Ashes fell like rain and smoke drowned out the fiery red sun on our cozy Southern California beach town in October of 2007. The news reported that 1500 homes were lost in what is considered the worst fire disaster in San Diego County. At the time, I was a local non-profit chapter director and was receiving numerous calls and emails from eager volunteers looking to help. The American Red Cross already had boots on the ground and evacuation centers and shelters were being put in place. The unpredictability of the wildfires made setting up locations difficult as things can change in an instant.
The smell of smoke engulfed our home and the news reported out of control fires throughout the city. The nearest fire burned five miles away and it wouldn’t have taken much for the wind to have shifted or floating embers to ignite a new fire. We live near a grove of eucalyptus trees and fires spread quickly and sometimes even explode under extreme heat. It could have been the perfect fire storm in our neighborhood.
The recorded message from the reverse 911 encouraged all residents in our neighborhood to evacuate.
My nerves started to unravel as the call confirmed the urgency. As a mother of four, my greatest concern was for our four-year-old boy with asthma and life-threatening allergies, and our four-month baby girl as they were the most vulnerable to the dangerously unhealthy air quality.
My mind started to bring up all of the “what ifs”. I wanted out now!
Escape to L.A.
As the air quality deteriorated and the wild fires spread and soot covered our car like snow, we needed to get out of the city to safer, cleaner ground. With nothing prepared other than what we could pull together fast, we loaded the car and headed north to Los Angeles. I managed to grab my son’s nebulizer machine for his asthma but discovered if you are breathing in really bad air, medicine or not, you are going to feel horrible.
Freeways were jammed as city officials encouraged people to leave. We traveled on one of the three main highways out of the city and it felt like a scene out of an apocalyptic movie. With windows rolled up, traffic that stretched for miles, and scared children in tow, it was amazing to think I never gave any thought of being disaster prepared for our family, especially with a child with dietary restrictions and asthma and an infant.
Over the years in my job as a coordinator for a non-profit organization, I had received dozens of emails and calls from organizations and churches requesting extra funds, supplies, volunteers, prayers and anything else we could provide for their disaster. Yet, I personally had done nothing to prepare! You might say I was a physician who needed to, “Heal thyself!”
As traffic moved sluggishly along, our car was directly alongside a fire burning next to the freeway at Camp Pendleton, a military training base with miles of open land. It was just left to burn. My guess is that most engines were already preoccupied with other fires although my husband’s theory is that it was just left to burn out. We could feel the heat even with the windows rolled up. I felt boxed in and claustrophobic. Strangely, the only sense of real comfort was to know the ocean was to the west of us and within view. I wanted to see water. It somehow brought a bit of psychological comfort and relief.
Los Angeles was ablaze in many locations and air quality wasn’t much better. I spent the night at my brother’s home, sleeping on the bathroom floor with the shower on trying to bring relief through steam to my son while getting up to nurse. I had delivered a baby the summer prior and feeling hormonally challenged was an understatement when my night ended with no sleep on a cold, hard floor. This night will forever be etched in my mind. Overall, a small hiccup if you stacked it up against a major disaster where there is massive loss of life, but enough to get my attention.
What is the disaster prepared mindset, you may be wondering?
It starts with the realization that disaster preparedness is as important as saving for college or obtaining life, car, medical, or any other kind of insurance your family may need. I was aware of the “To Do’s” on the government checklist, but didn’t connect the dots. Disaster planning was for the “extreme” type. Here is my true confession: I didn’t have the time, patience or space to think about it.
Today, my attitude has changed. Our family is more vigilant about what is recommended to be prepared. After being laid off from a 15-year position, my goal was to launch a disaster preparedness business and blog that helps busy moms prepare their homes based on the biblical principles of the Proverbs 31 woman who I consider a “Master Preparer” for her family. She lives by faith, not fear and is described as being able, “to laugh at the days to come.” I feel moms are the heartbeat of the home and if I could help them understand why and how they should prepare, perhaps more would consider it important enough.
A disaster prepared mindset means you are ready mobilize quickly and be self sustaining for the first 72 hours (some experts recommend longer) following a disaster. If you are prepared, then you can help others, too! This experience and desire for my own business encouraged me to become a CERT team member (Community Emergency Response Team) ) and become more educated and connected with those who care about the safety of their communities.
“Gone in 60 seconds”
Could you prepare to be out of your home in sixty seconds? “Gone in Sixty Seconds” was a popular 1970’s movie about a desperate master thief who learned to steal a car within seconds. If a crook can learn to do it, then we can make it our goal to have enough prepared that we could flee at a moment’s notice.
In retrospect, it would have been smart to have had a “To Go” bag of supplies, extra water, special foods for our son and infant, as well as snacks for the older ones and a backup of crucial documents ready to go or already secured off-site. Online backup systems for our computers and laptops should have been in place to ensure our precious pictures and work files were saved. A list of our home assets and photos of the items would have been useful to ensured proper documentation for insurance companies. We didn’t have a pet at the time, but we do now and he gets a “to go” doggie bag.
We got a “pass” this time around as my home and neighborhood were saved. This was a great lesson for our whole family about how crucial it is to be prepared.
For the hundreds of families who lost everything, their stories ended much differently. We hope and pray their lives and fortunes have been restored to normal.
This was my final wake-up call. What will it take for you?
Guest post by Tara.