On Being Prepared

On Being Prepared

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I spend a lot of time complaining about this weird house of ours.  Right now, for instance, I am sitting here, typing away, and impatiently waiting to be able to feel my fingers.

Yesterday, I was on my bike upstairs, in the freezing back wing of the house.  It was so cold that I put on a thick, fleece hat and some leather gloves.

Bill has rigged up a rack on my stationary bike so that I can prop my latest library book on it and be entertained while trying to stay healthy.  Turns out, turning a page with thick leather gloves on is no easy feat.

So, while attempting to type just now with numb fingers, I had a minor revelation.  I found an old pair of thin, knitted gloves and proceeded to cut the tips off.  And it took me how many decades to figure this out??  Talk about a slow learning curve!

When my kids were babies, we lived in a town called Santa Rosa, in California.  I watched for days and days last month as the town was obliterated by wild fire.  This is not a town in the middle of nowhere.  It’s not all that far north of San Francisco, right on the main highway that runs up and down the entire State.

Those poor people, losing every item they owned.  Every birthday card their kids drew for them, every piece of silver that grandma left them.  Every photo album, every piece of furniture that held their precious memories.

Wiped out.  Same as with the poor people of Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico.

It’s not that I didn’t feel horrible for the thousands of hurricane victims.  Of course, I do.  But this was so close to home, at least psychologically.

And yeah, it made me stop complaining.

Sure, this house is crazy.  It’s cold and drafty and half the time the doors won’t open because of swelling or shifting in the heat or cold.  We bought this fixer upper because of the beautiful property.  Fixing it has been a long, tedious, exhausting and expensive proposition.  We’ve made a lot of headway, and while the property is now in tip-top shape, the house still needs a boatload of work and money.

But I’m looking at it with new eyes, because of the natural disasters of this summer.  And I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who is.

10 years ago, we had a record breaking winter, with 4 enormous snow storms back-to-back.  The first few days were “oh, it’s beautiful!  How fun!”  Bill couldn’t even get out of our driveway.  We were stranded here with the two girls.  How fun!

I ran around, taking pictures by the hundreds.  Christmas was just a week away; surely it would melt by then.  It didn’t.  Christmas was postponed a week, as it turned out.

We are not a region that gets much snow, typically, at 500 feet.  That year was an exception.

By the end of the week, we had accumulated over 6 feet.  You couldn’t see Bill’s car (a Camry) except for a big, snowy mound.  The cats were confused, to put it mildly.  The dogs, as usual, just had fun.

About a day in, we lost power.  No problem, we thought.  They’d have it back on, in no time.

Well, it just so happens that the local power company was not remotely interested in turning on the switch in our remote neighborhood in order to take care of 65 or so families.  That’s all they needed to do – flip a lousy switch!!  Half of our neighborhood use a different power company and they all had their heat, hot water, stoves and tv’s.  We weren’t as lucky.

No power meant no pump, which meant no water.  Happily, Bill’s recent purchase of a used generator meant we could turn on our Christmas lights and the tv during the evenings.  But we had a limited amount of gasoline, so that was that.

I had been saving gallons of our nice well water since we first moved here, a year before.   That took care of flushing the toilet and having water to drink and cook with.

My husband brought in the old camp stove, after he managed to dig a path to the garage, some distance from our house.  (It was well ventilated; we’re not THAT stupid!)  He hadn’t plowed the driveway, because none of us had ever seen snow like this before, and we couldn’t believe it just kept on coming.  After a day or two, it didn’t matter, because his little tractor couldn’t have made a difference, anyway.

I grew up in California, and experienced a number of earthquakes, none of them very big.  We had just moved to Oregon when the big one hit in 1989.  That was horrific.  The Bay Bridge actually collapsed, sending people to their deaths.

I grew up knowing to secure the back of your furniture to the walls.  Never to hang a picture or anything heavy or dangerous above a bed or a baby’s crib.  We knew to use baby locks on drawers that could open during an earthquake and spill out their contents.  But other than that, my parents didn’t really think in terms of surviving a disaster for weeks or even months on their own.

Our rural home is only 8 miles from town.  That being said, the road leading here is long and windy, with few places to turn around or pull over.  The fact that we are not densely populated means that the County resources aren’t coming to help us.  They never will.  And we’d better get used to that notion.

Our cell phones didn’t work, but because we had a land line that week, Bill was able to call the power company and scream bloody murder.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, think again.  It wasn’t pretty.  But it was futile.  They wouldn’t make the trek.

