Reviewing Our Disaster Preparedness

I'm not going to tell you to donate money or blood or whatever to whoever to help the Japanese. You have probably done so by now if you had the inclination. Instead, I'm going to take the 9.0 earthquake in Japan -- and the subsequent tsunami -- as a moment to review disaster preparedness measures we've taken and give you some ideas for your own.

What Preparedness Means

Most commercial earthquake kits are designed to let you huddle helplessly until somebody comes to save you. They are designed for people who don't have pets. I'm not very impressed by them. The biggest reason I am not impressed is that buying a kit and storing it away does not mean you are prepared for an earthquake or other disaster. It just means you can spend money, which most of us have no problem with.

Real preparedness means knowing what might happen in your particular situation, considering how you will deal with it, and assembling the tools and materials to be certain you have more than one option (that option usually being rescue). Preparedness means you can let the rescue workers focus on getting people out of collapsed buildings and saving lives rather than carting your butt to a shelter.

The very first thing to do is list the types of disasters you are likely to encounter in your location, and the chances of them happening. Here on the California coast we are in a strike-slip fault zone, very close to a fault line. This type of fault cannot produce an earthquake of the magnitude experienced in Japan, because it is not as deep. So the worst earthquake we could expect here is an 8.5 or so -- a real doozy and not something I'm looking forward to, but significantly smaller than what happened in Japan. (Earthquake intensity is measured on a logarithmic scale.) The size of potential worst earthquake is something to keep in mind, but more likely are smaller quakes.

Likewise, because of our inland-island location, the danger of a tsunami is decreased, but we are at only 12 feet elevation above sea level. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) has a page of information about tsunamis, including a map that estimates that we are right on the edge of a tsunami evacuation zone -- our neighbors across the street would have to evacuate, but not us (tsunamis are really accurate like that, you know). But since the amount of warning you get on a tsunami is about enough to run across the street, I'm going to choose not to worry too much about evacuating. We'd never get off the island fast enough, and in doing so we'd be going into danger rather than out of it, and this is not a movie, so no thanks.

Tsunami evacuation map for Alameda (partial)

That's us in the red dot. We'll run up to the second floor, assuming it still exists, and deal with the water damage later.

But that's not the only kind of disaster we're prepared for. We also maintain supplies to deal with big winter storms, which happen pretty much every year. We only have to prepare for the occasional mild flooding because we're on a light slope that drains nicely into the San Francisco Bay two blocks away; if water reaches our roof most of the US is underwater. We might have to deal with a downed tree, but right now the only tree that could do any damage couldn't fall onto our house. That sort of thing is a lower-grade but more common kind of problem to prepare for (extra medications, extra toilet paper, oil lamps and candles at hand, and tools).

This is our list of disasters (from greatest severity/lowest likelihood to lowest severity/greatest likelihood):
House Fire
Sewer/Water Outage
Mild Flooding
Tree Down
Wind Storm
Power Outage

If you live in more disaster-prone areas, you might have severe flooding, blizzards, mud slides, avalanches, wildfires, tornados, hurricanes, hailstorms, locusts, plagues of frogs, or electrical storms to add to the list. Every time somebody from the midwest freaks out at me about earthquakes I cannot help but think that I'm happy to take the occasional shaker and the potential for more rather than guaranteed Biblical-level weather every year.

We also try to stay prepared to help our neighborhood in case of a disaster. We have a supply of fresh water that will take care of everybody who can easily walk to us, at least as far as drinking water is concerned, if they help pump it. We have food in our emergency supplies and in the back yard, and though there might not be enough of that to feed everybody, our neighbors also have food and we could pool resources.

So, what do we do to prepare for disaster?

The first thing is to let go of the idea that you can prepare for everything. We've elected to prepare to shelter in place for up to two weeks after an earthquake, on the assumption that with all our animals and the fact that we live on an island, it would be much harder to evacuate -- and possibly less safe -- than it would be to live in the yard for a while.


