Lessons From Christchurch: Urban Earthquake Preparedness and Survival by Alex F.

Saturday, Mar 5, 2011

Let’s be honest. Thinking about the end of the world is kind of fun. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many post-apocalyptic novels, movies and television shows. Preparing for a relatively slow-moving Armageddon like a civil war or pandemic demands a lot of shopping which is an enjoyable pastime.

However, as the grieving citizens of Christchurch, New Zealand attest, the most likely threats are also the most sudden, the least glamorous, and not fun at all. TEOTWAWKI may or may not happen in our lifetimes, but almost everyone has to deal with a natural disaster at one time or another.

While all natural disasters can be intensely destructive, none gives less warning than the mighty earthquake. Even such terrifying Acts of God as tornadoes and volcanoes give some signs of their impending arrival; earthquakes do not. According to a friend at a local university’s Geology department, the most sensitive seismic instruments currently in use give no more than five minutes of warning of a major earthquake: enough time for the Geology department to seek cover, but not enough for them to warn anybody else.

Like most people who live on “the coasts” of North America, I live in an earthquake zone. In my city, it’s not a matter of “if” an earthquake hits, but “when.” Troublingly, we’re actually several decades overdue for a major quake. Under normal circumstances, it’s easy to marginalize this threat, but the devastation in Christchurch underscores just how vulnerable those of us in metropolitan areas are to a severe seismic event.

Based on what happened in New Zealand (which, unlike Haiti, had fully developed, modern infrastructure), I have attempted to glean as many useful lessons as possible about the realities of urban earthquakes, and to factor those lessons into my overall disaster preparedness planning. Since an earthquake represents somewhat of a worst-case scenario, I believe that my conclusions would be useful for anyone interested in preparing for a situation that might leave him or her cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, injured or in the dark.

First, a disclaimer: I am not a veteran survivalist. I’ve lived through a major hurricane and its aftermath, and I’m highly motivated to do everything I can to ensure that my loved ones and I are at least in a better-than-average position when the next unpleasant event happen. But, when it comes right down to it, I am a moderately well-informed, largely untrained, middle-class, city-boy, living with a wife, two (soon to be three) kids, a dog and two cats in a 900 square foot home. I don’t have the cash, space or know-how to implement much of what is suggested by preparedness experts. I’m learning fast, but I’m not there yet. Therefore, since I have no reason to believe that the Schumer will wait until I’m ready before flinging itself at me, I have developed a somewhat unorthodox approach to preparedness. I don’t claim that it’s better than anyone else’s system, only that it works for me, and that it might work well for some others. More about that in a moment.

First, let’s look at the bad things that happen during a severe (Richter scale 6 or higher) earthquake:

- Collapse of numerous buildings, roads and bridges, as a result of shaking and liquefaction (soil with poor drainage can basically turn into soft mud during an earthquake);

- Multi-car accidents, bus crashes, etc.;

- Immediate spread of uncontrolled fires, as a result of damage to electrical and natural gas lines;

- Severe flooding caused by tidal waves and cracked water/sewer pipes;

- Large dust clouds from destroyed buildings.

During the actual quake, there’s not much you can do, aside from try to get under a table or doorframe if you’re inside. [JWR Adds: Tables get squashed. As my friend Paul pointed out, the current advice is that the best survival location is to lay next to a non-compressible object. Stacks of paper or books are good--anything that is truly solid.] Or pull your car over, if you’re on the road. The host of “Man vs. Wild,” when asked for advice on earthquake survival was quoted as saying “The truth is, a lot of it is luck.”

The worst-case scenario would be that this would happen in a coastal city, during a weekday, in winter, at high tide. It is especially important to teach your school-age children to ignore a fire alarm, and get under their desks until the initial quake ends. Getting detention is better than being crushed in a collapsing stairwell because some idiot pulled a fire alarm.

The immediate after-effects of a major quake would be as follows:

- Loss of utilities: water, sanitation, electricity, possibly telephone;

- Stranded and separated family members stuck at work, school, etc.;

- People buried or pinned in rubble;

- People with concussions, fractures and crush injuries;

- People beginning to experience hypothermia;

- People in respiratory distress from smoke and dust.

In this scenario, you and your loved ones would likely not be together, and you might not be able to reach them, either physically or by phone. Furthermore, unless you happened to be near wherever your emergency supplies are stored (and they weren’t buried under a collapsed building), you would only have access to whatever you had on or near your person.

Now, if you survive the initial quake, and you’re not trapped, you need to get outside before the aftershocks hit, preferably to some open area with solid ground where nothing is going to collapse on you, and you’re not going to fall into a fissure. To me, that sounds like the middle of the nearest parking lot.

Of course, it goes without saying that any type of medical/emergency response knowledge is wonderful, if you have it. One doctor in Christchurch saved a pinned man by performing a double leg amputation, using only a Leatherman and a hacksaw.

