Have you ever noticed how often San Francisco has been the setting for lurid cinematic disasters? I personally have watched my fair city attacked by Godzilla, aliens, zombies, brain-enhanced apes, cyborgs, a giant octopus, a Bond villain, the Body Snatchers, biological weapons, and the Incredible Hulk, to say nothing of floods, fires, and of course, earthquakes. I used to think these were harmless entertainment films, creating outlandish fantasy scenarios to give us thrills to spice up our humdrum lives. But nowadays I’m wondering if Hollywood was actually making training films to prepare us for the times we’re facing now.
As I write this, the West Coast is being ravaged by wildfires at an unprecedented scale. Friends of mine have been forced to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, racing out the door minutes before their neighborhood was engulfed by flames. Last week, the utility company sent me a postcard warning that we could be next and urging us to prepare a plan and assemble emergency supplies. Yikes!
“We’re prepared, right?“ I said to Rich. “We bought that kit after we were evacuated during the floods.” We’d talked about buying one even before that, following some small earthquakes, but it took an evacuation-level event to remind us that Mother Nature is nothing to be trifled with or ignored, especially in California.
With natural disasters on the rise, American manufacturers have been quick to leap on the marketing opportunities; around here, retail outlets are bristling with kits guaranteed to make fleeing for your life a bit more comfortable and convenient. We’d picked up one of these kits and hung it in the toolshed two years ago; by now we were a bit hazy on precisely what it contained.
“Maybe we should haul it out and take a look,” I said.
The first aid kit contained little more than band-aids, aspirin, and moist towelettes. The MayDay emergency food rations were rock-hard slabs of white flour, sugar, and palm oil. I supposed eating them would better than foraging in the rubble for edible weeds or attempting to snare wild animals in the park, but only just.
“Rich, we have to up our game.”
I consulted a friend who lives in a nearby town. “As you know, we’re on the top of a hill,” she said. “We’ve joined together with our nearest neighbors, five of whom are doctors. Two families own generators, and we all chipped in for rolling carts to hold the medical kits and food supplies …” Obviously, our best move in any emergency would be to walk to her house. But she and her husband travel a lot, and it would be just my luck if they were out of town at the time of the tsunami/giant shark attack/zombie apocalypse. No, Rich and I had to figure out our own plan and assemble our own supplies.
So we bought a rolling cart and looked up survival medical supplies and the best foods to stockpile in an emergency. It’s a work in progress, but so far we’ve collected some handy tools, maps, and of course, duct tape. On Tuesday I bought peanut butter, nuts, chocolate, and canned food that looked considerably more palatable than the MayDay rations (admittedly a low bar). When I mentioned to the store clerk that I was stocking my emergency kit, he said, “Ah, so, you felt that earthquake yesterday?”
Yes, with the irony for which God is so justly famous, right in the middle of our disaster-preparedness efforts, I’d lain down for a siesta, only to be tossed into the air by my own bed. It wasn’t a major quake, just 3.64 on the Richter scale, but the epicenter was fairly close, the force strong enough to make me leap to my feet, heart pounding, wondering if this was the Big One.
Not to keep you in suspense, it wasn’t, and the sales clerk and I spent a few moments counting that blessing. Then he looked over my purchases and said, “What, no bottle of wine?”
“Too bulky,” I said. “We’re taking gin. Or as my husband calls it, ‘vitamin G.’”
Collecting supplies is a good start, but the real question is where to go if (when?) a disaster forces us from our home. I’m hoping Rich and I will be together, the phone system won’t go down, and our car will have a full tank of gas. But I’m not counting on any of that; see the above paragraph about God and irony. Should Rich be elsewhere in our only car, I need to be prepared to evacuate alone, on foot, without phone service. After many hours and glasses of wine, we determined that our rendezvous point would be a hotel near the ferry port and relatively close to the train station. It’s 4.7 miles from our cottage, and according to Google maps, I should be able to walk there, hauling the rolling cart, in about an hour and a half.
It should take that long, but as anyone who’s ever watched a disaster movie knows, there will be surprises and obstacles, from brushfires to buildings toppled across the road to marauding bandits who, not having prepared their own emergency kits, will want to steal mine. Under such circumstances, many a plucky disaster heroine has saved herself by carrying a weapon, but so far our kit contains nothing more lethal than a steak knife and Rich’s 12-in-One Utility Tool. But that’s OK because let’s face it, if I am required to engage in hand-to-hand combat, I’m unlikely to emerge the winner. I’ll just have to sacrifice my peanut butter and MayDay bars to save myself.
As a die-hard optimist, I find it difficult to believe this kind of craziness will ever become my reality. But then, I’ve been surprised by a lot of impossible things lately. And I don’t want to be one of those clueless characters who dies in the first reel because they didn’t have the common sense to back away when they saw Godzilla approaching the Golden Gate Bridge. I’m preparing for the worst, hoping for the best, and keeping my fingers crossed that our new, improved emergency kit continues to gather dust in the toolshed for many years to come.
How prepared are you for emergencies and disasters? Share your tips, ideas, and concerns below!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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