August 14, 2008

Disaster Strikes Cranky Fitness!

Oh my God, what was THAT!

Do you feel it? The earth is shaking!

Oh dear... That roaring noise? Is that the howl of a mighty tornado getting closer?

Whoa, is our plane losing altitude? Uh oh, I smell smoke--our building's on fire! Holy Cow, come look--the dam has burst and the floodwaters are rising!

Yikes, lets get out of heeeere!


Um, so--does anyone know where we're supposed to go? Did anyone happen to pay attention to that pamplet/lecture/drill/tv special that told us what we're supposed to do now?


So, like many other worrywarts who torture themselves by pondering Worst Case Scenarios, I spend precious little time actually preparing for them. (Fortunately, the Lobster is much more practical, so we have many of the bases covered).

But it was interesting to read a New York Times article about a new book, “The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — and Why,” and discover how much one can increase one's chances of survival in a disaster with just a little preparation. And, of course, by not Acting Like a Freakin' Idiot. (Note: there is also an interesting interactive quiz, but if you wanna take it, do so before reading this post as there are SPOILERS below).

The book is by Amanda Ripley, a reporter for Time magazine who has covered, well, lots of disasters. You can also read this NPR summary and excerpt if you're curious.

Some highlights:

1. Fire Drills are Not Just Designed to Torment You.

They actually really help! So don't skip 'em. "Your brain will perform best in a stressful situation if you have already put it through a few rehearsals. ...It’s important to get into the stairs and actually go down them. Your brain relies on that memory and responds to it much more quickly and fully than words."

2. Leave Your Shit Behind And Get Out--FAST.

Note: This is true even if you have to leave behind valuable items stashed in your belongings, like wallets or passport or even CUPCAKES!

Actually, as much as I would hate to part with important documents or tasty baked goods, doesn't this seem like kind of an obvious suggestion in a life-threatening disaster?

But the author noted that during emergencies "people often move surprisingly slowly and find reasons to delay evacuation. ...Even on burning planes, where passengers have only minutes to act before smoke becomes toxic, passengers routinely open overhead bins to retrieve their bags."

But being aware of this "gathering instinct" can help you. "You need to move quickly, but it won’t be your first impulse."

3. Before the plane takes off: Look for exits and read those Stupid Airline Safety Cards.

When was the last time you read one of those thingies in the seat back next to the barf bag? Or counted the number of rows to the nearest emergency exits? (I'm usually too busy engaging in important rituals designed to keep the plane from crashing in the first place. These rituals may involve closed eyes, tight clutching of the armrests, and possibly the sacrifice of a cheap domestic candy bar or a plastic cup full of Chateau de Crappo Airline Merlot).

Think there's no chance of surviving a plane crash anyway, so why bother?

Well, it says that approximately 60% of people involved in serious plane crashes do survive--and those tend to be the ones who know what to do and where to go to get themselves the heck out. So you're supposed to read the safety card every time so your brain is programmed to respond.

4. Panic is less of a problem than "group think," especially if you're with a leisurely group.

This was a surprise to me, as I am someone hard-wired to panic at the hint of any sort of emergency.

But most people become passive, not frantic, and tend to like to be ordered around.
"People stick together, follow one another and are civilized and painfully slow during evacuations."

The excerpt was silent, however, as to the etiquette involved in rushing past these painfully slow civilized people and getting the hell out. If they're calmly making their way out at a snail's pace, down perhaps dozens of flights of stairs, how do you speed them up or get around them? Is sprinting, elbowing, shoving, cursing, cursing some more, and slapping considered bad form?

5. Prepare at Home, Too

Why save all that disaster preparation for work and for airplanes when you could be having tedious evacuation drills at home?

Sigh. You also gotta replace smoke detector batteries, have a plan for where to meet, keep emergency supplies on hand, blah blah blah.

What are the things people in actual disasters wished they'd had handy?

Fresh water, information sources, necessary medication, and cash. (The list doesn't even mention coffee, cookies, pizza or tequila. Who the heck did they ask???)

6. Know your neighbors

It's probably best if you don't routinely piss 'em off, either. In major disasters, it's usually a while until "outside" help is available. Close, friendly, non-homicidal neighbors may be a tremendous resource, both physically and psychologically, if something terrible happens and you're stuck for days waiting for help.