The training question has been well covered by other writers, so I’m not going to get into all the many things we should all learn how to do, except to mention that, in Christchurch, 14 people escaped from a high rise building with a collapsed stairwell because one of their number happened to be a mountaineer, and happened to have enough rope on hand to belay his compatriots the 60 feet to safety. Belaying isn’t usually high on the list of survival skills, but you can learn it in a day, and if you have the opportunity to take a class at your local park or climbing gym, it’s definitely worth it.

Once the earth stops moving, the aftermath begins. Almost immediately, burglary and looting will begin, including by criminals posing as government employees. As if this weren’t bad enough, the following 24-48 hours will add the following risks:

- Dehydration from lack of potable water;

- Onset of shock from injuries;

- Disease from spilled sewage, garbage, and flood water;

- Infection of wounds;

- Premature births and heart attacks;

- Hypothermia/frostbite;

- Overloaded or triaged police, fire and medical services.

During the initial 24-48 hour window, your first priority must be to secure your own safety. If you’re bleeding heavily or otherwise walking wounded, you’re not going to be much help to anyone else. Crush injuries are particularly dangerous, because they can easily become infected, shattered bones need surgery to repair, and bone fragments can migrate to other parts of the body and cause additional problems. If you’re seriously hurt, you need to realize that this is the kind of situation in which you might actually die. Don’t be a hero; you need to drag yourself to the nearest hospital. Even though you might be standing outside for several hours, it’s your best chance at surviving.

If you’ve patched yourself up, and you have a family, your next priority must be to locate and rendezvous with your loved ones. Based on the geography, distance, road condition, and people involved, this may mean walking (running) or using a bicycle to get where you’re going. Having an established meeting place already decided on is a good idea. If you have young children, you may want to plan on meeting your spouse at the kids’ school, since that’s where you’ll both probably head anyway!

Speaking of spouses, I think it’s important to make preparedness accessible for family members who may not be particularly interested in it. Packing a small emergency kit for a spouse and putting it in the trunk of his or her car “just in case” is neither invasive nor pushy, and if you are separated from each other by a disaster, it will give you piece of mind to know that they won’t be completely unprepared.

At this point, I’d like to introduce my general approach to kit preparation, which is threefold: first, I apply the Pareto Principle; second, I categorize supplies by priority level rather than by type; and  third, I minimize redundancy.

1) The Pareto Principle. Also known as the “80-20 Rule,” this pops up in all sorts of unlikely places. In 1906, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas. Since that time, the ratio of 80:20 has been applied to every imaginable relationship, with varying degrees of success.

In my case, I estimate that approximately 80% of the time, I only use 20% of my gear. To put it another way, the classical approach to “being prepared” is to prepare for every possible situation; my approach is to prepare for only the most probable situations, with the understanding that what I lose in potential preparedness, I gain in mobility and compliance. I simply cannot carry around everything I would need to survive every conceivable disaster. I can, however, keep a small Ziploc bag of high-priority supplies in my satchel, along with my papers, laptop, etc. The farther afield I’m going, the more supplies I carry, but in every circumstance, I’m taking only what I am most likely to need.

2) Grouping Supplies By Priority Invariably, emergency supply lists are broken down into categories like “medical” and “tools.” That’s fine for shopping, but it doesn’t work so well when it comes time to actually pack things into kits to carry around.

So, I’ve made lists that I call: Level 1 (everyday carry); Level 2 (day trips); Level 3 (overnight trips); Level 4 (camping/established emergencies); and Level 5 (home storage - the only level at which I separate the list into “medical supplies” and “non-medical supplies” for the sake of clarity).

As an example, the Level 1 kit lives in the bag that I usually carry with me wherever I go. Level 2 stays in the trunk of my car. If I’m taking the kids to the park, I’ll throw the Level 1 bag and the Level 2 bag into a backpack and carry it around with me. If I have to stay overnight somewhere for work, I’ll put the Level 1, 2 and 3 bags into a duffel bag, and I’m almost entirely packed. If we’re going camping, I pack the 1, 2, 3 bags into a large backpack, along with the Level 4 supplies. If we were to G.O.O.D., then the Level 4 would be my bugout bag, and I would load as much of Level 5 into my car as I could.

3) Redundancy is great in theory, and a real hassle in practice. Not only is it expensive to have duplicate sets of gear in various places, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s where, what’s missing, etc. Therefore, my kits are modular: Level 2 does not include anything that is in Level 1, Level 3 does not include anything that is in Level 2, and so on. Is it a little scary to have all my eggs in one basket? Yes, but it’s a calculated risk. I’d rather know exactly what I have and where it is than have a disorganized mess with too much of what I don’t need, and not enough of what I do. (I speak from experience here: when I went to organize my existing kits into my new system, I discovered that I had 30 reusable Ace bandages and 1 bottle of water. Less than optimal.) Of course, I do have duplicate items, I just put them in separate kits. So, for example, my wife drives around with a small bag in the trunk of her car that contains a Level 1 and Level 2 kit, and my sister-in-law has a Level 1 kit in her backpack along with her college textbooks. That way, if my family is separated when something bad happens (say, my sister-in-law is watching the kids while I’m out of town for work and my wife is out with a friend), we all have the items we’re most likely to need, right then and there.

