Disaster Preparedness: Lessons from Japan

Intended Audience
Although I am not a professional in disaster preparedness, I have experienced a number of disasters in Japan and the USA over 30+ years, and I learned from each one. This presents the mindset and items useful for each situation. This information will best serve those who are preparing their first disaster preparedness kit and just want to make sure that they have a wide range of scenarios covered.

No Single Solution
Each person’s situation and crisis is unique, no one-size-fits-all solution. You could live in an urban or rural area, and you could be hit by an earthquake or a flood. Each case calls for different actions. Still, when faced with a crisis, your first choice will be whether to 1) Escape or 2) Hunker down at your current location.
Washington, DC, July 22, 2008 — A Red Cross “ready to go” preparedness kit showing the bag and it’s contents. Red Cross photograph

The basics of your kit should include first-aid and hygiene supplies, a cellphone or other means of communication, and power source. Ready.gov has a great list of supplies, including a downloadable list, and you can buy ready-made kits at Amazon.

Power Outages
The common thread for most disasters is power outages. I cannot tell if the power grid is more vulnerable than 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s clear that we have an increased reliance on electric power – all-electric homes, electric cars, battery-powered devices, and electronic networks for shopping. When the grid fails, gas stations will close,  most stores will be closed, and ATMs will be shut down. If you can find a store that is open, cash will be a necessity.

Power Generator Options
  • Natural Gas Generator
Best and most reliable option for backup power during an outage. This is installed in your home and switches the power source from the grid to natural gas when you lose power. Installation costs start at $5,000.
The Honda EU1000i Gas Inverter Generator, which includes an inverter for providing stable power to sensitive electronics, can run at half capacity to provide 5 hours of power from only 0.5 gallon of gas. This must be used outdoors, and so this may not be an option for some urban environments.
The high-capacity power bank can be used indoors and can typically provide 2 to 8 hours of power depending on its capacity and the connected devices, but then it requires a power source (solar or electric) to be recharged. This can be paired with a foldable solar panel to help provide power in an outage.

Various Scenarios
Your exact preparation (before crisis) and action (after crisis) will be determined by how the crisis unfolds. For a flood, tsunami, or nuclear plant leak, obviously, you will escape, and your emergency bag will be the key. For earthquakes, the decision to escape or hunker down will depend on the safety and resources available at your location.
The elevated highway collapsed when a major 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Kobe.

Lessons from the 1995 Kobe Earthquake
In the 1995 Kobe earthquake, many structures became uninhabitable, and people had to take refuge in evacuation centers. Even if people’s homes were still standing, many underground gas lines and water lines were cut, which also forced others to evacuate. Fires were continually breaking out in Kobe city in the days following the earthquake, and so it was important to keep up to date on the latest situation in case you needed to evacuate. Forget about trying to gather supplies after an earthquake — It was extremely difficult to get bottled water and food in post-earthquake Kobe for weeks because so many supply lines were cut.
The Life Straw uses a microfiltration membrane to filter out 99.999999% of bacteria (including E.coli, Salmonella), 99.999% of parasites (including Giardia and Cryptosporidium), 99.999% of microplastics, as well as sand, dirt, and cloudiness.
The drawback is that this is for personal use only and you cannot store the filtered water or carry it around.
This is a variation of the Life Straw that allows you to carry around some water with you. Also great for camping!
If your water supply is cut off, but there are plenty of natural sources of water nearby, water purification tablets will enable you to use the nearby water without fear of contracting illness.
When the water mains were cut off in Kobe, you could sometimes get water from various central locations in the city. Having this type of portable container could allow you to stay at your location … although carrying it back could be a challenge (cart or dolly?).

Lessons from the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, Tsunami, and Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
Explosion at Fukushima Nuclear Plant
After the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan’s Tohoku region, the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster brought long-lasting damage to the Fukushima area, which was then known as the “Breadbasket of Japan” for its extensive farmland. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, there was a scramble to get iodine tablets and portable radiation detectors. I was unable to obtain any radiation detector in Japan — all of them were sold out — and so I had to get one from Russia. Recently, I saw that you can get a cellphone in Japan with a radiation detector function!
Potassium iodine (KI) tablets are taken as an emergency measure if you are in the vicinity of a nuclear disaster. Taking iodine tablets will fill your thyroid with non-radioactive iodine so that it will not absorb radioactive iodine. There are some health risks associated with potassium iodine, and so use with care. Normally, it is taken once only — It is NOT a supplement. Potassium iodine is explained in detail on the CDC website, including where it can be obtained. If you are in less danger (further distance) from the affected area, kelp tablets, which are a source of natural iodine, could be an alternative measure. Kelp should not be considered a substitute for potassium iodine tablets because the dosages are completely different. Because the half life of radioactive iodine (I-131) is only eight days, I-131 will dissipate significantly over several weeks, and so this measure is only necessary immediately after a nuclear accident.
A safe alternative to potassium iodine tablets if you’re not in the immediate vicinity of a nuclear accident and concerned about radiation exposure. Those in the immediate vicinity should follow CDC guidance about exposure.
Useful for checking whether food, objects, or locations are contaminated with radiation. One Amazon review for this product echoes my own experience:

I suggest everyone try to get one radiation detector just in case something happen. May 11 2011 [sic: March 11], when the Fukushima nuclear disaster happen, the radiation detector’s price rise five times suddenly, then after couple days all the market whatever on eBay or amazon are not available. Same as now 2020 May, after the coved 19 spread, all the thermometer on the market are gone.

Our Emergency Supplies
In the event of an evacuation, we have a short list of must-take items, including passports or other ID and our main laptop computer, which contains scanned copies of nearly all of our important documents.

Besides many of the items listed above, our emergency supplies for when we have to hunker down (not escape) also include:
These are our favorite AA size batteries because they discharge slowly compared to other types. If that is not a major concern, you can save money by ordering the Amazon brand AA rechargeable batteries.
Take the guesswork out of telling whether a battery needs to be charged or is just dead. This simple battery tester will save you time.
This charger will meet all of your charging needs — AAA and AA size plus 9V rectangular batteries. It can even charge rechargeable C and D batteries if you have them (unusual).
These holders or shells allow you to combine your AA batteries (up to 3) so that they can be used in devices that require D size batteries. Also available in C size.
High-brightness LED lantern with 1000 lumens. It has two types of light colors (daylight, warm) and is powered by 3 x D size batteries. This will help you keep the lights on when the power is out!
Smaller lantern at 185 lumens that is good for personal use. It uses 3 x AA batteries.
You can use matches together with Candles to provide lighting. Also, if you have a gas range, you can use matches to light your stove and range. However, in that case, you might want to consider a Multi-utility Lighter for safety.
Provides a lightweight and easily portable source of directed light. This uses an AA-size battery.
A headlamp frees your hands for other work — cooking, fixing things, etc., during a power outage. Gives you a free hand!
For heating during winter months. If you have access to hot water, such as with a gas or wood-burning stove, a hot water bottle can act as a personal heating device.
Do you have anything to share? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below!

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