Surviving Natural Disaster
May 25th, 2017 by Lori Tobias

An engine crew takes the night shift to battle the Ponderosa Fire in northeastern California in August 2012. The lightning-sparked wildfire burned more than 27,000 acres, destroying 52 homes and 81 outbuildings.
Photo by CAL FIRE

From tornadoes and wildfires to earthquakes and floods, learn what you need to do to protect yourself and your family from harm

On a stormy morning in October 2016, trained meteorologist Gordon McCraw was surprised to get a call about a water spout rolling ashore in Manzanita, Oregon.

Gordon, emergency management director for the Tillamook County Sheriff’s Office, says it was largely luck no one was injured when the water spout morphed into an EF2 tornado, with winds of 113 to 157 mph that damaged 128 structures across a three-quarter-mile path.
But luck does not always smile so kindly when disaster strikes, and it certainly is no substitute for being prepared. Preparation starts long before disaster strikes.

The first step is knowing the risks in your location. Is it prone to flooding or wildfires or, as is the case in the Pacific Northwest, vulnerable to earthquakes? Once you know the likely risks, devising a survival plan is fairly simple, generally calling for items most people already have on hand.

It is all about thinking ahead.

“I read that in an emergency situation, your cognitive skills are 80 percent diminished,” says Gordon. “The reality is that if you wait until the disaster to come up with your plan, you are already too late. You are going to be too stressed out and in shock over whatever the situation is to effectively do the things you need to do to keep your family safe.”

Althea Rizzo, geologic hazards program coordinator with Oregon Emergency Management, estimates only about 25 percent of the population is prepared in any substantial way.

“The issue is it’s not hard to be prepared,” she says.

Talk About Your Plans
An important part of an emergency preparedness plan is knowing where you will meet up with loved ones in the event you become separated or are apart when disaster strikes, and having a plan for where you will stay if you need to be away from home for a longer time, says Monique Dugaw, spokeswoman for the Red Cross office in Portland, Oregon.

“Having those conversations can be difficult because you are talking about something scary and unknown, but they are important in the event that situation occurs,” Monique says.

Critical to being prepared is assembling an emergency preparedness kit (see sidebar) with food, water, medicine, a first aid kit, flashlights and other necessary supplies. Be sure important documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, property deeds, mortgage information and car titles are in a safe and accessible place.

Without those documents, it may be more difficult to get assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Keep a hard copy list of contact information, as well as cash in small denominations in case credit cards will not work.

“Plan ahead, and make sure we are prepared for not having technology at our fingertips,” Monique says.

Withstand Shaking
There are steps you can take to make your home safer from a disaster.

For areas where earthquakes are a risk, secure bookshelves and other heavy items by strapping or bolting them to floors or walls to keep them from falling on and striking people.

Taking that same step with the water heater will not only reduce the risk of fire in the case of a gas-fueled heater, but secured, it can provide a source of water after disaster strikes.

“If you lose your china, glasses, cookware—that’s not a big deal,” says Natalia Ruppert, seismologist with the Alaska Earthquake Center, “but if a water heater or boiler tips over it will be pretty impactful.”

Consider hiring an engineer to retrofit your home so it can better withstand a strong shaking. During an earthquake, Natalia advises taking shelter under a sturdy object such as a table. Once the shaking stops, it is OK to go outside, but individuals in multilevel buildings must take the stairs, not an elevator. Once outside, particularly in a city, beware of falling objects.

“Try to find out how strong the earthquake was,” Natalia says. “If it was really strong—a magnitude 7 or stronger—people should be aware of aftershocks after the main event.

“If they find out how strong it was, they can decide when it is safe to go back to the house. If it is not significant or it was centered far way, they don’t have to wait too long to go back into the building.”

Advice for Wildfires
In California, where wildland fires pose a significant risk, CAL FIRE promotes the “ready, set, go” plan.
Ready means taking care of your defensible space, says Scott McLean, CAL FIRE information officer.

“We’re not looking for moonscape, but we’re looking for a 3-foot area away from any habitable structure with fire-resistant plants that are thinned,” he says. “Thirty to 100 feet away, it’s not as severe. You’ll have more brush and trees, but they should be all limbed up. The whole idea is it slows down the fire so firefighters can get in there and manage the situation.”

Being set is having an evacuation plan, being sure pets have access to the vehicle, and having a full tank of gas and ample supplies, including personal hygiene items, a couple of changes of clothing, water, food, a cellphone and charger, and an emergency kit.

“Go is simply leave,” says Scott. “In the state of California, we have evacuation orders and warnings. Warnings are to let you know to be prepared. Gather your pets, your kit, have the car pointed in the right direction. When the order comes into play, it is time to leave.”

One lesson some members of Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative learned the hard way two years ago when wildfires struck was to keep a generator on hand. When fire threatened lines, crews had no choice but to de-energize the lines to keep firefighters safe. That meant sprinklers used to protect homes did not work. Some families lost their homes.

“If they had generators, when we de-energized the lines they could have fired up generators and sprinklers would have worked,” says Ned Ratterman, director of engineering and operations for OTEC.

In any natural disaster, odds are good power will be lost and lines will go down, posing additional risks. Always treat a downed line as live and potentially deadly.

“Some of the lines are as small as a No. 2 pencil, carrying in excess of 20,000 volts,” says Ned, “so keep your eyes open. But also be aware of a phenomenon known as ‘step potential.’ The electricity will go from that wire into the ground. It will energize the earth itself. If you get too close, it can go through you. It can be lethal. You don’t have to make contact with the line. It can be conducted through the ground and then through your body.”

Keep Safety in Mind
Natural disasters of all types can strike almost anywhere—even in places where they previously are unheard of, like tornadoes in Manzanita, Oregon.

Last fall when the tornado churned through town, many people were so surprised and curious they actually put themselves directly in harm’s way.

“Being such an unusual event, many people went to the window and watched it go by, which was very unsafe,” Gordon says. “We were walking through with the weather service people and there was a mature couple who said they went upstairs and watched from the window and there was a large amount of debris and it made their ears pop and it made a sound like a train.

“We were very fortunate that it was early in the morning, the businesses were still closed and it happened to be an in-service day for the schools, so the children who would have been in the very path of the tornado were still at home.”