By Judy Spiers
At 4:00 a.m. on Friday, March 11th, my brother phoned me from his home on the Oregon coast.
“There’s been a huge earthquake in Japan and a tsunami traveling at 500 mph per hour is supposed to arrive here around 7:00 this morning. Everything I’ve built in my life could be swept away.”
Deryl lives 6 miles west of Tillamook, where evacuations had already begun.
“I built this house really well and it’s withstood lots of storms – like the one we had in 2006 when winds at Mount Nebo topped out at 135 mph,” he said. “That storm was the worst ever.”
When we were done I turned on the TV. I also prayed. The tsunami dissipated before it reached our coast. All was well.
However, the news from Japan was yet the latest wake-up call for me and my family to become better prepared for emergencies.
I reflected on Deryl’s comments about the gravity of the 2006 storm, especially since we had grown up on a dairy farm in Enumclaw, where Chinook winds during different storms had torn our four-car garage off its foundation, ripped off the top of our steel silo, and laid neighboring barns flat.
The 2006 winds topped out at 80 mph in the lowlands surrounding Seattle and up to 100 mph in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains where my husband, Mark, and I live. I recalled that night vividly.
The winds woke us not long after we’d gone to bed. We checked the house, then got back in bed and made futile attempts to sleep. Our community was nestled in a forest, and nine giant fir trees stood within 20 feet of our home. The winds thrashed the trees like an agitator in a washing machine, causing them to wrench and groan. Our sleep was fitful.
Suddenly, a horrific, muffled, thudding sound shook the house and we sat bolt upright. We scurried to our knees to peer out the window above our bed.
Silhouettes of thick, fir needles and branches flew sideways across a charcoal sky like black snowflakes in a white-out blizzard. There were no lights shining anywhere. We grabbed mattresses and bedding, and made our way blindly to the living room on the north end of the house where we dropped them on the floor.
To find the matches we’d put near the fireplace, we groped like children across the floor. When Mark opened the fireplace doors, wind shoved pungent blasts of the dying smoke down the stove pipe and into our faces. We didn’t dare restart the fire for fear that we’d be asphyxiated.
We climbed shivering onto our mattresses and piled on the covers, still thinking about those huge trees right next to the house. We should have been better prepared. Why weren’t we?
Earlier in the day, forecasters had been saying a storm was coming, but to be honest, forecasters sensationalize to keep viewers glued to their channels. They’d lost their credibility with us.
Nevertheless, our daughter had called us in the evening and announced that, although stores on South Hill were out of camping lanterns, she’d found some at Ace Hardware in Graham and they were going fast.
We bought the last one while people continued to stream into the store looking for more.
When we got home we checked the forecasts again, and learned the winds were expected to come straight out of the south.
“Don’t sleep on the south side of the house,” they warned.
However, we couldn’t overcome the comfort of routine and our cozy beds so we stayed in our bedroom on the south end of the house.
The fierce winds came in abruptly. They pounded and slammed into our house. We prayed silently, and then out-loud before we drifted back to sleep, only to be awakened by the frightening thud that had sent us scrambling to the living room for the rest of the night.
By 6:00 a.m. the winds backed off a bit, and as the faintest light began to show we went outside. Every tree was pruned. Three of them, directly behind our house, had miraculously fallen to the east and had been the source of the noise we’d heard. Waist-high layers of branches covered our yard, and our street was impassable
We pulled back the debris and found that our house, carport and storage area – even our bird feeders – were all intact. Blessedly, even the plants in our landscaping were spared, and our gratitude merged with elation!
Then, we turned our attention to our neighbors.
Our home, with a wood-burning stove, was one of three or four in the immediate neighborhood of 68 that had an alternate source of heat. After Mark built a roaring fire, we then we went door-to-door inviting neighbors over. However, we didn’t have enough food to feed everyone, so while I made some modest sandwiches he walked to the store the minute it opened and bought cans of chili and hot chocolate.
That was the first day in the six years we’d lived in that house that we’d met any but our next door neighbors. Why? We were too busy? We had jobs? Or maybe when we retire we’d get acquainted, we reasoned. But that storm changed everything. We learned why neighbors need to get to know each other.
The morning after the 2006 storm, emergency services were swamped and we realized that we needed to be able to take care of ourselves in these kinds of natural disasters.
Assessing the situation, we were faced with questions: how can a family survive in a home without heat? Shock is a very real occurrence in disasters, and one of neighbors was so traumatized that she refused to leave her cold house for three days.
Further, how do you cook without power? Plus, what if someone had been injured – did anyone even have first aid supplies? And later, how do you entertain yourself night after night when there’s no electricity?
But on the day after, food was our first concern. Mark retrieved our two-burner camping stove from our storage shed. There is some controversy about whether or not it could be safely used in the house, (we are researching this and will report our findings in the future), so we set it up outside on our deck. Blue propane flames blazed bravely, but between the freezing temperatures and the wind it was difficult to get the stove hot enough to warm the food.
Neighbors filed in and warmed themselves by the fire, ate, and gratefully clasped cups of hot chocolate in their hands. We introduced ourselves. The ice was broken; after all, we had the storm to talk about.
We invited them back but had no takers. Some went to stay with friends or relatives; others went to hotels for what they thought would be a short reprieve. However, it wasn’t until the third day that the power was restored and hotels proved to be a pricey solution, especially when the cost of eating out three times a day is factored in.
Mark and I managed to live in-place. Our fireplace kept things fairly warm, and our daughter and her husband surprised us with more wood. We layered our clothing, and strung a blanket over archway to the kitchen to keep the heat in our living room. Mark went to Home Depot and bought one of the last generators they had and set it up, which made us feel far more secure.
