In ‘After the Big One’, an epic, 5-part reported work of science fiction, Adam Rothstein took us through, step-by-step, what will happen to Portland after, well, the big one hits. The story resonated widely in the Pacific Northwest, and has many concerned about the future. But have no fear—chances are very, very good that you’re going to survive the quake itself. And below, Rothstein has assembled exactly what you’ll need to survive the coming days and weeks, too. Here’s a guide for creating your very own earthquake kit.
An earthquake kit is often presented like a grocery list: Here are things you need, from top to bottom, as if you were using it to bake a cake. But surviving a disaster doesn’t require all the ingredients. If you have only one item off the earthquake kit list, you know where it is, and you can get to it in an emergency, then you’ll be much better off than you would be otherwise.
In a Cascadian Subduction Zone (CSZ) quake, things will probably be bad, and they’ll probably be bad for a while. And the list of things you might need is so diverse and of such great quantity, it is inconceivable you’ll be able to amass, under pressure, everything you’ll need. That’s what makes it a disaster: If you had everything you needed, it would just be everyday life.
And in case you are inclined to gamble with the fates, remember that if there is an CSZ quake, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you will survive it—your chance of dying instantly is slim. The same goes for any earthquake, in any part of the world. That means you will be likely living through the aftermath, whether you plan for it or not. So make a kit. You’ll be glad you did.
You probably already have many of these things in your house. The trick is putting them in a place where you can find them in a hurry, and where they won’t be trapped underneath the rubble. Even if the earthquake never comes, these things will probably be useful anyway, if the power goes out, if there’s a snowstorm, or if you’re going on a road trip. Just remember to put them back when you’re done.
More important than any piece of gear, for any emergency, is being mentally ready, more than physically ready. No one knows what will actually happen. The reality will require quick thinking, improvisation, and teamwork. I cannot highlight that last one enough. Surrounding yourself in a castle of canned food and extra ammunition is just asking to have your entire stash flooded with a broken water main. Don’t “prep.” Instead, be ready to work with your neighbors, to deal with whatever challenges you will face, together.
We’ll start with some basic items. These are all ordinary, household things that you might already have. Possessing any one of these items in the event of disaster would make you much better off than if you were left with nothing. Put what you can in a place you can easily get to them, and where other things will not fall on them—not in a basement! A garden shed or garage is ideal, if you have one. Even if a shed collapses, you should be able to dig things out of it without too much trouble.
The standard instructions for emergency kits suggest you stock 72 hours’ worth of food and water. For a CSZ earthquake, however, it may be as many as two weeks before more of these resources can be brought in and distributed. A person needs about a gallon and a half of water a day. Obviously, keeping two weeks’ worth of freshwater around is nearly impossible for most people. But whatever you have, you’ll be glad you have it when the Big One hits. A reusable jug to carry water will be important as well, once water is distributed.
Again, two weeks of food is more than most can keep, but do what you can. Focus on stocking non-perishable food that’s high in protein, containers that store and stack well, and things that require minimal cooking. Dry pasta keeps well and tastes good, but it requires a lot of water to cook, so leave it out. Rotate your emergency food out before it expires, to keep from wasting things.
Fancy multi-tools are well and good, but it’s pretty hard to open up canned goods without this basic tool. A used can opener from a thrift store costs less than a dollar, and you can keep it with your food stash rather than in your kitchen drawer.
The Big One will wreak havoc on the sewer system. Flushing toilets into a broken sewer system will make things worse, causing clogs, backups, and overflows. The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management recommends the two-bucket system: one bucket for #1, the other for #2. A little sawdust on top, if you have it, keeps it from smelling so bad.
Keeping urine in Bucket #1 allows Bucket #2 to last longer before it’s filled. The solid waste is most important to keep away from humans, to prevent against the spread of diseases like cholera, E. coli, and more. Bucket #1 can be dumped in a safe place where it won’t get into drinking water, and Bucket #2 can be saved until some sort of community collection/disposal method is devised.
First Aid Kit
First aid supplies are always good to have around, and in a CSZ quake, they will be indispensible. You’ll want to sanitize and care for small wounds yourself, because getting to a clinic for an infection will be nearly impossible for some time. A bag of nitrile gloves is light and easy to stash away, for helping other people with injuries, and for dealing with anything unsanitary—and there will be plenty of both, post-quake.
