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Safety First: How to Prepare for a Natural Disaster in the Bay Area

With fire danger at an all-time high and earthquakes posing an imminent threat, it’s critical to prepare yourself, your family, and your home for a catastrophe before it happens.


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A firefighter battles the Mendocino Complex Fire, which ignited in July and took nearly two months to contain. Photo by Fred Greaves/Reuters.

 

Over the past 12 months, wildfires have ravaged Northern California—from this summer’s Mendocino Complex conflagration that destroyed nearly 459,000 acres to the 2017 blazes that tore through Napa and Sonoma counties, among other regions, killing 43 people and damaging more than 10,000 structures.

The East Bay, of course, is not immune from fire risk. Remember the deadly Oakland hills inferno of 1991, and the recent fires in and around Clayton—​including one off Morgan Territory Road in 2013 and this year’s Marsh blaze? Fires aren’t the only concern, either. Seven significant fault lines stretch down the Bay Area; four of them are simmering under the East Bay. The Hayward Fault poses a particular threat: October marked the 150th anniversary of the last major quake that struck along that line, which means—as the United States Geological Survey has warned—that it’s due for another huge (magnitude 6.7 or greater) eruption within the next 30 years. And there is a 72 percent chance the “big one” hits California before 2043.

Given these unsettling statistics and the frequency of natural disasters in our state (and around the world), it is crucial for people to prepare themselves. Diablo enlisted the help of Jim Bonato—the program manager for Pleasant Hill’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which provides disaster-preparedness and emergency-relief training—to explain how East Bay residents can ensure they’re ready when catastrophe strikes.

 

Establish a Communication Plan

“The first thing that’s going to enter a [person’s] mind following a disaster is: Is everybody safe?” Bonato says. “So, I stress the importance of a family communication plan, so that each member of the family … knows where [the other members are] … and how they are going to contact them.”

Bonato suggests selecting an assembly point where loved ones can meet in the event of an emergency. If a home is uninhabitable or road conditions prevent access, the assembly point should be a safe space that’s easily reachable from each household member’s school or workplace.

Additionally, Bonato advises designating one out-of-state relative or close friend to be a family’s point of contact. If you don’t have a close connection in another state, choose a person who lives as far away as possible. “[Local] telephone lines [might] be down; cell phone towers are going to be congested with calls,” he notes. “Long-​distance lines will be less congested than normal lines.” Each family member should know the number for that contact person, who can disseminate vital information.

Parents should also learn the emergency ​procedures for each child’s school and give the school the out-of-state relative or friend’s phone number and e-mail address.

 

Stockpile Supplies

“We never know when a disaster might strike,” Bonato says. “So, having everything assembled ahead of time for a quick exit from your workplace or from home is essential.”

Supply stashes can take two forms: the go kit—a small bag filled with items to get you through the immediate aftermath of a disaster—and the emergency kit, a larger reserve stored somewhere in the home. Bonato recommends preparing multiple go kits for the home, car, and workplace to ensure you’re ready for a fast evacuation. (See “All Systems Go” sidebar on page 39 for a list of items to put in the go kit.)

An at-home emergency supply could be crucial if road access is blocked; a fuel shortage limits automotive transit (which, Bonato notes, could happen in the East Bay if the Richmond fuel docks sustain damage); contamination renders the outdoors unsafe; or other factors lead to a shelter-in-place for days on end. According to the national Ready campaign, a basic emergency kit should contain one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days and a three-day supply of non-perishable food—plus batteries, flashlights, and sanitary supplies, among other items.

 

Scan Your Documents

“A lesson learned from the quick evacuations that took place in the Napa and Santa Rosa areas [during the 2017 fires]: Make [digital]copies of all your important papers and store them on a flash drive or in the cloud,” Bonato emphasizes. “The deed to the house, insurance papers, social security cards—those are things you’re going to need … when you start working with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] for reimbursement or for advancements of money.”

Scanning dozens of documents and records—including passports, licenses, cherished family photos, and more—can be a daunting task. However, several companies will do this for you. The Cloud Life is a Bay Area business that comes to your home to help organize your important paperwork and offers three storage options for your archived materials. thecloudlife.com.