Being the week before Christmas, I had stocked up on food and drinks (and wine!).  We were expecting about 8 of our kids and grandkids, so having enough food wasn’t a problem.  We were freezing, sleeping on the floor in front of the fire each night, but we had firewood.

5 days in, I ran out of my meds.  This is something people may not give much thought to.

The insurance we have doesn’t allow us to stockpile meds in advance.  Having high blood pressure and a history of severe heart disease in my family, I was more than a little concerned about going several days without my meds.

We decided to venture to town, unsure of what the roads were like.

We had a big, extended truck at the time.  We could have easily put the dogs and even the cats in the back, but we JUST WEREN’T THINKING!  Looking back, I can’t believe our persistent state of denial.

We piled the girls into the truck and took off, more than a little worried.

It was even worse than we feared.

Our long road out to the main road was drivable, but only just.  Once we hit the main road leading down, the scary truth hit.

The County hadn’t been up to plow.

There was a narrow, one-car-wide trench that some hardy and brave souls had carved, going down the hill.  On either side the snow was piled at least 6 feet high.  The surface was packed, solid, icy snow.

There was certainly no room to turn around or pull over, should we encounter another car, going up.  But I needed my meds, so we risked it.

Driving to town is usually an 8 minute drive, at most.  That day, it took us about 40 minutes.  I was so scared, I couldn’t believe we got down the hill intact.

There were downed trees, everywhere.  In some places, we barely had enough room to drive.  On one side, in many places, was a sudden and steep drop-off.  Going off the road and ending up in some ravine, buried in 6 feet of snow, could be deadly.  But Bill got us safely down the hill.  I think I was shaking and the girls were, too.

In town, the roads were much better, but still dicey.  I think our small town only has one or two plows, and I’m fairly sure they were working hard to clear the roads, but the snow was falling faster than they could keep up.

We finally got to the Walgreen’s.  Guess what?  No pharmacist on duty.  He couldn’t get in.

What the heck?  That’s like showing up at the ER and the doors are locked.  Or so it seemed.

What to do?  We could risk going back home, but didn’t know if we could make it.  And we would have to do this all over again, the next day.

We decided to book a room at the local Best Western.  We bought some junk food at the pharmacy and checked ourselves in.

Hot baths for everyone!!  I hadn’t even thought of bringing clean clothes, sure we were coming back that afternoon.  I hand washed what I could, soaked for a ½ hour, and settled down in our comfy beds, happy to be safe and warm and clean!

I knew the dogs would be ok for the night, but we weren’t sure if we’d come home to a bunch of “accidents” when we returned home.  That wasn’t worth worrying about.

The next day, after a lengthy wait, we got my medicine and took off, back up the hill.  That was another hair-raising drive, but luckily, we didn’t encounter another driver.  To this day, I don’t know what we would have done, if we had.  I don’t even want to think about it.

When we got home, Bill stopped the car in order to talk to our neighbor, who was really freaking out.  Meanwhile, I was nervously sitting there, unable to get out because of a hip that needed replacing.  No way could I walk all the way down our long driveway with that much snow.  Finally, Bill stopped talking and we made it home.

Our darling dogs were never so happy to see us and miraculously (not that I really cared), they hadn’t had one “accident.”  Bless their little hearts.

It’s been 10 years since that week and we have never had anything like that, since.  But last year, Portland (where Bill works), had ONE INCH of snow!  One inch!  Because few people are great at driving in snow here (if they can even get off their cell phones, that is), accidents were happening at an alarming rate.

The town was paralyzed.  Traffic, which is never good, suddenly came to a stand-still.  The stalled traffic meant that the snow was melting on the roads and then instantly re-freezing.  All of the bridges and roads everywhere turned into one gigantic ice rink.  Which meant more accidents, and more delays.  More melting and freezing.

Bill was on the phone to me for hours, warning me he’d be late, if he ever managed to get out of town.  After trying numerous routes, he finally concluded that there was no way he’d get home that night.

Our kids live in town and I finally convinced him to make his way over there and just crash for the night.  Normally, it would take him 15 to 20 minutes to get there.  That night, it took him 6 HOURS.

This just goes to show how little it takes for an entire region to shut down.  It’s scary.  Frankly, it scares the hell out of me.

Because of my California upbringing, the threat of earthquake is always in the back of my mind.  We have a huge fault just along our coast here.  If we were to have “the Big One,” as they call it, we could be expected to live for MONTHS on our own.  If we even survived.  God.  If one inch of snow could paralyze an entire region for an entire day and night, what could a major earthquake mean?

