*7.3 Earthquake Experience*
24 January 2011
Here's my account of an emergency situation that my wife and I somehow managed to stumble through at the time despite not having much of an idea about emergency preparedness.
28 June, 1992 - Joshua Tree, CA. I'd been stationed at the Marine Corps base in 29 Palms for nearly 5 years but my wife and I had only been married and living in our 2-bedroom, single level apartment for just under 2 years. Although it was earthquake prone Southern California there had been only infrequent seismologic activity and what there had been had always been very mild and barely noticeable. Two months earlier however, there had been a "large" quake (6.1) in the hills south of town and the occasional aftershock. It turned out that 6.1 shaker had been a precursor to a larger quake.
Just a few minutes before 5 am Sunday morning my wife and I were awakened first by a rumbling noise. Up until a few months previously I had been assigned to a USMC tank battalion and one of my first groggy, still asleep thoughts was that tanks were rolling. As my alertness was increasing so were the vibrations. It only took a couple of seconds to realize we were having an earthquake and that it was pretty good size one. It's amazing how rapidly clarity of thought and situational awareness can achieved I became instantly aware of the sliding glass door a few feet from our bed and the fact that my weight bench was right next to it - I rolled on top of her and pulled the all to thin bed spread over us. The weight bench fell but luckily it fell away from the window or there would have been broken glass on the floor of the bedroom. After what seemed like an eternity but was more likely about 2 minutes the shaking subsided and we scrambled out of bed and were headed towards the front door, barefoot and in our pajamas.
The scene that greeted us in the living room was one of chaos. Our stand alone bookcase (that hadn't been secured to the wall) was on its side with the contents of its shelves scattered across the floor. That wouldn't have been too bad but one set of bookends were glass milk bottles full of marbles - yep, broken glass and lose marbles on the carpet. Luckily the carpet had kept the mess fairly localized and I was able to point out a safe route to the front door (our shoes were in the coat closet in the small entryway. I got sidetracked by the water that was spraying down the hall at the other end the apartment. The water heater, which had been strapped to the wall in a small utility cupboard at the end the short hallway, had ripped out of the wall and water was spraying from the inlet line. Although we had several pictures hanging in the hallway and they had all been thrown from the walls there was no broken glass scattered about and I was swim my way upstream and the valve and get the spray shut off.
On my way to the front door I heard a loud hissing sound coming from the kitchen so I looked in to conduct a quick survey to see if the gas stove was still where we had left it the night before. It was but probably only because the refrigerator had fallen against it. The hissing I was hearing was coming from a punctured can of beer that was on the floor along with everything else that had been in the fridge and half of what had been in the cupboards. About this time the first aftershock hit and I decided it was time to get the heck out of the building. I picked my way through the mess to the front door, slipped on my hiking boots and joined everybody from our end of the complex in the parking lot. We stood around in various stages of shock and awe as the aftershocks continued to roll in, and I mean they literally rolled in - we could the telephone poles undulate as the shockwaves approached, pretty much identical to watching a line of buoys in the ocean as the waves roll in.
After a few minutes my next door neighbor asked why I was wet & I explained about the water heater. He gave me a deer in the headlights look and asked if he should have shut his off too since it was also spraying water into his apartment. That snapped me back to awareness that attention wasn't being given to things that needed it. Since he was barefoot I told him I'd shut off his water for him if he'd find the maintenance guy and make sure the gas was being shut off throughout the complex. His apartment looked pretty much identical to mine except he had the additional mess of a 50 gallon saltwater aquarium in his living room.
Once I got his water shut off I popped back into our apartment to grab a couple of things that we should have snagged on our way out - some sweats for both of us car keys, my wallet, and her purse. I also grabbed my first aid kit because a couple of people in the parking lot had cuts from broken glass and sharp corners. Our two housecats were on the front porch when I came out and they were both pretty freaked out so I grabbed them and put them in our car.
