By Jenny Neyman
As the saying goes, natural disasters can’t be prevented, but they can be prepared for. September, being emergency preparedness month, is a great time to do so.
To really be prepared, it takes more than just focusing on the emergency situation. A fire, earthquake, tornado, volcanic eruption, tsunami or other destructive event is certainly going to demand attention. But it’s surviving the aftermath that particularly takes forethought and effort toward preparedness, as victims could face days to weeks or longer without electricity, water, transportation or access to supplies.
“That’s what a lot of the preparedness stuff that we stress in September is: ‘Hey, OK, you got through the earthquake, but now you can’t live in your house until it gets repaired and you can’t get in there to get supplies,’ whereas if you had 10 days worth of stuff stashed in your garage, then you’d get by a lot easier,” said Jan Yeager, with the Kenai Peninsula Citizen Corps.
Living in Alaska, prepare for the worst and hope for the best is a common adage, applied to hunting, hiking, camping, fishing, boating and other outdoors activities, or just a winter drive from Kenai to Anchorage. It should also be applied to just living here in general.
Alaska is big, spread out, at risk of many disasters and vulnerable to the destruction and life-as-usual interruptions they could easily cause. On the Kenai Peninsula, as in most outlying areas, the transportation and supply link to the outside world could be quickly cut off and slow to re-establish, whether from a fire, avalanche or volcanic ash fall. Power can go out, natural gas service can be paused and access to clean water can be compromised.
It’s not a new message, but it bears repeating as even those who know better had better get prepared.
“I’m one of them. I don’t have an emergency kit either, as terrible as that is,” Yeager said. “I keep thinking, ‘First I need to clean up my garage to have a place to put one.’ I’ll be one of those people being sorry if something happens.”
A basic emergency kit includes a gallon of water per person, per day, a change of clothes and warm gear, nonperishable food that needs no or little cooking, basic medical supplies, necessary medications, a flashlight, provisions for pets, activities for kids. Basically, anything that will make life livable and more comfortable should residents be plunged into an impromptu camping trip.
“I hate winter camping,” said Barbara McNinch.
She and Charlie LaForge have given emergency preparedness some thought and actual effort, including looking into earthquake insurance for their home. It wasn’t the unexpected August quake that hit the East Coast, remembrances of Sept. 11 or any specific occurrence that spurred their action, they said. Just an awareness of the importance of being prepared.
“I grew up around tornadoes. And I was a Boy Scout and I was taught to be prepared, that was a big part of it. I always heard to keep water on hand,” LaForge said.
He’s got a disaster kit stashed away including water, dry goods, seven cases of canned fish, 5 gallons of kerosene, a gas stove and a small power generator.
“To keep the fish from thawing out, you know. That’s all we’d use a generator for — a light bulb and a freezer,” LaForge said.
“If you can’t get out of your house for a few days things could easily get real ugly for you. I heard if something ever happened to the Port of Anchorage, within a week Alaska would be depleted of food, so I’m thinking about getting more dry goods,” he said. “I try to keep those reserves up. If any major thing happened I’d want to have some extra for my neighbors, too.”
“For me, it’s heat,” McNinch said of her concern if disaster were to strike.
They’ve lived off the grid, with no running water or electricity, as many Alaskans have done. She could do it again if need be, though she would rather not have to in the winter.
So they’ve got a wood stove, just in case. But as is often the case, more preparatory work could still be done.
“That’s why we’ve got a wood stove,” LaForge said.
“But it would have to be hooked up,” McNinch added.
“And without a working stove, we don’t have wood just setting around to use,” LaForge said. “Right now, we’d have to split up the shed for some wood.”
Getting supplies in order is part of being prepared. Doing some mental work is another, Yeager said. People need to think about what could happen and be prepared by figuring out a plan of response. Have an escape and meeting plan for families. Have a way to communicate. Have a plan for what to do with pets.
“A lot of shelters are designed for people, they aren’t designed for pets, and so you’re going to have to have some kind of plan for how you’re going to take care of your critters. They’re not coming to the shelter with you, so where are they going to go?” Yeager said.
For business owners, there are resources online to help establish a business continuity plan.
“What are you going to do if an emergency strikes your business? What’s your cleanup plan? Do you have plans with your suppliers in terms of holding off on shipments or maintaining your inventory? How are you going to secure your business if you need to? Do you have earthquake or fire insurance on your business? Yeah, maybe it’s expensive, but if something happens you’re going to wish you had it,” Yeager said.
Don’t leave action to chance. Think ahead about what to do if the time comes. If an earthquake were to hit, for example, adults and kids should know how to be safe.
“If you’re out in the open you’re in the best place to be. If you’re right next to a building you want to try and move away from it. I saw pictures of bricks falling down from buildings on the East Coast during that quake. I don’t want one of those falling on my head. So move away from things that are likely to fall,” Yeager said.
