Last September my family, friends, community and I lived through what has now been classified as one of the worst natural disasters in California history: The Valley Fire.
The fire made the international news. Our entire town was a hazmat site, approximately 2,000 homes and businesses were lost and Harbin Hot Springs, a healing retreat, sanctuary and home for thousands of people, was reduced to a pile of ash. There are no words for the grief I’ve experienced. There are no words to tell you how special that place–and the people in it–was to me.
At the time of this writing, wild fires continue to ravage Northern California. My friend and the community are once again actively evacuating their homes. Someone just reported on Facebook that there was also an earthquake 25 miles away. They’re scared. I don’t blame them.
You may remember from my posts a couple years back that I was searching for a new place to call home. I was also looking for specific things: nature, tranquility, movement, orgasm, bonding, play, sleep, and attention, I travelled up and down the west coast of North America, drove over 7,000 miles, visited many friends, had some crazy experiences and eventually ended up settling in a place I’ve felt comfortable since first setting foot there back in 2010: Middletown, California, the home of Harbin Hot Springs. I had found what I was looking for. I got busy settling into a new, simplified life with my two children in a small, mountain town, in a small townhouse a block away from the town center. By July of 2014, I was working at Harbin doing all kinds of crazy, awesome things, had made some wonderful connections and friends, knew all my neighbors, got to soak in one of the best hot springs in the world for free, was receiving free massages on a regular basis and was quite content. Actually, that’s an understatement. I was blissful.
A little over a year later, on a normal Saturday morning with no advance warning, Harbin and Middletown were suddenly…gone. All this happened in just a couple of hours. We weren’t evacuated or notified. We didn’t even know a fire had started. Many of us had gone away for the weekend, never to see our homes again. I was at the hospital with my youngest son, who had a ruptured appendix. Most of us were unable to get back to our homes to grab even the most basic of necessities.
Even though wildfires were raging in the surrounding area, none of us were really prepared. I’d like to tell you I’ve come up with a definitive guide for surviving and thriving during a disaster, but nothing can really prepare you for the loss of loved ones, all your worldly possessions, your job, your pets, your sanctuary, your community and your false sense of security. There are some things you can do in advance, but most of us are dangerously underprepared—even when we think we aren’t. (Here’s looking at you Preppers.)
I refuse to live in fear. I’m prepared for the worst in a different sort of way now. No, I don’t have an underground lair full of weapons and stockpiles of food. I actually don’t have much and am truly mobile in a way I’ve never been before. I’ve learned the lesson of impermanence and that material possessions are…immaterial. I’ve seen some incredible acts of courage, generosity and love and some hideous acts of greed, insanity and depravity. I am experiencing and witnessing the after effects of grief and post traumatic stress on a community-wide level. Nothing could have prepared us for what we went through, and no blog post is going to teach you the life lessons required to shrug something like this off. There are, however, some things I picked up along the way that are good to know.
Because, as I’m writing this, my friends are actively evacuating. Again. And last week, my best friend in Tucson, Arizona called me to tell her that her house had flooded during a monsoon. Her husband is deployed. She was out until midnight digging trenches in the yard. Her home office and kitchen were both destroyed in a matter of hours. Things are getting crazy out there, folks. If you feel 100% safe and secure, you’re a fool. Your house, your things, your car, your life–it could all be gone in an instant. Besides natural disasters, there are personal disasters to consider. I’m not saying to stay up at night worrying that something bad could happen. That is not going to serve anyone. Instead, let’s get positive: we’re going to start thinking differently so we know what to do in an emergency. We’re going to get prepared in a realistic way. A way that will serve you should your world fall down around you.
Are You Ready?
Let’s play a game. Here are the rules: You are lucky enough to have access to your home and you have FIVE whole minutes to grab everything you can before you have to evacuate. You must get those things outside and into the car—piled up in front of the door doesn’t count. Don’t think about it—just set a timer starting NOW and grab what you can. I’ll wait.
What did you get? Your wallet or purse? Your important documents? Did the timer go off while you were rifling through the filing cabinet looking for your passports? Did you remember the reusable water bottles? The first aid kit? Changes of clothes? Your prescription medications? Scratch that, did you get socks? Didn’t think of socks, did you? What about your pets? Your childhood mementos? Make an inventory of everything you were able to actually get outside to your car and imagine that is now all you have in this world. No matter how prepared you thought you were, I bet you’re pretty disappointed with what you were able to grab. There will always be something you forgot.
