will be restored within that time frame. This offering lacks credibility, since weve seen weather induced problems lead to blackouts of much greater than this -- two of them this past winter in Virginia and Bethesda, MD. Besides, Mills scenario simply doesnt account for embedded systems problems in which no compliant spare is available. So, if the 72 hour guess is based on Mills early out-of-the-hat number, it simply isnt valid. We have no assurance that power could be restored within this period of time. Maybe it can, maybe it cant

Second is the idea that within 72 hours FEMA could set up and provide shelter and necessities for the suffering masses. This makes some sense: theres no way that FEMA or the National Guard can know in advance where they will be needed, so that if the population can get through the first 72 hours on their own, the feds can be rolled out to the actual locations where theyre needed.

It bothers me for three reasons. No one I know of whos taken advantage of federal shelter during hurricanes has come away from the ordeal praising their experience. People who have been forced to use federal shelters have grim tales to tell of sleeping on school gym floors and using the same two commodes as 500 others. But, it also bothers me because it assumes that any problems are sporadic and isolated.......that FEMA and/or the National Guard would be able to establish such shelters, or that generators and food are available for every effected location. Finally, no where does this concept lead to the idea that the more people are prepared the less of a problem we will have. Instead, it leads to more of the government will take care of it.

If this is the rationale for the 72 hour number, then a big mistake is being made. We should be told that we are responsible for preparing to the best of our ability, but that the government will try to establish a safety net within the first 72 hours.

Third, the 72 hour period is so short that most people would add a couple of cans of tuna to their pantries and consider themselves in great shape. So, preparation wouldnt occupy people, and the panic of the masses could be averted. I mean, anyone can survive for 72 hours, cant they? Not a problem, no need to worry. Besides, how much cash do I really need to take out of the bank to cover me for 72 hours? Ah, is this the real reason for the 72 hour period? Allow for disruptions, but make them so short as to not cause concern?

There is a 4th reason, but I dont place much credence in it. By starting with 72 hours, people could become accustomed to the idea of preparing, and the period for which they should prepare could be increased later. Id like to believe it, but I dont: the 72 hour period is just too short to get many people beginning preparation.

-- De (dealton@concentric.net), February 21, 1999


:) Actually, it's a typo, if you've read Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy then you know the answer is 42, not 72...... :)

Seriously though, Dick Mill's 72 hours isn't out of a hat, it comes from the time it takes to boot up a typical coal fired power plant + 12-36 hours to correct circuit failures. Please note this assumes that any spare parts will work, as you pointed out.

I would like to point out that if you go to a socialist government shelter, you have to turn in any firearms, hmmmm.... Hence the need for private shelters.

I think that your fourth answer is the answer. The difference between preparing for 72 hours (3 days) and 2 weeks is not that big of an EMOTIONAL difference. Even the difference between 3 days and three months is not a big EMOTIONAL difference. The EMOTIONAL difference between ZERO preparation and to just 72 or even 24 hours is HUGE. It takes a HUGE shift in thinking, it also requires a VERY steep learning curve. It shifts Y2K from an annoyance to a serious problem. For non-survivalists this is a HUGE mindshift.

As for your point that a 72 hour "threat" is enough to get people off their duff, I agree. There might be a parallel here between the "everything fixed by 12-31-98 - one full year for testing, no problem" being shifted now to everything fixed by 6-30-999 - six full months for testing, no problem". Notice they didn't even bother with 3-31-99? Do you think they'll do the 9-31-99 with three whole months for testing?

A good place for preparation newbies is


-- Ken Seger (kenseger@earthlink.net), February 21, 1999.

De, I agree with all of the above, plus a significant other (if I understand it right) that a week's worth of cash would be equivalent to a bank run so you have to keep the amount withdrawn less than that. There was a good Westergaard article a while back that the public should be pushed to prepare for 2 weeks to a month. Why? Noone will take *either* 3 months (the real goal) or 2-3 days seriously. Also, it might take a week or two to set up the shelters.

I think recommending only 72 hours for mid-winter here in the north is irresponsible. I don't think people are getting the idea they need to worry about an alternative heat source, or if they do, that a generator (because of limitations on fuel storage) might not be able to handle it for them.

There is also a complacency in telling people to compare for a storm. I see at least three significant reasons why Y2K is not a storm, all of which should be prompting people to prepare: My insurance company told me I probably would not be reimbursed if my pipes burst from a Y2K-related electrical outage. Natural gas pipelines are as vulnerable as any other utility (I think more so). If problems are widespread, out-of-state repairmen may not be available (plus your point that spare parts may be more problematic to obtain).

-- Brooks (brooksbie@hotmail.com), February 21, 1999.

