May 7, 2006

The Go-Bag: "What does one wear to a truly stunning natural disaster?"

[Tornadoes in Kansas make me think of earthquakes in California. Others think "disaster preparedness." And talk about the kits we all should have -- the "go bags." I thought about this a couple of years back. Here's how I put it together then. There are some things that should not be "left behind."]


And then
something went BUMP!
How that bump made us jump!

We looked!
-- The Cat in the Hat

ABOUT QUARTER TO NINE this serene Sunday morning, as I was sitting down and wondering what to write about, the house bumped me. One BUMP with the sound of "Thump!" as if a giant's fist had given the floor a little love tap. And then... nothing. No rattle of plates and shuddering of books in the shelves. No rising hiss of gas lines pulled open. None of the sounds of panicked birds. Just one BUMP with a thump and then everything goes back to "Condition California Normal."

Everything except me.

When you've recently had a number of homes 400 yards from you just wake up one morning and decided to take a slide down their hill, you tend to become just a wee bit oversensitive to your environment. That solid BUMP had me out of my chair and moving toward the front door with dedication. Once second, I'm sitting. Next second, I'm standing in the middle of the intersection looking up and down the streets. I'm
paying special attention as to whether or not I can see any tall trees swaying on this windless morning. Nope. Nothing. But the birds agreed with me since they had, for once, shut up.

I also found myself standing in the intersection in my pajamas with bare feet. A neighbor dressed in a robe and boxer shorts came out on his third-floor balcony, wallet and keys in his hand.

"You feel that?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah. I see you did too."

"Maybe," I said, "we should get dressed."

A new Lexus came up the steep hill behind me heading for the road down from the summit. It stopped for a moment. An old couple was inside. He was driving. She looked resigned and was holding a irritated looking cat.

"You feel that?" he asked.

"Am I standing in the middle of the street in my PJs?"

"We're going downtown and then out to the valley for the day. Can't be too careful."

"Well, that's true enough. Just don't linger on the canyon road. You got rock slide zones on both sides."

"We're not going through the canyon. We're going up to Newport along the coast."

"Well, get through those parts that run along the cliffs quickly."

"You got that right. Anyway, I've got water, food, and shovels in the trunk. You can't be too careful. These days you can't be too careful."

His wife was beginning to roll her eyes and their cat continued to squirm.

"Or too prepared," I said with a slight edge of sarcasm in my voice.

"No, you can't," he said, and gunned the shiny tan Lexus up the hill and out of sight. They were pretty old and frail. I hoped that, if anything happened, they'd be able to get out of their car and to the shovels and water in the trunk.

I looked up at my neighbor on his balcony high above the street and thought about the ten or fifteen seconds it would take to fall on top of me if we had another more serious BUMP, which was due in Southern California.... oh, just about any day now.

My neighbor shrugged. "What you gonna do?" he said in the manner of those who, faced with their continuing powerlessness, have nothing at all to say.

"I don't know about you," I answered, "but I'm getting dressed."

"There's a thought."

I went back inside and got dressed thinking, "Now what does one wear to a truly stunning natural disaster?" This thought revealed to me that I had not a smidgen of an idea about what to wear or what to do at all. Not a single brain cell in my over-furnished brain had been tasked with determining how to survive the most likely disaster in my little world.

Like millions of others on this shaky slab of the planet, I just woke up every day, took a breath, had some coffee and ran my "I'm okay and I'm okay" tape in the background and got on with "havin' a good one." Like millions of others in this state which is, like all states, just a state of mind, I "had the experience but missed the meaning." Like millions of others, I had -- in my heart -- scoffed at the old man in the Lexus who had, probably for the hundredth time, pushed to wife and the cat into the car and driven to the valley with his various survival supplies rattling in the trunk. Unlike millions of others, I stood in my bedroom and, not for the first time, realized that I was an unreconstructed fool. Worse still, I was a fool that laughed at the wise. Worse yet, I had no plan for a disaster that was not an if, but a when; a bad day that only lacked a date certain.

I had no plan even though I'd seen, at first hand, the man-made disaster of 9/11 kill thousands in seconds and render a great city helpless and floundering for weeks and months after. But then I thought, as my neighbor said, "What you gonna do?"

Which was when I remembered Mandel's car.

Tom Mandel was the first good friend that I made during the stone age of online communications in the 1980s. He was my first 'cyberbuddy' in the days before we had such a wet word for it. I met him through the Well conferences (about which the less said the better these days), and he grew to be a real friend in the real world. We even co-authored a book together. He was a good, complex, secretive, and brilliant man. And he died young of a bad disease.

Tom had lived in Palo Alto and been alive during the Loma Prieta earthquake that hit the Bay Area on October 17, 1989. Nothing much happened to him or his home on that day, but people driving in the wrong section of Cypress structure on the Nimitz freeway were not so lucky. Large portions of this concrete overpass pancaked down and reduced a number of cars and 42 of their occupants to flattened slabs of metal. bone and flesh. Others, somewhat luckier, were trapped in their crushed cars until rescue.

