To make his home more safe in case of an earthquake, reporter Peter Arcuni moves a large framed poster from over his couch.
Are you feeling less than secure about how ready you are for emergencies? That’s exactly how many of us in KQED Science were feeling back in October of 2019. So we asked science reporter Peter Arcuni to lead us through a four-day prep, spending one hour a day. Here's how to get ready for the next big Bay Area temblor — the one scientists say is inevitable.
Day One was all about making an emergency plan; Days Two and Three, he devoted to assembling earthquake kits. For the final day, Peter took steps to make his home more earthquake safe.
This post was updated on Oct. 20, 2021.
Let's get started
Earlier this month, I awoke to a sound like thunder. Was it a low-flying jet? A truck zooming past? In one, raucous jolt, the mattress, with me atop it, bobbled on its frame.
By the time I realized what was going on, the shake, rattle and roll were over.
“Did you feel that?” I shouted to my wife and daughter in the other room.
No answer. Of course, they were fine, just too caught up in playing fairies, or trolls, or maybe fairy trolls, to notice a mere 3.6 magnitude quake. But the shock was enough for me to read the writing clear across the bedroom wall: It was time to make an earthquake plan.
I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 16 years, and just about annually I get a brief moment of religion when it comes to quake preparedness. But even though seismic experts offer ample evidence to remind us a big earthquake is not a matter of if, but when, I still haven't followed through.
True, I've got plenty of excuses. In the early days, common sense collided with a misguided feeling of invincibility. Later, it was work, marriage, grad school, fatherhood. Frankly, now in my spare time, I’d simply rather be playing Candyland with my four-year-old daughter than shopping for emergency supplies.
In short, it's the same old story: Life is full and busy, and preparing for disaster feels overwhelming.
But guess what? Now I've actually been assigned earthquake preparation by my editors, in the hope we can show that it's possible to get ready for a disaster in a reasonable amount of time, even amidst the usual perpetual commitments of work, family and daily living.
So here are the ground rules for this challenge. For each of four days, I'm allowed to commit just one hour to earthquake preparation, using only the free time I would normally have outside work and family life.
Join me in finding out how ready we can be in just one hour a day, over four days. I'll chronicle my success — or not — right here. We may not get to everything, but as I learned from the experts, doing any amount of preparation matters.
One thing I realized while embarking on this project: The difference between preparedness and perpetual optimism could be the difference between life and death. A year ago, KQED's Craig Miller wrote the following about the Hayward Fault, which runs 40 miles through the East Bay's most densely populated areas and could produce the proverbial Big One at any time:
"(T)he U.S. Geological Survey projects that in the aftermath of a magnitude 7.0 quake on the Hayward, 2,500 people would need immediate rescue. Serious questions remain about whether emergency responders could get to everyone's aid, given that roads are likely to be blocked and water for fighting fires cut off in many areas — possibly for weeks or months.
"In terms of exposure of hospitals, schools, lifelines, it's really unequaled," said UC Berkeley seismologist Roland Burgmann.
So ... this is a not just an assignment for a journalist, it's an assignment for everybody.
Generally speaking, earthquake preparedness is broken into three categories:
Having survival supplies ready to go
Safety-proofing your home
Making an emergency plan for the earthquake and its aftermath
I decided to begin my four days of preparation by making an emergency plan.
Brian Ferguson, with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), says it's one of the most important steps you can take.
“I think it’s a great dinner table conversation that all families should have, if there’s an emergency, here’s what we would do,” he said. “‘We would meet you at this place, we would go this way.’”
He told me there’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint, so you’ll need to tailor your plan to your own circumstances. But some guidelines apply to everybody, such as ...
Doorways are out
My first conversation today was with my preschooler, Izzy.
"Izzy, do you know what an earthquake is?"
"It’s when the ground shakes and you have to go hide under a table."
"Hide under the table. That’s a great idea — you know more than I do!"
There's a widespread myth that standing in the doorway is the most protective place to be during a major quake. But most experts say, forget it. Here's what the U.S. Geological Survey recommends:
“DROP, COVER, AND HOLD ON. If you are indoors, when you feel strong earthquake shaking, drop to the floor, take cover under a sturdy desk or table, and hold on to it firmly until the shaking stops. If you are not near a desk or table, drop to the floor against an interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms.”
After we tucked the little one in, my wife Maureen and I went to the couch to write out our emergency plan. For this we decided to focus on a handful of essential items from the USGS handbook:
Locate a safe place outside of your home for your family to meet after the shaking stops.
Establish an out-of-area contact person everyone in the household can call to relay information.
Provide all family members with a list of important contact phone numbers.
Determine where you can live if you can't stay in your home after an earthquake or other disaster. In other words: Ask friends or relatives in advance if they might be willing to put you up when the Big One hits.
Sounds like a lot. But it took us just under an hour — 56 minutes — to hash most of this out. We even called my cousin in Menlo Park, who agreed to shelter us in case we need to evacuate San Francisco. Because we appeared to have woken her from a deep slumber, I’ll need to confirm she actually remembers what she’s gotten herself into next time I see her. Sorry to wake you up Carin. And, thanks!
Final thoughts: day one
I admit I was feeling a bit daunted by the thought of starting this challenge. But I agreed with my wife when she said, “It was not so bad.”
Yesterday, we had only a vague notion of what to do if a big earthquake hit. Today we have a solid plan we feel pretty good about. We have more to do, for sure, but this is a good start.
As Brian Ferguson from Cal OES put it: “People feel intimidated by it, but any amount of preparation will make you safer than no preparation.”
Tomorrow for our earthquake prep challenge, I'll go shopping — fun! — for survival supplies.
Day Two: Earthquake Kits, or Shopping for Survival
Day two: earthquake kits, or shopping for survival
Yesterday, while my wife, Maureen, and I were mapping out our emergency plan, we took a quick inventory of our emergency supplies. That is, we rifled through the briar patch that is our hallway closet.
Our key takeaways: The first aid kit was pretty depleted. Why? Because we’ve been dipping into it for everyday scrapes and burns, rendering the "emergency" in "emergency supplies" meaningless. But there were a few good items, including a hand crank AM/FM radio that triples as both a flashlight and phone charger. We also located the student survival kit purchased from my daughter’s day care.
All in all, while we had the beginnings of an earthquake kit, we did not have an actual earthquake kit. There were some glaring omissions, like food and water, for instance, and our organization was lacking. Considering that the USGS forecasts the displacement of 77,000 to 152,000 households from a 7.0 earthquake on the Hayward Fault, this was not good.
I decided to break my kit preparation into two sessions. First day, shopping; second day, assembling. I used the American Red Cross list of 15 essential items as a blueprint for the minimum inventory of what we needed.
Water: one gallon per person, per day; three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home
Food: nonperishable, easy-to-prepare items; three-day supply for evacuation, two-week supply for home
Battery-powered or hand-crank radio, a NOAA Weather Radio, if possible
Deluxe family first aid kit
Medications, seven-day supply, and other necessary medical items
Sanitation and personal hygiene items
Copies of personal documents: medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies
We already had some of the essentials, so we just needed to track down the remaining items, plus a few more we thought were important. Our shopping list included water, food, cash, first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, cell phone charging pack, local maps, hygienic items, and the ever-popular all-purpose emergency standby, duct tape.
For this challenge, I headed to nearby 24th Street in Noe Valley to hit the Whole Foods, Walgreens and bank, all within a two-block radius. As on the first day, I limited myself to one hour.
Canned goods and venison sea salt pepper bars
The American Red Cross recommends you keep on hand at least one gallon of water per person per day, for three days. For me, my wife and daughter, that’s nine gallons. At 89 cents-a-gallon, I was able to cross that off the list for under 10 bucks. Felt like a pretty good deal.
For nonperishable food, I started with the canned goods aisle. I homed in on soups, refried beans and tuna fish, choosing in particular the brands that had pull-off tops so I wouldn’t need a can opener. True, I had a multiuse tool, which included a can opener (of sorts), but do I want to be attempting to poke holes through cans of refried beans during an earthquake emergency? No.
Next up: granola bars. Lots of options, of course, so I went for variety, making sure to accommodate my wife’s request for those that are peanut-butter flavored. The venison sea salt pepper bars looked classy, if somewhat pricey, so I decided to indulge.
Small bills, please
Next up was the bank for some cold, hard cash. With power and network outages likely in the event of a big earthquake or other emergency, the places where they still keep the actual money may prove to be inaccessible, and ATMs could very well go down, too. Not to mention credit card machines. So if you end up needing to pay for something, from a bottle of water to a hotel room, you are going to have to use existing cash on hand.
How much? That depends on the number of people in your family and where you live, according to Brian Ferguson, from the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. Emergency experts recommend small denominations, so you won’t have to worry about getting change from stores that may not be able to give it. So I went for a mix of 20s, 10s, fives and ones. And one two-dollar bill for good luck.
