Living in Earthquake Country — the Emergency Kit

by Oct 28, 2019

A reality of living in silicon valley is the risk of earthquakes. One aspect of that is you need to be prepared for an event that might or might not happen, and when it does, it’s with no warning.

So it makes sense to have a kit available in case it does. The big earthquake will happen, and when it does, you won’t have time to pull gear together. You need something you can get your hands on once the shaking ends to help you take care of whatever problems you have, and possibly survive and keep things together for a few days while the region sorts it out and gets emergency services up and running.

Having lived through a number of major earthquakes including Loma Prieta (we are observing the 30th anniversary of that one as I write this), in some ways I’ve been lucky in that the worst I’ve been through are some cracks in the drywall, but good friends of mine have seen damage to their houses that kept them out of them for 18 months as they got rebuilt.

Are you prepared for a quake? If you can’t answer that with an enthusiastic yes, the answer is no. Unsure how to get started? The California Academy of Sciences guide is a good place to start.

An interesting question I had to consider was how prepared I wanted to be. It’s easy to overthink this and go down an infinity rathole of planning and buying contingency items. One the scale of “cracked drywall” to “the entire city is rubble”, how far down that path should you go to feel comfortable with the planning you’ve done?

For me, I decided the idea that in the quake the house would be moderately damaged and unusable, but that I could access it for some scavenging but not live in it, but I didn’t want to depend on getting in it immediately. I also assume my car is destroyed, and the items in the car are accessible. I felt it was safe to think if both the car and the house are destroyed, it’s bad enough I wondered if the emergency kits would make it through, either.

I used to keep my quake emergency kit in my car, but when I replaced it with the Honda Pilot, I pulled it out and made the car kit specific to being in the car away from home, and planned to rebuild house kit to store in the back yard. Here I am, two years later (yeah, I know… sigh) getting that done.

I started building this kit around the recommendations from the Wirecutter, which I felt had a good handle on the basics. I have done some additions and tweaks to their list, but it’s a really good place to start.

Caveats and Limitations

It’s important to remember this kit is only useful if you are in fact home when the quake hits. If you are out in the car, you may not be able to get back to the house for the while. If you are are work, the same is true. So you should think about what you ought to have as kits in those situations: I always keep emergency water in my car, and a hand-crank radio in work, as well as first aid kits in both. My full kit for the car is beyond scope of this piece but I’ll write about it sometime in the future.

Not discussed here are prescription medicines and other personal supplies. I keep an emergency stash of my drugs in my car that will keep me for 14 days, except for my insulin, which needs to be kept refrigerated. That is a significant issue with limited real-world solutions, but assuming the house isn’t rubble, I should be able to get to the fridge and get a bottle, which will keep me for 2-3 weeks. If not… the nearest hospital is a reasonable hike away, and I know I have 2-3 days without insulin before I have to worry about it too much. You can, in fact, find 12 volt refrigerators certified for carrying insulin (designed for long-haul truckers) but I just felt that was getting a bit too paranoid. I could, if I needed to, go a week, especially if I’m on reduced calories via emergency rations. But it’s something I always keep a thought out at improving my risk profile.

And pets? Pets are this nasty ball of pain I’ve yet to find good solutions for, especially if, like me, you live with a bird like our cockatoo, Tatiana. With an earthquake there is no chance we’d be able to get her to safety during the event, so any planning we do involves being able to get her out of the house and to a safe place with her cage, or in her transport cage, which is too small for long-term living but could be used for a while in a pinch. The cats, also: I expect they’ll head under something or into a closet, so dealing with the aftermath is about locating them, getting them into carriers, and having supplies for them while we get things back to normal. It’s a sad reality that, basically, there’s no way we can protect them during the event, but we have to know how to take care of them if they survive it.

The bedroom kit

It’s 2AM and you’re asleep in bed. You wake up hearing a rumble. Suddenly all hell breaks loose. When the shaking subsides, you realize the glass in the bedroom window cracks and there are shards on the floor. Can you safely get out of bed? Will the door open?

I’ve set up mini emergency kits just for the bedroom. They consist of two small baskets (one for each of us) that sit under the side tables next to the bed. In each is a flashlight, a small prybar, and an older pair of slippers with soles that are usable outdoors. That allows us to get protection on our feet, get light so we can see what’s going on, and if necessary, persuade the door to open. The reality is unless you’re really habitual, you don’t want to depend on remembering to keep your slippers next to the bed, and if you don’t, you have a problem if and when this happens. Setting it up in a basket is a way of both keeping it all together and reminding us to not touch this stuff casually, because if you grab the flashlight and don’t put it back, it’s not really useful in an emergency, right?

Think about what you might need if you wake up in the middle of the night in the middle of it, and set it up so you don’t have to wander around the room (or the house) searching for it. You need enough to get yourself up and out of the bedroom when the floor might be damaged and protect your feet from any dangerous material down there.

