Disaster Management


My cousin is in disaster management. By “in” I mean that he manages disasters, and readies whole cities for them. He spends a lot of time planning for the inevitable — which is, where we live, a very large earthquake. One day I was peppering him with questions about it until he turned things on me and asked what I’d done to get ready for an earthquake. I told him he was worrying enough for us both; this was a joke, but also, true. “But Ryan,” he said, “You realize when this happens you have to assume you’ll be on your own for, like, weeks. There’s no leaving the city, the roads won’t be passable, you have to be ready to shelter in place for awhile.”

Maybe because I am a homebody, or maybe because I love disaster movies, sheltering in place seemed exciting. More exciting was that if an earthquake were to hit while you’re in bed — a strong possibility, because bed is a place we all spend a lot of time — the best response is to stay under the covers, curl up in the fetal position, and put a pillow over your head. A natural, sensible response, I thought.

I went through several very good guides to earthquake kits (the Wirecutter’s is a standout — even my cousin, the pro, agreed) and realized that because I love outdoorsy gear (headlamps, camping stoves) I already had a lot of the recommended items. The main thing to figure out was extra water, and where to store it. This had me contemplating where to put a water barrel in our apartment, and the answer was: nowhere. Apartment-sized water storage cans would only last a week, tops. At this point, I opened my mind to a possibility across town: my grandparents’ house. They probably had some room for water barrels. Plus, they were old, very old, and this would be a good look, trekking across town to shelter in place with them, just to make sure they were alright.

I brought this up with my grandfather, who was confused. “Bop,” I said (I call him Bop; his name is Larry), “I’m thinking of bringing over some barrels, maybe stashing them out back, for water.”

“Why’d you want to go and do that?”

“To have on hand, after an earthquake. We’ll need all that water.”

“No no. You see, the ground here is very solid. Very solid. We didn’t feel a thing during the last one.”

This couldn’t have been true. The night of the Northridge earthquake, I woke up when all the dogs in the neighborhood began howling. I walked over to the window, the dogs stopped baying, and though the night was very still, a line of trees in the distance were swaying gently — and so was, I realized, the yard and the wall and the floor. A wave of nausea hit me and I collapsed and rode out the rest of the quake like that, dizzy and weird, clinging to rolling ground. I had been nearly a hundred miles from the epicenter; Bop was more like thirty. He’d probably just slept through it.

It’s the energy waves and minor rumblings that precede the quake, by the way, that cause animals to lose their minds and flee the area before the real thing hits. We can’t feel them because we’re not sensitive enough. It’s our shoes or the foundations on our houses or just about everything about our modern lives. There were stories of island tribes in the Indian ocean who were more attuned to nature, the sea and its rhythms, and who took to the hills long before a tsunami came crashing onto shore. But where do you go if you can’t leave? Before a quake in China several zebras concussed themselves trying to stampede their way out of their zoo enclosures.

“Besides,” Bop said, “I’m thinking I should just let nature take its course.” It was impossible for me to tell if he was kidding or not. He is, like I said, very old. I decided then to press him on the water situation. The barrels were for me, really. I’d need all that water. I’d be coming by in the days after the quake to get it, and was hoping they could deal with the fact that I’d be hanging around, drinking all the water I’d stashed. Would that be okay? That, Bop said, would be okay.

I added the barrels to my to-do list, then added them to my wish list. They kept popping up in my checkout at Amazon, these two big water barrels I’d need to send to my grandparents’ house, then find a place somewhere in their backyard, preferably away from stuff that might collapse on top of them, and then fill with good clean water. At some point the weeks turned into months and I ended up on the phone with Irwin Redlener, who heads the Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. I asked him why it was so difficult to get ready for things we knew we should get ready for. I asked him this generally but I was thinking, in particular, of my water barrels. “It’s hard to imagine the future,” he said. “Especially if it’s unpleasant.”

He told me that the center had conducted surveys in the years following 9/11, when preparedness was peaking. “It was all very low and it never got better,” he said. Instead, we offload our prep work. We invested all this money in Homeland Security, but individually we didn’t budge. “I always ask first responders, how are you and your family prepared? Do you have three days of food and water for everyone? What are you going to do with your pet? Do you have a family evacuation plan?” None of them ever did. “I guess it has something to do with how immediately people perceive threats. Life has too many other things and for some people, it just doesn’t fit whatever you want to think about.” It was true. I had focused on all the fun parts of preparedness, staying in bed (“for practice”) and checking on my camping supplies. Even though the ground appears solid, it is not always safe. Bop mentioned the nearness of death, his peace with it. I focused back on the barrels, which I still have not bought.

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.