 

A section of the Bay Bridge collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Photo by C.E. Meyer/U.S. Geological Survey.

Prepare the Home

During an earthquake, a building can slip off its foundation. To guard against this structural damage, Bonato recommends “making sure that the house is bolted to the foundation and, if you have a crawl space under the house, that the outer walls are sheared … to limit the sideways, or lateral, movement.”

To protect those in the home during and after a temblor, it’s critical to set up the

residence properly. “The kitchen is the most dangerous room in the house,” Bonato notes, “because of all the things that can come crashing down.” Storing heavier items on lower shelves and locking cabinets filled with breakable or hazardous materials can help mitigate risk. Bolting taller furniture or hanging objects to wall studs can prevent those items from falling down and harming someone.

Water heaters should be secured as well, according to Bonato, “because that’s a big source of water for a long-term water outage.” Residents should also know where to find their home’s electrical panel and how to turn off the gas and water supplies.

 

Highway 880 sustained damage (seen here and at right) from the 6.9-magnitude temblor. Photo by H.G. Wilshire/U.S. Geological Survey.

Stay Informed

Although earthquakes strike without notice, officials can often alert residents to wildfires and other emergencies. Residents of Contra Costa County can register for the community warning system—which sends notifications via e-mail, phone, or text—at cwsalerts.com. Those in Alameda County can subscribe at acgov.org/emergencysite; the Alameda County website contains information on shelter locations too.

There’s also Nixle, which delivers alerts from local authorities to mobile devices. Sign up for Nixle at nixle.com, or text your ZIP code to 888777.

Most East Bay communities have a CERT chapter that offers training on how to prepare for, and respond during, a disaster or emergency event. To find the CERT program nearest you, contact your local fire or police department.

“The knowledge you gain from [CERT] is fantastic,” says Bonato, who notes that some chapters will organize private group training sessions by request. “What this program is … is neighbors helping neighbors.”

 

Officials estimate that a large quake could leave 300,000 Bay Area residents homeless. Photo by H.G. Wilshire/U.S. Geological Survey.

Quake State

Follow these guidelines to stay safe during and after a major earthquake.

By Rachel Orvino​

Inside: Drop, cover, and hold. When an earthquake hits, immediately get down on the floor, crawl underneath something (such as a heavy piece of furniture), and hold on for the duration of the quake. “If you hold on to something, it’s going to provide you with overhead protection [if the furniture is moving across the floor],” Bonato explains.

Outside: Stay there. Keep away from trees, power lines, and anything else that could fall on you.

On the road: Carefully stop the car. Steer it out of traffic as best as possible. Keep clear of utility lines, bridges, and overpasses; light posts; and anything else that could topple. Stay in the vehicle until the shaking stops. Once you resume your travels, keep an eye out for breaks in the road, fallen rocks, or landslides if you are in a mountainous area.

After the quake: Check for injuries and evaluate damage. Make sure you and the people near you are OK, and administer first aid as needed. If you’re at home, it’s critical to check for gas leaks (if there’s a breach, you will smell gas or hear a hissing sound), electrical damage (such as sparking), or a water-line break. If any of those systems is compromised, shut off the impaired utility at the source. If everything seems fine, leave them on. If you live in an apartment complex and don’t have access to the utilities, grab your emergency bag and leave the building.

 

A properly stocked emergency kit can help save lives. Photo by Shutterstock.

All Systems Go

Put these essentials in your go kit for a quick evacuation.

By Rachel Orvino​

Food and water: You’ll need enough for the next eight hours or so, until you can get another meal. Small, non­perishable items such as protein bars are a good choice.

First aid kit

Medication

Change of clothes (including comfortable shoes)

Cell phone charger

Cash

Contact information: Write down phone numbers and e-mail addresses for close friends and family members.

Flashlight

Whistle: “In case you’re trapped in a building,” Bonato says, “it can alert people that you’re there.”

Battery-powered radio and extra batteries

Dust mask

Local maps (consider highlighting evacuation routes ahead of time)

Moist towelettes and other personal sanitation items

Multipurpose utility tool

Baby supplies (if you have young children)

Pet supplies (if needed)

For more information, visit ready.gov/build-a-kit

 

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