Bryan Lee was a typical preoccupied college student, taking classes at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, when TV news footage of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan gave him a jolt of reality.
“It hit me that I was focusing too much on normal college things and not aware of what’s going on in the community,” he said.
He had already seen how periodic landslides could cut his Northern California community off from the outside world for days at a time, leaving gaps on grocery store shelves and driving up the cost of fuel at local gas stations, and he decided he wanted to be better prepared to face the next crisis.
Lee took an emergency medical technician course and some classes in wilderness medicine, and after graduation he got a job in emergency services with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.
About two months ago Lee took a similar position with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, where he now works under emergency services program manager Kevin Higgins as the county’s emergency services planner.
Part of Lee’s job is to think about the unthinkable — how would the county respond, for instance, to a massive wildfire, a major volcanic eruption in the Central Cascades or the sort of devastating subduction-zone earthquake that scientists say is overdue in the Pacific Northwest?
If the Big One hits, modeling scenarios suggest that highways, bridges and railroads could be badly damaged, disrupting transportation networks and leaving the Corvallis area cut off from crucial supplies of food, fuel and medicine for months on end. Basic services such as electrical power, natural gas, clean drinking water and even sewer service could also be cut off for extended periods.
The county has plans in place to address these problems, but there’s no magic bullet — and the bigger the disaster, the harder it’s going to be to restore services and provide food, water and shelter to people who need them.
Most people rarely think about these kinds of things, so when Lee talks to the public about disaster preparedness, he gives them the bad news first.
“I tell people, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m not going to be able to save you,’” Lee said. “We can’t help every household.”
Then he gives them the good news: Even though it could be days or weeks before law enforcement or disaster relief agencies are able to get supplies to everyone in the county, there are plenty of things you can do to take care of yourself and your family in an emergency.
“I really try not to do gloom and doom,” Lee said. “I really try to preach that these events are totally survivable.”
The key to surviving a disaster, Lee said, is personal preparedness.
That means having at least two to four weeks’ worth of food and water on hand for every member of your household, plus a well-stocked medical kit.
In general, Lee said, it makes sense to stock up on the kinds of nonperishable foods you like to eat, but you’ll also want to think about what can give you the most nutritional bang for the buck.
“In terms of long-term storage of food,” he said, “it’s lentils and rice.”
For water, plan on stashing one gallon per person per day. It’s also a good idea to have a means of purifying water, such as a backpacker’s filtration system or iodine tablets. In a pinch, you can use two drops of unscented household bleach per quart.
But disaster preparedness doesn’t have to stop at the household level. Lee encourages people to get to know their neighbors and talk about ways to help each other in the event of an emergency.
Who has skills that could be put to use? Who is most vulnerable and in need of help? Figuring these things out in advance could make a big difference if and when disaster strikes.
You could also join the local Community Emergency Response Team, a group of trained volunteers who could be called upon to assist professional responders in a disaster. Free CERT training is available through the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s finally getting traction,” Lee said of the CERT program. “We’ve got about 100 people trained, and more and more people are becoming interested.”
Lee recognizes that many people find the idea of preparing for a major disaster daunting. They feel like they don’t have the time, the money or the space to stockpile supplies for surviving a doomsday scenario.
He advises starting out small — for instance, by putting together an emergency kit for the car. After that, stock up gradually on food, water, medical supplies and other items.
Pretty soon, he predicts, you’ll find you have enough set aside to take care of yourself and your loved ones in an emergency — and you’ll feel better for it.
“It sounds overwhelming when you’re first starting out, but once you start preparing … it’s more of an empowering experience,” Lee said. “(You realize) ‘I could help my family, I could help my neighbors, I could help myself.’”