Chile (and Haiti, and Katrina…): Preparedness lessons for you and me


We've entered a new arena of horror where our Richter scale, for the first time, doesn't seem to reach high enough, and adjectives are crumbling under the impact. "Devastation" or "catastrophe"? None of the usual descriptors feel powerful enough.

The following has been re-posted to with permission from Dr. Jan Gurley. You can visit her blog, Doc Gurley, at

We’ve entered a new arena of horror — where our Richter scale, for the first time, doesn’t seem to reach high enough, and adjectives are crumbling under the impact. “Devastation” or “catastrophe”? None of the usual descriptors feel powerful enough.

So as punched-gut news of another urban area implosion reaches you today, this one from Chile, you may be feeling both sorrow and a twitchy distant panic — after all, how long before the Bay Area takes its turn?

So here, while our usual complacent wall-of-denial has maybe cracked and fissured a bit, are some simple, practical tips that you can do this weekend to prepare you and yours for a worst case scenario (that’s right! do it in honor of those you wish you could help! do it to work off some frustration and grief as you wait to find out more about the people suffering in Chile!).

My tips are a little different from what you may see in typical Earthquake Preparedness info. These are not meant to supplant what is already good advise, but to take things a bit further, based on what I’ve seen in Haiti, and what seems to be the New Rules of Urban Devastation.

People survive the loss of government, buildings and infrastructure by banding together. Nowhere is this probably more important than in urban areas, where families are often separated by distance, and those living closest to you may not even be acquaintances. Walk around this weekend, knock on some doors and introduce yourself. If you’re feeling a bit shy (who wouldn’t be?), consider making some cookies and putting one or two in a baggie as a smoothing-the-awkwardness gift. Tell people you want to get together as a “block” (whatever your definition of block might be), for security and disaster planning reasons. Some people will give you the cold shoulder, but you may be surprised how many are grateful to meet you.

1) Know thy neighbors as thyself.

It’s amazing how cell phones have kept working, especially the text function, even in Haiti. Hopefully, that would continue to be the case. At your first get-together, program group numbers for mass-text blasts into every man, woman and child’s cell. It’s the one item most of us carry on our persons at all time. Also consider downloading and installing (if you have a smartphone) specialty apps that might help in an emergency. Since it’s an ever-changing field, maybe someone in your group will research which ones (location finding? first aid?) might work best for your group. After your “block” is organized, connectivity-wise, extend that circle out to your family by choice or biology. Many disaster-preparedness sites advocate an emergency phone tree, but after what the earth is doing nowadays, it pays to take things a step further and input the mass-text-blast set-up in advance.

2) Now what? First, the almighty cell.

Is there a doctor living on your block? A nurse? An engineer? Are there any other special skills nearby? How close is the nearest medical facility (including clinics)? How could you get there? In the aftermath of destruction, you don’t want to be trying to carry a loved one three blocks the wrong way. Also, remember basics — you can carry a person on a makeshift stretcher with only two poles and a sheet tied between them. Although many of us may not have the space to store them, wheelbarrows became prized commodities for many reasons.

3) Next, know your resources.

Whether we’re talking about Katrina, or traditional earthquake preparedness advice, the assumption has always been that there would be a place for survivors to shelter. We’re discovering over and over that assumption just doesn’t hold true. Not when millions of people are affected in the same small geographic area. You can buy a functional, decent tent for pretty cheaply at a number of different places. Hey, maybe you’ll even get inspired, once you own one, to turn off the TV and head out for a weekend this summer!

4) Now, get a tent.

Again, while these items are not the typical part of an earthquake kit, you’d be surprised how rare, and life-saving they can rapidly become. Moving walls and timber off trapped people was the one act (more than any Gupta-like surgery) that saved limbs and lives in Haiti. After the initial crash, your bucket, with a roll of garbage bags, can act as your toilet until you get a chance to dig a latrine with that shovel. Hey, throw in a blue tarp too — you can put walls around your loo (among many other uses). A sturdy, sharp knife (hunting-type) or small axe for hacking through things could also be very useful. Got a pair of sturdy, rubber-soled shoes that are practically worn out? Toss those shoes in your pile. People who were barefoot or wearing sandals were exposed to glass and live wires in disaster areas.

5) Next, get a shovel, a bucket, and a bundle of nylon cord. And a lever/crowbar.