7. If a hurricane or flood hits, you're best off acting like a chick, not a dude.

More men perish in hurricanes and floods--not only because they spend more time outside, but because they take more time to evacuate, and are more likely to try to drive or walk through water. ("Honey, stop worrying, will ya?! You can see the water's only a few inches dee... ahhggggghhhh!)

Feeling paranoid now?

Here's another helpful article on how to save your own life in a variety of emergency situations.

Need some emergency-related cheering up?

Our friend the Anxious Exerciser reminded me about these hilarious interpretations of the ambiguous graphical warnings the Homeland Security Department uses for various emergencies, like, for example, nuclear blasts.

"After exposure to radiation, it is important to consider that you may have mutated to gigantic dimensions: watch your head."
(More here).

So, anyone else worry about disasters? Do you prepare for them?


  1. *plugging her ears*
    And honestly, I live very close to a fault line in SLC... We have red cross emergency kit which has all sorts of things to take care of injuries, even bigger ones. We are also pretty stocked on non perishable foods, but aside from that...
    And yes, in an emergency, I would reach for my cell phone and my wallet before leaving, I know I would...

  2. Disasters only happen in my imagination when my kids or husband are late checking in and all of a sudden, in my mind, they've been abducted by aliens or Lord knows what. Well, in my DH's case, I usually end up spending the insurance money in my head, by the time I've got it all figured out, he walks in the door. ;-P

    Actually, we were in that horrible ice storm in Montreal in 1998. We had to leave our home and it was quite something. We learned how dependent I was on my debit card as we had no cash and no way to buy anything, including gas for the car if you could find an operating gas station.

    I thought I learned a lot about emergency prep and being ready. And I did. Problem was, it lasted about a month after we were able to go back home. Then we went back to our original, non-emergency friendly ways. Sad and stupid, I know.

  3. Should I leave my S.H.I.I.T. behind too? Would all the frantic running, then stopping to ponder count as S.H.I.I.T.?

  4. Well, I have an escape from NY route planned in case of a terrorist bombing. That's about it.

  5. The only thing that I know that I would probably be good at in an emergency is knowing that people act like sheep during an emergency. I took a sociology class once adn we learned about Kitty Genovese, and the professor talked about how people won't do anything unless someone tells them to in an emergency. Then a couple of years later I witnessed an insane car accident and made my friend, who was driving stop, because the first thing I thought of was that anyone else who stopped would just be galking. Luckily that wasn't the case, but that's pretty much the first thing that pops into my head regarding emergencies: Boss people around. After the bossing around part, I'm right with you, panicking all the way.

  6. The Bag Lady took the test. Scored 5/11... partly skewed because of her geographical location (ie. no close neighbours, and the men/women thing - WTF? Women don't work outside? Hello-o?)
    My biggest disaster "Oops" is not keeping enough water around. Because we are on a well, even if the power goes off for a short time, we cannot get water. *Must remember to keep bottled water around* But the pantry full of canned goods? Check!

  7. Its very easy to get complacent about natural disasters in the UK, but there's always terrorism. I work on the next street over from the Bomb Factory where they made the bombs for the July 7th attack. Kind of scary.

    For such a stress-head, I'm actually pretty good in a crisis. It's because I am a Know-It-All, and as Fooled said it's an awesome opportunity to boss people about and they're guaranteed to listen! Brilliant.

    TA x

  8. I used to live next door to the director of FEMA for our city. We had monthly block meetings and the whole shebang. I even had a "safe room" kit in my bedroom just in case of a biological attack. And then... we moved. Now I am thinking the best way to be prepared is to live by her;)

  9. I always watch the airline safety thing, read the pamphlet, and check where I am in relation to the safety exits. Then I ascertain how much force I will have to use or how sneaky I'll have to be to make sure I am among the very first people out. I always check where I am relative to doors and whatnot. I have put my claustrophobia to good use.
    As for big disasters, well, I'm not so much ready as I am waiting.

  10. As someone who works in public education for fire service, THANK YOU.

    We spend so many hours a day trying to convince people to simply check their smoke alarms, practice home escape plans and have emergency kits on hand and only when they see a disaster in their front yard does it smack them in the face.

    Social media is a great tool to get the message out.