If indoors, don’t try to get out of the building. Standing in a doorframe is better than next to a window, for example, but not ideal.
“The best thing to do is get under desk, get under a table or something sturdy and then hang on to it, because as the ground is shaking most things are going to move, and if that desk moves off of you then it’s not helping you any,” Yeager said.
A disaster could easily be a literal rude awakening, since people spend six to eight hours a day in bed. As such, keep emergency gear under the bed, Yeager advises.
“Preparatory things like having some sort of head protection, sturdy shoes, a flashlight, gloves — stick them under your bed and leave them there. That way you know exactly where they are. If you do have broken glass and stuff around you’re probably not going to have it under your bed, so you can put those things on and not worry about them. There are things that you’re going to need all of a sudden, and the best place to have them is right there at hand,” she said.
And put some thought into not making your situation worse. For instance, don’t hang heavy items precariously overhead.
“If you have a big, heavy, framed glass picture over your bed, that’s going to hurt if it falls on you,” Yeager said.
Beyond that, common sense goes a long way. At the Kenai Peninsula Citizen Corps, with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management, Yeager said they spend about as much time debunking poor advice as they do giving out good advice.
“It’s amazing how many people don’t know, or they see something on the Internet and believe it. I heard one about putting raw egg whites on people’s burns and they heal right away. No, please don’t do that. I’m picturing salmonella in an open wound kind of thing. Eew. Please don’t,” Yeager said.
There’s also a pernicious Internet rumor about the “triangle of life” theory to surviving earthquakes. It holds that people shouldn’t shelter under tables or desks, but should try to find spaces that are likely to become “voids” in a structural collapse, like next to a refrigerator. Again, not true, Yeager said.
“If you have a building come down there’s going to be these voids and the safest place to be is one of these voids. And there are going to be voids, that’s true. But (the rumor) claims you can predict where these voids are going to be. And that’s not true,” she said. “So it’ll say get next to a refrigerator because a refrigerator will create this slanted space next to it and you’ll live. But refrigerators fall over.”
There is plenty of good, reliable safety and preparedness advice out there. Yeager’s main advice is to heed it.
“People hear things once and they don’t check it out, they don’t think critically, and they don’t plan ahead,” Yeager said. “And I’m one of them. I need to get prepared too.”
Practice makes planning perfect
In recognition of September as National Preparedness Month, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management is spreading the word about the importance of emergency preparedness for every household.
Last week, an article discussed the importance of having an emergency kit and a “go bag” in the event of a disaster. The next step in preparedness is to have a plan. The middle of an emergency is not the time to start figuring out what to do. Professional emergency responders develop and test response plans for every situation they can anticipate and practice them over and over until they’re automatic. They also review them regularly to see what changes need to be made. Your family should do the same.
Disaster may strike when you’re all together, whether at home or away, or separated. Plan for each option. At home, practice evacuating the house and decide on a location outside, such as a driveway or mailbox, where everyone will meet. Choose a meeting place away from home if disaster should strike when family members are separated and returning home is not an option. Also figure out a couple options of places your family can stay if you’re away from home and it’s not safe to return. Make sure one of these is far enough away that it is unlikely to be in the disaster area.
How will you contact each other if separated? Choose an out-of-area friend or relative who is unlikely to be affected by the emergency and can act as a point of contact for you. Everyone who has a cell phone should learn to text, as text messages use much smaller amounts of data and can often get through when regular cell phone calls can’t. If cell towers are down, cell phones won’t work at all. Know where landlines are that you can access in an emergency.
Plan how you will care for your pets. You should take them with you if you need to evacuate; however, most shelters will not accept pets. You may be able to keep them in a vehicle if the outdoor temperatures are moderate and you can tend to them regularly. Develop a list of hotels that will accept pets; some that normally don’t may make exceptions in emergencies. Arrange ahead of time for a friend or neighbor to check on your animals and evacuate them if necessary if disaster happens when you are away from home.
Once you have worked out the details of your family emergency plan, make sure everyone in the family knows the plan and has a copy. If you have children in daycare or school, know the emergency plans of the care providers and schools.
There is a planning tool at http://www.ready.gov that can take you step by step through preparing a family emergency plan. You will also find links where you can create versions of the plan designed to fit in your wallet or in a pocket of your children’s school bags. Once a year, review your plan and update it as needed. And continue to hold family emergency drills so that everyone will automatically know how to react in a fire, earthquake or other disaster.
It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day rush of our busy lives and put off tasks like this one. But disasters almost always catch us off guard. Make your plan now. It takes just a few minutes but can save tremendous time and worry, and possibly a life, when an emergency happens.
Jan Yeager works with the Kenai Peninsula Citizen Corps. For more information, visit the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency management webpage at www2.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency.