In light of the recent events in Japan, I am feeling compelled to share my own experience with a very large earthquake. I am a survivor of the Great Alaskan Earthquake, which registered a 9.2 on the Richter scale. I was living in Anchorage at the time, and my family has many tales, and not just a few pictures, from that quake. My folks got everyone through the rough days that followed because they were well prepared and well stocked.
Preparation is key. Here, in the Puget Sound, we are subject to the very same tectonic forces that caused the earthquake in Alaska. We are on the Pacific Rim, which borders the Pacific Plate. We have had 9.0 force earthquakes here, one in 1700 that created tsunamis recorded by Asian historians, and one in 900 that is responsible for creating the unique character of West Seattle. (Yes, it juts straight up out of the surrounding ground. If you fly around Seattle, you’ll see what I mean.) A significant event like this could happen at any time.
To best prepare for a quake, think of “before, during, and after” the event. Let’s start with the things you should do now.
- Designate at least one contact person for your family and close friends. Choose someone outside of your home region, who has, and regularly checks, email and telephone services. If they also text messages or use Twitter and Facebook, all the better. The internet actually stays connected better than land lines or cell phones.
- Check to see if your home is prepared for an earthquake. See the City of Seattle’s site on this, which is quite good. Make sure the frame of your house is bolted to the foundation. Secure tall furniture and artwork to the walls of your home. Make sure cabinets have latches, especially if they are near where you sleep. Look at the interior of your house and see if there are things that would fall and potentially injure someone. For decorative items displayed on open shelves, try some Museum Putty.
- Create an emergency kit for your place of work that contains, at a minimum, 5 days worth of water, a flashlight – preferably hand crank, some freeze dried foods, a first aid kit, and a supply of any medicines you can’t live without. I like making my own so that I know what’s in it.
- You’ll want a kit for your car as well, which should also include sturdy walking shoes, a change of clothes, and a warm coat, even in summer. See Seattle’s site on this.
- The kit for your house should be more extensive, since it will need to cover all your family members. If you use canned food, which is perfectly fine, make sure the opener is taped to one of the cans. There’s nothing worse than having food and not being able to eat it. Make sure your kit is regularly updated with fresh water. Also, a hand crank radio with a phone charger is really invaluable.
- Get some training in first aid.
- At your house, ensure that you know where the gas shutoff valve is and have the wrench required to turn it off right at hand. It’s also helpful to know how to turn off water to the house in the event of a leak.
- If you have kids, you’ll want to take some extra steps to prepare them for a disaster, especially when it comes to connecting with your non-local contact. Review how their schools are prepared to handle a quake. See the Kid’s Section of the Seattle site.
When a good-sized earthquake hits, it is usually characterized by an initial bump, followed by a growing rumbling shakiness. You have a second or two to decide where you are going to go. Once an earthquake passes 8.0, you can no longer stand or move very far. You’ll want to stay away from glass and place yourself next to a structural wall or sturdy piece of furniture. Do not use a doorway! They are not that structurally sound and a swinging door can be quite a hazard.
When the shaking subsides, many people make the mistake of running directly outside the building they are in. This is the worst thing you can do. Even buildings that are seismically reinforced have glass windows and heavy pieces of siding that crash to the ground right after a quake. Stay in the building until you are absolutely sure nothing is falling. Always look up and make sure things aren’t tilting precariously.
If you are driving, it will feel like you’ve blown several tires and your instinct will be to pull over and stop. Go with it! That’s the correct thing to do. However, don’t do it on a bridge or overpass. Get off of those with some haste, if it’s safe to do so, and then stop. Suspended roads are the weakest part of any transportation system.
When a quake is especially large, certain truths become quickly evident:
- You’re going to be very worried about your loved ones.
- Everyone will be confused and many people will panic. Don’t be one of them.
- You’ll instinctively want to go home immediately.
After a bit of time, it will become clear that:
- You’re not going anywhere for up to 5 days. In large events, roads become impassable.
- No one may get to you for up to 5 days. Again, for the same reason.
- It will be up to you to deal with any immediate consequences of the quake, if you are capable of doing so. This is when your previous training in first aid will really help.
- There will be a lot of confusion to go along with the aftershocks, even from official sources.
The first thing to do is to make sure you are safe. Then make sure those around you aren’t injured or in need of help. If you are near water, tidal waves (tsunamis) are the first concern. It’s always a good idea to move immediately away from any ocean beaches, even if there’s no alarm. I do mean immediately! People in Prince William Sound had between zero and five minutes to evacuate, because the epicenter of the quake was so very close to them.
If you are at home, make sure your gas is shut off. Even if it looks like nothing is wrong, this is always a prudent move. Our next door neighbor in Anchorage did not do this and when the furnace kicked on after the earthquake, the house exploded. My mother remembers hearing the boom, seeing the fire, grabbing a baby under each arm and running flat out until we were out of harm’s way. Your gas will need to be turned back on by a professional which might take some time. However, I’d much rather have a cold house than one in little bits and pieces.
Fire, in fact, is your greatest enemy after an earthquake. If you see any small ones getting started, put them out as quickly as possible. The Great San Francisco Quake of 1906 was not as big as Alaska (7.9 on the Richter scale). However, the fire that followed destroyed the entire city.
Next, update your non-local contact however you can. Twitter and Facebook are excellent for this, since you’ll know immediately if the connection is working and the message will hang around for people to see. Texting is good, if the cell towers are still up. Phone calls will be the most difficult to do. It’s interesting that the internet tends to remain viable even during massive events, when other systems go down. Then turn your phone off! Who knows how long the electricity will last or when you’ll be able charge it again? You can turn it on periodically for messages. Unless it’s a life-threatening emergency, don’t make phone calls. It will just use too much juice and will just jam the system.
People will be in shock and will be dealing with the aftereffects of a massive dose of adrenaline. Ensuring that they have tasks to do will help with this. If you are good at organizing people, you can help with this by coordinating tasks that will ensure that everyone in the general vicinity is safe, at least until other, more official help arrives.
So, the immediate danger is over. Now what? This is the most excruciating and, yet, boring time. You wait for hours for news or supplies or help, all the while dealing with the stress of some big aftershocks. A hand-cranked radio is absolutely the best thing to have on hand. Even though much of the news will be inaccurate, as it is right after a large disaster, you will still get notices of roads that are open, any mass transit that is working, where to get supplies, and what has happened in other parts of the region.
You need two important things to get through the next few days: water and safe shelter. (You can survive without food far longer than water.) This is where your emergency kit comes in. In addition to your kit’s supply of water, you have other sources, including the ice cubes in your freezer and the water in a standard hot water heater. If you suspect that pipes are broken, do not drink from your taps. Especially in low-lying areas, this water can become contaminated very quickly.
The earthquake in Alaska hit on Good Friday in March. There was still a foot of snow on the ground and temperatures were sub-freezing all the time. We spent several days and nights bundled in our Suburban. We had good outdoor wear to keep us warm and the car protected us from the wind. In Puget Sound, the biggest threat is hypothermia, cold caused by temperatures that are above freezing. Rain is the culprit here. You need to stay dry, as well as warm. Cars out in the open, off of roads or bridges, are good. Safe buildings are good. In any case, you will be sleeping rough, so do the best you can.
I always applaud the heroic efforts of the rescuers and helpers who spring to action during a disaster, especially since they are usually in the same state we are, having just gone through the same event. We had two groups who really helped us. One was the US Air Force. They rebuilt their landing field almost immediately and used the radios in their planes to contact the world outside Anchorage. (All the land lines had been cut and, at that time, there were no other forms of communication.) The second group was the Salvation Army, who immediately dispensed blankets, food, and water during those first 5 days.
Experiencing a disaster like this is difficult, but proper preparations will make it a bit easier. To find out more about this, go to the FEMA site or the Seattle site. They all have extensive tools and instructions for keeping yourself and your loved ones safe.