Saturday, February 26, 2011

Quake Tips - practicalities

An earthquake is very stressful, and preparation can at least ease your mind about certain aspects of your immediate situation. Having what you need will also reduce the need to go into the outside world, which will be in chaos, full of panicky people that possibly did not prepare and you don't want to see that. Having now been through - oh, I don't know - about 4000 little-to-medium quakes and a few much bigger ones, I feel fully ready to share my earthquake tips au Sara. I'm not an expert, so feel free to comment me on anything I've missed.

The Quake

- They can happen at night! It had never occurred to me, in my pre-earthquake past, that any theoretical earthquake could happen in freaky pitch darkness. We had a torch, but couldn't find it because it was, yes, dark. The power will inevitably go out in any decent sized earthquake. It will not be turned on again until the companies have had a chance to check their network, which can take time if the roads have been damaged. Now I have three torches - a rubberised one that hangs on a cord from my bedside table, a big waterproof 'dolphin' torch that will probably still be in perfect condition in 10,000 years - this lives by the back door, and an older one that lives in the garden shed.

- Clothes. It is best to be wearing some when you go to check on the neighbours. If the earthquake hits at night, and you sleep naked, then it's a good idea to have some warm clothes handy that you can easily grab on your way out, also shoes. Many people, myself included, suffered cuts from running over broken glass in bare feet. It's pretty easy to keep some slip ons by the bed and can certainly save you painful injuries to your feet.

- What they say on TV about securing things is true. Stuff falls over and can be actually thrown around by quite a distance. Little things like crockery and glasses and the things on your bedside table won't kill you, but a TV, bookcase or dresser might. Screwing down things like monitors can prevent expensive damage too - sure there is insurance, but after a major earthquake, dealing with household insurance claims is going to take a long, long time. Speaking of bedside tables, in the first quake I got quite severely clonked by a lamp that fell off mine and landed on my face (which hardly registered at the time as I was too busy contemplating immediate death). I have rearranged the table. The lamp sits further back on the table and it's blu-tacked down; according to Quake#2, this method actually worked. The Programmer has secured things like dressers and bookcases with a right-angled bracket thing, which is a slightly ugly temporary fix until we can organise something prettier.

- As regards what to do, I think the traditional wisdom of getting under something sturdy is surely the best idea as the danger in both quakes was primarily from things either moving around (see above) or falling down either outside or inside the building - chimneys, masonry, ceiling panels. However, I'm a hypocrite because this is not what we did in either quake. Our house is very 'indoors-outdoors', and as there is nothing that can fall on the outside deck, this is our 'safe place' to which we flee at any large aftershock. We even considered sleeping there, but it rained. In Quake#1, we were asleep and by the time we woke the only option was to stay in bed as the house was moving too violently. As soon as all that stopped, we got out. In Quake#2 we were awake and primed and out the nearby door in a flood of adrenaline before conscious thought even kicked in. In the case of the buildings that did collapse, I honestly don't know what would have been the safest thing to do. Probably, survival in that case comes down to pure luck and compulsory earthquake strengthening of every tall building. However, most buildings did not collapse to the ground. I have not seen one residential house that did that, although I've seen many that lost their external walls or that cracked up badly, sunk into the ground, got flooded with liquefaction or moved on their foundations.

- Chimneys were a surprising area of weakness. The one major injury in Quake#1 was from a chimney crashing through a roof and landing on someone. Maybe it's time to remove all chimneys in NZ that aren't actually used?

Disaster kit

* The Californians have been doing earthquakes rather well for a long time. Click here for their recommendations of what you should have. A few things I found essential:

- Panadol. After each quake I came down with a massive headache. As a habitual coffee drinker, I get the panadol with caffeine in it. In Quake#1, which hit at 4.30am, I missed my morning espresso and I'm sure the headache was partly caffeine withdrawal.

- Wipes and sanitising gel. You may not have water to waste on washing so it's good to keep yourself stink-free with wet-wipes and so on. Alcohol-based, hand sanitiser (that evaporates) is also a must for avoiding sickness from eating with grubby hands.

- Paper towels. Dishclothes and so on get very manky quickly if you can't wash them.

- Battery powered radio + spare batteries. It may be your only connection to the outside world.

- Fresh socks and undies.

- Don't forget to have a bag of catfood in there!

- Smokers should have cigarettes stockpiled. Although I disagree with smoking (pew!), post EQ is stressful enough without enforced smoking cessation.

The water and food part of the emergency kit is really a no brainer. It's easy to hoard enough so that you can bunker down for a few weeks without starving.

What I have been doing, for ages, is buying a couple of bottles of water in glass bottles every week and stashing them around the place randomly, not all in one place. Water is the most important thing. When I went searching after Quake#2 (in Quake #1 the water supply was only off briefly) I found 30 bottles here and there. I found out the hard way that, if a bottle has been refilled with tap water, you need to make sure there is no air in it. Also, if it's been sitting a while, it may be best to boil it anyway. What I wish I'd had were some larger containers - which I now have, thanks to the red cross. I think a rainwater tank also would be fabulous. I'll get The Programmer onto that right away, as soon as he has fixed the hot water cylinder - which appears to have had silt pushed up into the pipes and is spewing water onto the roof as I type.

Just add a few cans of edibles to every shop as well as other things that don't go off quickly - don't forget the chocolate (!). One thing the Californians recommend is having high water snacks stored up - like those Ready to Drink meal replacements, so that you are not making yourself thirsty by eating too many dried or salty things.

- I've also found it reassuring to have my box gardens, which take up very little space in the back yard. It's fab to have easy access spuds, greens, carrots or whatever else you have managed to grow (in my case hot chillies, probably not emergency food..).

- Although it's good to have a freezer full, you can't rely on it completely because of the possibility of a lengthy power cut.

Other considerations

- Workplaces should also be prepared. It may not be possible for people to get home.

- Cash. It's a good idea to have some because it is likely that EFTPOS will go down, at least temporarily. A change jar should do the trick. Small denomination notes and coins are much appreciated by retailers.

- Develop the habit of always keeping your car gas topped up. Perhaps treat the midline as 'empty'. The queues and fights at gas stations after both recent quakes in Christchurch were alarming.

- A gas barbeque or gas cooker is awesome for cooking and for boiling water but only if the gas bottle actually has some gas in it.

- I like to store some things outside (actually, in the garage, just inside the door) and some inside. I always thought that if the house collapsed, we would still need to be able to get to our essential things.

- It's good to have some clothes made of natural fibres, like Merino. They do not get rank if you have to wear them for a few days, or even weeks, without washing. This goes doubly for socks.

And, perhaps less easy to achieve:

- Live in a wooden house.

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