How 12 Readers Prepare for Natural Disasters

“People usually don’t recover from disasters. If they’re lucky, they survive them.”

Photo illustration of first-aid supplies
The Atlantic; Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked for your thoughts on preparing for natural disasters.

Ed takes stock of his setup:

I live in the country, so I am in a better position than many others. My water comes from a naturally flowing spring, so I have unlimited water. I have a gasoline-powered generator; electricity would be available until my gas runs out (I generally keep five gallons on hand). I have three fireplaces to provide some heat and plenty of cut wood to fuel them. I believe I have enough canned goods on hand for two, maybe even three weeks.

Kacey writes from a place where four tectonic plates meet:

I am no stranger to earthquakes. They have become a relatively common occurrence in my life since moving to Japan in 2015. Fortunately, none of the quakes I’ve experienced caused serious damage or loss of life to my immediate surroundings. Unfortunately, I’ve done little more than the bare minimum to prepare for a natural disaster.

I have studied my local hazard map—I know the location of my nearest evacuation shelter; I know where the river is most likely to overrun its banks; I know which areas are ripe for soil liquefaction or where a landslide is most likely to occur. My apartment is safe from such threats. Otherwise, the only prep I’ve undertaken involved the purchase of 24 one-liter water bottles in 2020. I hear them slosh around in my trunk when I take sharp turns.

Any time an earthquake of any magnitude happens in Japan, I always tell myself, “I should be more prepared.” Yet I never do more. Nearly half of the population is similarly unprepared [according to a 2021 survey]. This lack of preparation may stem from an overconfidence in Japan’s disaster-response capability. Some may have a tough time justifying the financial cost of something they may never use; others may view disasters as a natural force about which they can do nothing.

Simply writing this response has once again stirred my motivation to go and get more prepared. Whether I actually do anything remains to be seen.

Alison recounts “the October 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake—what my friends and I called the ‘Big-Enough One’”:

I was in San Francisco and was able to walk the four or five blocks to my brother and sis-in-law’s home, where they had power because their landlord had a generator. I stayed there for several days with my cats, their cats, foster cats, and younger brother. Unfortunately I can relate to the current conditions in Syria and Turkey with respect to rescue efforts and the sense of achieving a miracle when someone is recovered alive after a few days, the likelihood of which sadly eventually fades as survivability recedes.  

The Big-Enough One occurred during Game 3 of that year’s World Series, unusually between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's; otherwise the death toll would have been much higher when part of the Bay Bridge collapsed. I subsequently moved to Montreal, in time to experience the ice storm in January of 1998; here, the problem was that many power lines were downed by heavy ice, to the point that there was literally only one power line carrying electricity into all of Montreal for several days (for the geographically challenged, Montreal is on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River).  

Had that one last power line failed, the authorities would have been facing the task of evacuating some 3 million people from the island, through several tunnels (yes, there are bridges, but they were also completely coated in ice and not navigable). In this case, my in-laws had power (because they lived next to a major hospital and were on its power grid), so we could at least get a warm shower, and our building's owner had a generator that he alternated using in our building and another one that he owned so we could warm up at home for a few hours at a time.

Neither the 1989 quake nor the ice storm affected me deeply, except in a psychological sense. I still remember the sense of wonder that I experienced after the Big-Enough One when I realized that I was no longer worried that the ground would fall out from under me when I walked outside!

Robert describes another historic earthquake:

I was living in Kathmandu, Nepal, in August of 1988 when a 6.9 earthquake hit the city. Born and raised in San Francisco, I was no stranger to seismic disturbance. But this was different; the shaking and convulsing of everything around me was terribly frightening, but it was nothing compared to the screams of the people as I heard buildings collapsing around me. Houses shaking to pieces and the cries of children in fear and pain were terrifying; I have never forgotten what this sounded like. Almost immediately, everyone who could began helping the injured, clearing away rubble, and donating to the general relief effort.

Now, fast-forward to COVID. My wife and I were living near Palm Desert in Southern California at the start of the pandemic, when suddenly people were sweeping everything off the supermarket shelves: food, toilet paper, bottled water, and every disinfectant they could get their hands on. But what scared me most was the frenzied buying of guns and ammunition. We are no strangers to gun violence, and this experience had much to do with our decision to return to Northern California.

