Preparing for a Natural Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

After last week’s minor 3.0 earthquake near our main office just off the coast of Carpinteria, I mentally reviewed if our family was prepared for a natural disaster. Since Ventura is a coastal community in California, the biggest natural disaster threats (or at least the most likely ones) that our local geography “kindly” provides for us are earthquakes, brush fires, and flooding along the coast from a tsunami. Since our home about 100 feet above sea level and a mile inland, we are safe from a tsunami’s flooding. Since our home is not near our scenic highly flammable chaparral covered hillsides (where brush fires are a threat), the only thing we have to worry about is what is known locally as the “Big One” — a severe earthquake.

We live in an old house, a 1929 Spanish style stucco bungalow made from a creative concoction of old growth redwood planks, covered with lots of plaster, chicken wire, several coats of paint, and Spanish tile. Over the years we have made the place earthquake safe by securing the structure to its foundations with earthquake straps and have added a new roof, up-to-date wiring, modern plumbing and a new gas heating system. The joys of owning an old house (aka:”money pit”) is that after a decade of ownership you know what is wrong with it and, by now, have replaced almost everything in it that can cause a lot of expensive structural damage or can kill you in an earthquake.

So, if the “Big One” happened, there would be no problem, right?

Um, wrong.

The last “Big One in our area was the 6.7 Northridge earthquake in 1994. That earthquake leveled a good part of the San Fernando Valley, killing about 57 people, making about 20,000 people homeless, and causing between $13 and $20 billion in structural damage. There was no electricity in the epicenter area for weeks after the earthquake so neighbors learned to depend on each other for everything from drinking water to transportation to candles for nighttime. After doing disaster relief field work over the years and helping families who lost their homes recover from hurricane Katrina (and dealing with the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake), we have learned a few lessons on how to prepare for a disaster. Some are obvious. But, unless you have lived through a natural disaster, some may surprise you. Here they are:

  • Food and water: Have a week’s worth of fresh drinking water and non-perishable food stockpiled that does not have to be refrigerated.
  • Alternative energy: Have an alternative source of energy for when the electricity goes out and the gas is turned off. Solar chargers for your phones, computers and of course, matches, candles and a backyard barbeque with a fuel container that is full.
  • Cash: When the municipal electricity grid is out of service, ATMs, fuel station pumps, electronic paycheck transfers, and electronic cash registers in stores all do not work, sometimes for weeks, after a natural disaster. Make sure you have enough cash in the house to purchase food and supplies until your next paycheck.
  • First Aid Kit and knowing basic first aid and CPR.
  • Texting plan: Have a plan on your cell phone and keep it charged. Phone calls from landlines and mobile generally don’t work when the power grid goes out and cell transmitters get overloaded with emergency calls. However, lower data text messages may be delayed but they do get out so you can let your family or rescue personnel know your location and if you are safe
  • Informal Aid Network: Have lots of good relationships with your neighbors, friends, family members, and local businesses in your community.  If your house is gone and you have nothing left of your belongings but what you can carry, it is your relationships with the local people in your community, that can be your lifeline of aid in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. The people who seemed to recover the quickest from the natural disasters, even if they had lost everything except what they could carry, had a strong network of relationships in their community that created informal aid network of disaster relief as local friends and neighbors helped them with everything from getting food,  finding ice to keep their food from spoiling, providing a temporary place to stay, to finding their lost pets, and watching their small children.