Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 19, 2012

Guest Opinion: Is Palo Alto prepared to deal with the Big One?

by Divya Saini

BANG! The entire house went dark. I stumbled around my room, disoriented, not knowing what had happened. I looked out the window and stared at the pitch-black block in front of me. The power had gone out.

I found myself asking why the power had disappeared so abruptly. Don't we live in Palo Alto? This sort of thing never happens here. Appalled, I blindly rummaged through the cupboards, as boxes fell on me, until I finally found a flashlight. The batteries, however, were nowhere to be found.

In the midst of the darkness my father opened his laptop to use the screen as a flashlight when a warning sign popped up on his laptop reminding him of the 10 percent battery remaining. Our phones were dead without electricity, and my brother had just tumbled down half the stairs while questioning frantically about whether he needed to "stop, drop, and roll" or "drop, cover, and hold." I picked him up as the rest of the family went on a quest in search of a Band-Aid, which we were never able to find.

Then, there was a loud knock on our door. My mother and father went silent; I felt a cringe of fear creeping into my stomach. All three of us huddled together, my father in front, as we approached the door.

The knocking continued. It grew more frantic. We stood by our door, not knowing what to do as we heard a woman wailing on the other side. My mom slowly creaked opened the door as we realized that the lady was our neighbor from across the street. In between the mix of her anxiety attack of nervous shaking and later her inconsolable sobbing, the discombobulated lady expressed her fear that we were in the midst of a terrorist attack.

The power came back on four or five hours later, and eventually, we all laughed about it, but it was during the moments of the incident, that a new reality dawned on me.

This time it had been a simple power outage, but what if it had been an earthquake? What if buildings had collapsed and people had been hurt? We surely wouldn't have been able to call 911, and thanks to our ignorance of these dangers, we wouldn't have had a simple first-aid kit. What would we have eaten for the next couple days? These questions continued as my mind went wild with these "what ifs."

Because of this experience, I got interested, and soon, deeply immersed in learning more about preparedness. I gathered legions of information and learned ways to proactively prepare for an emergency. I started by preparing my household and moved on to preparing my neighborhood.

When I started working with the community, my efforts were quickly recognized. At the beginning of this year, I was nominated and selected to serve on FEMA's first federal National Youth Preparedness Council. I am one of 13 teens across the nation serving on this board and am representing Region 9 of the United States, which includes California, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Guam, and the American Samoa.

During my first Youth Preparedness Council Meeting in Washington D.C. earlier this year, I found myself surrounded by like-minded teen advocates. There was, however, a key difference between the rest of the board members and myself. During our various discussions, they would recount stories about times when their communities had gotten through hurricanes and tornadoes, wildfires and floods. They recounted events of their families pulling out their emergency supplies, setting up shelters, providing first aid, eating and drinking from their emergency supplies, and the list went on. I found myself unable to say anything remotely similar about Palo Altans. Although natural disasters can strike anywhere at anytime, I realized that, as Palo Altans, we are blessed to be able to live without the constant worry of when the next hurricane or blizzard would strike.

I forced myself to believe that this was the reason that Palo Altans weren't investing in preparedness efforts. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this excuse wasn't adequate because we practically live on the San Andreas fault, in one of the most earthquake-prone areas in the entire world.

Living in an area with an immensely high earthquake probability, which practically ensures a high-impact earthquake, I came to the conclusion that the only thing hindering Palo Altans from taking a step in preparedness was their immensely fast-paced, regimented lives. People simply don't have the time, to take a moment, and to think about preparedness. It is from 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. work days that I noticed my parents coming home to then go on to drop us to piano lessons, art classes and play dates. My brother's 6 p.m. soccer game, my father's 6:30 presentation, 7 dinner, and the 8-11 p.m. after-work that left my family, and almost every other, with absolutely no time to think about disaster preparedness. It was almost impossible for us to see the bigger picture, to see that we were putting and living our lives in danger. It was an accomplishment to get everything done during the day, and beyond that, we simply didn't see anything else.

There is no doubt in my mind that Palo Altans are supportive and caring people because I am witness to the countless numbers of them donating and helping with the relief efforts whenever disasters strike around the world. Yet I want people to understand that they need to help themselves, as well. I want people to know that the disaster doesn't always strike somewhere else. I want to motivate the community to invest in personal preparedness, and to make time to prepare before any disaster strikes. After all, wouldn't it be better to be prepared, and for the disaster to never strike, than for the disaster to strike and to not be prepared?

In my next column I will discuss the simple 4-step process that anybody can follow to become prepared. The process has been made as simple as possible, and only needs willing participants to subscribe and to invest time in becoming prepared proactively.

Let's work together. Let's make a change. Let's have a plan. Let's become prepared.

Divya Saini is a junior at Gunn High School and a member of FEMA's first federal National Youth Preparedness Council.

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