Hope for the best . . .and prepare for the worst

by Yuko Naito

Think about how difficult it would be if all our lifelines — water, gas and electricity — were suddenly cut off. In the event of a major earthquake, we would have to do more than just ponder these hardships. And it would go on for longer than you might think. After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, it took a week to get the power system back up and running and nearly three months to restore gas and water services. Some evacuees, meanwhile, had to stay at emergency facilities for upwards of eight months. While most people don’t even want to think about such living conditions, Takehiko Yamamura, the author of numerous books on disaster preparation and relief, insists we must. The Big One will surely strike, he says. “We just do not know when and where. If you are not prepared, you will really be in trouble.”

So how do we go about it?

No one knows better how to prepare for a major quake than those who have survived one. Yamamura interviewed many people who experienced the Hanshin temblor and compiled a list of the items they said they wished they’d had when the disaster struck. Those who had been evacuated from their homes identified the following items, in order of importance: flashlight, portable battery-operated radio, emergency food, drinking water, essential medicines, extra clothes and underwear, tissues and pre-moistened napkins, portable stove, fire extinguisher, sturdy shoes, helmet, plastic water tanks and “dry shampoo.”

Those lucky enough to continue living in their own homes listed the same items, plus the following: lantern, emergency toilet, small electric generator, broom and dustpan, big plastic sheet and packing tape.

“We should have all of these items, but most necessary for survival are water, food and a toilet,” says Yamamura, who has visited more than 100 quake-stricken areas around the world.

Do not expect to be able to buy necessities after the quake. Supermarkets and convenience stores sell out quickly, and it takes a couple of weeks until the distribution systems have recovered and shops reopen.

Relief goods generally start arriving about three days after a major quake, so it is believed that enough drinking water should be stored for this period. But Yamamura says this is still not enough.

“Relief supplies delivered to disaster sites are basically for evacuees who have lost their homes, not for those who still have a place to live,” he explains. “So, it is safer to store enough water and food to last a week.” (Keep in mind that one person needs about 2-3 liters a day.)

Basically, emergency food supplies should be lightweight and edible without cooking, but Yamamura emphasizes that they also should be nourishing, easy to digest and, if possible, appetizing.

“Under physically and mentally stressful circumstances, people get sick very easily,” he warns, “and malnutrition makes sickness worse.”

Emergency foods he recommends are: ready-cooked rice, energy biscuits, cheese, canned soup, chocolate, vegetable juice and boil-in-the-bag meals such as curry and stew.

There is actually quite a range of emergency foods available. Shinohara Bosai, an emergency-goods store in Tokyo’s Kanda district, stocks, among others, canned and freeze-dried rice dishes, freeze-dried mochi, instant noodles, canned and powdered soups, biscuits and crackers, canned bread and freeze-dried vegetables.

Yamamura also stresses the importance of the emergency toilet to “survive with dignity.”

“The toilet problem was serious in Kobe,” Yamamura recalls. At the schools where evacuees were housed, all the toilets were full of excrement, and the smell was unbearable, he says. As an alternative, people dug holes on the school grounds and used them instead, but when it rained, the filth overflowed. Some people who did not want to use such dirty facilities refrained from eating and drinking, then became sick, he says. Even if you can remain at home, the toilets will be out of service until sewage pipes are repaired, and that could take a while. Portable toilets are available from about 3,000 yen at large department stores or outdoor-goods stores and on the Internet.

These are the basics, but it’s up to you to get prepared. Stock up, Yamamura says, “and be scared.”

“What we really need now is anxiety. We won’t make any preparations without it,” he says. “The Japanese are quick to forget things. Many of us have already started to forget the terror of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.”