You ask for our thoughts on how to prepare for a natural disaster and what we may have neglected. Our current level of preparation is modest: important documents, credit cards, and a small amount of cash are ready to go at a moment’s notice; we have a small stove with plenty of fuel, and food for a few days. I suppose we could store a bit more food and water, but I’m not so sure that one can be adequately prepared for every eventuality.

In a pinch, we would share what we have, and would never dream of taking someone else’s provisions. We’ll do the best we can, but one thing I know we are not prepared for is violence.

Julianne is waiting for the Big One in the Pacific Northwest:

I live in Port Angeles, Washington, which is on the top of the Olympic Peninsula. Known locally as “upper left,” the peninsula is the farthest northwest span of the lower 48 states. It’s a spectacularly beautiful landscape: snowy mountain peaks; misty, temperate rainforests; crystal-clear glacial lakes; and a teeming ocean, all anchored by the Olympic National Park. The motto of Port Angeles is appropriately “Where the mountains meet the sea.” The residents of my area are hardworking, kind, and practical people.

What’s the catch? Well, a little thing called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The CSZ is a convergent tectonic-plate boundary stretching from northern Vancouver Island to Northern California, with coastal Washington square in the middle of it. The last time the locked plates released was in 1700, long before the area was settled by white people. Evidence for the 1700 quake was preserved in Native oral histories. Geological evidence was unearthed much more recently, in the mid-1980s.

When the plates eventually slip, it’s estimated the earth will shake for five solid minutes at 9.5-plus magnitude. For comparison, the horrific recent quake in Turkey and Syria measured a 7.8 magnitude, making the one we’re expecting about 350 times stronger. When is the CSZ likely to cause another massive quake? Estimates place the risk at 37 percent in the next 50 years.

You may think that, given the recent growth in the Seattle area, local infrastructure would be designed to handle this obvious threat. However, the threat has only been recognized for a little over 30 years. There’s a lot of existing, inadequate building stock that will be replaced very slowly, if at all—especially in my community, which is not a wealthy area.  

When we were deciding where in Washington to live, I was able to do lots of research via government websites on factors like tsunami risk and soil liquefaction for given areas. It’s good that the info exists, but I know most local people really don’t want to know about their risk. Other preparations I’ve made include keeping survival supplies stashed in my car (in case I’m not home when the quake happens), as well as a month’s worth of food, water filters, and shelter supplies at my house. I hope it’s enough to help us survive an event that is likely to completely cut off our community from help for months, if not a year or more. Clearly, the priority for rescue efforts will be the very large population of Seattle (rightly), not our sleepy, isolated towns up on the edge of the country.   

I recently took a community-ed class on the CSZ at our great little community college, which made me feel justified in all my preparations. Paradoxically, the class helped me let go of a constant hum of low-level worry, and instead I’ve been able to move to a more fatalistic outlook. It’s coming; I’m fairly well prepared; not much else I can do, so why worry?

Alice lives in the Pacific Northwest, too, and wishes the government would do more to prepare for the coming earthquake:

When I retired a year or so ago, I immediately started preparing above and beyond the recommended “2 Weeks Ready” that is promoted by the state of Oregon. Overall, the preparation process has been expensive, stressful, time-consuming, and frankly a bit depressing. I am left feeling that the bulk of preparation, survival, and recovery is up to the individual. I am not in any way arguing that the “government” should step in and “rescue” citizens, and I wholeheartedly feel I need to do my part by being prepared. However, I feel that over the 40-odd years since Ronald Reagan was president, we have impaired the ability of government, both federal and state, to respond to disasters AND prevent them in the first place. In our quest to reduce the size and cost of government, we have lost sight of the need for a highly organized collective (i.e., “government”) that can respond when multistate disasters happen, as will be the case in a Cascadia event.  

I know from my own experience that preparation is time- and money-consuming. Not everyone has the ability or resources to do the necessary work to get ready. I think somewhere along the way, we the people lost sight of the idea that “we the people” are in fact “the government,” and that there is much good that we can do together. I would argue that this is the purpose of a government by and for the people: to set the conditions such that everyone has the opportunity to survive and thrive. Disaster preparedness is one area in which rugged individualism helps but will not get us individually or collectively where we need to be to survive and eventually thrive after a big event.

