For much of the state, Sunday arrived early with a dramatic wake-up call in the form of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that shook residents from the Interior to Western Alaska and beyond. While the quake wasn't big enough to cause widespread harm, it was big enough to remind us all we live in a state that requires a bit more preparedness than the average place.
The need to have an earthquake plan in place becomes particularly acute if you have children, because while studies may show you are safest riding out an earthquake from the comfort of your bed, I don't know a single parent who did not rush to the aid of their children when the world started shaking. My daughter and I found ourselves headed down our steep, wooden staircase during the worst of the shaking, which was almost certainly the worst place we could be. Once downstairs, we didn't have much of a plan, either, other than stand and wait to see if it would get worse or better. Luckily, it got better. But the coffee shop conversation among parents definitely focused on the need to have a plan for next time the earth starts rocking.
Conversations with experienced emergency responders brought up some of the expected responses — we all need emergency response supplies — and some surprising tips you might not think of.
For example, if a natural disaster hit your home in the night, knocking out power and causing hazards, would you have an easy way to light your path of escape? One emergency responder said he has made a habit of keeping headlamps near him at all times. If the power goes out, and there are hazards like broken glass that need to be avoided, a little light sure would be a good thing. So add headlamps to your list of things in your bedside table and sleep easier.
Here's another very smart idea — keep a pair of hard-soled shoes near your bed. If there is debris, the last thing you want is to be padding through your house in slippers or worse, bare feet.
As for where to weather a natural disaster like an earthquake, the main thing to consider is what is above you. If there is nothing too dangerous over your head, stay put. Though not a guarantee, Homes in the West are built pretty strong. The horrors we see in developing nations after they have earthquakes, where housing is turned to dust, doesn't generally happen here. We built them stoutly.
Staying away from open shelves with items that could fall on you is a good idea, and I personally would feel safer away from the glass windows, too, but your home is generally pretty safe in an earthquake, provided you don't live somewhere near a bluff.
Outside is OK, too, assuming there are no overhead power lines nearby that could cause problems. But if you do go outside, bring warm clothing. You might be there a while.
If you have children, having a preplanned place to meet will make them much more confident in a disaster. They likely have learned to drop, cover and hold on in school, so encourage them to help craft your plan with you if possible.
Once you've made it through the earthquake in one piece, what next? If the quake was big enough, the reality is many things may not go back to normal for a long time, including utilities and cellphones. The single biggest thing you should have in your emergency kit that most homes probably do not have any more is a battery-operated radio. If a big shaker hits, there won't be any texting afterward. A radio can serve as a vital link for understanding the scope and gravity of the situation. Another great idea is to have an old-fashioned phone, one that does not require electricity to run. In the "old days" we all had landlines, and many of us still do, but we don't have a phone connected to them anymore. A regular, plain-old phone – not cordless – would allow you to get in touch with someone if you needed to and landlines were still intact.
Having an emergency kit on hand with easy-to-eat food, water, medications, warm blankets and other supplies will make everything much easier after an earthquake. Alaska emergency planners recommend people have a week's worth of food on hand, unlike our neighbors to the south, who only need 24 hours' worth. Store these items in a tote or other sturdy container near your designated shelter-in-place spot. Having a flashlight for everyone and even a lantern is good, too, as are hand-warmers and other creature comforts to help calm worried children.
There is nothing we can do to change the fact we live in a place where natural disasters are a distinct possibility. As we become more and more connected to the world with technology, we can tend to forget how far we really are from the Lower 48, with its resources and supplies.
But there is a great deal we can do to prepare for natural disasters, and last week's earthquake was a not-so-gentle reminder of that fact.
Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.
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