Earthquake Survival Guide

by Tobie Openshaw
(first published in the Taiwan Observer)

Looking back at the last 20-odd years of earthquakes and disasters in Taiwan and elsewhere in the region, one can learn a few lessons and prepare some necessities to ensure that you can survive similar scenarios to what we have seen play out here.

DISASTER SCENARIOS

1. AT HOME, BUILDING DAMAGED, BUT YOU CAN GET OUT (The 9/21/1999 Earthquake)

During the earthquake of 9/21, we were living on the 10th floor of an apartment building in Taoyuan. The building swayed to such an extent that our bed moved away from the wall by about a meter. We got the kids into jackets and shoes in between violent aftershocks, and got them down the stairwell and bundled into the car. We covered them up with the duvet we had brought down with us, drove to an open space, and spent an uncomfortable night sleeping in the car. The next day we spent driving around because there were still aftershocks and we thought the apartment was unsafe.

7-11 remained open but all necessities were quickly sold out. All other businesses and restaurants were closed, ATMS were dead, so we were running out of cash. On the 3rd day we found a lone bank employee with a generator, running one ATM!
We snacked on whatever we could find at 7-11.

Eventually we returned, but we had no electricity and no water for over a week. We did have gas supply so we could cook. The most severe problem, that was the most immediately sign that you were in a state of emergency, was the fact that without water, you can’t flush the toilet.

We developed a system of only flushing once a day, and getting water out of the swimming pool for that. Carrying a 20l can of water up 10 flights of stairs was no joke, and that was barely enough for one flush. The men peed into the sink. It was almost 2 weeks before things were normal again.

Some general thoughts in no particular order

HAVE A PLAN

When the building is violently shaking and shelves come crashing down, it’s well past the time for you to think, “Aaaah what should I do?”

Discuss with all members of your household, and have a solid plan.

LARGE-SCALE DESTRUCTION such as in Haiti or Nepal is uncommon in Taiwan.

It’s usually just single buildings that go down. If your building is still standing after the first shake, chances are that it will stay that way. If you can get out, you are safe – you can get to shelter, you will get government assistance, you can also go stay with friends or family – Best to have this conversation before disaster strikes.

Remember to take your house keys, with you, keep duplicates in your bag – you don’t want to evacuate, stay outside in the cold for a while and then discover you’ve locked yourself out of the house.

Keep your floors clear of kids’ toys etc. … you don’t want to be tripping over Legos in the dark.
Include your pets’ needs in your preparations.

If you keep your shoes by the door, keep at least a pair of flip flops right by your bed.

A car provides shelter and warmth and relative comfort, and the ability to get out of danger. If you have one, it is a very important part of your plan.

Check Websites/FB Groups if people offering help and rooms, and mark yourself safe.

EVACUATION CENTERS are usually at a school in the neighborhood. Go there to get help, to be accounted for, and to find loved ones. Don’t just bug out and go sit it out somewhere without letting people know you are safe.

WHAT TO DO WHEN THE EARTHQUAKE HITS

Usually the following applies:

The building starts shaking. You wake up and assess.

Is the building just swaying, and then stops? You can probably just go back to sleep.
Is the building groaning and things falling off shelves? You should probably leave.
Is the building tilting/pancaking, pieces of concrete breaking out of ceiling and walls? – You should protect your head as best you can, ride it out. This will be a very violent experience, it usually happens VERY quickly. You will probably be hurt. Once everything settles down, check yourself for injuries, control any bleeding first, get your flashlight from your grab bag, and seek an escape route. Be careful of upsetting things that are precariously balanced. If there is no escape, keep warm, treat yourself with what you have to hand, try to communicate to let others know you are alive and your location (blow a whistle, tap on beams or pipes) and sit tight. YOU WILL BE RESCUED. The Taiwan Rescue Services are very experienced, very well equipped, and they do not stop before they have every single person accounted for.

IF YOU DECIDE TO EVACUATE
It’s best to NOT try to run out of a building when things are still shaking and falling. That’s the most vulnerable period. It’s best to STAY and COVER. Get under a table or bed or doorway (pick out suitable spots in EACH room beforehand) or whatever will protect you against falling things. Wait for the shaking to subside.

Now grab the THINGS ON YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE and your BUG OUT BAG (be prepared for aftershocks, take cover again if they come immediately)
PUT ON YOUR SHOES, PUT ON A JACKET, GRAB CHILDREN OR PETS, (maybe sit out another aftershock)
TURN OFF WATER AND GAS MAINS
THEN GET DOWN THE STAIRWELL AS CALMLY AND QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.
ONCE OUTSIDE, you now have the option to wait and see if it’s safe to go back inside, get in your car and get out of the area, or, if your building catastrophically collapses, vacate the area so that emergency services can get in, and get to a shelter.
NOTE ON IF YOU WANT TO HELP:

Some people will find their first instinct is to help others who may be trapped. In fact, in most disasters, such as the Haiti and Fukushima earthquakes, the first 24 hours is when MOST people are rescued – mostly under their own steam, or helped by relatives and others – many of them dug out by people using their bare hands. Therefore in my earthquake kit I have a hammer, cold chisel, hacksaw, pry bar, gloves, goggles and helmet. However, while I have had SOME experience with this kind of thing, I know my limitations. Once the trained and equipped emergency services arrive, give them whatever useful information you may have, then GET OUT OF THEIR WAY.

The FIRST RULE of rescue work is: DON’T BECOME A CASUALTY YOURSELF.

EARTHQUAKE EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT LIST

This is my list. Yours may be tailored according to your needs. Some of these are essentials, others can be described as “Comfort Items”.

1. ON YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE:
Here you should have the stuff that you really cannot do without, things that you can grab in an instant – or, should you be trapped, they are immediately to hand.

Phone on charge
Wallet with money and ID
Shoes
Keys
Automatic flashlight (plugged into wall, this keeps its charge and switches on automatically when there is a power failure)

In closing, remember that Taiwan has had a lot of experience in dealing with disasters, and if you can survive the first hours of an event, you will probably be ok.

BE PREPARED, AND BE SAFE!