For many of us, “disasters” are unexpected daily travails – a missed connecting flight, a blown hot water heater on the day the in-laws arrive, or, worst of all perhaps, the DVR failing to record True Blood. These, indeed, are events that are difficult or impossible to plan for, but they’re trivial compared to true disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The thing about actual disasters is, that while they’re quite common across the world at large, they’re (thankfully) rather rare in one’s personal experience. I recall just two in my lifetime – the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the Y2K computer glitch. Oh wait, Y2K turned out to be as bland as a saltine, so let’s make that just one. With such infrequency, it’s easy to become complacent about potential threats lurking in our environment – namely floods, fires and quakes. This is true even among first responders (like me); after all, it’s hard to maintain focused preparation for an event that may never happen, and if it does, it will likely be with little warning. As Kevin J. Kitka, an emergency physician in Joplin, Missouri and a responder to the region’s recent EF-5 tornado wrote, “You never know that it will be the most important day of your life until the day is over.” Most of us in the Bay Area have learned to live with the possibility of another major earthquake. We take comfort in strict building codes and governmental readiness on the local and state level. But while complacency is comfortable, it can be dangerous. Skeptical? Consider what happened earlier this year in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“One minute we were sitting [and] contemplating a gentle walk to the Art Gallery,” writes Dr. Elizabeth Mowat, a Brit visiting Christchurch this past February. “[The] next minute the immense glass front of the hotel was looming precariously towards us then crashing down around us with nowhere to hide!” “I was talking on Skype one minute,” writes another witness “and the next the screen went blank and computers were crashing onto the ground all around me. I ran to the doorway, but the floor was shaking so much I couldn't stand, so I just got down into the foetal position and started praying.”
In sum, the Christchurch earthquake killed 182 and caused major infrastructure damage, leaving areas of the city virtually uninhabitable. It was a minor tremble on the devastation scale compared to what happened in Japan and Haiti, but nonetheless crushing to Kiwis – especially because it seemed like they had a handle on earthquake preparedness. Christchurch had, after all, survived a larger quake (7.1) in September of 2010 with no causalities, and the city’s building codes, EMS response strategy, and public education programs have served as a model for other fault-centric locales. Take, for example, their long-running quake preparedness TV commercial focused on “Fix. Fasten. Forget.” The ad starred two comic characters that just couldn’t seem to figure out proper safety procedures (like fastening the water heater). One envisions a Kiwi version of Beavis and Butthead, but nonetheless, the message seems to have resonated (with over 90% of surveyed residents recalling it.)
So how come, despite all this, Christchurch suffered horribly? What went wrong? Well, mostly, it was bad luck: the quake struck in midday when many people were out and about, it occurred along a rather obscure fault (one not thought to be high risk), and it caused significant ground liquefaction (similar to what happened to the SF marina in 1989). It was thought that any cataclysmic earthquake in Canterbury (the region on the South Island where Christchurch is located) would radiate out from the Great Alpine Fault. Yet both recent quakes occurred along other faults and in highly populated areas that were not fully prepared. Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, acknowledged this not long after the quake. “Clearly the level of building resilience in Christchurch was not up to, in every case, dealing with this shallow and quite severe shock. I guess it will be back to the textbooks now to see what further work needs to be done to really ramp up New Zealand's resilience.”
So, what lessons can we in the Bay Area take from the Christchurch experience? 1) In a seismically active region such as ours, expect the unexpected and realize that you may not be as secure as you suppose. Says Dr Jason Eberhart-Phillips, public health officer for Marin County, “The 182 deaths resulting from this relatively small [Christchurch] magnitude event should heighten public awareness of the need to get ready for the much larger quake that is expected in the Bay Area in coming years.” Hence, 2) a few minutes of preparation now could serve you quite well in an actual disaster. A good place to start is with a simple family disaster plan and with disaster supplies (check out getreadymarin.org for classes and manuals). The Red Cross also has an excellent supply checklist (www.redcross.org) including basics like non-perishable food, flashlights, and diapers – enough for three days. And, as a Christchurch witness states, “Have plenty of bottled water, when it stops coming out of the tap it is not nice to consider the consequences.”