I don’t care whether you are a first responder, volunteer, emergency manager, or simply a concerned citizen – you know you should be prepared! However, I’ve found that talking the talk (i.e. knowledge) and walking the walk (i.e. actually being ready) are not the same thing. In fact, some who know the most are actually the laziest about doing the work (including myself at times). There’s a bit of magical thinking going on – if we talk about it enough, we feel like it has magically happened.
Everyone also knows we should practice our plans, but individually this often gets forgotten. Pretty crazy that we put together community wide drills, but neglect drills with just a few family members. So today I give you a personalized desktop exercise. Try it by yourself, or even better, make it a family activity (or I am the only warped one where disasters are an OK topic at family meals?).
Collapsed Northridge Parking Structure – 1994. Photo by AWarc.
This is an earthquake scenario – just the first few hours. Don’t skip it because you don’t live in earthquake territory. First of all, earthquakes happen in places where least expected – a large slice of the Midwest had 8.0 earthquakes in the 1800s. In addition, many people vacation occasionally in earthquake prone places (earthquakes create gorgeous scenery!). Just like I know about tornadoes, you should know about earthquakes. If nothing else, it helps you understand what we potentially face in the Pacific Northwest. Besides, playing “what if” can be fun!
In order to make this work, you must truly imagine yourself in the situation. Visualize your home and surroundings, what is happening around you, and how you respond minute by minute. No cheating – base your answers upon what you know and have prepared as of THIS MOMENT. Think through or discuss a section, then scroll down to my comments for that section before moving on to the next. Scrolling hopefully will keep you from just reading the answers. Reading without the thought exercise misses the point.
So let’s imagine…
3 AM Monday morning, mid-February – everyone’s asleep at home. Take a minute to visualize this setting – the room arrangement, how dark it is, where other family members are, and what the weather is like outside.
Starlight isn’t much to go by in a disaster (although if you live in a city, it may be one of the only times you see stars). Photo by Danny Monaghan.
Suddenly,sudden shaking and a roar jerks you out of sleep. You cannot stand up, and the shaking is so strong, the bed actually moves across the floor. All the lights go out, but you hear things crashing around you. It seems to go on and on forever, although it is actually only 4 minutes.
- What do you do during the shaking? Stay in bed, try to get outside, run to the kids? Will things fall on you, such as overhead fans, artwork above your bed, or furniture? Is there near-by glass that will shatter on you? Is your building likely to collapse? Close your eyes and imagine this for 4 minutes. Open your eyes and check your watch – was it really 4 minutes?
- The shaking finally stops, and you lie there in the dark, with no power and no phones. How dark is it? Imagine everything from every cupboard, closet, and shelf on the floor, and mixed with drawers, lamps, and fallen over furniture. If it can break, it is broken. What does this look like in your bedroom, in your kids’ bedrooms, and in the rest of your house? What are your next steps? How should you check on family members?
- Aftershocks happen frequently, and can be almost as big as the original quake. Do you evacuate, or is it safer indoors? What should you do to prevent the single greatest risk after earthquake? Do you know how to turn off the gas (be honest now)? If you are on the coast (a lovely vacation gone bad), what should you worry about? Don’t forget, it is still dark!
- Despite the mess, the house seems safe. Your daughter has a large cut, and your spouse probably broke their arm. Time for the ER? A fallen tree blocks your door and driveway. How will you move it? Imagine your next door neighbor is out-of-town. Unknown to anyone, their water heater tore away from the wall, and gas is leaking into their garage. Does this affect you? Once your family is safe, what should you do next?
Nearly 7 feet tall, and with an injured arm, Mark still scrunched into a perfect preparedness pose under his desk. Photo by American Red Cross Oregon Trail Chapter
1) Stay in bed, under the covers, with a pillow over your head – it gives you some protection from broken glass and lighter falling objects. The exception is when something heavy might fall on you, like unsecured heavy furniture or light fixtures. In those cases, followdrop, cover (under the nearest piece of sturdy furniture), and hold (grab your cover so it doesn’t wiggle away from you). If no cover is available, cover your face and head with your arms and crouch in an inside corner of the building. Don’t try to run anywhere. First of all, moving anywhere during the shaking is difficult. Second, injuries are more likely when moving around and not under cover.
MYTH ALERT – There is no such thing as the “triangle of life”! Don’t believe in the concept of a safe void next to large objects where you can crouch or lie! MYTH ALERT – Doorways do not provide safe cover. Drop, cover, and hold is the way to go.
Earthquake reactivated landslide near Tacoma. It destroyed two houses at its toe and put several more in danger.
Wood frame houses will probably not collapse even in a severe earthquake. Taller buildings, like apartments – harder to predict. It helps to know in advance:
- When your house was built.
- What your soil is like. Is it prone to landslide, or what they call liquefaction or amplification?
- Whether your house had seismic retrofitting to increase safety.
If you live in earthquake territory, this drill might prompt you to re-look at your bedroom. We spend a third of our lives in bed, so why not make bedrooms safe? Bolt furniture to the wall. Don’t hang heavy fixtures over the bed or framed artwork on the wall behind your head. Secure smaller objects with putty. There is a great “Beat the Earthquake”game that checks your knowledge on securing objects – give it a try!
2) Light is everything in a night-time disaster. My house has flashlightshere, there, and everywhere. Shoes are my second priority. Bare feet don’t like wandering through earthquake debris. It’s painful even without cutting them open on broken glass – not the way to start your earthquake recovery. (This crosses my mind whenever I visit someone who requires shoes to come off at the door!) It takes only seconds to put shoes on, once you find them! If you do nothing else today, put a flashlight and shoes in an emergency bag tied to everyone’s bed frame. That way, the bag moves across the floor with the bed. If you can find your bed, you can find the bag.
While getting your shoes and light, you can start making sure everyone is safe. Just stay where you are and call out. Check first on those who don’t answer, plus the very young or old. If someone responds they are OK, verbally reassure them then move on to other essential safety steps. Teach children to stay where they are until given other instructions, instead of risking injury by moving around in a potentially unsafe environment.
3) Do a quick look at your house inside and out. If there is any evidence of collapse, slippage off the foundation, or shifting of the ground under the house, then evacuate everyone to a safe open area. Strong aftershocks can collapse an already weakened building. If the house seems intact, you decide whether to sheltering indoors versus moving to a safe place outdoors. Most of the time, inside is the better choice.
The single greatest risk after an earthquake is fire. Fire trucks can’t get many places, and even if they do, they won’t have water. You must do a fire hunt soon after an earthquake, fire extinguisher in hand. Broken electrical wiring can spark – shut off power at the control box. If you smell or hear gas, shut off the main gas valve. An earthquake is not the time to first locate your gas valve, figure out how to turn it off, and most importantly, find a crescent wrench in the mess. Keep a crescent wrench either in your emergency bag or near the gas valve. Everyone in the family should know how to do electricity, gas, and the fire extinguisher – not just the “man around the house”.
If you are at the coast at an elevation less than 150 feet above sea level, your first actions after a very large earthquake aren’t to check your house or turn off the gas. You must “get out of Dodge”! Grab the family and your go-bag, and walk or run by the fastest and shortest foot route until 150 feet above sea level – you’ve got 10-30 minutes before the tsunami hits. Stay there until instructed otherwise.
4) First aid preparedness belongs right after light and shoes on your list of priorities. First aid training is great, but a more realistic plan includes a good first aid book, and a stash of supplies recommended by the book. Basic first aid is not rocket science. With book in hand, anyone can do it. Lacerations and most broken arms don’t belong in the healthcare system for a few days anyway – we are dealing with more serious injuries. A public capable of treating simple injuries is key in making the system work.
Everyone should know how to move heavy objects. We keep a crowbar under our bed. Every adult also needs skill with a gas chain saw (on my to-do list), although hopefully this can wait until daylight. If someone is trapped, gather a group of neighbors and plan the safest rescue without undue risk – unfortunately, if you can’t do it, there may be nobody else.
After ensuring the safety of your family and house, always move out into your neighborhood. The Map Your Neighborhood program gives you a specific plan. But even without advance planning, grab a partner and start going door to door. Bring your fire extinguisher and crow bar. Remember if a neighbor’s fire gets out of control, your house is also at risk. There is no way to put fires out once they get past the point of fire extinguishers!
Pull out your battery-powered radio for official broadcasts on things like shelters, transportation, supplies, and unforeseen complications. Remember that not everything on non-official radio (or Twitter feed if you have access) is accurate. Send an “I’m safe” message to your out-of-town emergency contact, so they can pass it to other family and friends. Otherwise, I recommend turning off electronic devices – save battery power for when you really want it.
So how did you do? Are you ready to keep family safe through a major earthquake and the first few hours afterwards? Many people forget planning for the first few hours – they skip right from “drop, cover, and hold” to emergency supplies. Yet the first few hours often determine survival. If people need rescue or are severely injured, this is the golden window of opportunity. It’s also the only chance to extinguish fires early. If you do well in your first few hours, then you’ll get a chance to use your stashes of food and water. If not, it’s off to the shelter you go!
If you passed with flying colors, congratulations! If family members also passed with flying colors, add a bunch of imaginary bells and whistles!! If inspired now to go further with your planning, check out some earlier posts on Map Your Neighborhood, CERT training, and Earthquake Proofing Your Home. Let me know whether you liked this exercise and whether you’d like more in the future.