Sunday, April 10, 2011

Being a Mom in the Midst of Catastrophe

One of our Power of Moms board members, Melanie Vilburn, is currently living in Japan with her family.  I asked her to share her experience from the recent earthquake with me so I could post it here on my blog.

Catastrophes can happen anywhere on the earth, and whether it's earthquakes (like here in Southern California), hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, fires, or some other disaster, our families can do some key things to prepare.

Here's what Melanie has to say:

It seemed like a normal afternoon.  We live in Japan, so frequent, mild earthquakes are not uncommon.  I was up in my room when this one began.  As usual, I prayed to know if it was one to worry about or not.  Since we moved here in 2006, the answers back have always been, “It’s okay.  Don’t worry.”  So, as they subside, I’ll calmly go on with my day.  However, this time, the answer was different.  I was to listen to my husband’s voice.  Then, suddenly my husband’s voice called, “Everyone, leave the house NOW!”

I grabbed the baby.  The quake grew stronger.  I pin-balled down the stairs.  By the time I reached the entryway, the earth was rocking and swaying so hard it was all I could do to keep going.  The front door was open wide, so I focused outside on my family.  Muddy water shot up as tall as me from all around the base of our house.  I scrambled through it the best I could.  The neighborhood lurched every which direction.  Mud started filling the yard everywhere and running down our pathway.

At the street, my husband directed us towards the park.  It was just one house away, yet it took such effort to stride there because the ground and our steps were completely out of sync.  I looked up and saw the swinging power lines over head and the street lights were jarring to and fro.

At the park, we found a place free of over hanging electrical wires.  However, there was a very tall pole with City Hall “announcement speakers” at its top.  It towered above the park’s trees.  As it wobbled, I nervously kept my eyes on it.  Although my 13 year old daughter, Sarah (who we wouldn’t see again until three days later), was down in Tokyo, the rest of us quickly knelt in family prayer.

When I looked over, the ground just a few feet to my right, was splitting apart.  The split suddenly ran through one third of the long park.  As it widened, it became a two-foot wide gap.  Then mud starting pouring out of it.  I started scooting away.  However, I found there was no where else to go except tighter together.  I noticed the ground itself, except for the small circle where we knelt, began rolling in waves. The cement pathway and the street to our left starting cracking and banging and shifting.  Two pieces of playground equipment started to slowly sink into the gap.  The earthquake kept rolling and kept growing bigger.  I think this is about when I started to prayerfully cry and moan, hoping especially the people in the epicenter were alright.

When the massive earthquake stopped, aftershocks started following.  Since we live in a sheltered bay, my husband mentioned tidal waves tend to follow as well.  So, he quickly ran to get our van.  I waited with the kids while he drove over.  Thankfully, our vehicle had been pre-packed with 72 hour kits and emergency water.

After he parked, my husband checked his iPhone.  Years before, he had worked doing investments with catastrophe reinsurance companies and had bookmarked their website.  The website reports earthquakes and other disasters world-wide.  Within minutes one can know where they happened and what their magnitudes were.  We were shocked.  The earthquake’s epicenter had been no where near us.  It had been in northern Japan.  If it had been this bad here, how much MORE horrible must it have been there?  And who would have known it was only the beginning of three major catastrophes that were going to befall Japan.

So, April Perry asked me to write an article up about what people can do to prepare for such big, unexpected emergencies.  First, I recommend not living near the coastline.  Secondly, don’t live near a nuclear plant.  And third, prioritize preparing for emergencies that are possibilities for your area.

The first two suggestions are fairly easy to do something about if you’re renting.  If you’re not, you will have to be more creative in your decision making.  Property values can go down rapidly after large-scale emergencies.  I do suggest living by a grocery store and getting carbon filters for your water supply-double check it, of course, but carbon filters are said to work to clear up radioactive iodine.

Considering the third suggestion, it’s vital to keep in mind some catastrophes are so huge, even if you are prepared, there may be nothing you can do once they happen.  However, if you are prepared (to the best of your ability) there will be peace of mind that will accompany you.
Some examples:  I see people here that either work for or give donations to organizations that help communities recover after things such as earthquakes.  If, for example, you’ve volunteered for or given to reputable organizations, you can know your conscience will not be hurting if a violent earthquake should happen to you.  Whereas, someone who knew they could have, but didn’t, will face some regret for those missed opportunities.  It’s important to teach your children to volunteer and give to valid organizations too.  Help them build “muscle memory” for helping and giving.
There are people who prioritize and store up food, water, and other “essential items.”  These tend to vanish from stores after catastrophes.  There are websites you can visit that recommend and/or sell, as well as help calculate, what a person’s family-needs are.   (See  Taste test what you buy before bulk buying it.  You’ll also have to research and practice how to cook, store, and cope with what you purchase.  That becomes essential “muscle memory” though!

Know, depending on how much is stored, if a family's hope is to glorify God, they’ll be able to serve their communities following huge disasters in wonderful, hope-giving ways.  Also, if you had storage before the emergency, you’ll have better peace of mind regarding what others give you if the emergency wipes away what you had.
Basic 72-hour kits fit well under seats in vehicles, along with a couple other “must have items.”  It’s also wise to prepare additional 72 hour backpacks to keep in one’s house.  They can contain such things as spare clothes, kid games, extra toilet paper, as well as extra portable water filters, just to name a few.
Most importantly, learn how to calm yourself.  God can talk to you then.
Lastly, do drills.  I CANNOT emphasize “muscle memory” building drills enough.  Time them.  Find your weak areas through them and then work to make them strong.

And here's Part 2:

After checking the earthquake tracking site, my husband announced our sheltered bay would only have a 2 meter tidal wave at most.  He also explained there were three levels of tidal wave alerts.  Level one, yellow, is for around 1 meter.  It means there’s really not much to worry about, but be careful  Level two, orange, is the alert our bay had been given.  It means do not go to the beach.  Level three, red, is for three meters or more and means evacuate immediately.  The bay area where we live is surrounded by a giant 30 ft. wall, so we knew it would be sufficient in handling two meters.
Some countries don’t have sufficient systems in place to sound an alert, yet, for the most part, Japan uses alarm speakers to forewarn its citizens to get to higher ground ASAP!  All along the eastern coastline, the website showed red, a level 3 alert.  We had no idea what time the tidal wave would hit, yet Chris and I mutually exhaled, “OK, good!  At least they’ve got a system to get the alert out, PHEW!”  Relieved, our panic subsided so we brought our family back to the house. 

When we got there, my husband turned the gas line off.  Then it became obvious the foundation was now tilting.  Soon after that, we discovered the phone lines weren’t working.  Then it became evident the toilets weren’t flushing and the tap water was no longer running.  Overhead, helicopters were flying around all over and taking notes of the damage.  We also learned a nearby oil refinery had caught on fire. 

After that, my memories start to blur.  I know during that time my husband and our second and third oldest kids went out to help our neighbors dig mud out from around and under their vehicles.  Amidst watching our little ones and doing an inspection of what food storage and water resources we currently had, I kept trying to call our 13 year old who was stranded down in Tokyo.  The phone lines were useless though.  We found out the train lines were also not working.  Many roads and bridges, we’d find out later, were out too.  When we finally contacted our daughter later that evening through email, it was such a relief.  From there, we somehow arranged for her to stay in Tokyo with some of our friends.  Three days later we were so glad she was finally back! 

One thing I’d overlooked during the inspection of our emergency storage was that I’d moved our refilled water bottles out to the garden shed the last summer.  Just before remembering, and just as I set to the task of making dinner, I, out of habit, thoughtlessly over-squirted a dish with TONS of dish soap and then reached over to turn on the kitchen faucet.  As dry air came out of the faucet, I looked down at the beef blood.  Suddenly I was so overwhelmed I just needed to bawl.  I knew we needed to carefully ration our drinking water for things like dishes and hand washing.  

Luckily, my husband was there beside me.  He’s been my greatest asset through this.  He had been a missionary back during the Kobe Japan Earthquake in 1995.  For him this was old hat.  I don’t know what I would have done without him!  So we prayed together for strength and it was then that I remembered the bottles out in the shed. 

Back during an emergency preparedness class, I’d learned to refill large, purified water bottles with tap water just in case of emergencies.  Old tap water can be used for washing dishes and hands.  It’s also good for rinsing out things like opened cans of tuna.  It’s amazing how many things we use water for.