Alcohol-based Hand Sanitizer
Throw this in a bottle. Sanitizing your hands when appropriate, rather than washing, will save a lot of clean water.
Critical Medications, Eyeglasses
Getting a prescription filled post-quake will be difficult at best. Stocks of some drugs may simply run out. You don’t need to hoard Tamiflu or Potassium Iodide. But if you use insulin, asthma medication, or other regular medication, talk to your doctor about what you should keep in case of emergency. And be wary of expiration dates.
Having some extra stashed away will make you more comfortable later on. Or, if not for you, for someone you know.
Good for cleaning up debris, and any of the many physical tasks you might have to do post-earthquake. They’re also cheap, so just get an extra pair and stash them, and then lend them to a friend.
FM Radio with Batteries
Telecommunications failure is pretty much assured, at least for a while. City and State officials will likely use FM radio to communicate with the public while phone lines and cell towers are fixed. You can get a fancy winding radio if you want, but anything that works will be useful. And don’t forget the batteries! Rotate them out of your earthquake kit every year or so like the food, to prevent them from dying and going to waste. Store your batteries outside of the radio or flashlight (in a plastic baggie is good) and they will last much longer.
Flashlight with Batteries
Electricity failure is also assured. Again, a fancy winding flashlight might be cool, but anything bright will do. Candles and lanterns could be useful, but they also introduce fire risk. Keep in mind that there will likely be no water pressure for fighting fires, and firefighters will be busy elsewhere.
Printed list of emergency contacts, important documents like insurance info
This one costs nothing. Often emergency kits focus on gear, and forget about information. Remember, there will be no Google, no email, maybe no computer or cell phone. Most of us don’t remember phone numbers, bank account numbers, or insurance policy numbers anymore. Write up a list of your important info, and hide it in your kit.
Map of local area with relevant information
Do you know where the closest fire station is? What about neighborhood rallying points, BEECN, or NET assembly points? Is there a CERT program in your city, and where do they meet? Which local schools have been pre-selected as potential shelter locations? You can Google this information now, and write it down. Keeping a local street map around will help, when your phone and sat nav have no service or power.
Adjustable crescent wrench for utility shutoff
There are fancy tools made specifically for shutting off water and gas, but any adjustable crescent wrench will do. Shutting off utilities is important if your house is seriously damaged, and leaking water and gas are making it worse. Google this ahead of time, and discover where your shut-off points are, and how to do it (it’s easy once you know). But if your house is not damaged, don’t shut it off, or it could delay your service returning.
Cash and coins
ATM machines and credit card terminals rely on data lines and electricity, and will be out of service. No need to fill the walls with Krugerrands, but a little spare cash will be helpful to get groceries. A roll of quarters might be good too, because you might be looking for a payphone for the first time in a decade.
Easy to carry bag for it all to go in
You may have to move relatively quickly, so if you have a backpack or bag to carry things in, that’s great. Or, use your two buckets, at least until you need to make them into your toilet.
Many of these items are based on the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management’s Earthquake Kit—check out the webpage here.
Extended Goods List
All of this stuff doesn’t fall into the primary tier, but it could be useful nonetheless. If you already have it, or want to go the extra mile, here are some things to consider.
Pry bar, hammer, shovel, jack, screwdriver, knife, saw, wrench. Sometimes extra tools accumulate, and keeping them all as an earthquake tool kit isn’t a bad idea. Or if it is convenient to store your tool box with your earthquake kit, why not do it?
Ropes, tarps, tent, and a strong, water-resistant tape. A temporary rain and wind shelter will be useful if you have to sleep or cook outside. Even if your home survives intact, someone on your block might be glad you have materials to share. Tarps can cover broken windows to keep out the weather as well, if plywood isn’t immediately available.
Boiling water is by far the best method to sanitize water, but it requires a good deal of fuel. The CDC recommends using a small amount of bleach to sterilize suspect tap water in an emergency. It might be good to print out the instruction flyer linked here, so you have the info in your kit already.
However, be aware that bleach is mostly effective against bacteria and viruses. There are certain parasites, like cryptosporidium, that can survive. Cryptosporidium is usually found in water sources frequented by animals, but also in recreational water like swimming pools. (Personally, I would risk an unpleasant bout of cryptosporidium before I risked the serious health effects of dehydration. So I would trust bleach-sterilized water in an emergency.)
Also, boiling and bleach cannot remove chemical toxins that might be found in floodwater or rainwater that has run onto surfaces like roads and roofs. In an earthquake, the chances of hazardous materials accidentally spilling into ordinarily clean rivers and streams is greatly increased.
