Thursday, April 11, 2013

Northridge Earthquake, Pt. II

As evening wore on, it was time for some decisions. Wife was safe with her parents, and back in her happy place. No one was going to work or school anytime soon, as power and potable water supply were out of commission for the foreseeable future, indefinitely.

Having been, at that point, a Red Cross instructor and volunteer, routinely working events with hundreds to thousands of people, the best use of my time was going to be heading in, to see where they needed me most, which I did. I loaded my normal event jump bags, along with a Colt .45, under the heading of "just in case".

I would do so again, but you need to understand it was - in hindsight - the most worthless addition I could have selected. I know this will upset the curmudgeon legions of Jeff Cooper and Bert Gummer acolytes out there, but rather than being a theoretical understanding, mine has the quaint virtue of having seen trial amidst millions of victims, in multiple disasters besides this one. So pay attention.

Lesson Five:
In small, intermediate, and large disasters, where the rule of law prevails, most crooks/gangbangers/etc. are just as pants-wettingly scared $#!^less as you are, and just as worried about taking care of themselves, their families, and grandma as you are, and haven't yet organized to going shooting and looting.

Argue that as you will, I've been there and done that, so your "But what abouts...?" will not avail. Nota bene the key words "where rule of law prevails", and "yet", for the star pupils.

So I set out for HQ.
Which, predictably, was total chaos. You'd think the Red Cross, proudly tasked by Uncle Sam and Congress (just ask them) with being Large And In Charge in disasters, would have had the foresight to have, perhaps, a generator and store of fuel, for any HQ placed within the geographic limits of Earthquake Central Chapters. Sadly, but predictably, you'd be hopelessly disappointed to expect even the garden-variety level of forethought there. Fortunately, I and a number of cohorts had some contacts in the entertainment field, a group of circus performers who take generators with them on location everyfrickinwhere. Also heating and A/C, etc. So having made those contacts work, and with some homeowner and contractor-grade additions, there was power, light, and climate control. Ma Bell's POTS phones worked as advertised, whereas cell phones were largely a fantasy, so that was that. And the one part of ARC Disaster Services that hummed like a Swiss watch was the radio geeks office, with any number of comm links on radio up and running, and coordination with civil authorities. Geeks 1, Chaos 0.

It was determined that the best place for me was to handle medical response at the shelter set up in the main park in nearby San Fernando, so just at dusk, off I went.

As previously noted, every intersection with dead lights was an instant 4-way stop, without so instructing a soul. As I proceeded up the main drag of Sepulveda Blvd., I was witness to a peculiar phenomenon. Pulled up herringbone-style onto the grassy central median, for 15 miles in both directions, were cars from the surrounding apartment complexes, and entire families establishing tent cities in the middle of an 8-lane boulevard.

But why?
a) Most of the families were hispanic generally, and of Mexican heritage specifically.
b) Thus most had relatives (or been there themselves) who experienced, suffered, and perhaps were casualties in the then-recent Mexico City earthquake.
c) Mexico has some of the most modern earthquake building codes on the planet. Which, for a small mordida, the local building inspector will happily sign off on after overlooking the lack of certain annoyingly expensive items, such as rebar, in concrete structures.
d) Thus, the Mexican experience in earthquakes is, everything falls down on your head.
Hence their haste to establish digs out in the middle of the street, away from those deathtrap buildings. QED.

And oh, BTW, San Fernando was a small satellite independent city, surrounding the original Mission San Fernando of the late 1700s, and was about 90+% hispanic, IIRC. (I defer to actual census data.)

So after travelling the Homeless Highway, I arrived at the rec center in the midst of a large park. My personal cluelessness was brief, but notable as demonstrated by the following exchange. The only place to park was in a handicapped spot. I was dressed in uniform white shirt, black dress pants, and with foot-square ARC Xs in about three places, and carrying a stethoscope and aid bags. In front of the spot was a uniformed motorcycle officer of the San Fernando PD. As I pulled in and got out, I asked if there would be any problem parking in the handicapped spot, because I didn't want to get towed. Whereupon Officer Areyoukiddingme motioned to the surrounding park grounds. Upon which I saw some hundreds of cars and trucks parked all over the grassy fields, as far as the eye could penetrate in the gathering darkness. "Relax. I don't think anyone's getting any parking tickets tonight, doc." Well, duh, dorkbrains, I realized a bit belatedly.

I made my way into the shelter, and found the shelter manager. ARC manages shelters adequately, but generally in the greater L.A. area was used to accommodating perhaps an entire building's worth of people after a fire, usually in local motels with vouchers. Dealing with several millions was a bit more than they were up for. So he happily handed me the setting up of medical care for his minions, and use of the only alcove that would remain lighted 24/7 to place it in.

"We've got almost 1000 people inside the gym on cots, and the surrounding park estimate is 5 or more times that much. There's fast food wagons around back giving out hot food as long as you like McDonalds, and we've got plenty of bottled water to hand out around front. The gym goes dark at 10PM. But we have to turn the lights on every time there's an aftershock, because everyone bolts for the exits. We've had some injuries from that when they trample each other trying to get out. Let me know if you need anything, I've got to get back and call in to the main office for tomorrow's plans and needs."

And that was it. I, EMT and student nurse, was now Chief Medical Officer for upwards of 6000 people. I had one converted LAFD ambulance that had about half the medical supplies our group had begged, borrowed, or cajoled, and used for every normal event for some years. I also had two other medics, guys I'd worked with for the previous 3 years, and I'm not bragging to say they were shit-hot medics, easily the equal of anyone the city fire department could have sent, and better in many way, because we dealt with all the everyday stuff, not just the trauma. I also had the local CNN crew, because when the lights went out, we were in the only place they could run lights without waking up 1000 sleeping shelterees.

Once word got out that we had first aid services, it was on. The three of us triaged, sorted through, treated, bandaged, and released dozens upon dozens of people. And also saw hundreds looking for all sorts of everyday things we did (and didn't) have. Some of our stuff was getting critical, including something as pedestrian but vital, in terms of public health, as baby diapers.

And then, a miracle happens. Little hispanic guy in shirtsleeves comes in. With 5 guys in suits, and 15 uniformed cops behind him. Turns out, he's the mayor of San Fernando, God bless him.

"How are you guys doing?" he asks. Fine, say I. "Do you need anything? Anything at all?" he asks.

I let him know about the baby diapers, and a couple of other things.

He turns, literally snaps a finger, and says, "Dave, take care of these guys. Get them whatever they need." One suit, a police lieutenant, and two uniformed officers peel off, as the rest of the entourage continue into the shelter.

Suit and lieutenant confab after our requests. They tell us they have a drugstore up the street where we can probably get what we need, and now we have three police escorts. One of the other medics volunteers to go with them to the nearby drugstore immediately; problem handled.

He returns an hour later with the ambulance packed to the roof with medical and comfort items. The local drugstore mgr. was at the store when our lieutenant, two officers, and ARC van roll up. When they tell him what we need, and offer Red Cross vouchers, he says "Take everything. The store is a total loss, and I'll be pushing it all into trash dumpsters by the end of the week. You can have all you want, and come back for more." So my guy and two policemen push and load three shopping carts overflowing full, fill the rig, and make a second trip, before leaving the manager with that much less stuff to dispose of, or guard.

That, boys and girls, is how to run city hall. Thank you, Mayor Awesome, and SFPD.

While they're gone, I and the other medic have been spending our time doing, frankly, minor surgery. Because as soon as the shaking stopped that morning, every mom and dad ran across floors strewn with china, glass, etc., to find out if the kids were alright. And consequently had half the kitchen floor debris embedded in their bare feet. Usually finding the kids sound asleep in their beds.

Lesson Six:
When SHTF, put your boots on FIRST. Half dressed is half-assed.

And the local hospitals, obviously, are power and waterless for the most part, and what few have survived and have power (though no water but bottled) have closed to all but critical cases, which glass in the feet is not. So we spend the night painstakingly plucking and prying bits of glass, china, bric-a-brac, metal, wood furniture, toy car wheels, and the like, out of hundreds of moms' and dads' feet, cleaning them with betadine and BZK, bandaging them, and repeating the process until everything we can see is removed. And changing bandages daily until things heal. Also splinting broken fingers, feet, arms, etc., from people running through the house and playing dodgeball with dressers, refrigerators, bookshelves, TVs, and so on, and coming in second place. Along with a hundred other complaints, some that would have been in the local ER, and some fresh because of the disaster. And if I do say so, we did a damn fine job of it.

Lesson Seven:
There won't be an ER in a disaster. Build a serious kit, and get actual training, and real hands-on practice, long before you need it. Because need it you will.

Then, there were the hourly media reports. I spent the better part of the night chatting with one of the L.A. local CNN on-camera guys. He was outside the most affected area, but he and his guys were just as shaken up as everyone, including me, was. But every hour, they'd be ready to go live in front of our little aid station, and update the families far, far away that we all weren't dead.

I give a lot of well-deserved $#!^ to The Media. But that doesn't, for the most part, go to the men and women on-scene, or the (mostly) guys who're pointing the camera, and running the assorted geekery in the broadcast van. They're working for a living, doing a sometimes dangerous, generally necessary, and rarely heart-rending job, rather than spending their nights safe and sound with their families, and not for vast sums of money nor glory. Some of them are jackasses, but most of them are just doing their jobs, and usually doing them well. This crew was.

Some friends afterwards let me know they had seen me on TV while they were far away and trying to get back to SoCal, which to them signified just how terrible things were if I was anywhere near being in front of a camera. Thanks, guys, love ya.

Lesson Eight:
If the opportunity arises, work with the media. If you give them good information, they can put out good information. Don't shoot yourself in the foot, as long as they're not trying to load the gun for you.

Lastly, as the night wore on, there were multiple, even dozens, of aftershocks. Which sent everyone, or half of them, running and screaming to the exits. The main function of the shelter management crew was to immediately turn on the lights, and corral the impending stampedes, over and over again. Which they did, and avoided almost all the injuries of the panic-stricken idjits doing the stampeding.

And BTW, my takeaway to my instructor/AKA Fearless Leader of our happy little band of community first-aiders at the time was
a) thanks for preparing us really really well to cope with catastrophes like this, and
b) you forgot to mention that, being in the middle of Ground Zero, WE will be just as crap-your-pants panicked, stressed, and worried as everyone else. Even if we don't show it.

Lesson Nine:
You WILL be just as crap-your-pants panicked, stressed, and worried as everyone else. Keep it to yourself, deal with it, and carry on. Don't show it. Panic is contagious; so is competence and calmness.

Because, as expected, I found the best way to deal with all that, was to focus on solving other people's problems, rather than dwelling on my own.

To be continued...

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