After Tom died, his widow -- a woman he loved and married in his final weeks -- was going through various things and came to his car. He hadn't used it for some months. When she began to clean it out she noticed first that the front seats had been rigged so that they could flatten backwards. Then she noticed that the back seat had been rigged so it would pop out easily enabling you to crawl into the trunk. Opening the trunk she found blankets, a number of military issue MREs, containers of water, a folding shovel, a long crow bar, two hundred feet of rope with knots tied in it every two feet, and three small but powerful hydraulic jacks. It would seem that, although he was not a man given to planning the future, Tom was at least prepared for being trapped in a collapsed structure after an earthquake. He could have gotten out of that one. It was the cancer that he couldn't escape, but in the end there's always something for each of us that we can't escape.

Then there are those that we can. If we plan.

Experienced sailors, having seen the lethal caprice of the sea and survived it, have a habit of packing a "Go-Bag." People who advise about emergencies also advise you to have one. These bags are supposed to contain all sorts of items handy in a survival situation: radios, batteries, flashlights, first-aid kits, ropes, knives, and so on. All the items deemed necessary to get by and keep going if the world around you is, suddenly, transformed to one state or another of, well, rubble.

I can understand, finally, the wisdom of that and, after this morning's BUMP, I've finally gotten the message clearly enough to begin to assemble my own Go-Bag along with a few other items in the trunk of my car. I don't know if I'm going to go as far as the hydraulic jacks, but the folding shovel and the blanket seem to be a good bet.

In order to do my Go-Bag right, I've made a list of all the practical things I'll need to assemble or buy, with an eye towards practicality and portability. But as I look at it now, I can see there are some essential things that I'll need for survival that I've left out. If you've ever made such a survival list, I'll bet you've left out some of the same things. None of the sites or agencies that talk about Go-Bags include them either. I'm going back in to add them even if it means I have to throw some 'sensible' things out. The new additions include:

A collection of photographs of my daughter in a small album. It stops at age 11.
A card she once made for me for a long-ago father's day.
Pictures of my wife and stepson.
A long letter of advice from my father that he wrote to me when I was too young to know how valuable it was.
A photograph of myself and my two brothers in our Sunday School best posing with my mom and dad on some long ago summer afternoon.
A sheet of paper with a hand-written haiku made for me by my first love.
A slim King James Bible owned and bearing the initials of my paternal Grandfather, that old reprobate.
A page from a notebook containing idle doodles and a few self-portraits of my daughter that she did, off hand, while being bored at my apartment in New York five years back.
Tom Mandel's Marine dog-tags.
A small oval tin given to me by my wife Sheryl containing a very small picture of her and two silver hearts that make a soft rattling sound when you shake it.

That's the list and I've now got them all in a small, sealed canvas bag next to my front door. I'll buy the "important" survival supplies this afternoon at the mall, but for right now I think I can say that the BUMP made me jump enough to survive. My real Go-Bag is full and I think, at last, that I'm finally good to go.

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Posted by Vanderleun at May 7, 2006 11:22 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Living in California this day and age is like living under the Sword of Damocles, only most people don't realize it.

Heck, we are all living under the Sword of Damocles. Natural Disasters are plentiful, when you simply factor in enough time...

Posted by: Final Historian at June 12, 2005 11:32 AM

Felt it here in the desert, 50-odd miles from the epicenter. At least it was over quicker than the range fire.

(And yes, I have a go-bag...)

Posted by: P.A. Breault at June 12, 2005 12:08 PM

Having been seriously bitten by a rattle snake one week ago today and felt my throat closing up on me within minutes, today's earthquake (which in my home, not far from yours, felt like two long rattles rather than a bump) felt less threatening. Of course, my neighborhood didn't recently slide down a hill. A snake looks so small (it was a young snake), but it's venom is as huge as all four claws of a bear. I was in the ICU for 2 days and couldn't walk, all from a bite, well, actually two bites that came within one second. It feels related to your posting to me. I hope it does to you. I did have the tools I needed to survive: 911, a brother to hold me, and having heard on TV to stay as calm as possible. I was bit on my middle finger. Yesterday someone told me my whole arm looks like it belongs on a cadaver. He was absolutely right. I'm still processing this enormous experience.

Posted by: barbara spalding at June 12, 2005 12:50 PM

I heard the china cabinet and one window shake and then looked to see who was in the neighbor's yard. Nobody.

Then the loud boom and shaking again. I told my daughter, okay, come with me and we headed to solid ground. She asked what was happening. I told her, I thought it was an earthquake.

However, I was not sure. One, because it felt different than most quakes and I have lived here (OC) my whole life. Never have I not known it was an earthquake until today. Two, no news about it, no neigbors in the streets, all was quiet. Three, I was just reading about the geologists who said the land was still on the move in Bluebird. I started to think, is the house sliding? Did a mighty eucalyptus branch land on the roof?

I saw a friend online and called her, just to verify my sanity was still intact. Yes, she said, she felt it too.

Finally, an email arrives from Caltech to say it was in fact a 5.6 earthquake.

Still, it was a odd quake. I thought it must not have been very deep for us to feel it all the way here, with that magnitude.
And, the house didn't sway side to side and that was different and it was much noiser than any I have ever heard!

