In 2004, September was designated National Preparedness Month after the attacks on September 11, 2001, highlighted the importance of being prepared. While the tragic events of September 11 shaped preparedness, we must also prepare for everyday emergencies and natural disasters.
The theme of 2020’s National Preparedness Month is “Disasters Don’t Wait. Make Your Plan Today.” To honor this year’s motto, we are sharing amazing survival stories that demonstrate the different ways their preparedness knowledge saved their lives.
Surviving a wildfire
Currently, we are watching as wildfires devastate California, Washington, and Oregon. As of September 12, 2020, “The fires have killed at least 33 people and dozens more are missing,” and Oregon is preparing for a mass fatality event, according to CNBC. Sadly, this isn’t the first time wildfires have destroyed homes and lives – and it won’t be the last.
In the fall of 2018, the Camp Fire of Butte County, California, became the deadliest and most devastating wildfire in the state’s history. In the midst of devastation, we’ve learned of the heroic efforts of people who pulled off amazing feats to survive.
For example, Sandra Peltola and her 23-year-old son put their preparedness knowledge to work when they realized the wildfire was close to their home. KQED reports, “She and her son, Chris, 23, started packing up. They've got two cars, so they put everything they could in them — their pets, some clothes, a ‘fire box’ that they'd preemptively filled with essentials and family heirlooms. They got out about 8:45 a.m.”
But it wasn’t an easy escape. Wildfires blocked the roads, one of their two escape vehicles ran out of gas, forcing them to leave some of their belongings behind, and then, they were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic for 11 hours, going about 2 miles an hour trying to reach an evacuation center. They made it, and they survived.
What we can learn from this survivor: Sandra already owned a fire box that she had previously filled with essential documents and precious heirlooms. Her forethought saved her a significant amount of time and allowed her to get out of her home within an hour. Another unfortunate lesson they learned was always to keep the car filled with gas.
Surviving an earthquake
Earthquakes occur without warning. Beyond following the steps of “drop, cover, and hold on” from earthquake drills, there is not much you can do while the earth is quaking beneath you. However, what you do immediately after will determine your chances of survival. For example, there are numerous stories of brave individuals who rushed into the rubble to turn off the gas, preventing a massive explosion.
Following the horrific earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, there were numerous stories of people being found alive days later buried beneath the rubble. BBC covered the story of Wismond Exantus, who survived for 11 days in a collapsed hotel building. According to BBC, “Trapped for 11 days, he was found in good health after a joint operation by French, Greek and American rescue teams. His family had alerted a Greek rescue team when they heard his voice from underneath the rubble. He said he had survived by diving under a desk when the building collapsed around him, and had subsisted on a diet of Coca-Cola and biscuits.”
What we can learn from these survivors: Once it is safe, try to find help and turn off the gas and other utility services. If trapped, ration food and drink because you do not know how long it will be until you are found.
Surviving a hurricane
The problem with hurricane preparedness is that people often don’t take the threats seriously. They mistakenly believe that, if they aren’t going to get a direct hit by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, everything will be fine. It’s not the events of the hurricane that depend on your preparedness as much as the days following.
Here is a firsthand account from Christina, who has survived three hurricanes in Virginia, as told to the National Weather Service.
“I have been through three major hurricanes that tore up my area of Virginia pretty badly. My first lesson learned was Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Isabel really messed our area up in the northern neck of Virginia. No power for 13 days. Nowhere to get gas or ice. I will never forget the howling of the winds and thinking this will this ever stop. Many houses were lost into the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers during Isabel.
My next experience was Hurricane Irene. A microburst (powerful wind) came right across the street. It looked like someone’s hand just cut a swath right through the trees. The sound of that wind! It creeps me out every time. No power again for 7 days.
Last year  Hurricane Michael got us! No power for 5 days and many main roads washed out. Several roads were impassable until this past March! I DO NOT play with these storms.”
What we can learn from Christina (in her words): “Do not think just because you’re not taking a direct hit that it can’t be destructive! Prepare ahead of time! Buy lots of water, fill up large buckets with water to flush toilets, buy batteries, charcoal to cook food; table sandwich food like peanut butter and jelly will help, too. Always have paper plates and plastic utensils. Get baby wipes for personal hygiene for everyone, not just babies. Fill your vehicles up with gas and remember your pets! Get extra pet food, litter, etc. Get your prescription and over-the-counter medicines ahead of time! And don’t forget you need a NOAA Weather Radio when the power goes out to stay on top of things. Be prepared to be self-sustaining for days because you will be without power for days and possibly stranded for days. Do not ever wait ‘til the last minute to gather supplies. If they tell you to evacuate, then do it!”
Surviving a flood
In 2013, a woman received a reverse 911 call reporting the Bureau of Reclamation's Olympus Dam at Estes Park in Colorado would flood the Big Thompson River. Very quickly, her driveway and access bridge were cut off. Over the following days, things grew worse. Bridges were gone, roads were closed, and power lines were washed out. She lost internet access and cell phone service. She was stranded.
Here is what she told the National Weather Service in her own words:
“The good thing was I had a whole house generator installed a couple of years before, in case a wildfire caused power to our area to be shut off until the fire was controlled. I still had all the comforts of home along with satellite TV, and could monitor the progress of the storm and rescue activities.
I spelled out OK on my back yard using bed sheets and worked through various activities once the flood waters receded in my yards, like winterizing houses, cleaning out the refrigerator and deep freezer, and getting the house ready to be left without power and heat for an indefinite period. I was nearing the end of my list, had my evacuation bags and the cat packed up when the local fire department came knocking on the door.
I delegated my list items to them: shut off the propane at the tanks, shut off the power to the houses, gather up the bed sheets in the yard, throw the last of the refrigerator food into the river, carry the cat kennel, and off we went. My bridge was intact but the ends had washed out; they brought a ladder, and we were able to walk up my ruined road to the main highway, which was drive-able to Estes Park. It was 25 days before power was restored to my house, 3 months before I could get propane delivered, 9 months before I could get my access road rebuilt and drive up to my house, and 5 years before our highway was completely repaired.”
What we can learn from this survivor: Take heed of emergency alerts and monitor the weather. Find ways to communicate with outside help (such as her use of sheets). Invest in a generator and a weather radio. Prepare an emergency bag or kit in advance.
Disasters don’t wait. Plan to survive today, friends.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply