Friday, May 10, 2013

Northridge Earthquake, Pt. IV

After several days of bouncing around, a shelter was opened literally across the street from my apartment. We were both immediately assigned to coordinate medical care there.

At the beginning, the Red Cross had opened all the shelters, but by 3 days in, it was clear they were over their heads, and the Salvation Army was in the on-deck circle.

For reference, in SoCal, unless it's a major brush fire (or a once-in-a-century 7.0 earthquake), the Red Cross mainly only ever has to deal with a few dozen people displaced by an apartment fire, or their house burning down, and a voucher for Motel 6 , along with toothbrushes and shampoo, is usually all that's required.

With tens of thousands of people in unstable buildings, without power or running water, including those motels, that approach wasn't going to cut it.

And BTW, national HQ, FEMA, and anyone else was utterly MIA for more than the first 72 hours. If this had been a noontime quake, and there were 50,000 dead all over town, panic, chaos, and disorder would have reigned unhindered, because no one is ready to be anywhere for that kind of catastrophe, and they never will be.

Lesson Fifteen:
Disasters are come-as-you-are. Being ready to handle things COMPLETELY on your own for the first 72 hours is a minimum. Start thinking in term of "first 30 days", not "first 3 days."

OTOH, the Salvation Army houses millions of people, around the world, 24/7/365, since about 1870.

Consequently, ARC would find an intact HS gym, and set up 200 cots.
In our case, the Salvation Army whistled up 5 circus-sized tents, holding 500 people each, and they were still putting up more every day right up to the day they started to close.

But (and it's an important "but"), they had no more idea of first aid, health, and sanitation, than they did of quantum physics. Which was where I and Co. came in kind of handy.

The shelter mgr.'s first question was "Hey, there's a kid here with active chicken pox. Is that a problem?"

Well, except for the fact that you have 500 adults, kids, and pregnant women living in close proximity every day, no, not at all. Because there's nothing like adding "epidemic" on top of "disaster" to really make things fun, right?

But unlike the ARC, who would most likely simply have thrown the offending family out on the street, the Salvation Army instead whistled them up a small private tent, in a quarantine compound, with their own portajohn, and delivered meals to the family. Crisis averted.

My wife and I weren't the only help we had, and thank heavens for that. We had two RNs who, separately, decided to simply jump in their cars, drive down to us from Portland and Seattle, book their own motel rooms nearby, but outside the affected area, and just pitch in. God bless them. Their motel bills were instantly covered by the powers that were in charge. And two local docs, one retired, one just underutilized, became our on-site clinic docs.

So suddenly I, an EMT and nursing student, had two MDs and two RNs working for me. Which, they happily admitted, made the most sense. I knew the resupply and admin systems, and they concentrated on doing the care. So we set up morning, afternoon, and evening sick call clinics, each doc assisted by a nurse and either my wife or I. The two of us got to walk 1 minute to work daily, sleep in our own beds, and start cleaning up the flotsam and jetsam of our lives while still helping other a lot worse off.

Lesson Sixteen:
Walk-in angels are literally a godsend. I understood why one old school missionary famously said "Don't just pray for miracles, RELY on them." It's impossible to overstate how much they were worth in this and many other instances.

And what a clinic it turned into. We had a cafeteria for our location, so we had tile floors and a clean indoor space with lots of window light. And we had the same parade of folks who'd run barefoot across floors strewn with debris, and the same daily regimen of picking out the fragments, cleaning and dressing the wounds, then repeating things the next day.

Kaiser Hospital, in their quest to get everyone able out of the hospital (which was protocol, for both room for the expected more serious cases, and because they didn't have running water either, or power after Day 3), discharged one woman who'd given birth an hour beforehand, with her newborn. Into darkened streets at 5:30 AM the day of the quake, they handed her husband a bag of diapers, a carton of formula, and fond wishes of best of luck, and rolled her and their newborn out the door in a wheelchair. So we had a 2-day old and post-partum mother to deal with from the get go, among our other 2000 patients.

My wife and I became the 9-1-1 service for our mini-city, making walkie talkie dispatched housecalls to every skinned knee or other mishap, and transporting via wheelchair back to the clinic, the doc, and the nurse, for anything that needed that.

We also had, by this time, the only effective government response I saw during the entire quake: a Marine and Navy reserve unit had set up a GP tent, and begun doing water purification for the whole shelter, for washing and bathing, rigged to drain into the city's giant open rainstorm drains (the executive decision was that Santa Monica Bay could just suck it up and take the hit). They were awesome, squared away, and a great thing to have. One day, a Marine Corps brigadier general came through inspecting how things were working, and being only a couple years' post discharge from active duty, I somehow ended up at attention (I remembered not to salute, but I could feel my arm trying to go there) as he came into view entering our aid station.

We had our own police force too. In this case, the LAPD Metro unit that normally busted druggies at LAX (the airport being shut down by the quake for those first days) was in tactical jumpsuits, and assigned to watch over our little flock. That immediately solved all law enforcement problems, period. They were quietly patrolling everywhere, and what was normally a sketchy HS campus became instead one of the safest communities in the city for a couple of weeks.

We also had the local "bottle drop". Once the news put out the shelter locations, local residents would come by to either get bottled water, or drop it off. You can talk all the smack you want about CA people, or those in L.A., but I'm here to tell you you're talking out your back end. On my first day there, we had water bottles by the ton free for the taking, by the case if necessary, 5' across, 3' high, and stretching along our aid station/cafeteria outside wall for 15'. By three days later, with constant pickups, and drop offs, we had the same thing, except it then extended for 50'. People brought more than we could give away.

People also brought their kids there to help out, and they'd also pull up, ask us or the shelter manager what else we needed, they'd go find or buy it somewhere, god knows how, and bring it back to us within an hour or two. At the time it was unbelievable, and in retrospect it was phenomenal.

Lesson Seventeen:
Local, Local, LOCAL! What you have, right there, is what you WILL have. Learn it, live it, love it, and improve hell out of it before you need it. Because one day, sooner or later, you WILL need it. And probably very badly.

Other than the whole earthquake and people dying thing, the rest of the first week at that shelter was nigh-on idyllic.

The following week, work and schools resumed city-wide. A few days after that, they cold-started the entire LA DWP grid (unsure whether that would work, as it had never been tried) and we had power back on Day 12. Boil Water orders remained in effect for a month, and the tap water smelled like pool water from the chlorination, but it was on, and you could wash and bathe once power came back on.

I had another semester of nursing school to attend, reminded of that fateful morning five times a day, as every clock in every hospital was stopped at 4:31. One hospital rotation found me in a building with three concentric rings around a central tower, five floors tall. A sample of the quake's power was that all the wings had separated from the central core by about 4 inches, and there were sheets of 3/4' plywood over the gaps on every floor, while you could look out sideways through the gaps and see the mountains miles away, and a reinforced tarp kept the rain out overhead at the top floor. They eventually just cast in place some extra wall to seal it up again, months afterwards.

Local malls were closed, the one in Northridge itself for months, because massive amounts of it had given way. Some weeks after the earthquake, the local Red Cross staff supervisor, the same one who regularly gave us a dose of the ass by her incessant undercutting of our activities and whining that First Aid services were optional, and not part of Red Cross' government-mandated missions (which was stupid and short-sighted, but true), fell all over herself to thank us for literally saving hers and the city's bacon on the day, because their disaster planning and preparedness was total horsecrap. That honeymoon lasted about 6 months, and then they promptly forgot all those lessons.

She also had the wit to ask several of us for ideas on where to pre-stage supplies and whatnot in advance for the next time, which we all thought was a sterling idea, since they'd only had 23 years since the Sylmar earthquake to totally ignore such an obvious bit of commonsense planning. Apparently, you can pull people's heads out of their asses, but it's tough to get them to open their eyes even then.

My suggestion, then as now, was to make deals to secure a small fenced compound at some remote corner of every local mall, inclusive, for 2-4 conex boxes minimum of "shelter/supplies in a box", because after the disaster, the malls were all closed, they had acres of hardtop parking for making an instant shelter/disaster HQ/or even heliport if necessary, they all had easy road access built in, were patrolled 24/7 by security, and no mall would miss a small corner for the purpose, esp. since they could call it a charitable donation and write it off. Given the things you can do and put inside a 40' conex box, you could even pre-rig them as hospital/clinics, radio centers, and disaster offices in advance.

Apparently, it was such a genius idea that they have failed to do that, or anything like it, from that day to this, and come the next earthquake, about a month later, they'll once again be looking for new ideas to ignore. As it is, within a few years afterwards, First Aid Services as I had known it, ceased to exist in the entire city. Best of luck next time, because I don't live there now.

Lesson Eighteen:
If there's a disaster, besides having made your own personal/family preparations to survive or evacuate, I highly recommend you know at least EMT-level first aid.
And that you take that expertise over to the Salvation Army, who can run rings around anyone else at sheltering and caring for victims in a disaster, 6 days a week and twice on Sunday.

1 comment:

marlin450 said...

Great read and very useful information, the Salvation Army is one of the few that I donate to as they seem to be there to help as much as they can and do not worry so much about getting good PR. Great advice about preparing for emergencies.