Without further ado, here are my lists, as they stand now.  Please note that these lists are in a continual state of flux. I add, subtract and move items around as I gain experience and knowledge, so by no means should these be taken as anything other than a point of departure for your own efforts. I hope that they will be useful to you, whether you live in an earthquake zone or not, and I welcome any feedback or constructive criticism.

Modular Packing Lists

Based on the premise that 80% of the time, you only use 20% of the gear you’re carrying, I’ve come up with these lists for modular groups of supplies. This list bears little resemblance to typical “emergency” lists, because those lists try to take into account every possible situation, and are generally sorted by type (e.g. clothes, toiletries). These only take into account the most probable situations, and are sorted by levels of portability/importance. Furthermore, I think it’s important to use the same kind of stuff during emergencies as you do normally, so that everything is familiar to you.

Level 1 – Daily carry. These items (aside from the water bottle) can easily fit into a ziploc bag, which can be transferred from briefcase to backpack to coat pocket, as the situation warrants. This will suffice for most issues that arise in day-to-day situations. If traveling by commercial aircraft, omit “contraband” items, such as the pocket knife. Otherwise, this small packet will give you everything you’re likely to need to get through a situation that leaves you moderately (but not severely) cold, wet, dark, hungry, thirsty or hurt. Bottle of water Snack bar/granola/beef jerky Flashlight (LED bulb) Pocket knife/multi-tool Cash (approx. $100) Band-aids, assorted sizes Antibacterial ointment (Polysporin, Bacitracin, etc.) (small tube) Athletic (“Ace”) bandage with velcro closure Hand sanitizer (small bottle) Wet wipes (individually wrapped in plastic, not paper) Napkins/paper towels Matches (small box in a ziploc bag) Folding poncho Emergency “Space” blanket Dust mask Deodorant (Why is this on my Level 1 list? Because realizing you forgot to put deodorant on definitely could constitute an emergency.) Individual needs: e.g. sanitary products, prescription medicine

Level 2 – Day pack These items can easily fit into a light backpack. This will suffice for trips to the beach, day hikes and hunting trips, etc., as well as for urban/suburban stranded-overnight scenarios. If you are responsible for others (e.g. children), adjust accordingly. Additional Water Sunscreen (small tube of SPF 30 or higher.) Bug spray (small, non-aerosol container.) Calendula ointment (for stings or burns) Light sticks More snacks Dry pair of socks and underwear in ziploc bag Hat Camp Towel Rolled gauze Cohesive bandage Athletic tape Israeli Battle Dressing (“IBD”) Vinyl “exam” gloves Small bag for trash

Level 2B – Car Kit If traveling by car, you may wish to pack the following items: Jumper cables Can of “Fix-A-Flat” Extra pair of work boots/hiking shoes Cooler containing: ? 5-10 lbs of ice ? Bottled water ? Bottled/boxed juice ? Fruit (berries, sliced apples, etc.) ? Hard-boiled eggs ? Sandwiches

Level 3 – Overnight Travel Aside from the clothes, these items can easily fit into a ziploc bag or standard “toiletry” kit bag. Toothbrush Toothpaste (travel-size tube) Mouthwash (travel-size bottle) Dental Floss (small canister) Soap (Ivory, 1 bar) Shampoo (travel-sized bottle) Razor with extra blade Talcum powder (small bottle) Complete change of clothes (1 set) ? Underpants ? Socks ? T-shirt ? Long-sleeved pullover ? Hooded sweatshirt ? Jeans Sleep clothes (1 set)

Level 4 – Camping/Short-Term Emergency These items can be packed into a plastic tub or large backpack. Again, items are not duplicated, so you would also pack the Levels 1, 2 and 3 kits. Tent (ultralight, or “pup” style) Sleeping bag or blanket Toilet paper (biodegradable) Mess kit Canned/dried food Water Folding “Sterno”-style camp stove with fuel Disposable plates, cups, cutlery Roll of paper towels Handgun with ammunition Duct tape Hatchet Large trash bags

In addition to portable kits, it is advisable to prepare two larger kits for storage at home.

Level 5A. Medical Supplies Lots of band-aids Steri-strips Hydrogen Peroxide Antibacterial ointment (Neosporin, etc.) Alcohol swabs Disposable vinyl “exam” gloves (several boxes) Extra-strength Advil/Tylenol Children’s Advil/Tylenol Antibiotics Gauze (lots) Alcohol Wipes Cohesive bandages Israeli Battle Dressings (IBD compression bandages) Medical Manual (Merck Manual or equivalent)

Level 5B. Non-Medical Supplies Cash money Canned food/emergency rations Candles & Matches in waterproof bag Heavy duty flashlights with extra batteries Gasoline (approx. 5 gallons) Laundry soap More Water More bar soap More wet wipes More light sticks More trash bags Portable toilet (toilet-seat-bucket lid, etc.) More biodegradable toilet paper Basic hand tools Folding shovel Chainsaw Shotgun with ammunition Handgun with ammunition Rifle with ammunition Passport Gold/silver bullion coins

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