Water filter technology is improving and getting cheaper. Many outdoors stores sell reasonably priced water filters, some of which enable you to drink water from natural sources without worrying about parasites or other vectors. However, these sorts of filters also don’t necessarily protect against chemical toxins. Research what you are buying, learn to use it, and see the CDC recommendations for water filters.
Solar chargers are another technology that is improving. However, there’s a lot of garbage out there, so know what you’re buying. Remember: Amps x Volts = Watts. If the solar panel can’t provide enough watts, it can’t give you enough amps and volts to power your device. A dinky little panel might have a standard electrical outlet on the side of it, but can’t provide enough amps to run a wrist-watch.
Any solar panel or backup battery system should tell you what it can provide in hard numbers. Don’t trust the fact that it has a USB plug or a standard electrical plug. Don’t trust marketing statements like “provides five iPhone charges.” A little solar panel may charge your phone, but at low amps, it could take a whole day to do it. Do the math yourself.
Here’s an example of what not to get. It looks cool: it’s a pocket-sized battery with a solar panel, and has a USB plug to charge your phone. It claims to provide 5000mAh, or 5 amp-hours. USB power is 5 volts. But that solar panel is so small, it can’t be more than 0.5 watt. To charge a 5 amp-hour, 5-volt battery with 0.5 watts would require leaving the panel in the direct sun for 50 hours. And a 5 amp-hour battery won’t charge an iPhone 6 Plus (with a 2900mAh battery) twice.
Here’s a more reasonable offering. (I haven’t tried the product myself.) It is a 21 watt panel, which will provide 2.1 amps to two different 5-volt USB plugs. That will, in ideal conditions, charge two iPhone 6 Plus at full sun in under an hour and a half.
Also take note: Solar panels only work at their rated levels at full, direct sun. If the panel is even slightly angled away from the sun, it will get less light, and produce less electricity. Managing a single solar charger is often a constant job.
One of the best ways of storing small amounts of electricity around the home is a big 12-volt battery, just like the one in your car. It’s not enough electricity to run a toaster, but a big one can provide way more juice than a whole box of AAs. You can charge it with a car, with solar panels and a solar controller, with a wall charger, or even an exercise bike if you don’t mind a little hard work. Load up a wagon with car batteries, and you can cart 12-volt power all around your neighborhood, and run anything that plugs into a car cigarette lighter adapter. There are tons of 12-volt electronics out there, typically designed for cars or RVs. You could light an entire house with 12-volt LEDs from a single battery, if you wanted to. A homemade 12-volt system is fairly easy to put together, and while not dirt cheap, they are much cheaper than consumer-grade battery backup systems. A properly cared for 12-volt battery will last years.
This requires some research though. There is definitely enough electricity in a car battery to give you a nasty shock. Many also contain acid, and can create explosive gas when charging. There’s plenty out there to read about making 12-volt backup systems, hooking up solar panels, and converting 12-volt systems to work with other devices, so go dig in.
12-volt batteries are DC, and an inverter converts it to AC; the difference between electricity from a battery, and electricity from the wall. Many modern inverters include a USB outlet as well for charging phones, which is handy. However, like with solar chargers, do the math. A 100-watt inverter may advertise that it can run a laptop, and with a standard outlet plug, looks like it can. But if the inverter doesn’t provide enough juice, it doesn’t matter what shape the plug is.
Portland’s BEECN system is an innovative means of creating resilient communication, giving older amateur radio emergency groups like ARES and RACES a new integration at the neighborhood level. Getting certified as an amateur radio operator is a great way of learning about radio, and being prepared to serve in an emergency role. Hams will debate endlessly about the right equipment to use for different situations, so I’ll bracket that discussion for now. But, a necessary caveat: don’t try to use amateur radio equipment if you’re not licensed. In an earthquake, amateur radio forms an important backup to professional emergency services, and interfering with that by not knowing what you are doing could be a big problem.
Electricity and natural gas will probably not function for some time after the earthquake. If you have a portable camp stove that runs off propane, it will help cook meals, especially if you are stuck outside. While getting propane tanks filled will be difficult, there are plenty of backyard grills around (make sure you have the right adapter hose). Combining your stove with your neighbor’s grill tank will help you both cook for over a week.
