Getting ready for the Big One

In a major disaster, official emergency personnel and services will be tied up for many days. Your true First Responders in Seattle are your neighbors.

Crosscut archive image.

Earthquake damage to the Cadillac Hotel, Pioneer Square, Seattle, 2001

In a major disaster, official emergency personnel and services will be tied up for many days. Your true First Responders in Seattle are your neighbors.

My Roosevelt neighbors sleep with hard hats, boots, flashlights and emergency preparedness booklets under their beds. Some of us are members of our neighborhood First Aid team or our Search & Rescue team, for which we attended training classes taught by city emergency personnel.

Our designated First Aid Station, stocked with everything from bandages to a bottle of vodka (all supplies purchased collectively), is in a garage across the alley from a physician neighbor. Up the street, the home of a family with small children is our Special Needs Shelter, where elderly, disabled or panicky neighbors can rest in the comfort of companionship, and where kids whose parents are on an emergency team can be distracted by games and snacks.

In all, more than 40 families in a two-block area have been participants in our neighborhood's disaster preparedness plan.

We started almost 15 years ago when then-mayor Greg Nickels cranked up an emergency response program called SDART (Seattle Disaster Aid and Response Teams) and personally crashed summer neighborhood block parties throughout the city to tell residents about it. Not long afterward we asked a trainer from the city to come teach us the skills we needed for dealing with a massive emergency.

The current city preparedness program, overseen by Seattle's Office of Emergency Management, is called SNAP (Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare). The web site provides links to instructional handouts including steps that individuals and families can take to get ready. Many of my neighbors recommend taking baby steps — a few this week, some more next week — so as not to feel overwhelmed by long task lists. SNAP also posts the latest schedule of skills trainings at Magnuson Park and organizational meetings at neighborhood libraries. Useful, too, are warnings about dangerous misinformation — see "Staying Safe" and find out why a doorway is not where you want to be when the shaking starts.

In a phone interview Debbie Goetz, SNAP's community planning coordinator, said, "It's not breaking news anymore that we have seismic risks. And I hate to say it, but it takes a disaster to spur people to action." With the heartrending bulletins arriving from Japan, she was getting calls from people in neighborhoods such as the Eastlake houseboat community and Wallingford, where organizers had talked last fall about disaster planning but weren't able to gather neighbors for a planning session at the time.

"Neighborhoods are using this as a teachable moment to get people ready, and we're out there helping," Goetz said. "We do neighborhood trainings for groups of 20 or more."

Goetz stressed the importance of thinking in terms of concentric circles of preparedness. People should start by prepping themselves, their families, and their own homes. Next they should make plans with neighbors. "In a disaster, your neighbors around you are your very own first responders," she said. "City services will be inundated." Farther out on the circle are the tasks of connecting different neighborhoods into community hubs and coordinating with the city.

What if you're downtown when disaster strikes? I asked Goetz about the rumor that in a severe earthquake, shattered window glass from skyscrapers would pile up 10 feet high on Seattle sidewalks and streets. "That's a snappy factoid," she chuckled. "I've heard five feet, 10 feet, 20. What's true is that high-rises are built to flex, but glass does not, so you might as well expect lots of glass falling."

The important thing, she said, is to take protective action, and fast. "You've got three or four seconds to get somewhere sheltered, so if you're walking outside among the high-rises, go into the lobby of a building immediately. And if you work downtown now, talk with co-workers about what you can do to help each other stay safe and self-sufficient."

This week's New Yorker article on "The Really Big One " is fresh motivation for taking action, first to safeguard your own home and then to make sure you and your neighbors will be effective first responders for each other during the week or more when overwhelmed city services won't be available to help. For a neighborhood already organized into teams, this would be an ideal time to schedule refresher sessions.

None of this has to feel like a downer. The pleasure of working on a community project with neighbors tends to lighten forebodings of dark catastrophe. My group might even enjoy the prospect of gathering for an all-hands-on-deck review plus a couple of team practices. We could update our inventory of supplies, too. Maybe we could taste-test some of that emergency vodka.

Disaster prep quiz

  1. Put steps a-l in roughly sensible order for your family or self (most urgent / can do right now —> less urgent / takes awhile):
  2. a. Make garage and storage spaces safe.

    b. Secure water heater.

    c. Make a disaster plan for your family or self.

    d. Secure items hung on walls.

    e. Fire safety: Buy/recharge extinguishers, draft home exit plan.

    f. Secure kitchen cabinet doors, contents.

    g. Assemble a survival kit to cover basic needs for 7-10 days.

    h. Create an emergency water supply.

    i. Secure tall furniture to walls.

    j. Retrofit home seismically.

    k. Gather emergency equipment (lights, radio, etc.).

    l. Learn utility safety (how to turn off gas, water, electricity).

  3. After a severe earthquake, what's the best sequence of steps for organized neighbors to take?
  4. a. If on a team, go to designated response site; bring booklet, flashlight, first aid kit, hard hat, tools.

    b. Dress for safety.

    c. Take care of all needs inside your own home.

    d. Shut off water main, and if necessary, electricity.

    e. If there is an odor of natural gas at home, shut off gas.

  5. If you feel earthquake tremors, you should (any/all):
  6. a. run outside; b. drop down in a crouch; c. duck under cover; d. hold on to something stable.

  7. How can you contact loved ones in the Seattle area when phone service is down?
  8. How often should you dump and refill emergency supplies of tap water?
  9. If you turn off natural gas, how do you turn it on?
  10. What should do you do about fallen power lines outside?
  11. An efficient Search & Rescue team will split up and individually check houses: True or false?
  12. Name three essentials in 7-10-day kits besides food and water.
  13. How much drinking water should be stored per person to last 10 days?

Arguably good answers to quiz - but make SNAP your bible:

(1) c, e, l, h, g, d, i, k, b, f, a, j (2) c, b, e, d, a (3) b+c+d (4) Ask an out-of-area friend to be the family's phone contact. (5) When you reset clocks twice a year (every 6 months), pour stored tap water on your plants and refill containers to the brim — no air pocket. (6) Don't! Always call the gas company for that. (7) Never go near downed wires. (8) False: Always go with a partner; never go alone. (9) a battery radio; flashlights and light sticks (candles can be dangerous); batteries; prescriptions and reserve medications; pet food; bank account numbers; insurance policies; clothes; bedding; baby supplies; etc. (10) 20 2-liter bottles of water, or 10 gallons.

Editor's note: This story first appeared in Crosscut on March 16, 2011, shortly after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Given interest in the subject generated  by the New Yorker article, "The Earthquake That Will Devastate Seattle," we have reprinted it with updated info.


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