I believe the consensus is that the 72 hours was chosen because people are used to hearing it in regard to emergency response post-storm, as you point out. It's fairly non-threatening, they've heard it before; it hasn't caused any panic, as (probably) planned. The 72 hours may well be gradually increased as Y2K gets closer. We don't know if the government has contacted major food producers, asking them to gear up for more production. I seem to remember one of the producers at the recent Food Supply hearings saying that it takes something like nine months to tool up for increased production. If this is so and they only got serious January 1--well, you see the problem.

I guess at this point we ought to be thankful for small mercies, however tiny they may be. This is not to say that we shouldn't keep pushing for the 72 hours to be extended or give the impression that three days is enough. The attitude should be, "Yep, it's a good thing but it's only a beginning, a bare minimum. If you can do three days, would it really be that much harder to do seven? Fourteen?" If we come right out now and say, "That's ridiculous! Three days? Pah!" we'll scare people off. Better they stash away three days' worth of food than not at all. Get them used to the idea first.

Not everyone can put away six months' or more of supplies, it just isn't possible. For those who can't (or won't) the government will have to step in. It's not something that can be avoided, hasn't been in good times, why should it be in bad? No, I don't agree with it, but that's reality. If food production, and a corresponding PR campaign to store as much food as you can, isn't geared up until, say, September, I doubt that most people could afford to buy more than a few week's worth of groceries anyway. (You know people won't set aside the money for it until they have to spend it.) Let's hope that some producers get ahead of schedule on this one, although it's difficult to see how they can can corn and other summer veggies until they're ripe--mid-summer at the earliest. The logistics just don't seem to support everyone stashing away a lot of food right at this very moment.

Perhaps someone better versed in the food supply can offer an answer not based in so much speculation.

-- Old Git (anon@spamproblems.com), February 21, 1999.

I think you guys are essentially right in your assessments except for one small but vital link that you're overlooking. Apparently, the average grocery store has three days worth of inventory of most items on the shelves. Most items are reordered and rotated every 72 hours. Apparently, the average American shopper goes to the grocery store every three days to buy more staple items. (I'm not sure exactly how this number was arrived at, but, it's been bandied around on this forum a lot. Having worked in a grocery store in high school, and analyzing my own shopping habits, it sounds about right.)

While the Power and Shelter things you mention make sense, I think that "the Powers That Be" are aware of restocking and shopping patterns and are telling people "72 Hours" knowing that this is essentially what most people have in the house anyway. If "they" were to say "Two Weeks," this may cause a huge strain on inventory of a lot of items and make shortages more obvious. If shortages were more obvious, the herd may get spooked and start to wonder about cash...etc. etc.

So, as Ken suggests, it's an emotional manipulation. Tell 'em there's a problem, and tell 'em "the solution" is to do what they are basically doing anyway. That way, "the solution" does not exacerbate the problem...

-- pshannon (pshannon@inch.com), February 21, 1999.

Good post. Another example of the 72 hours came out during the recent Senate Food and Agriculture Industry Hearing about two weeks ago. It was stated (this is from memory) that some foods, like fresh milk and some produce, would only stay fresh for 72 hours if there were problems anywhere in the chain.

Perhaps more interesting is the observation, which RC came up with on the "Panic - Inevitability and Timing" thread, is that in order to do any type of warning for folks, an initial period and magnitude must be assumed first - regardless of what it is - you have to assume some quantifiable elapsed time and corresponding degree of severity.

-- Rob Michaels (sonofdust@net.com), February 21, 1999.

DId you fools KNOw THAT DIEtERs FATHER MeT DieTERS MOTHER ONLY 72hOurs before dieteR was BORN??????Is it not True THAT THE SEcOND WOrLD WAR WAS FOuGHt and won in 72 HOuRS????? IS IT Not PROOvEN THAT A MAN caN LEave NEyORK AND BE IN CHIcAGO IN LEss than 72 HOUrS?????

-- Dieter (questions@toask.com), February 21, 1999.

Perception and mindset. 72 hours or three days is the standard emergency & disaster preparedness recommendation WHEN help can come from the outside. (They need time to mobilize, and still think they can do it from the outside. Which, is possibly true in some areas.)

That is still the Y2K unknown, at this timing, for most emergency & disaster groups, so theyll be conservative until better data can be had.

I suspect the .gov types will gradually increase the time frame early next Fall as the final reports roll in and as the 2000 deadline seems more real in peoples minds. (Assuming we have a better handle on the Y2K national and global repercussions situation).

A lot can happen in the next six months, or not.

Do you choose to rely on your government to save you? Fuzzy thinking, IMHO.


-- Diane J. Squire (sacredspaces@yahoo.com), February 21, 1999.

Three days is a very convenient figure - only that and nothing more.

Some more discussion on this subject at:


-- dave (wotendave@hotmail..com), February 21, 1999.

72 hours is about how much fuel the backup generators have at most public services agencies, police, fire, hospitals, etc

-- athpfft (punyettas@swhgogght.com), February 22, 1999.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