What I learned about earthquake preparedness

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11th, I was working from home here in Tokyo. Having grown accustomed over the years to frequent tremors, I foolishly proceeded to ignore the early warning signs. But when the low rumble grew into intense shaking, I quickly realized that it was time to enact my exit plan.

In 20/20 hindsight, it was not a very good exit plan.

I grabbed my wallet, keys and cell phone, slipped on a comfortable sweatshirt and managed to dig out my running shoes from the closet. Before leaving the apartment, I turned off all the gas, and filled a backpack with a flashlight, batteries and a few cans of tuna. Mind you that all of this took place in just under a minute.

Once outside, I followed the crowds of startled people to a nearby park where we would in theory be safe if buildings started to collapse. Fortunately – at least for those of us in Tokyo – we were spared from the worst. Regardless, the whole encounter made me realize that earthquake preparedness is not something to be taken likely.

This is what I learned…1) Have a stockpile of emergency cash. To be clear, you should definitely keep your hard-earned money in a bank account. Stuffing piles of money underneath the mattress is best left for grandmothers, conspiracy theorists and money-launderers alike. But I can’t emphasize how important it is to have a hefty reserve of liquid cash in your wallet.

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, at least in my neighborhood of Tokyo, ATMs simply froze up. What-if scenarios are beyond the scope of this blog, but the point is that having extra cash in an emergency situation is always a good thing. Lesson learned: keep a hidden envelope full of cash at home for times like these.

2) Voice over IP is a lifeline. In the minutes following the earthquake, all of the mobile networks in Japan went down. And they stayed down for a solid twenty-four hours. In a country where you can normally text message in a one-mile deep subterranean subway station, this came as a huge shock to the Japanese.

The reason was justified, namely that government and industry officials wanted to keep telecommunications networks open for use by emergency responders. Fortunately, the internet was up and running, which meant that Voice over IP services like Skype served as vital lifelines to friends and loved ones.

3) Plan for the worst, hope for the best. During my panicked flee from home, I never considered the worst case scenario. As such, there were some vital items that I left behind. For starters, I forgot my passport, which would have severely hampered my ability to catch an international flight out of Japan.

I also forgot my glasses, which is a major concern given that a) my contacts are disposable and b) my vision is only slightly sharper than your average ground mole. And while I don’t take regular prescription medicine, if I did, there is a good chance that I would have forgotten to pack that as well. Which brings me to number four.

4) Always keep a bag of emergency supplies on hand. I did a good thing by grabbing a flashlight, batteries and random cans of tuna. But I wasted valuable seconds that could have been spent escaping from the premises. There is also a long list of potentially useful items that I left behind.

What’s packed in my bag now you ask? A lot of goodies, including a first aid kit, essential toiletries, compressible sleeping bags, emergency flares, duct tape, gloves, face masks, rain gear, bottled water, plastic bags, dried snacks, utensils, Swiss Army knives, soap, hand sanitizer and iodine tablets (for purifying water, not preventing radiation sickness).

A bit on the heavy side? Definitely. Dependable in times of dire need? Absolutely.

5) Dress appropriately. To clarify, we’re not talking about fashion, but rather survival. I was smart enough to grab an extra layer, and the running shoes seemed like a good idea in the event of spreading fire. But had there been wreckage containing anything from broken glass to steel shards, I potentially could have been injured.

I have since invested in a seriously sturdy pair of steel-toed, Vibram-soled military boots, which I keep in a small nook near the front door. Next to my previously mentioned bag of emergency supplies, I keep a folded pair of work jeans and a durable Carhartt construction jacket. And although I forgot to mention this prior, there are also extra socks and underwear in my emergency bag. Always good to have a few clean pairs on hand!

Is there something that I’m missing? Most likely. Am I being overly neurotic? Always a possibility. With that said, if anyone out there has experience packing an emergency kit, please chime in and share your thoughts. And, if anyone out there has a carefully thought out escape plan for dealing with any kind of natural disaster, let us know!

Stay safe, and remember the scout motto: Be prepared!

** All photos are courtesy of the Wikicommons Media Project **