Image: Harry Weyandt
Steve C. Wilson  /  AP
Harry Weyandt stands in the storage area of his Nitro Pak store where products are pulled from the shelves to fill emergency kits. Weyandt's business has been booming with recent concerns about the possibility of a flu pandemic.
updated 5/4/2006 6:22:08 PM ET 2006-05-04T22:22:08

Harry R. Weyandt worries about a deadly flu pandemic reaching the United States for a different reason from most people: It would overwhelm his business.

Nice on the bottom line. Murder on the nerves.

There’s no pandemic yet, and bird flu hasn’t shown up in North America. But the staff at Weyandt’s disaster preparedness store is already scrambling to keep up with demand for everything from freeze-dried foods to first-aid kits.

“What I’m not looking forward to is when they announce the first bird with avian flu is in the country,” said Weyandt, owner of Nitro-Pak Preparedness Center Inc. in Heber City, about 35 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. “Because I know what will happen. It’ll be crazy here.”

Sales of emergency supplies are booming amid growing fears of a virulent global flu. Across the country, suppliers say they’re already struggling to keep stock on hand, and it’s taking longer to fill orders.

Phyllis Hopkins of Best Prices Storable Foods in Quinlan, Texas, said the business barely had a breather between the Gulf Coast hurricanes last year and bird flu warnings that intensified over the winter.

“We can’t keep product in stock,” said Hopkins, who runs the business with her husband, Bruce Hopkins. “As soon as it comes in, it goes right off the shelf.”

Pandemic panic buying means heady times for such businesses, which are typically family owned and have no more than a handful of employees.

Weyandt said Nitro-Pak’s March sales this year were up 600 percent from last year. He wouldn’t reveal the company’s finances, but said total sales last year were in the “mid-seven figures.”

Nitro-Pak’s storefront warehouse looks like a cross between a Costco for survivalists and the post office before the Christmas holiday rush. Cardboard crates stacked floor-to-ceiling spill over with long-burning emergency candles, mini-rolls of toilet paper, waterproof matches and freeze-dried foods ranging from eggs with bacon to blueberry cheesecake.

Scurrying between boxes, workers race to fill orders and load them onto heavy pallets that ship out every afternoon.

Even Weyandt’s office, a sparsely furnished affair not much bigger than a typical master bedroom, has desks overflowing with backpacks, compasses and space blankets.

A strain of bird flu known as H5N1 has killed millions of chickens and more than 100 people worldwide since 2003, mostly in Asia. While the deaths are blamed on close contact with sick poultry, experts are afraid the virus could mutate to spread easily among people.

If it arrives in North America, even businesses that stand to make a fortune say they’re not prepared.

“This industry is so teeny, that if something happens to get everybody in a panic, it can’t handle it,” said Richard Mankamyer, owner of The Survival Center in McKenna, Wash.

In recent months, federal and state officials have been urging Americans to stock up on emergency supplies.

At Oregon Freeze Dry in Albany, Ore., orders for its No. 10-size cans, which hold eight to 17 servings of food each, have jumped tenfold since the Gulf Coast hurricanes last year, said Melanie Cornutt, assistant manager. The company’s Mountain House division is well-known for its line of backpacking foods.

“We’ve gone through these spikes for 35 years now, but we don’t try to keep a huge amount of inventory on hand because it’s so hard to predict when the next one will hit,” Cornutt said.

In a worst-case scenario, federal officials say a pandemic flu might kill up to 2 million Americans and keep up to 40 percent of the work force at home for several weeks.

Still, industry veterans said the flu frenzy is nothing like the preparedness industry saw leading up to Y2K worries, when people feared computer systems would crash when Jan. 1, 2000, arrived.

In 1999, Nitro-Pak’s staff grew to 80, working in a 44,000-square-foot warehouse, Weyandt said. Today, Nitro-Pak employs 12 people full-time in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse.

Among the company’s biggest sellers now is a 72-hour survival kit for two. The “executive” model, for $135.99, fits in a small backpack and is loaded with three dozen items, including high-energy foods, water pouches, a radio, a tent, space blanket, pocket knife and even a deck of playing cards.

Utah residents may be better prepared for emergencies, Weyandt said, because the Mormon church — the state’s dominant religion — encourages members to stock up with food and water in case of disaster. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calls the practice “provident living.”

Industry veterans said many startup companies got into the preparedness business before Y2K, only to fold when no a crisis materialized. Similar boom-and-bust cycles followed the Sept. 11 terror attacks, California earthquakes and hurricanes in the South.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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