Did you spend the whole five minutes trying to capture the cat? If so, I hope you remembered the cat carrier. No? Then your cat is now clawing and/or spraying the leather interior of your car, which is dangerously low on gas. Hopefully you have enough in the tank to get you to safety. If not, you and the cat (sans carrier) are hoofing it through the burning forest, with your wallet, your phone (no charger), your laptop, a 6-week supply of water and a box of pictures of your grandparents. Happy trails to you, my friend.
We could play again, this time with a 10 minute deadline, or even an hour, but the results will be horribly similar. There is just no way to save everything. There is no way to think of everything, especially under that sort of pressure. It’s my intention in this series to have you do some thinking now, and to change the way you think about what you would do in an emergency. I would also like you to start thinking differently about what an emergency actually is. We’ve been watching too many post-apocalyptic zombie shows. Real life is different.
Most of us who think we’re prepared for a disaster are in actuality, somewhat ill-prepared for an apocalyptic-type disaster. Although I think that society is going to hell in a hand basket, the chance of a complete societal collapse in the next six months is somewhat slim. Stockpiles of food and water, even weapons, are useless if you are facing a natural disaster and can’t get them out of the house. They’re useless even if you do get them out of the house. Let’s face it, the chances of a natural disaster so great it destroys every store on the continent are…well, the chances are we’d all be dead instantaneously, so there’s no need to prepare for or to fear something like that. What is much more likely to occur is an isolated event. Once you’ve left the evacuation area, there will be Walmarts, McDonalds and chlorinated water foundations in abundance. Your water treatment system will be useless. So will the fire starter, the MREs and the 16 pounds of ammunition, unless you’re going to really rough it in a Motel 6 instead of springing for a nicer room.
If you live in the country, chances are you have a vehicle and you will be in it. You’ll start driving and eventually you’ll get to a town. There will be no need for any of your post-apocalyptic survival supplies there, either. (If you choose to shelter in place, that is an entirely different matter. I’ll be discussing sheltering in place in an upcoming post.)
So, what do you need to survive your own personal apocalypse? One where the rest of the world still continues to turn and consume but your world has been turned inside out? What do you grab, if you’re lucky enough to have five minutes alone with your things? If I could go back and do it all again, this is what I would do.
Survival Tip #1:
If you only have a few minutes to get stuff, grab the dirty laundry baskets. Chances are there’s enough underwear, clothes that fit you and things you regularly wear in there to last at least a week. There’s also a good chance a lot of your favorites are in there, too.
People are going to be asking you what you need. You won’t know. But if you have a pile of dirty laundry, you can send them to the laundromat.
Do NOT keep your important documents in a filing cabinet or a fireproof safe. In the event of a quick evacuation, you will not be able to carry it and you’ll waste precious time finding the stuff you really need. Instead, get different colored bins that stack. Keep all important identity paperwork in the most brightly colored one and put it on the top of the stack. In the event that someone else has to grab stuff for you, you can tell them “Grab the red bin.”
Stack the bins in order of importance. Grab the ones on the top first. If you’re lucky, you’ll have time to get them all. If not, you’ve got the most important things. Everything else is replaceable.
People we knew that had their important documents in fireproof safes regretted it. The fire was so hot everything inside the safe caught on fire. Some families kept their life savings—in cash—inside fireproof safes. Poof! Just like it never existed. The safe itself, however, was fireproof. This was remarkable considering even the ovens vaporized, but was small consolation to those who had left the safes behind thinking they would be…well, safe.
Survival Tip #2:
Start wearing your favorite clothes everyday. Start today. What are you saving them for? Why are you going out wearing sweat pants and an old tank top you sometimes wear to bed when you could be wearing that fabulous dress that flatters you with the matching shoes? Take a look at what you’re wearing now. If this was the only outfit you had left, would you be happy with it? If the answer is no, then go and change.
I really wish I had organized my clothes better. My boyfriend grabbed a couple things from the house for me and, although I was grateful, none of the things he retrieved were things I particularly liked, or even wore. If I had a “favorites” drawer, I could have directed him to that.
Your homework for tonight is to collect all your important documents and to scan them into your computer. Then, upload them to the Cloud and to at least one family member you trust. I’ll be back tomorrow with more tips, lessons and advice. Hopefully your world doesn’t end tonight. But if it does, grab the dirty laundry and hit the road.