By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) – While the nuclear crisis in Japan unfolds a continent away, Mormon-dominated communities in the western United States say the disaster overseas is bringing close to home a lesson about preparing for the worst.
Emergency planning and the long-term storage of food, water and medical supplies are central practices by the 14 million worldwide members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The tradition stems from doctrine - "If ye are prepared ye shall not fear" - established by Joseph Smith when he founded the church in 1830 in upstate New York. It also stems from the persecution that drove his early followers from the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains in 1847.
Present-day Mormons, concentrated in the United States in Utah, California and Idaho, say preparedness and self-reliance are a way of life and not signs of survivalist leanings or knee-jerk responses to disasters.
"It's not a sudden, spectacular program," said Craig Rasmussen, spokesman for the church in Idaho, second only to Utah for the highest percentage of Mormons.
Worries about radiation from Japan's crippled nuclear plants have spurred sales in the West of potassium iodide to block absorption of cancer-causing radioactive iodine even though U.S. officials say minor amounts detected in the air, rainwater or milk in 15 states pose no health risks.
At a time of renewed interest in how to cope with calamity in a region where Mormonism is the prevailing religious, cultural and social influence, companies selling dehydrated, freeze-dried or canned foods in bulk are reporting rising sales.
Don Pectol, vice president with Emergency Essentials Inc., a retail and online emergency supply chain based near Salt Lake City, said top sellers are powdered milk, water purifiers and meat processed to extend shelf life.
Pectol said the spike came after harmless levels of radiation were detected in states like Utah, Idaho and Arizona and the upsurge is similar to one that happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
Another online seller of stored food said on its website that dried dairy products and powered eggs were temporarily unavailable.
University of Colorado sociologist Kathleen Tierney, head of a national institute that tracks society's reactions to disasters, said potential nuclear threats place people on heightened alert.
She said fears lessen with measures like stocking up on food or remedies because a sense of control replaces the feeling of helplessness.
"It's normal behavior during uncertainty," said Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Mormon Mark Oliverson, a dentist and father of three in the remote mountain town of Salmon in central Idaho, said he and his wife routinely add and rotate items in the family's year-long supply of food. The couple also attends the church's workshops on emergency planning, food storage and other practices that make up so-called provident living.
"It puts you in a position to take care of yourself and provide for your family through hard times - and that puts you in a good position to help others," he said.
Church leaders say that principle allows it to respond to emergencies worldwide.
In the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Mormon missionaries working in areas near Japan's stricken nuclear reactors were moved to safety.
Officials said congregations in Japan have since set up an emergency response committee to organize volunteers distributing food, water, fuel and blankets.
The hazard center's Tierney said models like that confirm studies that show "we are better people in disasters than in day-to-day situations."
Eric Erickson, head of a group of Mormon congregations in the eastern Idaho community of Rexburg, where 90 percent of 24,000 residents are church members, said the crisis in Japan would likely prompt local leaders to fine-tune emergency plans and communications systems.
"Katrina provided us the opportunity to re-look at things and revisit those principles; this will be another," he said.