    So thanks :)

  11. Hmm I think I have to disagree with item #2. In the fire we had recently I ran for the hills instinctively without grabbing ANYTHING. If I had to do it over I would take the extra 1 second and grab my purse which was at my feet!!

  12. I currently live in a building with ridiculously sensitive smoke alarms and fire alarms. My smoke alarm goes off at the slightly breeze, which is annoying to say the least. Our fire alarm goes off multiple times a week and the same 15 people evacuate and wait for the all clear. That means a LOT of people would technically burn in a real fire.

    I do grab my passport, cell phone and wallet before leaving though - all my paperwork and immediate needs are there. I have copies of my passport on my work computer as well as medical history but I feel safer if I have it on hand.

    I'm hoping my new building will be a little less alarm happy and the residents will actually CARE about the fire alarm instead of bitching about it.

    And I ALWAYS count the seats to the nearest exit on the plane. I'm paranoid that way.

  13. Hmm...did go through Hurricane Isabel a few years back - my advice: MOVE YOUR CAR TO HIGHER GROUND. they can't swim! *sigh* Of course living so close to D.C. I am used to hearing higher/lower security alerts, etc.

  14. Great timing on this post Crabby, BK and I watched a fire in an apartment complex we thought about moving to on the news last night (no one was seriously hurt).

    I keep trying to get BK to let me get one of those big fancy first-aid kits. We're both CPR certified, and I'm AED as well, so our bases are covered for the small emergencies.

    As for the big ones, we're not prepared because our apartment is fairly small, so it's hard to stock up on much.

    I've got to be honest though, I worry more about my stalker coming back than I do any major emergency.

  15. When I took the quiz I answered Panic instead of Lack of clean water because I was thinking of the crisis moment, not the aftermath. They tell you all the time not to panic in fire or storm or whatever. And living in the country I'm always stocked up with food and water and heating materials. Even though I'm on city water instead of a well, the water mains are seventy years old and the water goes off at least twice a year.
    I was living in Raleigh NC during Hurricane Fran. At work we were without electricity for only three days, but we were still on a well there, so cleaning the kennel was impossible. We brought drinking water in for the dogs as soon as the roads were clear. At home, we were without electricity for a week, but in September it was neither too hot nor too cold.
    The one time I was in a strange office building during a fire drill I disobeyed instructions and picked up my purse before I stood up from my chair. If one and a half seconds is going to kill me, so be it.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  16. Some great advice here!

    And yeah, I think grabbing a nearby wallet or a purse when evacuating a building makes sense; trying to wrench luggage out of overhead bins when your plane is burning up: not so much.

    And um, Tricia, you have a stalker?? I'd say that counts as an emergency. So sorry to hear that.

  17. These were really good tips, so thanks. I'm a huge nerd on planes and always pay attention to the flight attendent. I even give people dirty looks for ignoring them. lol.

    But, when it comes to home, I have really no plan besides grabbing the dog and getting the heck out of the house or ducking and covering or going to the basement, depending on the disaster. I should work on that.

  18. Man, I am so not even planning for disasters. I mean, maybe I'm naive, but I don't think there's much chance of it happening.

  19. In the book, "The House of God," the recommendation is "the first thing to do in an emergency is to take your own pulse!"

    Thanks to your readers, however, Crabby, I now know it really should have said, "Take your own purse" :-)

  20. Thanks for the tip! I love interesting reads.

  21. I'm a bit of a worrier but I've gotten better. Even so- and I'm really a very optimistic person by nature- I like to expect the worst (and hope for the best!). Basically, its best to be prepared for anything that might come your way.

  22. Ahh I dont even like thinking about disasters! I stress enough already! I know I would stress out and panic!

  23. I'm not sure if it counts as a "stalker", since he doesn't know where I live, but a male friend from school decided that he and I were "meant to be together", and called/texted me incessantly (up to several times an hour...BK was not happy). I resolved it (hopefully), but the most frustrating thing was that most legal solutions (order of protection) were closed, as he would be given my address so he'd know where he had to stay away from (and a lot of my feelings so safety were from him not knowing my address).

  24. Man, I got 3/11, so I'm pretty much screwed. I know some of my neighbors, but there are a couple of units (and it's not a big complex) where I don't have any idea who lives there.

    I always keep my handbag (with wallet, keys, etc) near the door, so I'd probably grab it. Though I'd miss the cell because I can't usually find that even when there isn't an emergency.

  25. Ah, yes, survival.

    I've lived through 9/11 and the blackout of whenever it was...Actually during the blackout I was up here at Bard where everyone was pretty well taken care of, but one daughter was stranded in mid-town with no plan. (She eventually got out okay thanks to a friend.) And up here we were okay with water and certainly had plenty of beer.

    Anyway, since disasters seem to come our way more often than we'd like, ScottieDog put together some emergency supplies, water, flashlight etc. For some reason he included Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. (wtf?)

  26. your pre-flight plane prevention ritual sounds very similar to mine, except mine involves MORE alcohol and less food. It's worked everytime so far.

  27. I don't really think about what to do in emergency situations, though I'm sure I should.

    First thing that popped into my head though, was my reaction after a coworker was talking about people having to leave pets behind when evacuating during/after Hurricane Katrina (because they couldn't take them to the shelters? it's been a while, so I don't really remember the details of the conversation). I went home and, with no preamble, said to my husband: "If we ever have to evacuate during an emergency, we are taking the cats with us." I'm sure he was wondering what the heck I was talking about, but he just said "Of course."

    And I guess I have thought about - what if the house ever catches fire? Will I be able to find the cats?

    Apparently I have a one-track mind.

  28. I got 9/11 on the test! I'm an emergency expert! Somehow, I don't feel that's a good thing :-(

  29. Good information! Thank you!

  30. holy crap, i got 3/11 on that quiz. guess i'd be a goner in the event of a disaster. i do the plane ritual thing too, but i never really thought about how i'd get out if the plane crashed. or what i'd do if my house was burning down. or if there was a flood. ignorance is bliss?

  31. "For some reason he included Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. (wtf?)"

    Because starvation might actually make it taste good???

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  32. I am somewhat prepared, if it were a fire at the complex where I live, I have most of my documents in my safe (hm, should update some I think), which is fireproof, so would only need to grab the cat.

    As for city wide disasters, um, I have canned food and some water sitting in a jug - should change that.

    As for nuclear, that map that your home land whatever - haha. If you are that close to any large blast, looking for an escape route is kinda a moot point. Big problem with scale there.

    I am not sure that my city is important enough to be a target, but if it is, well, not much to do about it.

  33. My husband and I usually decide where we'll meet if something happens when we're in a public place. We started doing this after a bad nightclub fire was in the news a few years ago.

    We also live close to the water, so we tend to stock up on water, batteries, non-perishable food, etc. during hurricane season.

    Good reminder to check my supplies!

  34. Hey most people can't get day to day right, so disasters are not a problem. Just remember when the shista hittith the fanna, you are all you have.

  35. Sooooo, my h.s. had a little issue with fire drills. It got to the point where the fire department had to come and randomly pull the fir alarm to make sure we all (1900+ of us) could be out of the building and all accounted for. Needless to say, I got out of a lot of class that year ;)

  36. Yes! I have 5 pounds of matzah in the basement. That will last two months, feeds a family of 8!

  37. Interesting post. Now I have an idea for one of my own. That's why I love the crabster.

    -- P

  38. Update: Talk about coincidence--last night we had a huge scary lightening storm, and the building right behind us caught fire. (Could be coincidence, but one of the lightening strikes sounded CLOSE, and a few minutes later I heard a curious beeping. A smoke alarm (with a working battery, yay neighbors) was going off and I could smell smoke!

    Good thing I just read all your great comments, because I knew to call 911 and not assume someone else had.

    No one else had! And a whole exterior wall was on fire by the time I saw it. (The awesome Provincetown Volunteer Fire Department was quick on the scene and put the thing right out. Hooray for Fire Fighters!)

    So hell, I know no one's reading this anymore, but just had to report!

  39. Here I am reading this article while waiting for my connection flight... Coincidence??? God I hope so !. Anyways, thanks for the reminders...

  40. Crabby spake thusly:
    So hell, I know no one's reading this anymore, but just had to report!

    I'm not reading it, at least. Can't vouch for anyone else.

    Crossing my fingers for NoDietNeeded's safe flight...


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