Too big to put in the earthquake kit, but a very useful piece of equipment nonetheless! With street conditions uncertain, gasoline lacking, and many bridges damaged, a bicycle could be a perfect means of transportation post-quake. Even more so if you have means for transporting cargo on the bike. Keep your bicycle in its usual place—but if you can make sure it’s resting spot won’t end up under a collapsed brick wall, you might be thankful later.
The Stuff You Won’t Need: Ammo Caches, Night Vision Goggles & Small Folding Aircraft
There are catalogs filled with prepper gear out there, and if you want to dive into that world, then go right ahead. But like most hobbies, prepping is largely about collecting shiny and expensive gear. Here’s some shiny gear you might be tempted to acquire. But I’ll tell you why it won’t be much help in a CSZ earthquake. It may be tempting to slip into “zombie apocalypse” mode when constructing a kit, but keeping your guiding philosophy grounded to the earthquake or other disaster will give you a better (and not to mention cheaper) kit in the end.
You can buy cheap two-way walkie-talkies these days, and use those without a license. You’ve likely seen these Motorola-type radios, otherwise known as “blister-pack” radios for the way they are sold off the shelf. But bear in mind, that the market is flooded with these radios, and they all use the same frequencies (typically the FRS and GMRS bands). Most also need 110 volt AC power to charge. While they may seem like a good idea, you’re probably better off learning to rely on good interpersonal communication skills with your neighbors than trying to use a walkie-talkie as a surrogate cell phone.
I’m not going to weigh in on the Second Amendment in an Earthquake Kit guide. But let me just say this: I have never seen someone shoot water to make it clean enough to drink. Nor will a modified assault rifle turn your electricity back on. Using a handgun as a flashlight… well, perhaps that’s possible, but definitely not recommended. Those are going to be the real problems of the day, post-quake. You will be thankful for every drop of drinking water you have. Every bullet, probably not.
Pre-packed Bug Out Bags
With the rise in popularity of prepper gear, there are companies offering pre-packed “bug out bags” for sale. These kits have a wide range of items, but most of the stuff in them are various kinds of knives, hatchets and machetes, stuff printed in camo colors, cheap tarps and tents, and standard first aid stuff. I found one online with a night-vision scope in it. These bags might make expensive gifts, but is unclear exactly what scenario they are planning for. Whether wilderness adventuring, trying to elude the cops in the woods, or surviving a power outage, each emergency situation has unique characteristics, and no one-apocalypse-fits-all kit is likely to be very helpful.
In a CSZ quake, bugging out is actually the opposite of what you want to do. Most aid will be coming to central areas, and the nearest intact cities outside the earthquake zone will be hundreds of miles away. You want gear that will make you more comfortable and healthy at home, not that will help you play Daniel Boone in the woods.
I grew up in New England, and in the land of ice storms, many people kept a generator in the garage for the occasional power outages. In storms with widespread damage to utility lines, electricity could be out for as long as a week, and a generator was a nice thing to have.
Not so in a CSZ quake, at least in Portland. It is quite likely that fuel will be hard to come by post-quake. Without fuel, your generator is just a heavy lump of metal. Additionally, a small generator is not very efficient, and burning gallons of gasoline so that you can plug in an table lamp just doesn’t make any sense. Larger generators will probably be set up at official clinics, shelters, and other emergency sites where power is essential. Otherwise, you are probably best sticking to batteries and flashlights.
These are a new category of gadgets that have come on the market in the last few years, often sold as camping or hiking gear. By using a thermoelectric cell, it creates electric current from high sources of heat, like a stove or small fire. The Biolite stove claims to provide 2 watts at 5 volts, via USB, which would, under ideal conditions, recharge an iPhone 6 Plus in about 7 hours and 15 minutes. That’s not too shabby--although the device does cost $130. While this might be an interesting item to watch in the future, it’s not going to form the core of an earthquake kit. By way of comparison, the nice-looking solar panel mentioned above is only $55, and charges a phone under less than a quarter of the time.
You can buy an Airbike kit for less than $3,000. This aircraft lets you cruise at 56 knots, climb 1,000 feet per minute, and consumes four gallons of fuel per hour, and you can store it in a one-car garage with room to spare. What will this do for you post-quake? Probably nothing. It’s kind of cool, and looks like fun, just like lots of camping gear and survival equipment. But that’s about it. For a disaster like a CSZ earthquake, focus on what you’ll know you’ll need, and save the fun stuff for the weekend.