Natural Perspectives: Prepare for three days on your own in emergency

While Vic was on a pelagic trip with Sea and Sage Audubon on Saturday, I attended a three-hour disaster preparedness seminar put on by Huntington Beach. I learned so many important things that it is impossible to put them all into one column.

Fortunately, our city is well prepared for emergencies, but we as individuals will need to care for ourselves for at least three days, and maybe for as long as two weeks.

I thought that Vic and I were fairly well prepared for emergencies until I sat through this seminar. There were far more types of emergencies that we could face than I was aware of, and there was so much more that we could do to prepare.

I've spent the past few days putting what I learned into action. We're now in a far better position to face and survive a wide range of emergencies and disasters, both at home and in our cars. After you read this column, please pledge to prepare your household too.

City Emergency Services Coordinator Brevyn Mettler, who led off the symposium, said he is a professional at being paranoid. His job was to scare the pants off of us so that we would learn to take care of our families, our neighbors and ourselves. But just like on an airplane when the oxygen mask drops, the first step is to take care of yourself.

Mettler said that only 20% of people surveyed had secured tall furniture to their walls in anticipation of an earthquake, or had taken training in disaster preparedness. Only 40% had a disaster plan or had stored three gallons of water per person in anticipation of our infrastructure going down. That leaves a heck of a lot of families unprepared.

Hurricanes or landslides aren't much of an issue for us, and we don't face severe winter weather. But we do face 16 different kinds of potential emergencies, including power outages, pandemics of infectious diseases, and chemical or radiation exposure. However, the top three hazards for our area are earthquakes, floods or tidal surges, and urban fires or explosions. If we're ready for those, then we'll be ready for the others as well.

Vic and I have kept an emergency supply of food and water on hand since we moved here 30 years ago. We had experienced hurricanes and power outages on the East Coast and knew to prepare for whatever Mother Nature might throw our way. But after 30 years with no major impact to Huntington Beach from earthquakes, we have become blasé. Mettler rattled me when he pointed out that there is a 99.9% probability of a major quake along the San Andreas fault in Southern California within the next 30 years.

A major quake will likely disrupt power, gas and water supplies, as well as communication and transportation. Land displacement of 20 to 30 feet is possible. That is going to affect freeways, bridges, aqueducts and dams, as well as structures. Broken gas lines will give us the potential for major urban fires, and with broken water mains, the ability of the Fire Department to fight those fires will be severely compromised. Medical systems will be overloaded with major injuries, and a cut foot isn't likely to get priority treatment. And that is the most common injury in disasters — a cut foot.

As we have seen over and over in the news, it takes some time for emergency services to reach those most affected by a major disaster. Mettler said that we need to keep a minimum of three days of food and stored water on hand as well as emergency first aid supplies. Other speakers recommended a week or even two weeks of food and water.

It is important to develop a family plan. For example, we should drop and cover during an earthquake. Then, when it is safe, evacuate the home and assemble at a prearranged meeting spot. Do not use the utilities and do not use an open flame. Do not even start your car if there is a gas leak or you could set off an explosion. Check the exterior for damage or hazards. Go back inside only if it is safe.

Here is why you need to have a plan in advance of an emergency. I grew up in tornado country. We were trained to go into a hallway and sit down. Then I moved to earthquake country. Vic and I had never discussed what to do in a quake. The Whittier quake hit in the middle of the night. The lights were out, and we were all asleep. At the first big shake, I dashed into the hallway and sat down. Vic and our son Scott both ran into the hallway too. But in the dark, they couldn't see me sitting there. Vic fell on top of me, and Scott fell on top of him. We were our own disaster.

It used to be recommended that you stand in a doorway of a load-bearing wall. During the Northridge quake, I headed for the double doors that lead to our bedroom. The doors swung back and forth wildly, and whapped me in the face. That was twice that my own actions resulted in minor injury. We don't have furniture in most rooms that I could get under, so now I just stay put during a quake and cover my head with my arms.

During a tsunami, about 88,000 people in Huntington Beach would need to evacuate. We have sirens throughout town that would sound in case of emergency. If that happens, tune a radio to 107.9 FM to receive further instructions. Vic and I have pre-tuned our car radios to that station, and have written it down on our hand-crank and solar powered emergency radios.

During a major emergency such as an earthquake, the Fire Department's first responsibility is a "windshield survey" of our infrastructure. Your garage may be on fire from a gas explosion, or you may have cut your feet on glass, but they're going to drive right on by. Their first job is to survey a preset course to see if the hospitals are still standing, if the sewage treatment plant is functioning, and if the flood control channels are still intact. After assessing the extent of damage, their priorities are to save lives, and only then to save property. At any given time, we have one firefighter on duty per every 5,000 residents, so they can't help everyone.

Some important steps that you can take are to visit to see what you should do to prepare for emergencies. Then register at so that you will receive phone calls alerting you about emergencies. Make a "grab-and-go" bag for every person and pet in the household in case you have to evacuate immediately. That should include food, water, a change of clothing, medications, copies of important documents, hand-crank flashlight/radio, and a first aid kit. Keep another emergency kit in the car and yet another at work.

Don't wait until the emergency strikes to put together a grab-and-go bag. I have been working for the past five days on our emergency kits and am still not done. It isn't a matter of if an emergency will strike; it's when. But don't be scared. Be prepared.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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