The 2006 storm gave us the first-hand experience that convinced us to be better prepared for emergencies. A year or so later, when we moved to Graham and learned about the Self-Reliant Community there, we needed no persuasion to join right away.
One clarion voice
Eight years ago Wayne Cooke, a retired school teacher, became concerned about the community’s failure to prepare for what he saw lying ahead – a world vulnerable to gasoline shortages and food supplies imperiled on many fronts. He called a meeting at the library and no one showed up. It seemed that many people thought raising the subject of food shortages was fear-mongering. Nevertheless, he scheduled another meeting and one person showed. Today, the Self-Reliant Community of Graham has nearly 80 active members whom he faithfully goads, encourages, coaches, and yes, teaches.
Japan’s earthquake illustrates that life as we’ve known it can change in minutes. We live on the same Pacific Rim that caused Japan’s earthquake, and I strongly believe we all need to be self-reliant.
According to The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, “Although a great deal is known about where earthquakes are likely, there is currently no reliable way to predict the days or months when an event will occur in any specific location.”
Haiti, Christ Church, and now Japan have shown us what happens in communities when access to food, water and fuel is severed. Japan has been highly praised for its earthquake preparedness, but even there life will not return to normal in three days, a week, or even a month. We should take lessons from their experiences and plan for the long term.
Earthquakes, however, are but one type of sudden need that could arise. Mount Rainier may be dormant, but it’s still an active volcano. Based on their success in predicting the Mount St. Helen eruption here in Washington on May 18, 1980, scientists have some confidence that their constant monitoring of seismic activity on Rainier will enable them to give some advance warning of an eruption.
Perhaps more likely though, would be a lahar.
A lahar is associated with volcanic activity and occurs when a sudden collapse of the mountain’s walls sends a slurry of water, boulders and debris the consistency of wet cement cascading down valley corridors at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. A lahar could arrive in populated lower areas, such as Puyallup, within 45 minutes.
According to Pierce County Department of Emergency Management (PCDEM), the South Hill Mall is the designated place for those in the valley to seek refuge. But if a lahar traveled to Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, which has happened in the past, roadways and rail lines would be cut off and we could find ourselves in a jam.
Maybe it’s because no one can predict an eruption or a lahar that we don’t prepare for them more thoroughly. Damaging storms are far easier to accept because the 2006 storm left nearly a quarter-of-a-million people in the Puget Sound region without electricity – many for two weeks. Hearing of the approaching storm, there was an initial rush on the stores; but when supplies were gone, they were gone.
In Japan the day of the quake, witnesses reported that there was no power, no gas for heating or cooking, and no water; also, all the stores were closed – even the 7-Elevens. We should anticipate that stores here will close, as well.
Don’t count on the stores
Fifty or sixty years ago there were storerooms in the back of our local hardware and grocery stores from which shelves could be replenished. Today, corporations are extremely efficient at off-loading semi-truck loads of merchandise onto store shelves each night. As a result, there is little in the way of surplus when a storm hits.
We have been taught to have enough food, water and other supplies on hand to last three days, but now the PCDEM calls on us to be prepared for seven days, because it could take up to a week for local, state and federal agencies to mobilize.
As a result, we need to be able to survive in place, without help, for a week – minimum, and the Self Reliant Community (SRC) has a list of 7 Tasks that individuals and families can use as a guide to help insure their needs will be met.
However, despite all the wake-up calls, apathy and procrastination have kept Mark and me poking along over the past two years towards getting it together. But what’s happened in Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake and the tsunami has pushed us to drop everything and complete our preparations.
We went shopping, and first were food storage containers and rain barrels.
There is a man named Sky from the SRC who sells 55-gallon barrels that are perfect for storage. We bought one that has this nifty, easy to use handle on top to store emergency supplies, and a barrel so we can start collecting rain water from our downspouts and save for emergencies. The barrels were a good deal at $30 for the pair because the ones you can buy at the stores are double in price. Plus, Sky’s are larger and made of steel. In addition, Mark got a faucet to install at the bottom of the rain barrel for $5.
While we were there we also picked up a couple 5-gallon buckets to use in the garden for $2 each. Home Depot sells them for $4 or more.
When we got to Home Depot it was still early enough so employees had time to help. One very pleasant employee walked us to every item on our list, and we were out of there in no time.
We’ve been advised to get “Help” signs to put in our windows so responders could quickly determine if we needed assistance. We didn’t find any, but that was OK because we felt we could easily make one of our own with felt tip pens and save the money.
Then we went looking for fire extinguishers. There are two basic kinds, and we bought the “all-purpose” kind, and were done.
Since we recently put in a propane heat stove for our back-up warmth, we decided to buy a carbon monoxide alarm. Since we already have smoke alarms, we purchase just the carbon monoxide alarm which was $10 cheaper than the combo devices.
We already had extra gloves to put in our emergency storage kit, but we didn’t have hard hats for protection from falling debris in storms and earthquakes. We bought two for $6.28 each. And then we bought tape to use if it ever becomes necessary to seal the doors on our house. Although Mark resisted because he thought it was too expensive at $10 a roll, I insisted that I did not want the cheaper blue kind because when you remove it, it pulls all the paint off with it.
We returned home with our cache feeling really good about having taken these steps to self-reliance and independence. We still need to buy a few more things, but we’ll get them the next time we shop for groceries. The important thing is that we are traveling down the road on our way towards being better prepared for any emergency.
This article is the first in a weekly series about self-reliance, sustainability, and interdependence. In Part 2, I’ll describe the 7 Tasks toward self-reliance, and what Mark and I learned as we’ve worked toward completing them. It’s been an experience.
© 2001 Judy Spiers
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