Viewpoints: Earthquake preparedness can also strengthen community ties

Published: Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 - 4:00 pm

As a native Californian, I’ve always accepted earthquakes as part of life here so I didn’t use to think about them too much. When the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994, my family didn’t even have an earthquake supply kit.

That’s the thing about earthquake preparation: If you’re not a worrier, there are always more important things to do than gather earthquake supplies – like go to work or walk the dog. And being prepared requires answering a paralyzingly large number of questions about what your plan should be, what kind of supplies you need and where you store them.

I didn’t get serious about those questions until about four years ago. After doing some reading on earthquakes, I realized that the “big one” – an 8.0-magnitude or stronger earthquake on the San Andreas Fault – is inevitable and that my family should be ready.

My job also played a part. Through my work producing exhibitions for natural history museums, I’ve learned to appreciate the power of elemental forces of nature. When you’re an urban dweller, it’s easy to think about nature as being “out there.” But the impact of a serious natural disaster could be magnified in a densely populated city such as Los Angeles.

In 2006, my wife and I bought a four-unit building in Hancock Park with our friends. We each moved into an apartment – my wife and I, another couple and two single people.

One evening, I organized a meeting on earthquake preparedness. The six of us gathered in the garden and came up with a plan.

First, we agreed to split the cost of having the building foundation bolted and reinforced. Then we started gathering supplies. It seems likely that water service will be disrupted after a severe earthquake, so we bought two 40-gallon water barrels as well as five-gallon jugs of water to keep in each of our apartments and garages.

We decided to store most of our supplies in the detached garages behind the building. We labeled containers “earthquake supplies” and put in everything we thought we might need, including an espresso pot and the right kind of coffee. The containers also have canned food, a first-aid kit, a stove and fuel, a bucket privy, a hand-cranked radio, and tools (crowbar, fire ax and shovel). The gas meters have automatic shut-off valves (which prevent gas leaks and fires after a quake), but we got a valve wrench in case they need to be manually shut off. I also purchased several fire extinguishers that we keep near the garage doors.

It took us several months to get the kit together, and we improve the kit each year. My neighbor even found a fold-up solar panel charger online; if we lose power after a quake, we’ll be able to charge our cellphones and computers.

When we first moved to Hancock Park, many people on our block were Orthodox Jews who mostly interacted with other members of their community. Initially, I wanted to organize the block, but it seemed too hard to make connections so I focused on my own building. In the last few years, the neighborhood has become more diverse. Slowly, Orthodox Jews, gay couples and yuppies have gotten to know each other. My neighbors are friendlier and more open than they were even a few years ago.

I believe in neighborhood fabric and see earthquake preparedness as a way to get people talking to each other. Whether or not we live in separate worlds, I’m confident that my neighbors will come together and cooperate if disaster strikes.

My plan now is to distribute literature on earthquake preparedness around the neighborhood – pamphlets, supply lists and other guidance. We can tell our neighbors, who mostly live in four-unit buildings like ours, how cost-efficient it is to cooperate on earthquake preparations. We can tell them to come over to our place and see what we did.

Last week, when a 4.4-magnitude earthquake hit L.A., I had a sense of calm. It’s reassuring to know we have what we need to make it through a major disaster. If the big one happens and we lose power, my neighbors and I can still drink espresso and charge our phones.

Jonathan Katz is the founder and CEO of Cinnabar, a Los Angeles-based producer of museum exhibitions and entertainment-related environments. He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.

Read more articles by Jonathan Katz

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