Doug lives on the central Oregon coast:

I have ensured my home is tied to its foundation. I have installed 800 watts of solar panels on my garage roof and as much in panels stored as replacement/auxiliary use. I have a growing number of modern lithium-ion batteries I can charge from the solar panels. I can’t run my house off this system, but I don’t need to. I need light and power for truly essential things. I have a considerable amount of camping gear (and experience) including multi-fuel stove options and a decent amount of fuel stored. I have advanced first-aid training and stored gear, and emergency food and water. I have an emergency pack for the first 72 hours of survival in my car. I am also active in the local volunteer amateur-radio group of Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS), training and standing by to aid local government(s) communicate for resources and relay information to the state government. There is no place on earth that is truly safe, and that is never more the case with the ravages of climate change. I want to be here to help my neighbors and community, thus it is incumbent upon me to be prepared myself.

Jen no longer worries about that Big One––she moved away and feels happy that she did:

We lived in the Cascadia subduction zone for 30 years, and we always had to have an earthquake plan. We never had earthquake insurance, and our joke was that if there was a big earthquake, we’d just leave the gas turned on and a candle burning and run like hell. Eventually we set up a disaster-recovery kit that would allow us to live outside for a few weeks. We built a backyard shed and stored all of our camping gear, several tote boxes of food, and about 100 gallons of drinking water. The whole thing had to be broken down and replaced regularly—the water each year, and the food every three years or so. We also had pry bars, axes, and other hand tools stored where we could get them in the event the house collapsed. It was a headache and an expense, and while the risk of a major subduction-zone quake was not the only reason we decided to leave the area, it did factor into our decision.

We now live on the other side of the state in a rural area that is not wooded, so there is little wildfire danger. The climate change risk is low too—no risk of being underwater here, and our water sources aren’t dependent on rainfall. Not everybody has the flexibility to just up and move out of danger zones, but if you are thinking of moving for retirement or other reasons that aren’t job- or family-dependent, I highly recommend factoring in climate-change risk and disaster risk when you make up your wish list of places you want to explore. I didn’t realize what a chronic low-level worry it was until it wasn’t lurking there all the time.

EH muses on denial:

I have lived in California for all of my 77 years and I know what having the earth move under your feet feels like. The ground becomes like water and the shockwaves can make one feel seasick, as if standing in a dinghy that has been swamped by a passing speed boat. If you are up in a tall building, the steel and concrete actually sways, jumps, and cracks as you hold your breath waiting for it all to tumble down. Fortunately, I have not actually personally experienced real damage or injuries from any earthquake I have felt.

Yet, despite knowing the destructive power and killing potential of a large quake, I take only minimal precautions: strapping my water heater to the wall, having extra flashlights and some water reserves. I hope help will come from the rest of you if we suffer the Big One.

I sometimes say to myself what fools others are to live in flood zones or coastal areas that get hurricanes, or in the infamous tornado alley, not to mention the fire-prone and drought-plagued West; oh yeah, I live in San Diego, but it won’t happen to my neighborhood.

It is called denialism, and we all suffer from it in some form.

The biggest manifestation of denialism in the history of the Earth is our collective denial of global warming. This is a slow-moving natural disaster that could end human life.

Earl lives in the path of the occasional hurricane:

Here on the Gulf Coast, they’re inevitable, like blizzards in Buffalo and earthquakes in California. We prepare for the next storm with a new roof, knowing that even if it withstands winds, insurance rates will eventually go through it as repeat storms get more frequent due to climate change. Nevertheless, we stay.

We stay because of historical, social, psychological, financial, and familial inertia; it’s home; it’s where the heart and the family are. We trust the engineers and builders who construct bigger and better storm barriers and drainage systems. There is less trust in the power grid; more and more homes get whole-house generators, expensive but reassuring that the nightmare of evacuation and return won’t be necessary. We will ride out the storm with full power. At least we hope so.

Anna hunkers down in stormy weather:

Hurricanes may be the least-worst natural disaster because you can prepare, and you generally have decent advanced warning to make those preparations or decide to evacuate. I live on the Gulf Coast in Florida, so hurricane prep is an annual tradition. The major guiding principle: You can hide from the wind but you have to run from the water.

I don’t live in a flood zone, and I live in a house built to modern codes. I’ve had the big trees removed that could fall on the house. I don’t have any special needs that require uninterrupted electric service. So I have the luxury of hunkering down and riding out a hurricane.