Most of us can’t keep track of the freshness of our 5 gallons/person of earthquake-kit water. It pays to stay on top of that, including calendaring a check/switch. However, what’s clear in our new world order of destruction (New World Disorder?), is that you could need access to a more extended amount of water than you can pre-store (in addition to what you store). What can you do? First, buy a more re-usable water purification approach. It doesn’t have to be (that) expensive. Consider buying iodine crystals. That one bottle, and a crude filter, can purify 200 gallons of even gross water. There are many other, more high-tech approaches. But be wary of anything that is, in the end, battery-dependent. Second, scout out water options. Can you keep/make a water catchment system? Is there a local pool nearby? Does your semi-retired RV sit around with its water tank half full? Is there a stream running through your neighborhood? While we’d all like to think that we’d be different, that Katrina-esque delays in care wouldn’t happen again, these water-access situations have made the difference between dehydration or survival in Haiti — especially in the first three weeks before water distribution got up and running.

6) The water thing.

Putting the sun to work in Haiti

Clearly, waterproof matches are a part of many recommended earthquake kits. Take things a bit further, and you’re talking about a camp stove. But then there’s the issue of fuel. And, another type of power issue is energy for that all-important cell. Or lights. You can consider getting solar-powered flashlights (available pretty cheaply), as well as a solar-charger for your cell. The premier kind is an all-purpose solar charger that could do lights, cell, even laptop. But those are pretty pricey. Maybe someone in your local “block” already owns one? Or is willing to share?

7) Fire and power.

8) Beef up your medical supplies.

Check out these advanced medical preparedness set of tips. Make sure you include those, as well as extra bandage rolls, tape, and gobs of hand sanitizer, for days-weeks of post-potty use. Many small bottles of hand-sanitizer are best, as they frequently leak, and they could be distributed among family members for frequent use. Don’t forget to include at least some of the kinds of things lying around your home whose absence has plagued people in Haiti — tampons, napkins, condoms, diapers, and other important quality-of-life items. If you don’t end up needing them, someone nearby will. Finally, consider including some of those paper surgical masks. Whether we’re talking about the aftermath of 9-11, or the sooty dust/haze/campfire pollution that still pervades Port au Prince, having a mask that lets you breathe fewer particulates may be important for people with even normal lungs, much less sensitive ones. A saying in Haiti, when people talk about the visible aerosolized mortar, grit, and pollution is “at least we could never afford asbestos.” Unfortunately, we could afford it, and did put it as well as other never-meant-to-be-breathed substances in the walls of mega-high-rises.

Depending on your choices, you’ve probably spent somewhere between $100-$500, total. Compared to the price of earthquake insurance, what a deal! Now where do you put all this stuff? If you’re living in a high-rise apartment building studio, this may all look (and sound) ridiculously impractical. For you, that may be the brutal truth — in which case you’ll be looking for micro-versions of all these items and putting them in a rectangular storage box. But what about your work? Or your car? You can’t know where you’ll be – and one of those may be a good place to stock and store your supplies. For lots of people, these items would all neatly fit (along with the typical earthquake preparedness kit) inside one of those tightly sealing streetside garbage cans. That garbage can, itself, could be really handy in a disaster for sheltering many perishables. Put everything inside, bungie-cord it closed, and take it outside your home (if you can). Store it in a bike rack area, or a trashcan hut, or the place where you keep garden implements. The last thing you want is for your devastation kit to be buried under rubble. Having it all in one container makes your supplies relatively easy to load and go if you need to evacuate for other reasons (like a tsunami warning).

9) Location, location, location.

Here’s hoping that, in retrospect, these tips all look silly, overwrought and unnecessary. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Share in the comments section — do you have tips? Experiences you’d be willing to share? Keep up on the latest health issues in the news by signing up for a Doc Gurley RSS feed by clicking here. Look for future pics and other articles at Doc Gurley — discover the weird, the wacky and the everyday symptoms you want to know about, as well as practical expert tips on staying well. Want to express your inner fan-girl/boy? Become a Doc Gurley fan on Facebook! Want to be on the inside, fast track of health news and tips, as well as Haiti tweets? Get on the Twitter bandwagon and follow Doc Gurley! Also check out Doc Gurley’s joyhabit and iwellth twitter feeds — so you can get topic-specific fun, effective, affordable tips on how to nurture your joy and grow your wellth this coming year.

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