The first thing you need is a shelter. For the most part, this is your house, but not always. Your house may not be safe to be inside. (Reminder: the first thing you do once you get your head straight after the ground stops shaking is turn off the gas, electricity, and water so it doesn't burn down or get flooded inside.) You should have some form of shelter in your plan. For us this is a couple of tents, but other options are lightweight garden sheds that can be emptied of tools and lived in for a while, or plastic tarps, or even little collapsible wooden shelters you can find plans for online (check out what people make to bring to Burning Man). If you have cats, you'll need a shelter that can keep them closed in and also hold a litter box, so you will need something larger and perhaps sturdier. In a pinch you may be able to sleep in your car, though you should consider that that might not be possible if something terrible has happened to your car, like a house or tree falling on it.

The second thing you need is a place to poop. You're going to want to make sure this is not near any source of water you might have, so we'd use the far back part of the yard, in the convenient privacy of the buddleias. At certain times of the year this could be quite a lovely place to go off and have a private moment. A couple of blankets tied to a branch will make things very cozy. If the sewer line is damaged, you definitely do not want to use your indoor facilities (poop in house=BAD). If it isn't, keep in mind that the sewer line in the street may have suffered damage you can't see. Nobody is going to die if you poop in your yard for a week, assuming you're not subject to repeated flooding and you keep it covered with soil (dig a deep hole, then after every use add a little more soil back on top). As a way of preparing for disaster, consider making a little comfy stool to put over the hole so you don't have to squat. (Though I have a book on toilet design that says squatting is much healthier for your bowels and blames much of Western illness on poor bowel health due to high toilets. Since in a disaster you're thinking a lot about bowel health, that might be something to keep in mind.)

Then you need access to your stockpiled food and water. We store these in the house, in the pantry, and cycle through them. It's a bad idea to have a bin full of cans and bottles that you never open, stored out of sight and mind in the garage. When you need it you might find it rotten or moldy or otherwise unusable. Likewise, if you have ever eaten some of that pre-packaged "survival" food you know that it's so bad you'd rather just die. Real food is the best survival food. However, when you store your supplies in the pantry, you need to be able to get into the pantry to get them, which brings me to house access gear.

That's the stuff you'll need to get to things inside the house if it has partially or completely collapsed. That's a pretty unlikely scenario -- single family homes tend to kind of slide partially off their foundations rather than outright collapse. But when you're talking 8.5 magnitude quakes, with sustained shaking for many minutes, a wooden house could conceivably come apart.

Assuming the house has partially collapsed, you will need shovels, some 1-inch sheets of plywood, some 4x4 or 6x6 posts, and some jacks. Pry bars, a hammer and some 3" ring-shank nails, and a selection of boards are also useful. You will basically make a secured tunnel to the storage area. Keep hard hats somewhere accessible as well. These things will also come in handy if you need to help rescue your neighbors from their own collapsed homes. A disaster is not the time to be thinking, "Those jerks can save themselves."

Don't Waste Time and Money on Generators

A lot of people focus on being able to get electricity. That is a pretty big waste of time, space, and energy. Unless you have medications that need to be refrigerated (and you can get pretty good refrigeration using a pit in the ground and a container of water), you don't need electricity, and generators need to be maintained to work properly. Chances of you doing that? Pretty slim, unless you already use a generator a lot (in which case, have at it).

TV, radio, and cell phone apps are only going to be as good as the transmitter towers. Don't focus on those to the exclusion of preparing yourself to spend a week or two without contact with the outside world. It's better to have family and friends worry about you needlessly than for you to not make it through because you stocked batteries rather than peanut butter. The key is to make that needless worry.

Stuff You Should Have

Food for two weeks, eating lightly; a recurring source of food like laying hens is ideal. You can't count on a garden because disasters can happen at any time of the year.

A supply of fresh, drinkable water (and a good camping water filter, just in case). A bucket or two to keep water in. A hand pump if you need to bring water up from underground. You can't store this much water in containers; you will need a gallon of water per person per day, which works out to 140 gallons per person in two weeks. Storing that much water in a barrel (actually three, per person) is not ideal: water in containers tends to breed bacteria. Unless you actually live in the desert, look for places where you can find running water near your house, which you can gather in buckets and filter. Practise using the filter until you can do it in the dark.

Warm clothing including extra pairs of socks, gloves or mittens, and hats for each member of the household, and a blanket for each dog or cat. Know how cold it gets at night in the winter, and prepare to live outside in that. Animals have fur, but they do get cold, too.

