Category Archives: Disaster Preparedness

Learnings from this year’s county disaster preparedness day

So I live in earthquake country. To my west I have the San Andreas fault, and across the bay there is the Hayward fault. Furthermore I live on land that is built on “bay mud” in a poorly built 1960 4-plex. Thus it behooves me to be prepared for a major earthquake.

I’ve been doing my research on this, and trying to figure out what to have ready, and to be honest it’s not easy. You’d think it would be, but it’s not. Part of the reason is that the official earthquake preparation manuals assume that the “cavalry” will ride in within, oh, two or three days. Yeah right. We’re surrounded by water on three sides, and the only road in here has lots of ancient overpasses. Oh, and the nearby airport is basically below sea level. Thus I think it’s a safe bet to say that we really ought to prepare to “dig in” for a couple of weeks, maybe longer.

Thus having done the reading that I could on my own, I set out to the county fair with a list of questions to ask. It turned out to be a very fruitful morning–many of the experts I was looking to find were all in one place, some by design, and some not.

This is overwhelming. Where do I start?

Pound for pound, this is the best preparation general preparation guide I’ve seen, available free online and as a PDF download.

No, really, how long should I be prepared to stick it out?

The people in the know are all saying at least two weeks. And frankly, after watching what happened with Hurricane Katrina, this doesn’t sound far fetched at all.

Where’s a good reunion spot? 

People I talked with had done a lot of preparation, and so they felt that their home would be a good spot, since they have the supplies to ride things out.

Will the land underneath me LIQUEFY in an earthquake?

Roughly speaking, soil liquefaction is where the shaking of an earthquake causes the ground to become like quicksand. You can imagine what happens to a house when the ground liquefies beneath it.

I ran into a soil scientist who lives less than a mile from me, on the same bay mud!, and he said that bay mud in fact DOES NOT liquefy. And so although we’ll have lots of swaying, we won’t have the ground liquefying beneath us. So that is very good to know.

Having said that, if I cruise on over to the USGS website, they say we’re in a high risk liquefaction zone:

So I don’t know what to think. Maybe I’m an optimist, and I want to believe the soil engineer I talked with?

Will the natural gas be turned off at a central location?

The short answer, for the peninsula, is NO. From what I understood, from someone who works in the industry but not exactly on this issue, is that there are trunk lines along 101 and 280. And then there are many branches. Furthermore the supply is form a combination of storage facilities and piping right from “the source.”

So as it stands now, there’s no good way to “turn the gas off for the neighborhood,” from what I understand. Apparently there is an effort to make valves that can close automatically in an emergency. Right now at best it’d be techs in trucks driving out and turning things “by hand.” And that in parts of San Francisco, for instance the Marina (which reliably is on fire in a decent shaker) there are such shut-offs that work on a more local basis.

The net of it is that you’d better know how to turn off the gas to your place, and to your neighbor’s places too. The caveat is that you don’t want to do this unless it’s clear that it’s the thing to do. Just because we get a magnitude 5 sway, don’t run outside and turn everyone’s gas off! But if it’s clear that the shizzle has indeed hit the fizzle, do what needs to be done.

I’ve got power lines going through my backyard. What do I do if they go down?

I spoke with the nicest guy, Ted Honey, a retired lineman who does safety trainings now. Here’s what I remember him saying; verify everything for your own safety:

  • stay 25 to 30 feet away from downed power lines
  • [and here’s the kicker] even if the central electricity is off, a downed line can hold a charge for quite some time. So even if the power is out, you can still get killed by a downed power line.
  • the techs have various ways to go out and test a line to see if its still got charge, but they have special equipment and they know what they’re doing
  • if you have trees that are growing close to the distribution lines, PGE will come out and trim them for free
  • although they won’t trim trees that are growing close to the line that comes into your house, they WILL at no charge disconnect it for one day so your (licensed and insured) tree trimmer can trim them safely.

As an aside, I finally understand now why birds don’t get fried from standing on a power line. The short answer is that they are in the air (not grounded) and that they are only touching ONE line and not multiple. A large enough bird that extended its wings to touch two lines would be toast.

Could a tsunami be a danger to us?

So, moving right along, how about a tsunami? Although we’re not on the coast, we are on water that eventually connects to the ocean. And given that a tsunami is a big surge of water, couldn’t that cause a problem?

There was a guy from Carmel who works in some official tsunami capacity, and he mentioned that although the 2011 Japan earthquake did send waves here and through the Golden Gate, those waves pretty much went north east, in the Sacramento direction, and not around the bend and down the bay. So I’m thinking we’re OK.

The other factor is that where I live there are sluice gates separating the “lagoon” from the bay, and so those gates provide a certain capacity to isolate the water level of the lagoon from that of the bay.

Where is the bigger picture plan for the county?

I’m generally pretty good at finding things on the internet, but I just couldn’t find this for my county. As luck would have it, the county sheriff’s office had a table right next to the soil engineer, and so when I asked them, they knew. If you are interested, for San Mateo county it’s here:

and apparently it’ll be updated soon.

What should I put in my first aid kit?

The clever–and accurate–answer is things that you (or someone around you) knows how to use. So buying the fanciest kit available may not be worth it.

Probably the best answer is to take a first aid course, and ask your instructors what should be in your kit.

Here’s one take:

WHAT are the hazards in my area?

Here’s a pretty nifty website which lets you zoom in on a location and see what might happen: