One of the things I love about my native UK is the fact that there are no earthquakes—or mountain lions, for that matter. (Actually earthquakes do exist, but they're so small I would hazard to say most Brits don’t even know they do.) Back home, catastrophic acts of nature seem to be confined to flooding. But I have chosen to live more than half my life in earthquake zones, and specifically in cities that are expecting the Big One: Tokyo and San Francisco.
I spent almost a decade in Tokyo and loved it, but the knowledge that almost 100 years ago, the Great Kanto Earthquake killed 142,000-plus people left me with no illusions about the devastation a Big One could wreak. I won’t say I became manic after my first serious trembler (and there were many to come), but I gained a new perspective on life. I realized that the Japanese live with a sense of looming disaster, and that traditional Japanese architecture and design was built with this in mind: wooden structures that can sway in a quake, furniture low to the floor (nothing to fall on top of you), paper scrolls hung on the wall (no frames with glass), and, most impressive of all, a set of tansu (stacking wood drawers) that at a moment’s notice can be packed with family treasures and easily carried out of the house. Everyone was trained to be earthquake ready, and I took note.
So the other day, when a 6.0 earthquake violently shook our one-story Napa Valley cottage—so much so that I could hear the water sloshing out of the pool next door—I sprung into action. Ever since I felt my first trembler in Tokyo, I'd been preparing for this moment. Here's what I learned along the way.
Keep footwear at the ready. Woken by the recent quake, I leapt out of bed and the first thing I did was put on my leather-soled Moroccan slippers (over the years I've subconsciously gotten into the habit of placing them facing out from the bed, ready to go), and in the dark, I quickly navigated a fallen mirror as I headed out of the room. One of the most common injuries in this quake was cut feet.
Have flashlights on hand. We had just moved into our house, and I had no idea where we had put our flashlights. We had been diligent in the past about having several strategically placed. Our iPhones with their flashlight apps proved our savior. Note to self: Keep iPhone charged.
Above: Prop at your own risk; mirrors in the bath at Les Sources de Caudalie in Bordeaux.
Nail down what you can. Our bedroom mirror, which we hadn't gotten around to hanging, was rocked to the ground during the quake. Hang everything is my motto (but not above the bed). In Napa, falling objects caused a lot of damage, bookshelves and books in particular—after the quake, a couple had to be dug out from a mound of their favorite volumes that had tumbled onto them. Hang art (rather than propping it against walls), but avoid walk-through areas—if the frames fall and the glass breaks, the path will be treacherous
Position beds a good distance from windows. There were plenty of broken windows in Napa too. I have always placed beds away from windows when possible. Our last house was too small to do that, so I had my daughter sleep with her head away from the panes.
Above: To be avoided in earthquake country: Bookshelves above a bed, as seen here in a European home. Photograph via Elle Maison.
Consider landing patterns. When I set up a room, I always look to see where heavy objects and their contents would fall in a quake. Is the wardrobe far enough away from the bed? Does any of the furniture need to be anchored to the wall?
Keep doors open. Should the house slump, a closed door could get jammed shut. And so ever since our children were little, my husband and I have always kept bedroom doors slightly ajar at night.
Above: Consider using drawers instead of cupboards for storing crockery. Shown here, Hansen Kitchen Cabinets from Denmark.
Stow breakables in secure drawers. Plenty of friends had the contents of their cupboards strewn about in the quake. Consider keeping plates and other ceramics in deep drawers, and if you're truly concerned about losing breakables, try installing SeismoLatches, automatic earthquake-activated cabinet latches.
Above: A plate by Makoto Kagoshima, one of several ceramic pieces that I have on display.
Remember that objects are replaceable. I leave out several cherished ceramic pieces on shelves, knowing that one day they may go. I think about where I place them, but I also remind myself that they're just stuff. I would rather enjoy them on a daily basis than store them.
Breathe. In my first post-quake yoga class the other week, our teacher reminded us that in a crisis, breathing deeply is a good way to stay calm and keep a clear mind. Although this quake was terrifying, I felt strangely unfazed knowing that I had been preparing for it for a while. What's scary is the fact that at 6.0, this one was probably just a practice run.
Please note that while I obsess over certain aspects of quake preparedness, I'm not entirely up to speed on all: I didn't, for instance, know how to turn off the gas, nor did we have a supply of water at the ready (although we did fill the bathtub). For official guidelines, visit the Red Cross site. SF Gate also has good instructions on how to make your own Earthquake Preparedness Kit. Also, on October 14, 13.9 million people around the world will be taking part in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills, open to all.