The ground is shaking violently. Family heirlooms and knickknacks are flying like projectiles off walls and shelves. Glass is shattering, and the rolling motion seems to go on forever.
When the "Big One" strikes, residents could find their homes uninhabitable, and figuring out how to live in the hours, days and weeks after a major disaster will become their No. 1 concern.
The scenario is the focus of a Sept. 11 disaster drill planned for Barron Park residents, who will erect a tent city at Juana Briones Park.
It won't be a neighborhood picnic. People will have to bring their own tents, water and food. Grills won't be allowed. There will be no electricity for the duration of the event, which runs from 3:30 p.m. till 10 a.m. the next day.
Some surprise incidents, mimicking possible real-life disaster scenarios, are planned to test people's responses, according to event coordinator Lydia Kou.
Dubbed "Quakeville," the drill is designed to shake people out of their denial.
Quakeville will kick off a series of citywide disaster-preparedness events throughout September and October. Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt and the Palo Alto/Stanford Citizen Corps Council have declared September as Emergency Preparedness Month citywide.
Other organizations have piloted tent-city disaster preparations. The Bakersfield Memorial Hospital created a tent city earlier this year as part of its emergency drills for an H1N1 virus surge, according to the California Hospital Association.
Quakeville will put disaster preparedness into the hands of the citizenry, who will be the first on the ground to deal with neighborhood emergencies, Kou said.
"It's exciting because it involves all citizens. In the past, drills involved emergency volunteers only," said Kou, who also is co-chair of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods block-preparedness-coordinator program and is a Barron Park Neighborhood Association disaster-prep leader.
Kou said Quakeville will help give residents a sense of what they might encounter, and need, when forced out of their homes and into close contact with many other people.
"Will you need earplugs in case the person sleeping in the tent next to you snores? Will you need hay-fever medicine? How will you entertain yourself and your kids?"
Quakeville could become an integral part of Palo Alto's emergency-preparedness training in future years, if successful, according to Kelly Morariu, Palo Alto's assistant to the city manager. The Palo Alto City Council named emergency preparedness as one of the city's top priorities for 2010.
Morariu and some City Council members are expected to attend.
"We're very supportive. It's a good test run. It's hard to know what will happen in a disaster," she said.
Quakeville residents will also get a tour of the city's new $300,000 mobile emergency-operations command unit, which will play a key role in communications and coordination when a disaster strikes and other communication systems fail.
The council will hold a study session on Sept. 13 on emergency preparedness and will discuss the mobile-command vehicle and its capabilities, Morariu said.
Annette Glanckopf Ashton, chair of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods committee for disaster preparedness, said the city's support of Quakeville signals new support for community-based preparedness. Palo Alto Neighborhoods' block-preparedness coordinator program, which has been funded almost entirely by residents, received a $20,000 grant from the city in late June.
"Sept. 11 is a very appropriate day for people to come together to commemorate friendships and lives lost," she said, adding that the city is encouraging other neighborhoods to hold block parties on Sept. 11 to build community connections.
"It's an act of remembrance," she said.
Residents will have a block party focusing on block preparedness in her Midtown neighborhood, she said.
Kou said she hopes to expand the annual drill, with sites at Mitchell and Rinconada parks next year.
Barron Park residents interested in joining Quakeville must pre-register. On drill day, they'll check in and set up tents at reserved spots.
For volunteer block-preparedness coordinators and other volunteer responders, Quakeville will be a golden opportunity, Kou said.
"Volunteers never had this opportunity. It will be an eye-opener for us," she said.
One area she hopes to resolve is what to do with pets. For the Sept. 11 event, organizers are encouraging people not to bring their animals. But at tent city they'll look for ways to resolve that concern, she said.
Palo Alto residents who aren't part of Quakeville will have opportunities in the coming weeks to take part in disaster-preparedness events.