I found most of my other items at the pharmacy. Medications aren’t a major issue for my family, but I picked up some extra pain reliever, antihistamine and children’s Tylenol, just in case.
If you do take medications, the American Red Cross recommends having a seven-day supply, as well as a list of what they are.
Final thoughts: day two
The shopping trip, when factoring in the ride to and from my house, took just about an hour and change. I was able to get most of the items on my list. Here’s where I came up short:
Local Maps: These are good to keep on hand if you need to evacuate while cell networks are down. Neither Whole Foods nor Walgreens carried them, but you can find maps at AAA or order online.
Cell Phone Battery Charging Pack: Walgreens had one, but I wasn’t sure it was right for me. So I’m planning to do some research before buying. There are several options available online.
Forgetting to check expiration on food: One could assume — and by one, I mean me — that if food is wrapped in plastic, it is nonperishable. This is not true.
While evaluating my haul my wife asked if I checked the “best by” dates on the food. I had not. We found that while the canned goods would remain edible for a number of years, about half the granola bars I picked out listed dates about six months from now.
Me: But what does date that mean?
Maureen: Could we get sick?
Me: Maybe. I don’t think so. But ...
In the end we removed these from the kit. Further research showed we probably would’ve been fine, even if our bars lost their flavor over time.
Here’s a breakdown from Consumer Reports on good rules of thumb for nonperishables.
But you should always check the expiration dates on your food items, and you’ll also want check your kit periodically to refresh any expired items.
In sum, it appears you can grab many of the basic necessities for a survival kit over the course of an hour or a little longer.
However, if convenience is a priority, both the American Red Cross and Amazon have a variety of survival kits available for a range of prices. Consider your time and needs — this may be a good way to go.
Up next, I’ll organize my supplies into a proper earthquake kit!
A quick note about fatigue: After the first few days of this challenge, I was riding high. Emergency plan, check. Trunkload of survival supplies, yup. Then ... the inevitable crash. After a full day of work, making dinner, cleaning the kitchen, bathing my kid, and putting her to bed, I was spent. So I psyched myself up, mustered all the energy I could, and ... watched "The Great British Bake Off" on Netflix.
It was delightful.
We're only human. Carving out an hour on a given day may not be possible, emotionally or otherwise. So I decided to give myself credit for what I'd already accomplished and go back at it the next morning.
Which I did. I started by laying out my earthquake supplies on the living room floor. Satisfying as it was to look at, I still needed to put them somewhere I could find them in a true emergency.
“Organize disaster supplies in convenient locations...Keep them where you spend most of your time, so they can be reached even if your building is badly damaged.”
— Earthquake Country Alliance
Use backpacks for personal survival kits because they’re easy to grab if you need to evacuate. You want one for each person in your household.
You can keep a larger disaster kit in a plastic bin or other waterproof container. This should contain additional food and water, first aid items and other supplies, like an emergency radio, for instance, that you would need if you have to stay put for a while. This kit should also be easy to move around the house or load into a car if necessary.
Sifting through the bedroom closet, I found what I needed: a green plastic tub with a lid and handles for my household kit, and a black backpack with compartments for my to-go bag.
After packing my supplies into them, I scouted for storage locations. The bin slid nicely under the bench beside our bed, and I cleared out the bottom shelf of the hallway closet for the backpack, since it's centrally located in the house. I then stashed some extra gallon jugs of water alongside the bag.
Emergency experts recommend that you also have survival kits for your car and workplace. For today, I focused mainly on the home, though I did throw water, towels and a blanket in the car. I’m considering ordering online additional prepacked kits for the car and work.
Bags for shoes and stuffed animals
Here’s something I hadn’t thought about: Say a big earthquake hits at two in the morning. Suddenly, I’d be in the dark with broken glass and debris all over the floor.
The aftermath of an earthquake is no time to wander around the house barefoot. That’s why experts recommend putting a pair of shoes or boots, plus a flashlight, in a plastic bag tied to the foot of your bed or nightstand.
"That ensures that you have quick access to getting something on your feet and allows you to safely get up, survey what's happened to your home and check on your loved ones," said Cynthia Shaw from Red Cross Northern California.
For this, I used kitchen twine.
For my 4-year-old daughter, I made up a special bag to add to my to-go backpack. Emergencies can be scary, and they can also involve waiting around for long stretches of time without much to do. So USGS recommends including “comfort items, such as games, crayons, writing materials, and teddy bears” for the little ones.
With my daughter’s help, we picked out a soft blanket with purple butterflies on it, coloring pad, storybook and one of her favorite stuffed foxes.
