Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Real Emergency Kits of Alameda County

When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area thirteen years ago, I had to come to grips with a constant state of expectation that the world can, and indeed will, flip upside down at any time. One of our first house projects was an earthquake retrofit that would bolt the house to its foundation and attach plywood shear walls to stabilize the structure. Later when we moved to the house in Oakland in which we currently live, from which I can actually see the Hayward Fault, we had pillars sunk beneath it until they hit bedrock. As our contractor said, "The hill might slide into the fault when the Big One hits, but your house will still be standing on the pillars." Sort of a jaunty beach house effect, I suppose.

Aside from stabilizing the house, I've also poured a ridiculous amount of energy into the careful assembly of our Emergency Kit. Bay Area natives scoff at me when I tell them how much thought I've put into assembling supplies that would keep us afloat in our newly revealed beach house for three or four days, but I'm sure no one in New Orleans was expecting Katrina to punch out the lights for two weeks either.

Twice a year, I try to haul out our big plastic tub from where it's stored in the garage - Daylight Savings Time is a pretty convenient reminder, or the anniversaries of the 1989 Loma Prieta and 1906 San Francisco quakes (October and April respectively,) or whenever there is a sale on cans of stew at the local grocery store. You'll understand the latter in a minute.

Here's a shortlist of the key components of our kit, and an explanation:
  1. Two first aid kits and a tiny medical handbook. Trying not to dwell on fact that my medical knowledge extends to applying bandaids and kisses and not much more.
  2. Flashlights, new batteries, and a hand crank radio that doubles as a flashlight. Expecting that children will be fighting over who gets to use this one, and wondering whether even the emergency frequency will be overplaying Lady Gaga.
  3. Big plastic bottles of water. I once asked an emergency response trainer if we needed to change these out periodically, since I've heard they can take on a funny flavor over time. He answered, "I've just explained to you how in an emergency, you can drink the water from the reservoir at the back of your toilet. Do you really think you need to worry about the taste of your bottled water?"
  4. Cans of beef and turkey stew. No one would ever eat these on a regular day but I am counting on fear to make us hungry. I keep meaning to put turkey jerky in, but every time I buy it, my husband finds it on the kitchen counter, says something like, "Mmmm, turkey jerky!" and it is gone before I can move it from the kitchen to the emergency kit.
  5. A plastic bag of dog food to last 3 days. However since the dog recently taught himself how to flip the latch on the kit and pull out this bag, he may be eating beef stew. Which has probably been his plan all along.
  6. An envelope full of $5 bills. It used to have $20 bills in it, and then I read somewhere that in an emergency, if all you have is twenties, then suddenly everything costs twenty dollars. One problem with this envelope is that whenever I'm in a rush to head into San Francisco and don't have the bridge toll on me, I make a pit stop at the Bank of Emergency Kit.
  7. A big bag of Jolly Ranchers. Have heard that the act of sucking on a candy can be soothing in times of stress, so want to have these handy for the kids. When doesn't a watermelon Jolly Rancher make everything better?
  8. Single shot bottles of tequila. See #7, Adult Version. Also, as a woman in the grocery checkout line once pointed out to me, they could come in handy for pouring into a wound.
A few weeks ago we had a friend over for dinner, a Midwesterner who had recently moved to the Bay Area. He started asking very detailed questions about the contents of the emergency kit, eventually saying, "But what, exactly, will you DO with it? Are you going to set up house in the front yard in your tent and live there until help comes? Or are you going to leave? What is your actual plan?"

There, of course, is the rub. Having seen the scenes of looting and mayhem in residential areas of Chile after their recent quake, scenes that looked disturbingly replicable in a city like Oakland, I think lounging around the front yard in our 4-man tent and roasting wienies until order is restored is probably not a plan. We'd have to head east, up over the Oakland Hills and into the much less quake prone Contra Costa County, where we have plenty of friends to bunk with.

The highways will be out of commission, I assume, so that leaves the surface roads. Luckily I'm married to a biker who has ridden every one of them and described them to me in jaw-dropping detail, so I know the route. The kids are old enough to do some serious hiking, though not without a healthy side order of bitching. But what about my elderly neighbor whom I've sworn to watch over? (And not just because she gives me a box of See's Candy every time we drive her to church.) 

I'm picturing the Grapes of Wrath - The Khoads, half in the bag from tequila, pushing along Dad's two fancy bikes laden with the earthquake kit, an octogenarian balanced on the handlebars like a Dutch schoolchild, two kids alongside saying, "How much longer?" with every third step, and a dog wondering when the stew will be served. Not ideal.

But I can tell you this from experience - having some plan, any plan at all, feels a lot better to me that waiting to be a victim of whatever Mother Nature is going to hurl at us next.


  1. I hadn't really considered it, but I suppose I should swap out my emergency stash of $1,000 bills for some fivers.

    Also, since leaving Cali and relocating to Texas, I still look nervously at that unsecured painting hanging over my bed. Lest you laugh, when the New Madrid fault let loose in 1811, it was felt in both New York and California. San Andreas Shmeas I say...

  2. We DEFINITELY keep the spots over the headboards clear of anything that could deliver a nighttime concussion...I also have a pair of sneaks and a flashlight in a bag attached to the bedframe. The odds that I will actually remember to stop, pull them on, lace them up, and flip on the flashlight before I run screaming into the yard are slim, but you never know.

    Remind me again where you keep your kit? The bridge toll keeps going up, you know.

  3. We had a 5.5 earthquake a few years ago in the Adirondacks. I thought the airbase was being blown up by terrorists so instead of going out and grabbing emergency supplies, I put my head under the pillow and resumed my dreaming. Finally, after the second powerful aftershock, I looked out the window and yelled to the assemblage of neighbors out there " What was that?" Tong voice, from his pillow, joined the chorus of folks, "It was an earthquake." Only then did I notice the cracks in the walls and the blown off curtain rods. Later, still nonplussed, we took a drive only to find Rt. 9 had fallen off the mountain. So much for all that. I guess it was so unexpected that reality was mixed with the surreal. So...I hope your emergency preparedness will at least let you know what is happening! about $1 bills? There is always the tipping!

  4. Tipping during an earthquake - now THAT is what I call class!

  5. Yes, cash was truly king in Mississippi after Katrina. Within the first hour I was there, one of the "procurement team" hit up the priest in charge for cash because he heard where he could score diesel for the generator that day. Big wad changed hands. I'll never forget it, or be without cash.


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