Posted by: Nancy Epstein at June 12, 2005 6:47 PM

Here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge we've had our own earthquake rumbles. Not very high on the Richter Scale but enough to know, enough to put chimneys askew. To realize, in a momentless moment, that the sudden noise is not a rushing train, that the cats running through the house in random rabbit-pattern evasions know something just as you do, that the subtle feel of floor moving under your feet means "GET OUT!"...and so I do. Out into the March light, barefoot in the snow...waiting. And there is nothing. Silence. It lengthens until I notice my feet are numb and blue. I return to the house, carrying my vigilance with me.

My husband calls from a hundred miles away. Yes. It was there, too. But how could I have known so utterly, so instantly, *what* that experience was? Maybe it's encoded...I think of the cats' terror. The old joke about the more the firma, the less the terror...

I call my elderly neighbor. Had she felt the tremor? Yes, she had. I tell her. Oh...really. Just an earthquake? I was worried, but if that's all...

For the go bag:

spiral bound notebooks. One lined, one without. Stout pencils. Pens that feel good in the hand. One book of poems -- whoever travels best.

Posted by: dymphna at June 12, 2005 7:33 PM

I have a Go-Sack, a Go-Bag, and a Go-Box. The Sack is in the closet, and contains requisites necessary for a trip from here to there, God forbid. The Box is in the garage, and can be thrown in the car in a second; it has food, electronics, fire, cooking tools, wind-up radios, pointy things, all that Coleman crap you can buy at Target. The Bag has all the digitized histories. Worst comes to worst: one, two, three, and we're off.

I often feel foolish for having these things, let alone updating them from time to time. Until I read entries like yours. And the comments! I'll add a notebook and a book to the Box.

Tomorrow. Or one of the days that follow. Hell, next week. What's the ru

Posted by: Lileks at June 12, 2005 10:38 PM

In order to avoid mudslides, forest fires and floods, move to South Central LA. What the heck? A few shootings, a few riots PLUS the quakes, no problem! (Not to mention the freeway shootings that have occured a mere couple of miles from here.)

Your "go-bag" concept is something I've considering for a while, most with my hard drive in mind (most pictures are scanned).

Posted by: Juliette at June 13, 2005 12:23 AM

Here's just a bit o' something I'd think would have a place in your larger go-bag?

Please pardon the lack of a proper HTML link. I'm away from my crib-notes. Do feel free to properly encode it though!

But I do agree with your having those irreplaceable momentos in your go-bag. Living aboard a 30' sloop since '99, I thought my go-bag was fairly complete. I just learned that it wasn't.

Thank you for such a great insight.

Sloop New Dawn
Galveston, TX

Posted by: Jim at June 13, 2005 11:04 AM

I believe I am acquainted with the author of New Addition number seven.

Posted by: Deborah at July 25, 2005 12:21 PM

Not to be a grinch, or anything, but what if it's a big enough natural thump to put a whole lot of folks who DON"T have a go-bag out on the road with you...and one or more of them decides he wants YOUR go-bag, because he's hungry and thirsty and didn't bring anything, thank you very much...

Your go bag needs to also contain a Equalizer, something that will allow you to protect and defend your family from those whose go-bag is empty except for a knife or a club or a machete.

Sorry to bring things down from poetry and photo albums..., but tactical is really very practical.

Posted by: Doug In Colorado at April 5, 2006 10:48 AM

Aha, someone beat me to the punch! It's all good!

Posted by: Doug In Colorado at April 5, 2006 10:50 AM

Well, in all candor, let me say that *if* one had such a device, one would be a fool to advertise the fact on the Internet.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at April 5, 2006 12:39 PM

I live in Utah.

If the S were to in fact HTF, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else in the world. And we aren't LDS - just good neighbors with good neighbors.

If you or yours have chronic medical conditions, have at least a month of meds on hand independent of your normal supply. This means having a sensible doc and the self-discipline to rotate stock through the bag, but we do it for my wife (anti-coagulants).

Posted by: TmjUtah at May 24, 2006 7:37 PM

Might have to rotate some things in and out now, but it pays to keep your preparedness up to date.

Posted by: Gerard Van der Leun at May 7, 2007 10:48 AM

It won't preserve the personal "touch" but my disaster "go bag" consists of a few disks stored with a far-away relative that contain scans of all the pictures, documents, mementos, work materials, etc., that I really don't want to lose. (And really, now you can simply store them on-line or in saved email folders and they'll follow you anywhere.)

Posted by: dcanalyst at May 7, 2007 4:19 PM

I live in Ohio, so I'm not so worried about earthquakes or mud slides. A go bag is a good idea for anyone, but for us, hunkering down is more likely than bugging out. Our when-not-if scenario is an ice storm/blizzard induced power outage.

Ten years ago it happened for two days. Not the end of the world, more of a test. My old house had a very old furnace, so I was able to bypass the gas solenoid and keep the gas furnace burning on a low flame. That was enough to keep the house around 60 degrees. My current house has a newer furnace, so that's not an option. I'm going to install a vent-less gas heater as a backup.

Posted by: Rick at May 7, 2007 8:17 PM
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