Not just supplies, documents too
After I took inventory and shopped for supplies, I had tracked down most of the 15 essential survival items recommended by the American Red Cross, along with some additions, to populate my kit. I even found the Bay Area and California maps I was looking for in the glove box of my car.
So I’m done, right?
When putting together survival supplies, it’s easy to obsess over gear and rations. But in emergencies, information matters too.
Remember these checklist items from Day Two?
Item 10: Copies of personal documents: medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies
Item 12: Family and emergency contact information
Well, my wife and I had written out a list of our contacts and made sure we had them in our phones. But we didn't make a paper copy with the actual numbers, which is important in case cell service isn't available or you can't charge your phone.
FEMA has a pre-made emergency contact form you can fill out on your computer and print for your wallet, survival kits and car.
As for the documents, we got as far as sorting through the file cabinet where we keep these types of things.
Today I decided to fire up the old all-in-one printer-scanner-copier and take care of business. But if you’re like me, 9 times out of 10 your ink cartridge is empty. Today was no exception.
So I've got to get that ink, find a local copy shop or ask the kind people at KQED if it’s okay to print out a few documents for a good cause.
That's was my hour for today. Tomorrow, I'll be getting out the tool box to make a few home improvements.
One thing I learned while researching this challenge was that most people who got hurt during earthquakes like Loma Prieta in the Bay Area and Northridge in the Los Angeles area didn’t have buildings or structures collapse on them. Many of the injuries were caused by falling objects or furniture.
So for my final hour of this week's earthquake prep, I surveyed my apartment to see what home improvements I could tackle to make it safer in the event of a big quake.
Earthquake Country Alliance has a thorough guide to securing your space. Here's what to look out for:
Heavy objects hung on the wall, like mirrors or art in glass picture frames.
Loose objects stored on open shelves or bookcases which can fly through the air during a quake.
Top-heavy furniture, like dressers, bookcases or TVs that could tip over.
In particular, experts say to look out for these potential hazards near places where you spend a lot of time: beds, couches, desks, the kids’ favorite play spaces.
After a quick perusal for hazards, I detected a big problem: the large print hanging over our couch in a glass-paned metal frame. My brother got it for us in Nashville, and it really ties the room together. But, it was either gonna have to go or be moved to a safer spot away from the sofa.
Another danger zone: the dresser next to my bed, with a digital camera, ceramic mason jar and mementos, including a hefty amethyst stone, lying on top.
So I took a quick trip to San Francisco's Glen Park Hardware, where a few helpful employees showed me some stuff I could use to lock things down.
One big find was a product called Museum Wax, which is putty you stick underneath an object so it’ll stay attached to a surface. This was just the ticket for objects like my amethyst.
The store also sold furniture safety straps, which let you attach freestanding shelves and armoires to the wall. These use hook-and-eye fixtures and industrial-strength Velcro.
I left with the museum wax and a heavy-duty frame hanger that had three nail anchor points for remounting the print.
At home, I lifted the frame off the wall. Its weight confirmed that I'd rather not have it crash on my head under any circumstances.
I picked a spot on the opposite wall, across from the sofa, and hammered away. Once the frame was up, I took a breather on the sofa ... with a renewed sense of calm.
That’s it for my hour-a-day earthquake readiness prep. These four days have taught me that spending just an hour here and there can make a world of difference when it comes to getting ready for the next emergency.
Sometimes it wore me out. But the 4.5 magnitude quake that rumbled my sofa as I wrote Monday night, and another on Tuesday, offered the jolts of motivation I needed to persevere.
There’s more to do, for sure.
In four hours, though, I mapped out an emergency plan, prepped survival kits and made my home a safer, or at least less hazardous, place. I'll repeat here what Brian Ferguson with Cal OES told me on the first day of this challenge:
"Any amount of preparation will make you safer than no preparation."
While I have your ear, let’s cram in a few final bits of advice I picked up from experts along the way:
Your emergency readiness will depend on your own circumstances. So prepare accordingly. For example, living on landfill in the Bay Area means you may want to take extra steps to secure your home; whereas living in wildfire prone areas may require different preparations. Perhaps you have a large family or pets to consider. We have just one pet, a betta fish named Emily. What would we do with her if the Big One hits? I'll have to think on that one.
No matter your priorities, readiness experts recommend signing up for emergency alerts. California has an early warning ShakeAlert app. Any amount of extra time you have could save your life.
And finally, make a conscious effort to put gas in your car before the low fuel light comes on. It’ll help if you ever have to evacuate. From now on, I’m gonna try. If nothing else, it'll make my mom happy.
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