My passion for preparedness has grown by the month.  I’ve been stockpiling water in milk jugs for years.  It was getting a little out of hand, so Bill laid a piece of luan on the first row and I quickly filled up the second row with freshly filled bottles.

Do not attempt this at home.

The weight of the top layer of water jugs caused the bottom layer to leak.  We didn’t even notice for a few months, because the area is hard to reach, under the stairs.

When Bill finally did notice, it wasn’t a pretty sight.  Not only was the carpet soaked through, but the entire back wall was covered in black mold and mildew.  Ugh.

I have worked diligently to keep a large supply of dried goods on hand, at all times.  Much of it is stuff that I buy in the bulk section of the grocery store, and kept in glass jars.  Only problem with that is, in the case of a major earthquake, there’s a good chance those could come crashing down.  I’ve got to think about solving that possible dilemma.

I have a garage freezer, which is full of frozen bags of soups and other foods.  I also have a side by side refrigerator/freezer out there, filled to the brim.  Both of our cars have emergency kits in them, in case we need to evacuate in a hurry.

We always keep 30 gallons of gas on hand, for the generator.  We also have 3 full propane tanks, for using the gas grill in an emergency.  I’ve stocked enough water for several weeks, if not months.

We have to get better about keeping the cars more or less full, in case we needed to get somewhere a distance away.

We have researched ways to get out of our neighborhood that don’t involve going down the hill.  It wouldn’t take much for a huge fissure to open up or downed trees to block the road for weeks.  There are some logging roads that can take us to the coast or even north, but they would require a lot of gasoline.   And one wrong turn could land us on a fire road with a dead end.

There was a tragic case a few years ago, in Oregon.  A young couple and their two kids (one a baby) were driving somewhere in the mountains, and used their GPS directions to use a forest road.  It was actually closed, but they didn’t know that, and I don’t think there were any signs.  They ended up stuck in the snow for several days.  They had packed snacks, but I’m not sure they had enough to survive for long.

The young mom kept the kids alive by breastfeeding them.  The husband burned a tire, in order to get the attention of searchers.  After 5 or so days (I’m not sure exactly how many), the husband decided to try and hike out.  Tragically, he died of hypothermia, a day before the mom and kids were found and rescued.

We need to get ourselves a USGS map of the surrounding area.

I’ve made a list of top things to grab, in case we had to evacuate.

This past summer, with hundreds of wildfires raging in the West, my husband found a lit, new cigarette by the side of the road in our neighborhood.  This is an area of pastureland and massive amounts of trees, all of it dry beyond belief.  A lit cigarette, not a butt.  A new, lit cigarette.

It got us thinking.  That is the only way out of our neighborhood, that little road.  What would we do it if were engulfed in flames?  Even if the fire department were able to respond quickly, it could spread in minutes.  There are no fire hydrants here, so it would be water trucks trying to contain the spread.

We did more research on possible ways to get out.  One neighbor said she’d get on a backpack, grab her dogs and walk the mile or so through other properties to reach another road.

Well, I had just had a knee replacement and was having a hard enough time tackling the stairs, let alone a mile-long hike with two dogs and a cat, over bumpy, heavily forested terrain.  Scary thought.

My shelves near our bedroom look like you’ve walked into a Walmart.  There I’ve stored bandages of all sorts, hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol by the half dozens, antibiotic ointment, and over the counter medicines for anything that can ail you.  It looks a little ridiculous, but if you think about it, better safe than sorry.  Even if you do live near town, who’s to say that anyone will be there to help you, in an emergency?  The truth is, they might not.

We have small flashlights all over the house, in every bedroom and many drawers in the main room.  We invested in a couple of super strong ones.  We have hundreds of votive candles, as well as 6 oil-filled jars with wicks.  Which reminds me, I need to buy some more lamp oil!  We also have 3 or 4 backup small propane tanks, which we use to get the fire started.  If we were to run out of our dry, seasoned firewood, propane would be necessary to help us light some freshly cut wood.

It’s so easy to be complacent.  The fact is, we might lose all cell reception in an emergency.  The idea of not being able to communicate with Bill or my kids while I’m living here by myself is terrifying.  I always keep preparedness in the back of my mind, but I don’t let it cripple me with fear.

And, like I said, better safe than sorry.  You may want to give it some thought.  Considering a Worst Case Scenario isn’t paranoid; it could just save your lives.


Cheers – Vicky




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