Toilet paper for you, kitty litter for any cats. I also include a couple boxes of tissues, because being in the cold gives me a runny nose. Staying clean and wiped up protects you from disease. Some people believe that toilet paper is the hallmark of civilization. Have some plastic bags on hand, because disasters always happen in the worst weather, and soaked toilet paper will make you cry hysterically. You need to hold it together.

Some form of shelter from rain and cold, and if you have pets, restraint to keep them from running away because animals always choose to run away when you just need them to sit there and behave, dammit.

A safe place to start a fire for heating water and for warmth. Plus firewood, or a plan for what you will burn instead (like an unstained or painted fence, or a tree you're willing to sacrifice). Keep in mind that you will use a lot more wood than you think you will. A camp stove is also nice for cooking, and a bit easier for the camping newb to handle.

Fire extinguishers, several of them. The biggest risk after an earthquake is fire. Especially if you are warming yourself up with a fire.

First aid kit that can handle fairly severe injuries, since you are unlikely to be able to easily get medical care for anything other than major injuries.

Tools: shovels, hammers, pry bars. A chain saw if you are likely to have to cut apart a downed tree. And axe for wood. A saw for whatever cutting that needs doing. Nothing that requires electricity. If you have gas-powered tools like chainsaws or generators, make a habit of keeping a can of fuel for them around, refilling it as soon as you refill the tool.

Assorted supplies: plywood, wooden posts, nails, plastic sheeting, chicken wire, fence stakes, whatever. In case you need to build or repair anything. A ladder, to get to things. You get to be the Swiss Family Robinson.

If you live in a building with poor roof access in a flood zone, you will need an axe. Store it in the attic, right where you would run away from rising water. Forget it when you move out, so it's there for the next person who lives there. Heck, an axe is a useful tool to have on hand even if you are not likely to be racing for the roof for safety.

One of the things I've been meaning to add to our kit is an inflatable rubber boat. While it is unlikely that we'll need to leave the island in case of a disaster, that would give us one more option; it also gives us a way to go and get one of us who may be stranded on the mainland, though in a pinch it's possible to walk down the the narrow part of the estuary and swim across. It'd be much more sexy and hip to have a cool wooden boat strapped to the side of the house, but the rubber boat is easier to keep up. The key to a disaster kit is that you need to maintain every degradable part of it all the time.

The rest of the kit is pretty ordinary stuff: camping gear including a pair of low-temperature sleeping bags and a multi-fuel camp stove forms the core, and if we ever took a break from working on the house we'd get to use it for its intended purpose. We do have carriers for the pets (I guess I need to get more kitty-sized carriers), but since most emergency shelters won't take animals and I won't leave them behind to die, that's not as critical as having the facilities to stay here.

If your house is damaged enough that you have to live outside, you will need to start finding housing pretty much right away, because you will not be allowed to just keep living in your yard. If you are very lucky, your whole city will be a mess and you can get a little post-disaster shelter put in the yard or driveway and live there while your home is repaired or torn down. If not, you will need to find a new place to live, including, if necessary, housing for your animals. The very last step of preparing for a disaster is preparing to move on. Gather up copies of insurance paperwork and information about local short-term housing (usually located convenient to airports or office parks), plus kennels or animal boarding (these won't be much use in an earthquake, but are very useful if your house burns down), so you have them in a few places. Thinking about this beforehand will help you be calmer and more together if the worst does happen.

posted by ayse on 03/18/11


"buying a kit and storing it away does not mean you are prepared for an earthquake or other disaster." I disagree. Perhaps not as prepared as *you*, but far more prepared than the majority of the population and likely prepared enough to survive what is likely to happen here. I think the two biggest issues are: preparing at all, and keeping your preparations current. Perhaps I'm just biased as I approach both of those points by giving earthquake kits as a Christmas gift every two years to local loved ones.

You can store water correctly, but it is difficult. Since I'll have filtration anyway, I'd rather be filtering the 50 gallons from my garage rather than trying to find one of the few streams that isn't buried six feet down in a culvert. (Though as Ayse knows, my yard floods every Spring and my french drain produces like a broken water main.) Also, that 50 gives me more time to find the next 90.

