Flirting with Disaster
Being prepared for a disaster is not something we, or at least I, think about when hitting that snooze button on the alarm.
In fact, I am arguably unprepared all the time (open toed shoes in the rain, forgetting where I put my toothbrush, the cat, my purse).
So I consider it noble indeed for the San Francisco Fire Department to try to train 20,000 normal forgetters like myself to be prepared for anything (well, mostly tsunamis and earthquakes) through a program called NERT (Neighborhood Response Emergency Training). I decided to try it out, and see if I could prepare myself for the next big one.
I hopped on the N Judah and headed to St. John of God Newman Center where an introductory session of NERT was being held. (Side note: I need to investigate San Francisco churches more often. This one was a stunner, the mid-century church of my dreams. A modern stained-glass portrait of who only could be THE St. John dominates one wall.) Anyway, I walked into a quickly crowded room of tables with metal folding chairs.
Two veteran firefighters, John Rocco and John Kaba, led the training, and I don't mean to be threatening here folks but according to these "disaster masters" the big one is inevitable and IT (tsunami, electrical fire, falling masonry) is going to happen. Apparently the effects of said pending earthquake will be dastardly in comparison to recent temblors like Loma Prieta and Northridge.
The Disaster Master kept saying things like "It's gonna happen" and "You can never really know when." The uncertainty factor wasn't the only tactic the Disaster Masters used to pull me in, they used film (I'm a total sucker). Who can deny the heart string puller of real-life footage from the '89 earthquake? The kicker is a clip that shows citizens like me and you (Okay, I lie, they were stronger and wearing shorts) running from the Bay carrying hoses to help put out the fires. These are real people, residents of the Marina, helping out. It was hard not to get a little soppy.
The video ended with a clip from the final game of the World Series with a performer from Beach Blanket Babylon singing the classic "San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate." At this point I looked around the room and everyone else was soppy too. I couldn't help but notice the Giants hats and 49ers jackets in the audience—a little bit of San Francisco pride rising from our chests.
When the Big One hits, it's this passion and pride for the City by the Bay that will pull us together. It will help if some of us know what the hell we're doing.
You learn some amazing things over the six-week NERT course: self reliance, firefighting, utility control, emergency medicine, and managing a disaster. For me, the highlights included using a fire extinguisher (whee!) and a hands on exercise where you do some light search and rescue, where you can actually volunteer to be a victim. At the end of the course, you get an ID, a certificate and most importantly your orange vest and safety helmet.
For those not yet NERT certified, I talked with Lt. Erica Arteseros, program coordinator, about the few things that all San Franciscans should know about disaster preparedness:
1) Pending disaster requires training. Take a class so when IT happens, you're ready.
2) Have a disaster plan. Know where are you going to evacuate to, and pick someone out of state so that if cell phone networks are tied up and wires are down, there's someone who knows your status.
3) Create your own personal Disaster Home Kit. Focus on supplies that provide you comfort in your current daily living. For example, if you are someone who is cold all the time (aka anyone who lives in SF and is used to layering), be sure to put a pair of longjohns in your home kit. If you don't normally eat pea soup, don't buy it for your kit. Think of the kit as an extension of yourself. This will make the rough times much easier to handle. If you're like me, hot chocolate (or any chocolate) makes you an even-keeled human. Throw some in.
4) Connect with your neighbors and build a community. Not only will you establish connections that you would never otherwise have, but you can get help from them when it all goes down.
I decided to make my own disaster supply kit based upon the SFFD's recommendation. I thought it would be a good experiment to see if the Delano's IGA supermarket near my house could provide everything I needed in one fell swoop.
For under $100, I was able to purchase almost everything on the list that I didn't have at home. There were a few things that Delano's didn't have: ironically, a can opener (Fail #1), duct tape, rope, a portable radio, first aid book and a fire extinguisher. I guess I'm not surprised that they didn't have fire extinguishers. For food, I went for grub that won't perish for at least a year. And as five gallons of water is a lot to carry home, I only got two and a half gallons, which basically means I could only live for two and a half days, probably (Fail #2). Also, as I am a true forgetter I totally forgot to buy bleach (Fail #3), an emergency essential to purify water for drinking. I got out of Delano's with 31 items and dragged my two and a half gallons of of not-enough water and canned goods (without an opener) home.
Once home, I found an old suitcase with wheels. This was something that the NERT trainers recommended – finding something that rolls to move your supplies around in case of evacuation. I packed up my purchases with the items I had at home already. They also say you are supposed to pack extra cash in your kit, though it's hard to part with cold cash in advance. It felt totally awesome to have an evacuation kit ready to go (will my friends ridicule me? Probably!), but now I know that I am ahead of the game, and that I have supplies and food (sans opener, of course) in case something goes off the Richter.
I want to note a pair of shops to visit if you, like me, can't find all you need for your emergency kit at the supermarket:
If John Muir were a shopper, this might be his favorite shopping spot to pick up any survival gear he might need. It's like a fancy REI. I found this place because I was looking for notepads that you could write on in the rain (long story) and of course this place carried them.
This store is a frequent spot for those mastering disaster (usually for civil service uniforms), but you can also get medical supplies here too (like a defibrillator!). Feel free to ask to try on a pair of handcuffs, just for fun.
Even with all the right gear and supplies there are some things that money can't buy, like having a plan in place and knowing how to limit destruction. That requires training from an experienced fire department and a community of heroes in orange vests to help when that Big One strikes. For now, I feel better knowing that thanks to some simple advice, a shopping trip and a smoke alarm, I'm prepared for the next Little One (I hope).