Event Report: Quakeville 2010

If you really want to learn to do something, the best way is to just do it. Since most of us don’t have much opportunity to practice responding to real earthquakes, the next best thing is to participate in drills. This post reports on a drill that took place a couple of years ago: the first Quakeville in Palo Alto, CA. (It has since become an annual event.)

The premise of the drill was that earthquake damage had made some homes in the neighborhood unsafe to occupy, so many of the residents had to camp out in a local park. To simulate this the volunteers in the drill brought their tents and camping gear to the park and stayed overnight. A number of different emergency organizations also showed up to practice their procedures, and others like the Red Cross gave presentations on how to prepare. I’m sure it was useful for all of them, but the rest of this post is going to focus on how participating in a drill like this can be helpful for a family — and specifically for your family.

Camping like this is a surprisingly good proxy for life after an earthquake. Think about it: If your house is damaged too badly to sleep in and the shelters are all overcrowded, you’ll be better off camping in your backyard. If your house is safe but the heat is off, you’ll be sleeping in your sleeping bags. If your stove doesn’t work, you’ll be preparing food on your camping stove. With no electric light, you’ll be dependent on camping lanterns. With no TV or Internet the kids will have to entertain themselves with games and books. That’s certainly not to say that a disaster situation is anything like a vacation, but if you’ve practiced camping and have enough food and water stored, then you should be well prepared for much of what you may experience in the aftermath of an earthquake.

This particular drill was intended primarily for Palo Alto residents, especially those living in the Barron Park area, but as a San Jose CERT graduate your ever-resourceful South Bay Safety Guy was able to get himself invited. The family loaded up our sleeping bags and coolers, drove up to Juana Briones Park on Saturday, and after we finished pitching our tents there were enough activities to keep everyone busy and interested. (Hint: be sure the kids bring their soccer balls and pogo sticks.) As you can see from the photo, it was a beautiful clear sunny September weekend. Will the weather be that cooperative after a real earthquake? Probably not, but if this is your first overnight outdoor drill why not make it easy on yourself? The idea is to learn, not to suffer.

For more pictures, see the links here and here. You can see that in return for the coordinator’s gracious invitation to participate, yours truly pitched in as a “victim” for the responders to practice on. The Explorers did a great job with the rescue; a big guy like me is not easy to carry but they managed it very competently.

So did everything go smoothly for our family? Far from it, but then that’s the whole idea of a drill. You want to find the flaws in your equipment, training, and procedures before you have to depend on them. This was the first time my family had attempted camping in many years, and here are a few of the things that went wrong (we call these “learning opportunities” :-)):

  • Our brand-new air mattresses didn’t work. Mine leaked a little, and the other went almost completely flat overnight. My spouse was not amused, and we returned both for a refund a few days later.
  • Our blankets were not warm enough. We had old beat-up sleeping bags, and they were simply not up to the task. Once again, my spouse was not pleased. Mind you this was in mid-September when it was still pretty warm, so we would have been really hurting in February. We later purchased new and much warmer bags. (And insulated ground pads. And sleeping bag liners. And Space Blankets.)
  • Our tents were pitched on ground that was ever-so-slightly sloping. That’s not unusual, but our mistake was that we didn’t take the slope into account when arranging our sleeping bags, with the result that our heads ended up downhill. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Put your head uphill.
  • I have sleep apnea and normally use a CPAP machine at night, but the treatment is so effective that I figured everything would be fine if I only missed one night. Wrong again — this was such a horrible idea that I had to move to the car in the middle of the night to get my head elevated while resting. Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep that night, and I later purchased a really big battery sufficient to run the machine for 3 nights.
  • We didn’t bring enough food. We knew our kids ate a lot, but we didn’t realize quite how much until we had to get by on a limited supply. Fortunately the drill only ran from Saturday afternoon to Sunday noon so nobody got really hungry, but those coolers emptied out a lot faster than we anticipated.

I won’t bore you with any more examples, and your issues will likely be different from ours, but the point should be clear: Practice. It really does help, and our camping improved so much after a couple of dry runs (although the first time it rained wasn’t exactly a “dry” run) that we now actually enjoy it and do it for fun. Look for a number of future blog posts covering many of the details we’ve learned about how to do this stuff right. After a quake you want to be as comfortable and well-rested as possible so that you can be productive in recovery efforts and in caring for your family. Get this wrong, and you could instead find yourself miserable, distracted, and useless.

Keep your eyes open for drills like this in your area. If you see one, I strongly encourage you to sign up and participate. It’s a great way to improve your skills and preparations, and it’s also a great way to meet like-minded people in your area.