You don't mention money. I recommend a few hundred in $1 bills, in plastic, with a dessicant packet. Get the money straight from the bank, uncirculated if possible. My current stash has never molded, and the stash that did (didn't use uncirculated) was reluctantly traded for fresh bills by the bank. Hopefully you will not need it, but if you do you don't want to just have one $20 bill in your pocket. Perhaps you can become the first credit union in your Kevin Kostner run post-apocalyptic world.

A fire safe. Keep your passports and copies of important documents (homeowners insurance policy) in it. Preferably a large one that is bolted to the floor in a place no one would normally look, but can be reached easily if the house collapses.

Now for the controversial item: firearms. I recommend one sidearm and sufficient ammo, locked in separate safes, preferably with no one person knowing the combination to both safes. I'm more worried about those who do not prepare than I am about myself. Desperate people do desperate things, and I'd rather such people just move along when they happen upon my well stocked, functioning location. YMMV. (There are many people nearby who are already armed (Google "richmond california gang shooting"), so I'm not initiating the escalation, just preparing for it.)

Now for the heresy (in California): Meet your neighbors. Know their email addresses and cell phone numbers. Even the ones who let their pets crap in your yard; you might have the chance to return the favor personally. :)

Great post!

We learned a lot in 2004 - the year of hurricanes here in FL - here are a few more thoughts:

Something people often forget is that ATM's may not work after a disaster - electricity may be out or bank may be closed due to damage or other issues - so it is good to keep a few hundred dollars in small bills with your emergency kit for necessities (food, gasoline, medical care, repairs, etc). Tens & twenties are better than hundreds.

If you live in a disaster prone area - designate someone outside the area as your point of contact so that you only have to try to make one call saying you are OK and they can contact the rest of your family with an initial OK report. You can use the same system for updates especially if phone service where you are remains iffy for a while.

While many people have given up their landline and only have cell phones - we have kept ours. I never lost phone service through 3 hurricanes that year - but could only recharge my cell phone using the car charger until we got power back days or weeks later depending on the hurricane. Cell phone towers sometimes lost power long enough to go out of service which made coverage iffy.

If photos are important to you - make copies of the most precious and send them to someone in another state to store for you. Or scan them & store at one of the online repositories. Not a matter of life or death - but a small comfort that can help your attitude.

Getting prepared looks like a daunting task - but once done it requires little to maintain the plan. Get the basics done sooner rather than later and add to it as you have time or resources.

As seen in New Orleans in 2005 too few people make a plan and the result is catastrophic. Expecting someone else or the government to take care of you just doesn't work so well.

Just a note for those of you suggesting piles of cash: while it is true that ATMs are very unlikely to help you in a disaster, what we saw in Japan over the last week was that in very short order stores were out of supplies, gas stations out of fuel, and that cash was of no use, anyway. Don't rely on money to get you what you need (though it usually doesn't hurt to have a small stash of money on hand).

We anticipate severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and a rare hurricane. Rural, we depend on a weather radio and a generator. All paraphenalia previously mentioned is on our list. We have a back up heating plan for cold weather.

If there is a tornado warning in our area I make sure to be fully clothed with tied on shoes.

As important as family photos are pics off site to document your possessions for insurance purposes.

Solar powered or hand crank radios and cell phone rechargers. No need to put distant relatives through agony.

I've deliberately kept one landline phone not dependent on the house electricity and haven't gone to Verizon FIOS for phone service since they take that feature away and leave you with 4 hour batteries instead..

I have a month's worth of food, although since the house would probably go in a hurricane, that's of limited use. I try to keep at least a month ahead in filling prescriptions. Ditto for meds for pets.

Oh, right, like Nell Jean, I have a propane heater, which I would use carefully. Not doing without heat if it's wind chill -15.

Thanks for this post--I hadn't thought about what would happen if I had to camp in my yard for a few weeks. I'm in Portland, on the Cascadia subduction zone, and we could experience an earthquake as large as the recent Japanese quake. One of our big worries is how to reunite with each other if we get stuck on opposite sides of the river. I think it's time to reconsider buying a kayak . . .

Note: We're getting pummeled with spam comments, so I've turned off the ability to use any HTML or include any links for the time being. Email with any issues.

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