Every year when the season cranks up, I make sure I have plenty of nonperishable food and basic supplies on hand, and I don’t stock up too heavily on perishables. I keep fillable water bottles on hand just in case, but historically, my municipal water and sewer services operate fine during and after storms. The most important prep for me is to reach out to my neighbors and make sure they are prepared, that we all know where everyone will be, and we are ready to help each other in the aftermath of cleanup and outages.

With all that in place, my experience with hurricanes is that there is a big damn mess to clean up outside, but otherwise it’s like camping out in my house. Newbies often don’t know what to expect and succumb to the hype. Panicky behavior makes it harder to prepare and to get through it and to recover afterward. Lots of people don’t have the resources to adequately prepare or to evacuate for a hurricane, and that’s a serious problem, but my city/county/state does a lot of outreach and assistance for those folks. Preparation, experience, and (most importantly) community is what gets you through it.

Bob was a Los Angeles Times staff photographer and has seen it all:

I’ve covered so many disasters I don’t know where to start. I’ve also suffered from PTSD, having spent too much time around people who have lost everything. I covered the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, the Painted Cave Fire in Santa Barbara, and another conflagration that burned homes in Malibu. I covered the Great Midwestern Flood in 1993, the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, and the Marines’ invasion of Somalia.

And after I retired, I volunteered for the Red Cross, where the most knowledgeable staffers at the Los Angeles regional headquarters quietly predicted in 2014 that there would be food riots in Los Angeles starting three days after the Big One. I quit the Red Cross after taking photos and video of an EF-5 tornado in Smithville, Mississippi, covered the flood on the Mississippi right after that, then went to the EF-5 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and then Hurricane Irene.

After that, I needed two stents.

I’m 76 now and enjoying life, although I’m getting a hip transplant in two weeks. I live on a hill in Thousand Oaks, California. A few years ago we had a mass shooting at an upscale country-and-western bar featuring line dancing. A few days later, we had a brush fire that burned around the edges of the housing tracts and then headed into more rarified real estate in Malibu. My wife and I ended up sleeping in cars parked in a mall parking lot.

Our house made it through, so we were lucky.

I don’t have many brilliant observations. The problem with disasters is the one thing they are good at is ruining people’s lives. People usually don’t recover from disasters. If they’re lucky, they survive them.

I photographed a guy in Smithville who was walking around what was left of his house as he talked to his wife. He kept telling her it was all gone. Gone it was, with a half a bedroom left. So was his boat. In the Loma Prieta earthquake, I photographed a woman who was dazed, standing in front of her house. It was a beautiful old wooden mansion, but it was askew. She told me that that Sunday, she’d had a $400,000 mortgage on a $600,000 home. After the quake, she had a $400,000 mortgage.

In Malibu, in the middle of what was some of the most expensive real estate in the country, I saw a woman going through the wreckage of her home on a hillside overlooking the ocean. I asked if I could take her picture and she said yes. Fifteen minutes later, I thanked her. “Oh, no,” she said, “you can’t leave me.” So I stood there while she cried and she talked and she cried and she talked. “Okay,” she said after a while. “You can go now.” She probably rebuilt her home and came as close as you can to recovering. The one percent recover from disasters. Most disaster survivors simply don’t.

Ken knows what song he’ll be singing when the end is nigh:

My notion of “Disaster Planning” derives from my experience of the Cold War while living in the Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C., within a triangle defined by the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA. Instantaneous nuclear annihilation was akin to auto exhaust: in the air, invisible, all the time— an accepted condition of life. While some wackos prepared to survive in well-stocked bunkers, while the Federal Government fantasized about survival in a string of underground facilities in a line running south from the city, I lived with the acceptance and understanding that at any moment I could be flashed from life to ash.

For a while I taught risk-management methodologies for federal contractors executing IT systems and software contracts. Therefore, I have the tools and techniques to identify, categorize, evaluate, and plan to mitigate knowable risks such as those that might befall me and my household: extended utility outages, wider physical destruction from severe weather, sea-level rise, economic collapse, civil war, etc. But I don’t bother with a personal-risk-management process.

One can always place blame on their parents. From a very early age, my mother (a closet existentialist) serenaded me with the chorus of a once popular song: “Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera.”