Plain water, itself, isn’t something people here in Japan drink very much of.  Mostly they drink green tea or mugicha, a wheat tea.  However, Japanese people do tend to leave heated water in their bathtubs for soaking in.  It serves a dual purpose, the other being some sort of water resource in emergencies.  In fact, that was one of the things all the neighbors were going around making lists of, “Who here has water in their tub?”  As Americans we don’t tend to keep our tubs perpetually filled with soap-free water to soak in.  I suddenly felt an awful large twang of remorse for not having adopted that tradition here.  So...we weren’t able to list that as a resource, yet we were able to hand out purified drinking water, but it’s better to have other options for washing dishes and hands with.  So, if you feel awkward perpetually keeping your bathtub full, if you have a shed or a spare cabinet or even a barn, storing up tap water is very wise.  It’s also very sanity promoting to store wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and paper ware.  

Luckily we also had those bags you can insert into your toilet and the odor-reducing sprinkle kits that go with them.  They are not fun to tie and dispose of though and then where can such things be stored?  It left visions of our entire community starting to smell like a medieval village.   When we found out we would still have trash service three times a week, we were ecstatic!  As I’m writing this, though, it’s been 4 weeks since the earthquake and, still, part of our neighborhood, including the school, has its sewer and water out, and gas has only recently returned.  Several neighborhoods throughout our town are still in this situation.  So, in other words, if you’re going to buy bags and sprinkle kits, get plenty.
We discovered when your family is out digging the neighborhoods free of mud, day after day, dirty clothes start accumulating, as well as thickly caked boots, gloves, and coats.  When those days turn into weeks, you can imagine...  Our entryway didn’t just turn into a momentary piling place, but a long term mooring place, for all kinds of filthy clothing.  It didn’t help that our dryer broke down the morning before the earthquake, we had drying racks set aside though.  I had no idea when water would be back on for washing clothes or when we’d be able to replace the dryer.  Oh, those poor moored clothes!  About a week and a half later cold water finally started to trickle.  It took almost another week for the pressure to get strong enough to wash anything though.  

Thankfully our electricity was still on through all this, except during rolling blackouts.  We were able to use our freezer, fridge, bread cooker, microwave, toaster, blender, and our electric skillet.  As a nursing mother, this was a blessing, however I felt heart broken other people were having to go without.  If the electricity had been continuously off, it would have been colder, out-of-the-can meals, no fresh vegetables, no fresh fruit, no milk or other dairy products.  It was bad enough knowing babies were without mothers up north.  School children were having to search through wreckage for food.
It was during this time, crisis number three began to emerge.  Due to the tidal wave that hit all along the coast, the Fukushima nuclear plant began a partial melt down.  I was surprised.  Howcould a three meter sized tidal wave cause such a problem.  It was then that we researched and realized how catastrophic and massive the tidal wave had actually been. It ranged from 10 up to possibly even 30 meters tall!

There were more evacuations.  News updates using long scientific words (that require a physics and chemistry background to understand) began coming out.  All this began to trigger hysteria.  Conspiracy theories began to circulate.  Headlines, for example, announcing “Another Nuke Blast,” sent people all over the world into a state of panic.  A nuclear bomb’s explosion and a nuclear plant’s partial melt down are very different things and I think it was very manipulative journalism.  We were not in an official evacuation or “stay in doors” area.  However, in deciding what we were going to do, my husband had the physics and chemistry-nerd background to guide us through this calmly.  We knew the Japan government as well as the US navy were tracking radiation closely.  So, if you’re not  having to evacuate, instead of panicking, you can help keep available (or help provide) food and medical resources for those who truly need them during emergencies.  And if you’re going to live outside your own country, I recommend learning how to speak the language.  That has helped us amazingly in knowing which prefectures radiation-free foods are coming from.  Above all, if you or others make mistakes, learn how to be willing and eager to forgive.  That’s really what this life is all about anyway.

Thank you so much for your thoughts, Melanie!  In our family, we've made water and food storage a priority, and we have 72-hour kits in the front closet in case we need to grab them on the way out (but keeping some supplies in our van is a great idea . . . I need to do that).  

It's hard sometimes to make emergency preparedness a priority--especially when there are so many other things that need to be done.  However, when I think about how my children would feel if a major catastrophe struck our area and we didn't have the necessary preparations, it breaks my heart.  I'm going to work on our car kit, update the clothes in our emergency kits, and do what I can to help my family be prepared.  

If anyone has any practical ideas to suggest, I'd love to hear them.  Thank you!

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