When a natural event like Superstorm Sandy wreaks havoc and destruction it provides an opportunity to reflect on our preoccupations and priorities and how out of whack they so often are. Disaster strikes and suddenly we realize what’s truly precious; it’s not American Idol, the latest iPad or this year’s fashion colors. What’s precious are water, food and shelter.
These three essentials are always in play, but within the comfort of over-abundance instead of scarcity, we tend to forget just how precious they are. So accustomed are we to turning the tap for fresh clean water, opening the fridge for something to eat, and unlocking a door to a dry, warm safe place to stay that we take all three for granted, forgetting that without any of these precious things, life goes from hard to impossible in no time.
An adult can live without food for weeks, but life without clean drinking water for more than three days can be life-threatening. Subjected to sub-freezing temperatures in an unprotected environment without proper clothing can kill in a matter of hours. For many people in less fortunate societies than ours, such concerns are a daily preoccupation, and insuring their availability is literally a matter of life and death.
Superstorm Sandy revealed the extent to which we are unprepared for natural disaster, and how skewed our priorities have become. Even the best efforts of FEMA, utility companies and first responders have not been enough to quickly restore electricity and drinking water to millions. In some cases, it will be many weeks before life can return to normal, if ever, for some. In light of these events, one essential fact remains: when a huge natural disaster strikes, each of us might be on our own for an uncertain amount of time.
Here in California, we’re unlikely to see a hurricane, though severe flooding is always possible. Our particular likelihood for disaster is a massive earthquake. Though floods can wash out some bridges and roads, a massive earthquake can destroy an entire region’s infrastructure — highways, overpasses, levees, water and gas transmission lines, electrical grids, communication systems — and disable everything that depends on them.
As we’ve seen in the aftermath of Sandy, no cellphone service, no available gasoline and impassible roads turn ordinary life upside-down or worse, tipping organized society into chaos and anarchy. Even major hospitals found their back-up power generators inadequate and had to be evacuated. In short, in the event of catastrophe, count on nothing.
At risk of sounding like Chicken Little, I must remind you to be prepared. A major disaster is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when.” Putting together an emergency kit with proper supplies is really an essential part of accepting that what’s precious is precious because without it you and your loved ones are at great risk of dying. Thus bottled drinking water, plastic tarps, packaged foods not needing refrigeration, dry clothing, and basic tools and implements should be close at hand (like in the trunk of your car), but not inside a structure that can collapse or burn. You may be living outdoors for a while. A couple of large, plastic tubs with secure lids should contain the essentials you or your family needs for at least three days. If you have not done this, don’t think about it, just do it.