So there we were, standing in the parking lot in our pajamas, tentative about going back inside our apartment (which looked like it had been ransacked by a band of gorillas), the power was out, the water was off and the phone lines were down; we had no supplies and no plan. Once again a moment of clarity came from somewhere and I realized that we didn't want to spend the night in the apartment and that there were probably quite a few people who felt the same way. Luckily, at the time my wife was working as a desk clerk at a hotel in 29 Palms (about 15 miles away). While people were still standing around surveying the damage to the buildings we hopped in the car and headed towards her hotel. Fortunately the road between Joshua Tree and 29 Palms was undamaged and we arrived at the hotel in just a couple of minutes, passing several county sheriff vehicles and ambulances on our way (the local civilian hospital and a Sheriff's station are between the two towns). When we told the managers about the mess at our apartment they gave us a suite and told us it was ours as long as we needed it. I was quite surprised that nobody else was at the hotel trying to get rooms yet - that would change over the next 12 hours, by 6 that evening the hotel (one of a handful in the area) was completely full.
After getting a few things from the grocery store a block away (cat litter, a few beverages and some food & snacks for the little kitchen in the room) we made a list of the things we'd need from the apartment to make it through the next few days and I headed back to grab them while my wife helped with the steadily increasing flow of customers calling and coming into the hotel. We spent the next 3 days cleaning up the mess during the day and staying at the hotel.
This was one of those light bulb moments in my life - "Hmmmmm, you live in earthquake territory, you really should consider being ready for the next one." Here are some of the things I took away from the experience that have stuck with me over the years:
Have a plan and go over it frequently, drill it when possible - the thought that was foremost in my mind was "get out!" and that's what we did, we got out of the apartment the same way that we always did, through the bedroom and across the living room. It would have been much quicker/safer to have gone out the sliding glass door to our patio and hopped the 4' fence that surrounded it but we fell back on what was familiar. Also know where you'll go in an emergency in which you can't stay home. We got lucky on that, since my wife worked at a hotel it was just the natural choice but there's an excellent chance that the hotel would have already been full if it had been a holiday weekend or there was a big exercise going on at the base before the emergency even happened.
Hang heavy duty curtains if your bed is near a window - although any curtain will help, the thicker the material between you and any potentially breaking glass the better.
Keep shoes by your bed - anything you can quickly slip on and get a degree of protection is better than traipsing around a disaster scene barefoot. Neither my wife nor I were cut but that was mostly luck.
Know how to turn off your power, gas, and water. Also know when you should. I could have turned off the gas to our section of the apartment complex because I happened to know where the valve was (not intentionally but from trying to corral the cat to bring her back in). In retrospect that's the first thing I should have done even though there wasn't a leak in our apartment. If there had been a leak elsewhere in our building the whole thing would have been in jeopardy.
Have a bugout bag for everybody in your house and for any pet that you'll be taking with you. Grab & Go, I was able to go back into our apartment several times to get what we needed. Our evac gear now includes cat carriers and pet supplies that are specifically staged for emergency use.
If you live in an earthquake zone consider putting child safety locks on your cabinets. Although we didn't have any children at the time, one of our cats had a habit of getting into the kitchen cabinet at night, especially the one above the refrigerator which is where we kept our wedding china. As a result we put a lock on those doors to keep the cat out. That was the only cabinet to stay shut during the quake and every single piece of the china survived.
Again if earthquakes are on your possibility list, secure things like bookshelves and entertainment centers to the wall. In a really big quake it might not help but the more things you can keep upright the better.
If you have old photographs (or framed documents) hanging in frames on the wall make sure you also have a negative or digital copy somewhere as a backup, either in another location (safe deposit box or a family members house out of the area)
Thankfully this large earthquake hit in a very sparsely populated area but it still resulted in the local emergency room being overrun. The 3 deaths (2 heart attacks and 1 from crushing) weren't exactly staggering numbers but the 390-some injuries treated in the local hospital (25 of which were labeled "serious") were enough to overwhelm it.
Kipling was onto something when he said "if you can manage to keep your wits about you when all about you are losing theirs..." - even though I didn't have a preparedness mindset at the time I feel that it was highly beneficial that I didn't get too caught up in the drama of the moment to think about what needed to be done. Overall we didn't experience a lot of drama due to the earthquake - the right attitude and clear thinking, even in spite of the lack of preparation, turned a small disaster into an inconvenience. I realize there was more than a little luck involved too and although I don't count on divine providence I'll take it when and where I can get it.
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