As the state of Texas endures a week of blackouts, extreme cold, and water that's not safe to drink—not to mention fuel shortages and endless lines for groceries—the rest of the country might feel a bit superior. Surely we (and our larger, more flexible power grids) could never end up in such a situation, right?
Not quite. No part of the country is safe from extreme weather and disasters, and residents of the Pacific Northwest especially should know there may be no warning. Remember the Big One? "An earthquake is the big bad around here," says Kate Hutton, communications coordinator for Seattle's Office of Emergency Management. Her office also preps for flooding and landslides, snowstorms, air quality issues from wildfires, and volcano eruptions. Oh and public health crises, but we're all experts on that by now.
An emergency, Hutton says, "is anything that outstrips the resources you have available." We may not have to worry about frozen pipes (probably, unless The Day After Tomorrow turns out to be a documentary), but broken pipes in a major earthquake could disrupt clean water delivery for months.
Seattle's Office of Emergency Management has a section of its website called "Prepare Yourself"—it notes not only personal checklists but how communities can ready for a communications blackout (like one resident with a radio who's ready to share info door to door). King County has a whole range of disaster tips—from what to do with septic tank systems during power outages and floors to where you can find hidden water stashes in your house.
Personally, my response to the great Texas freeze has been twofold: First, donating to mutual aid organizations that are helping people survive. Then I'm sprucing up my own preparedness kit. We can't blame Texans for not foreseeing Antarctic conditions—hello, infrastructure issues—but maybe we can increase our own ability to help out neighbors when a uniquely PNW disaster strikes.
Here's my personal prepper to-do list:
As a hardcore backpacker, my emergency plan has always been to haul ass to the Volunteer Park ponds with my MSR Guardian—the Rolls-Royce of water filters, made by Sodo's Cascade Designs. The company brags that it "meets NSF protocol P248, testing standard used by U.S. military, for removal of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and sediment from 'worst-case' water conditions," which probably describes Capitol Hill puddles after we go Mad Max. But you know what's simpler? A few gallon jugs of water from the grocery store.
Here again is where Seattle's outdoorsiness could come in useful: Many Seattle folks have a few freeze-dried meals tucked into the back of our closets. Costco sells a 15-pouch box of Mountain House dehydrated food that will last for 30 years, which is about how long it'll take for me to master hunting and farming my own food.
Never underestimate how clutch a few flashlights will be when things go dark—especially during DIY home repair in tight corners.
This used to means some extra AAs; these days it's a power bank for cell phones, which might be able to access service even as other communications are down. And we'd never want to miss a chance to dunk on Ted Cruz online.
Medications. Cash. Pet food. Listen, I may starve after I've exhausted my personal supply of gummy bears and that's fine, but my dog better not go hungry.
Beyond the kit, skills are key as well. Know how to shut off your own water (in the case of flooding) and avoid carbon monoxide poisoning; the OEM and King County sites have notes on that as well. During the pandemic, the OEM will do preparedness trainings over Zoom, and it hosts a YouTube channel with useful info.
The key, says Hutton, is just talking to others—family, neighbors—beforehand. "Having those tough conversations ahead of time can make reacting way less stressful," she says. And now that my dog and I have discussed where the emergency Snausages are kept, I do feel a lot better.