It’s an Earthquake! Practical Tips for Vancouverites

Were you among the thousands to be rocked from your bed this morning in a mild panic, groping through foggy wakefulness for those half-forgotten earthquake preparedness tips, while battling your twisted nightgown and yelling for the kids?

You are not alone.

Thousands of residents of Southern BC popped their collective earthquake cherries this morning, as the 4.8 magnitude quake rolled in at 11:39 p.m PT. In its wake, toppled chairs, slightly confused animals, and earth-shattering delight from social media masses – practically on par with Disney-world-level excitement. Resounding cries of “finally! It’s happened!” and “I have felt my first!!” could be heard along the Southern West Coast.

This effect can be otherwise known as ‘Earthquake Stupor’, a condition which often results in a region-wide euphoria in a population’s collective survival, followed by an astounding, highly detrimental disregard for anything resembling preparation for future, similar or worse, occurrences.

Symptoms include:

  • Thoughts of invincibility
  • Feelings of relief (that the danger has passed)
  • Strong urges to post jubilant stories of survival on social media
  • Moving on with one’s life as if nothing really significant happened at all
  • The uncontrollable need to write to local governments and school boards, questioning the need for all this ‘earthquake education’ nonsense

In about 5% of cases:

  • Erratic outbursts of panic, interspersed with nervous laughter, at the thought of how bad it could have been
  • A strong desire to consume any and all information relating to earthquake preparedness

If you are exhibiting any of the first set of symptoms, I suggest you enjoy it for another 5 minutes, then come back and read on.

Fear not! On the off-chance you’ve come down to earth with a bump after all the excitement (it WAS pretty exciting, I have to admit), or you’re in that small but noble percentage of concerned citizens (bless you all, for it is you who justify my profession), what follows should be of some use; A simple 5-step preparedness guide based on some of the more common questions and concerns surrounding earthquake preparedness.

1. Oh great. Another article, with more info on earthquake preparedness.

I hear you. There’s a lot of information out there. I’m not saying I’m the ultimate source of knowledge on this stuff. However, it is my job to know a few practical bits a pieces (I’m an Emergency Management professional – I went to school for this and sometimes get woken up at 3am to help people navigate the worst day of their life, but that’s another story).

The reason for all the conflicting, often too complicated and inconsistent information about what to do when an earthquake hits, is because ultimately the answer is this: It depends. (*collective groan from the readers*) Just bear with me here.

‘Safe’ is relative to what emergency is taking place, where you are in relation to it, and what is around you. So I’ll apologize right now, there are no hard and fast rules. However, the good news is that personal preparedness can be applied to just about any emergency, from house fire to power outage, to flood, to earthquake, and will continue to be useful as long as you continue to consider it a few times a year. Hurrah!

That being said, let’s get back to earthquakes. Time for a practical exercise:

Try to remember all that half-remembered information about triangles of life, load-bearing walls, or other tips and tricks you’ve heard over the years, gather it all together, and then promptly forget it all. Throw it out. Get rid of it. It’s likely not current, and if you don’t fully remember the information then it’s likely not useful to you anyway.

Now, consider this (for earthquakes):

Ultimately ‘Drop, Cover and Hold on’ is definitely the soundest advice I’ve heard – it’s certainly what I’d do. Given the small amount of time you have to do anything in an earthquake scenario, the fact that the ground is shaking and things are falling, it’s generally best to stay put and brace yourself against or under a sturdy desk or other well-engineered object. The structure of that item is likely to offer your fragile bag-of-water-and-bones body some additional protection, just like a shield. There is also the nice added benefit that this action gets you off your feet; your knees are pretty pathetic Vs an earthquake, plus a vertical human is prime target for horrible crushing injuries. Lastly, ‘hold on’ keeps that sturdy thing over/near you.

DON’T go looking for door-frames, bathtubs and other delightful fixtures or features in your home. You don’t have time for a scenic detour on the way to the floor. Let’s be realistic here, the floor is ultimately where you’ll end up no matter what… you know… that whole ‘earth shaking’ thing.

2. I don’t have time to make a kit

You are right; time is short, and all that jazz. However, I’d suggest you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here – you don’t need hand-knitted blankets and home-aged 25 year scotch (but couldn’t hurt, I suppose, in the face of disaster…)

I tend to think that most people just find the whole process daunting. I mean, where do you start? I’ll tell you where. Instead of thinking about an earthquake, answer this:

If you had 1 backpack, and had to fill it with the essentials for your survival for 3 days, what would be in it?

This is called a ‘grab and go’ bag, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Lets think about it:

Do you survive from day to day? Yes.

Is it complicated? Sometimes. Mostly no. Don’t answer that.

The point is, you manage already. You do it with what you have IN YOUR HOME. It doesn’t take anything special. Who are we kidding, you probably already have an old backpack kicking around too.

Here’s my must-have list:

  • Granola/protein bars
  • 2L Water bladder (like this), or bottle
  • Sanitary napkins/tampons
  • Spare socks
  • Spare underwear (Words of wisdom from my Grandma “Don’t be caught dead without clean underwear” …she was a morbid lady)
  • Multi-tool/Swiss army knife
  • $20 in assorted bills/coins
  • Copies of insurance (home, health, pets etc) and ID (Use a secure app like this on your smart phone if you don’t have a scanner/printer)
  • Paper and pencil (it rains in Vancouver so ink is hopeless, plus it dries out in storage)
  • Pair of flats/shoes (in case I’m rushing out without shoes. It’s happened. Don’t ask.)
  • Spare medication (Rotate out every month with regular supplies)
  • Charger for phone (and/or spare battery) – solar works great for power outage situations btw.
  • List of important contacts, including one out-of-area, in case local networks are jammed (probably already in your phone, but a paper copy never hurt)
  • Small first aid kit (gather some band-aids and bandages, keep it simple)

3. It’s Too expensive to Prepare

For anything you don’t have for your kit, try a dollar store. It doesn’t have to be fancy, expensive, or complicated.

The dollar store… seriously. This is not a Drill.

Additionally, I think the most valuable preparedness measure you can take, is also the least appreciated; Situational awareness. Did you know that 95% of injuries in earthquakes do not involve structural collapse? In fact, most are caused by people falling or being struck by falling objects such as light fixtures falling. (Stats courtesy of http://www.nycem.org).

If there are objects such a knives or pots hanging from racks or on top of shelves, you can improve their chances with gravity and thus minimize your chances of injury, by moving them closer to the floor (a low table, a drawer, or a magnetic holder, perhaps) or by securing them. You can do the same with bookcases by anchoring them properly to a wall.

Also, reading is free. Here are a bunch of great links if you’re interested:

City of Vancouver, Emergency Preparedness

Government of Canada, Get Prepared

Federal Emergency Management Agency (US), Home Earthquake Preparedness

4. The big one isn’t going to happen in my lifetime. It only shook a little bit! 

I’ll admit, you might be right. However, you might also be catastrophically, inconceivably, wrong. If the latter end up being the case, do you really want to wing it? Really?

Ok Rambo, here’s the scoop: Preparedness saves lives. It does. It’s been demonstrated time and time again, in disasters across the globe from Tsunami’s in Japan to Fires in California, families who:

  1. become aware of the risks and potential impact to their home/family
  2. think through what they could do in such situations and
  3. check out their local government emergency management program, including twitter feeds etc.
  4. repeat steps 1-3 a few times year (3 hours out of 8760… YOU CAN DO IT!!)

Will almost certainly stand a better chance at surviving calamity. There it is, the secret to survival – thinking about what could happen, and what you might do about it, then talking to your family about how you can do it together. That’s it. Honestly.

5. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

This is an action tip! (props to all the Scouts who get that reference)

I have to warn you, if you dislike talking to people, or thinking about them, this next bit might be difficult for you (I do feel your pain).

Once you are done reading this post, please do the following:

  • Call your family members, gather some friends and neighbours, and discuss how you are/not prepared.
  • Ask them what they have in their kits.
  • Talk about how you might get in contact with each other in the event of an emergency
  • Talk about having an out-of-area contact, just in case local phone lines are jammed with traffic.
  • Skip to page 7 of this document, and FILL IT IN!!! (even better, print it or save it… then update it…please!)

Before you ask, here is a stuffy FEMA report which outlines of the importance of personal preparedness. In addition, this one summarizes Canadian attitudes to preparedness. Proof of concept, as it were. Just in case you wanted something academic to balance my approach. You’re welcome.

Now GO! Be prepared my pretties!

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