That Earthquake Over There

March 17th, 2011 © by Susan Swartz

Our neighborhood leader had the front page of the newspaper spread out on her coffee table, in case we needed more motivation. It showed a neighborhood in Natori, Japan, on fire. It was the day after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Before the alarm about the nuclear power plants being in trouble.

The meeting of our neighborhood disaster group had been set for a month. Given that we had been glued to images of terrified people running in the streets and a monster wave swallowing whole towns, plus a tsunami warning for our own west coast, the horrible timing couldn’t have been better.

Coincidentally, the first time we met at a party to put together an emergency plan was six months ago, not long after a gas pipe explosion in San Bruno leveled a neighborhood and killed eight people.

You don’t schedule earthquakes and explosions. The only thing you can do is try to be ready when one comes. Yet who gets enthusiastic about disaster preparedness? The notice for our neighborhood meeting went out to 20 houses on three cross streets in Sebastopol. Eight people showed, nibbled oatmeal cookies and took notes.

Marian, a no-nonsense hospital nurse and volunteer organizer, displayed her emergency bag which she calls her “bed bag” because she keeps it next to her bed to grab when disaster strikes.

In it is a hard hat, a pair of work gloves and sturdy shoes, so you can get moving and not injure yourself while you check out your house and then see about the neighbors.

I’d rather pack for a vacation and hunt down my passport than pack a bed bag that I’ll need if things go boom in the middle of the night.

I’d also rather go just about anyplace on a Saturday morning than a meeting.

But as Marian said “if you are a calm organized self today you won’t be a freaked-out self later.”

She once put out a house fire in the middle of the night and was grateful she already knew how to use a fire extinguisher. “Your head really fogs out in a crisis,” says Marian.

We went over guidelines for what to do in the first hour after a disaster, based on a plan called Map Your Neighborhood that started in Washington state. After you put on the gear, you check the gas line outside your house and shut it off if there’s a leak. (Hissing, smelling, the dial whirling like crazy.) You turn off the water at the house main pipe. Then you place the sign that says “Help” or “Okay” in your front window.

Do you know where your gas line is? Do you know all your neighbors? Can’t all this wait?

The day before what is now being called the worst natural disaster in human history, people in Japan were probably worrying about work, the kids and everyday stuff. I keep thinking about the woman on NPR who said that when she looks at her ruined town in Japan she says, “How is this possible?” And then she adds, “But we always knew it was possible.”

In Japan the earth slid and the sea poured in. And then things got even worse and people in a 19 mile radius of a nuclear power plant were told to seal themselves in against radiation poisoning.

It’s about 19 miles from where we live to Bodega Bay and the San Andreas Fault, which would have had a nuclear power plant perched on it had residents and activists not stood up against PG&E 50 years ago.

I could report to my neighbors that we already have earthquake supplies in a clean garbage can with tuna and toilet paper, flashlights and dog food. And a drum of drinking water, urged on us by a retired fire captain who said at the very least have a water supply so you’re not a burden to rescuers helping people in real trouble.

A man down the street said he has a chainsaw and a woman two blocks over knows CPR. We’ll meet again in May and hopefully we won’t need another reminder. But now my husband and I own new hard hats – $13.95 at the hardware store.

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One Response to “That Earthquake Over There”

  1. Susan Says:

    Where I live, hurricane preparedness is the watchword for the storm season. The problems arise with newcomers who have not experienced a hurricane and can’t be bothered to prepare. We don’t like to think about disaster, but it does strike, with or without warning, and the boy scouts got it right – “Be prepared.”

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