WHEN TIMES GET TOUGH, my strategy is generally denial. Then last October my family and I traveled to Cinque Terre, the quintet of medieval villages clinging to the rocky shore of the Italian Mediterranean. One day in the town of Vernazza, in the space of a restaurant lunch, the cloudburst outside swelled into a flash flood.
We gaped through the windows as startling rain—20 inches in three hours—made white-water rapids of Vernazza’s cobbled main street. A hardy soul tried to leave and was back within moments; the fastest water I’d ever seen was sweeping away everything in its path. With mounting horror we and our fellow captives watched as water began to pour in under the door and rise. We stood on chairs, then climbed on tables. Water licked our shins and our knees and kept rising. Amid memories of New Orleanians drowning in their attics, my husband and daughter and I were gasping our I love yous and making plans to break a window and swim for it when the restaurant staff was finally able to wrench the ancient grate off a vent near the ceiling and we crawled to higher ground.
As we shivered in the village tower that night, tourist refugees wrapped in tablecloths, my husband held us close and murmured the question every disaster survivor ultimately confronts. “We do have an emergency kit at home, right?”
Uh…well, as a matter of fact, no.
Does knowing something is desperately stupid make it less so? Pretty sure it doesn’t. Flash floods aren’t a prime worry in our part of the world—but earthquakes are. Seattle occupies a famously seismic area, situated astraddle one fault and just inland from a subduction zone that has wrought monstrous upheavals every 300 to 900 years. This is year 312. And it’s March, the month when two of the four biggest earthquakes in U.S. history jolted the North Pacific.
Japan’s devastating quake a year ago this month was but another reminder of an instruction so basic and endlessly looped, no citizen of the Pacific Northwest can reasonably claim to have missed it: Make an earthquake preparedness kit. I can even recite what goes in it: three days’ worth of food and water, a first-aid kit, tools, hygiene necessities, a change of clothes, medicine, copies of important documents, $300 in small bills. I know to keep thick-rubber-soled shoes by our beds and our family’s out-of-state emergency contact in our wallets.
So why haven’t I done any of this? Why has hardly anyone I know done any of this? Fifty-six percent of Seattleites have most—well, some—of this stuff around the house, just not consolidated into a container and packed in an accessible place, according to a King County survey five years ago. As to why, JoAnn Jordan, a Seattle Office of Emergency Management public education officer, credits my old pal denial. The fact is, Jordan insists, recent U.S. earthquakes have been relatively survivable. As natural disasters go.
Great news, right? Yeah—till you start planning for it, at which point a tragic death seems so refreshingly simple. When we got back from Italy, my husband and I, newly motivated, dug with gusto into researching emergency supplies. Now—four months, three scare-your-ass-off apocalyptic websites, two spreadsheets, one “difference of opinion” (Are you kidding that we need a $700 generator?), one estimate of $3,000 (and its concurrent wifely freak-out) later—we’re as unprepared as when we started. Turns out the mental mix of high stakes, low urgency, and situational uncertainty is not a recipe for swift, decisive action. Water filter or purification tablets? Rolling suitcase in the front closet, which the house could collapse on, or metal trash container in the side yard, which rats and mold could infiltrate? It’s not denial that’s keeping people from preparing. It’s analysis paralysis.
And so our need to act propelled us to the Costco website, to buy one of its ready-made emergency kits. Cabela’s near Lacey undoubtedly has more survival gear, but Cabela’s on its best day takes me a little too psychically close to a cave in Idaho, living off the grid with a homemade toilet and a squirrel cookbook. Shopping the Costco site was merely a little more existential than it usually is.
As I weighed the merits of the American Preparedness Emergency Backpack Kit and the Relief Pod 159-Piece Emergency Kit Bundle, I noted among the antibiotic ointments and fire-starter packs that one of them included a coloring book with crayons. How savvy of these folks to understand that keeping children occupied is essential to how a parent defines survival. I thought back to the 11 or so hours we spent in that Vernazza tower and what our daughter would’ve given right then for a pen and paper. What any of us would have, just to distract ourselves from the terror of our uncertainty.
And then, right there at my computer, I started to cry.
There are reasons, understandable ones like denial and information overload, which keep us from preparing for the unthinkable. But surely the main reason is just that: It’s unthinkable. Once you go there, really go there, raw fear seeps in. That day I ordered the biggest damn emergency kit I could find; when it arrived I chucked it unopened into my front hall closet. I know, I know—it’s missing some critical items. Since denial’s one of them I figure I’m on the right track.