The Main Kit

Do you have natural gas appliances in your house? If so, you need a way to get the gas turned off in an emergency. I’ve placed a Emergency Gas and Water Shutoff tool near my gas meter, where I can get to it in a hurry if I need it. I was talking to my neighbor about it so he knew it was there as well, and he said he had one, too, in the garage. Then stopped and thought, and said mostly to himself. Probably shouldn’t be something I have to go searching for, right?

Right. But now he also knows there’s one about 10 feet from his meter, too.

In our back yard we have a garden storage box. In that storage box we have 8 Reliance Aqua-Pak 4 Gallon (19 liter) Water Containers. That gives us about 40 gallons of water for emergency use. These are rigid, stackable containers. They should be drained and refreshed about once a year to keep the water fresh.

Being added to that box with this project are three duffel bags. There are two bags, one for myself and one for Laurie, that each hold two changes of clothes. These are inexpensive duffels full of older clothes that will probably be tossed when we refresh the kit; usable but nothing we’ll miss by sticking them in storage.

The main emergency kit is in a third bag. I opted for a heavy duty, waterproof duffel with backpack straps so I could haul it around if I need to. Mine is in a bright, visible orange. The idea is if I need to grab it and go, I can. I should be able to see it in poor light with the color. If circumstances require, I can just pick this stuff out of the storage box and literally run.

Inside the kit the items stored can be broken down broadly into a few key categories:

Water: We have stored water, but it may have been sitting a while, or we may have to hightail it somewhere else and deal with water of questionable quality. To help with that, the kit includes a bottle of water purification tablets and two lifestraws, filters that remove bacteria and protozoans. I also have two Hydroflask 24 ounce water bottles, my current favorite water carrier.

Food; I kept the food simple; two boxes of Clif Bars, a total of 36 bars or 18,000 calories. Of the nutrition bars, Laurie and I both find them the most edible and they have a number of flavors that don’t embed nuts, a requirement because of my allergies. I went this way instead of MREs or backpacking food mostly due to convenience and not requiring preparation. For a few days it’ll keep us going, if not exactly make us thrilled at meal time.

We also included a can opener, because I didn’t want to hit a point where we were trying to open cans with a rock…

Safety

First up: a good first aid kit. I went after one built to be used in backcountry travel for a group of up to 7, and includes a few things smaller kits don’t have, such as fracture and sprain stabilization. If we’re going to be cut off from things for a bit, I want to be able to deal with problems that crop up.

An Emergency, Crank powered radio, since it’s safe to say we won’t have internet and can’t depend on cell service (or power for the phones).

There’s a set of emergency blankets for warmth at night, and emergency whistles to help get the attention of rescueers if needed.

Light

If the power is off, so are the lights. The kit has three different lighting options since. consider this a key comfort and safety need.

Headlamps: two battery powered headlamp flashlights from Black Diamond, so we can keep our hands free and have light to see what we’re doing.

Lanterns: Two battery powered portable lanterns that we can light and set down.

Candles: Two 100 hour emergency candles, just as one source of light that doesn’t require batteries.

the kit also includes D and AAA batteries to power these, and a box of waterproof matches. Also because they’re small and inexpensive, a couple of Magnesium Fire starters.

Miscellaneous

There’s a roll of large contractor trash bags, useful for putting stuff in to keep things dry, turning into rain ponchos, or using as a ground cloth to sit on.

There are two sets of work gloves to protect your hands while you’re dealing with rubble or broken glass or whatever, and a pair of protective safety glasses that go over prescription glasses, so if you need to, say, persuade a door or window to open to get into the house to scavenge, you can do so with some safety from flying debris. Also N95 respirator masks to protect you from dust and other things you don’t want in your lungs. And Duct Tape. I’ve included a leatherman tool because they can be really useful to help solve random problems.

To clean up, there are some baby wipes.

Probably an extra, but I included a compass in case we need help orienting ourselves trying to get somewhere.

Finally, not in the bag, but there in case we need to do some persuading, a 36″ Wrecking Pry Bar.

Costs

Putting this kit together wasn’t exactly cheap: I spent around $725, not including the water storage I already had. That said, about a third of that spending was on three items: the leatherman, the waterproof duffel, and first aid kit. You might well choose other options or to leave out the leatherman to reduce costs, but I felt it was worth spending this for a more complete kit. The two hydroflask water bottles were another 10% of the cost, but I find them almost indestructible and water availability was a key requirement for me. I also built in some redundancy where there are two of various items, partly because there are two of us, partly because some redundancy isn’t a bad thing. For a few things, like the trash bags and the baby wipes, I only put part of the supply in the kit and the rest is stored in the garage where it might be used for other purposes.

Do you have kids to worry about? Maybe you need to scale up. Looking to reduce costs? Maybe cut some of the redundancy.

Seem like a big investment? Yup. But stop and think: if you live in earthquake country, you may without warning find yourself without power and water for a few days as the area recovers. Or your house may be damaged. Or rubble. Then what?

A little preparadness ahead of time will make those first few days a lot less painful and stressful. I hope to never need to use anything in this kit, but it’s there if and when the inevitable happens.