by Nikki Willhite
Seattle is a very strange place to live when it comes to the
weather. Although it may be overcast and rain a lot, the temperature is usually
People in Seattle live in fear of two things- the occasional snow
storm, and summer heat. When it snows, the fact that we have very limited snow
removal equipment grinds the city to a stop, stranding people and cars
Very few people have air-conditioning, so if we get a heat wave,
it can be very difficult to sleep at night. Worse yet, windows are left open,
and there are always instances of intruders taking advantage of the situation.
When the Seattle area was told to expect a severe windstorm, few
people took alarm. I donít know if the people in Seattle were just not
listening, didnít take it seriously, or it wasnít given enough coverage.
The weather bureau knew it was coming. They even assigned it a
catastrophe claim number, a rare occurrence for this area.
The utility companies anticipated the storm. Utility trucks came
up from CA before the storm even arrived. Later they came from as far away as
When the windstorm arrived, it was deadly and the damage
unprecedented. Hurricane force winds hit the Puget Sound region, knocking down
100-foot cedar trees, and cutting off the power to over a million homes.
I thought I knew a lot about emergency preparation. My husband
has been on the scene shortly after almost every natural disaster in the US for
the last few decades.
I didnít know as much as I thought I did. I learned a lot
with this storm during the 4 days we went without power. This was a wake-up call
for us. If we had been hit with a severe earthquake , we could have been without
power for weeks.
We have made additional plans for future emergencies. Here are
some of the things I learned from this storm, as well as a review of some basic
emergency preparation fundamentals.
1. Have a source of heat, and lots of blankets or quilts. We were
lucky. We had a gas fireplace. Gas fireplaces work even if the electricity
goes off. However, even if you have a gas fireplace, if there is an earthquake,
the gas line would probably rupture, and for safety reasons, one of the first
things you should do after an earthquake is to turn off the gas coming into your
We always assumed we would be able to survive in this climate
even without heat if we covered up with blankets. We have changed our mind.
Except for the area right around the fireplace, our home became a hostile
We have now purchased a safe, indoor propane heater as a backup
heat source. Propane has an indefinite storage life, and can also be used for
Generators work great, but they make a lot of noise, and must be
placed outside. They also need gas, which doesn't store well, and is hard to
find during a crisis situation.
When I called to get my cable restored, the cable operator told
me that he had a generator when the storm started, and had taken several extra
people into his home to keep warm. However, when he left his house to look for
food, it was stolen. Generators are easily located because of the noise they
make, and easily stolen as they must be kept outside.
2. Stay in your home during a windstorm. Many of the fatalities
that occurred during our storm were from trees that fell on people while they
were driving. Your home is a lot safer than your car.
3. Do not use a generator inside. Do not use charcoal inside.
Both will kill you. If you have neighbors that do not speak English, let them
know this. as they seem to be most vulnerable. Most of the deaths that occurred
here from carbon monoxide poising were non-English speaking people.
4. Do not go into a basement that does not have a window as a 2nd
exit if there is any danger of flooding. Most basements, by law, must have at
least 2 exits. One of the deaths we had in this area was a woman who got trapped
in her basement by water flooding down her stairs. She couldn't get out.
Her screams were heard, but no one could get to her because of
the water pressure on the basement door. When the fire department reached her,
they had to cut a hole in the floor to try and rescue her, but by then it was
5. One of the most sought after items was D batteries for
flashlight and radios. Have a portable radio that takes batteries, as this will
be your only source of knowledge as to what is happening in your area. It will
also help relieve some of the boredom of waiting, and waiting, for your lives to
return to normal.
6. Keep some cash in your home. When the power is out, the cash
machines will not function. Keep smaller bills, so that you won't be caught in a
situation where you have to hand over a $20 bill for a $1.00 bottle of water.
7. Do not believe everything you hear on the radio. Pathetically,
representatives from various charity organizations came on the radio and gave
out phone numbers to help people that were totally useless. Kuddos to our radio
hosts, who ended up tracking down people for the correct numbers.
Many emergency shelter spokespeople couldn't even answer basic
questions, such as if you could bring your pets with you to their shelters. They
seemed to know very little about how these facilities actually operated.
I also heard some terrible advice given out about gas fireplaces.
One lady called in wondering if her gas fireplace would work. She saw the pilot
light, but couldn't get it started. She was told she needed electricity to get
it to ignite.
This is not true. If you have a gas fireplace or stove, and you
have a pilot light, you can get your unit started.
Your gas water heater will continue making hot water, and does
not use electricity in any way. The water is pushed through your home from water
pressure. The only reason your furnace does not work without electricity is that
it needs the fan to work in order to push air through the vents in your home,
and that takes electricity.
8. Have a source of heat to cook your food. We used a propane
stove. I have a friend who bonded with her cast iron oven and baked bread in it
outside in her backyard. If you are thinking of buying a fireplace insert,
be sure and get one with a shelf, and you can use that to cook your food.
9. Have a source of light. Candles are good, especially for long
outages, but lanterns that use fuel or batteries are less dangerous. We had 2
battery operated lanterns. One used enough batteries that you could read when it
was turned on. The other one only used 2 batteries, but was still better light
than with candles.
10. Have something to do while you are waiting for the power to
return. You can feel like you are lost in time and space sitting mummified by
your fireplace for hours on end...just waiting. An emergency activity box for
children is a good idea.
11. Do not depend on help. We live in a very populated area, yet
there was nowhere to go for help of any kind in our area. The nearest shelter
was 45 minutes away.
If you do leave your home, and want to know when the power is
restored, instead of calling your neighbors or those left behind 5 times a day,
potentially waking up napping children or weary adults, call your own home. If
the answering machine is working, the power is back.
Here is a suggestion sent to me by one of the readers of my
" I decided, when I took the Red Cross Disaster Course, and ran a
shelter one time, that I would never sit in a house during a ice or snow storm
or during the summer without electricity! I'd just offer to run a shelter
where they had electricity. Since I entered the information on all the
Shelters in our county into the computer database, I knew where the churches
were with all the nice things, like showers, Jen-Aire Ranges in the kitchen,
nice sleeping areas. Living in Lynchburg, VA and having no electricity for 10
days, taught me that the Red Cross would not come to rescue me. I had to call
them. Once I found that out, I was "prepared". ~Betty G"
During our emergency in Seattle, probably the most helpful
people, besides our utility crews, were our radio hosts. They spent hours doing
people-to-people broadcasting. Those who were able to help others would call in
with offers of help, and those in need called in asking for help.
It was heartbreaking to hear the voices of those who were so cold
and hungry and so worried about their families. It only got worse as the time
went on, and people ran out of wood and other supplies.