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Opinion

Op-Ed: My kids are out of college, but I still have diapers in my earthquake kit. Houston has a message for me

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Packing an emergency medical kit in Redlands, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2010.
(Los Angeles Times)

A week and a half ago I went down the walk to get the newspaper and found water squirting out the wall of the garage. It came right through the stone foundation, as if one of the rocks had sprung a leak. I went in, and my office — one corner of the garage — was taking on water. My neighbors yelled that it was gushing out in the street. Just up the block from my Echo Park house, a water main had burst.

The Department of Water and Power was there in record time, turned off the water, fixed the problem; but I was left with a 2-inch deep puddle along the back wall of my office. A stack of paper to be recycled was waterlogged. A box holding printer cartridges disintegrated, but the cartridges, wrapped in plastic, weren’t damaged. Nothing important was lost. It took about two hours with a mop and bucket to clean. And the whole time I thought of Houston, and people who’ve had three feet of water in their houses, six feet, more.

Before DWP arrived, I tried to assess what to carry out if the water kept rising. My computer, of course. But what about the books? The bottom shelf was maybe eight inches off the ground. My desk was one of my first serious furniture purchases, an antique made by a student of Stickley. I loved it, but I couldn’t move it by myself. What about the notes and cards from my husband that I kept in the lower drawer? What about my file cabinet filled with first drafts and the kids’ drawings and, more importantly, the years of letters from my parents — now dead — to my children and me. How to grab it all? What did the people do in Texas? What did they take? I am lucky I didn’t have to make the choice.

I am completely unprepared for any kind of emergency.
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Then the heat wave started and the power went out. The dark was like a blanket over my head. I couldn’t find a flashlight. I have a flashlight on my phone — which was in another room — but I was afraid to drain the power. I lit a measly candle. Again, I was lucky. The power returned in less than 10 minutes.

I dragged out the family earthquake kit, buried in a closet under a stack of blankets and towels. Inside were some oozing, crusty batteries, a radio that wouldn’t work without them, same for the flashlight, a plastic bottle of water, a can opener, a tiny first aid kit, one child-sized sweatshirt and diapers. My kids are 25 and 28.

I am completely unprepared for any kind of emergency.

There is a joke about the four seasons of Southern California: drought, fire, landslide and earthquake. As Brad Alexander of the California Office of Emergency Services told an interviewer, “California as a whole is a disaster-prone state.” Cal OES outlines a 10-part preparedness plan. Not difficult — reasonable, common sense steps to assess your risk, decide whom to call and where to meet if the house is no longer safe, what to put in your disaster kit and where to keep it so it’s accessible. My husband jokes that our big dog is “earthquake food,” but until I read the emergency services plan, I hadn’t thought about having emergency food for her, a bag of kibble to keep her plump until we have to eat her.

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I laugh, but I know my very first step is to admit that disaster is possible. I’ve somehow decided that because my house was built in 1923 and has been through a lot, it will stand through whatever happens next. Really? Why do I think that? When I hear about a little earthquake here or there in California, I think it’s “relieving the pressure” so we won’t have a big one. Science doesn’t support that. I live in the city, and don’t fires happen where there’s brush or empty space? I have friends and neighbors who will check on me. I have a cellphone, so I will always be able to get in touch. Nothing bad will happen to my family or me. All myths.

I was here during the 1994 Northridge quake. My husband was traveling for work. I was home with the kids. He turned on the morning news in his hotel room and saw footage of a collapsed freeway. It was harder on him. I knew we were fine, our house was unscathed, but there was no way to tell him. The phones weren’t working. I put the kids in the stroller and walked to the grocery store. I was lucky groceries were in walking distance. The store’s power was out so I had to use cash. I just happened to have a $20 bill in my wallet.

I heard a man on the radio who fled New Orleans during Katrina and moved to Houston. He never thought he’d be sitting on another roof waiting for rescue. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?

Today I’m going to put together a real emergency-preparedness kit. One for home, one for the car, one for my son to keep at his house. I’m going to gather our important papers in one place. I’m going to buy an extra bag of kibble. Maybe I’ll print out instructions on how to kill, clean and dress a dog.

Or I’ll do all that tomorrow. If I’m lucky.

Novelist and essayist Diana Wagman’s latest book is “Extraordinary October.”

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