Berkeley residents Linda Worthman, Azimat Schulz, Susan Brooks, and Margaret Goyette at a Berkeley disaster preparedness training. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter
Clockwise, l to r: Berkeley residents Linda Worthman, Azimat Schulz, Susan Brooks, and Margaret Goyette at a Berkeley disaster preparedness training workshop. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter

By Eli Wirtschafter / KALW 

We all know we’re supposed to prepare for earthquakes, but how many of us really have a plan?

I was aware that after a catastrophic earthquake, I shouldn’t count on first responders and the fire department. They’re going to be overwhelmed, maybe for days. Still, I didn’t have any kind of plan for the inevitable — until recently, when I moved to a new neighborhood in Berkeley.

Read more about disaster preparedness in Berkeley.

On a sunny afternoon shortly after relocating, I see a troop of my neighbors doing an emergency drill. They have clipboards, hard hats and bright yellow vests. They seem to know what they are doing. I’ve lived in several different neighborhoods in the East Bay, and I’ve never seen a block so well prepared.

The drill is taking place three doors down from me. I find out that after a serious earthquake, my neighbors and I are supposed to gather there to do triage.

Berkeley CERT instructors Bill Springer and Shawn Conners. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter
Berkeley CERT instructors Bill Springer and Shawn Conners. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter

A disaster treasure trove

The house belongs to my neighbors Steve Greenberg and Liz Varnhagen. I missed most of the drill, so I catch up with them later to find out what the plan is for our neighborhood.

In the backyard, they show me a big, gray, plastic shed. Inside is a stash of emergency supplies for the whole neighborhood. Steve says that they volunteered to host it temporarily nine years ago, “and it’s been here ever since.”

In the city of Berkeley, any neighborhood can apply for one of these caches. They’re worth $3,000-$4,000. And the city will pay for it, if the neighborhood can meet certain standards.

My neighbors demonstrated that the group was well-organized, and that enough of them had taken emergency preparedness classes. The purpose of the cache program is as much to encourage residents to take classes as it is to provide equipment.

The city says this program is the first of its kind. To date, they’ve delivered over 100 caches to different neighborhoods.

Steve unlocks the shed and shows me what’s inside.

“There’s no food or water,” he points out.

That’s something I have to take care of on my own. But the shed is a treasure trove of other kinds of survival equipment.

Some of the contents are what you might expect, like protective equipment, a big first-aid kit, and a generator. There are also things that are totally unfamiliar, at least to me.

Steve shows me a handheld firefighting device called a back-pump. It’s a kind of backpack full of water, with a little metal hose sticking out. Steve puts it on to demonstrate.

It’s a good thing he tests it, because the pump isn’t working. Steve later alerted the higher-ups in the city that the equipment might be rusting.

Steve was around for the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. He went down and volunteered at a Red Cross shelter where displaced people were camping out. He says it had an impact on him.

Liz Varnhagen and Steve Greenberg with the disaster cache. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter
Liz Varnhagen and Steve Greenberg with the disaster cache. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter

“Any such experience always makes you think about, ‘Well, what worked, what didn’t work? How could I be personally better prepared, how can I better help other people?’”

People like me, with absolutely no earthquake plan.

I ask Steve what would happen if I was trapped in my basement. He says they would send out a team of neighbors to search for the missing. They would have search-and-rescue equipment from the cache, but they would need to know how to use it.

The whole system depends on my neighbors taking the kind of emergency preparedness classes that Steve has done. He warns me that using the equipment without proper training “could be more dangerous than helpful.”

I want to be helpful, not dangerous. So I go to a free class in my neighborhood, put on by the city of Berkeley.

CERT training

The instructors at the class are big fans of my neighbor Steve. One of them, Bill Springer, calls him “one of the sweetest, most wonderful, most organized, virtually brilliant, Einstein-like person I’ve ever met in my life.”

Like Steve, Bill enjoys getting prepared for an earthquake. But for most people, disaster readiness doesn’t sound so fun. At the training with me are 14 Berkeley citizens who have somehow resisted the urge to procrastinate.

One of them, Maggie Heffernan, sounds like she’d prefer to spend a Saturday morning anywhere else. She tells me: “I don’t feel like doing this, but I’m doing it! In case we have a major disaster, I don’t want to be totally in the dark.”

This type of training is known as a CERT class. CERT is short for Community Emergency Response Team. The concept originated in Los Angeles and is now implemented internationally.

Participants mark up a scenario map. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter
Participants mark up a scenario map. Photo: Eli Wirtschafter

Berkeley provides a number of free CERT classes. Some teach hands-on skills, like how to pull people out of the rubble. Today’s class is a little more cerebral, but no less important. We’re learning how to operate a command post — like what Steve’s backyard would become after a disaster.

The whole point, says instructor Bill Springer, is to be organized.

“Having people go around willy-nilly [is] horribly unsafe,” he says.

So we break up into response teams. Each group gathers around a table with a map of a made-up neighborhood. It’s Berkeley, so the streets have names like Yogurt Way and Veggie Court.

Margaret Goyette, an accountant taking the class, says the scenario made her feel more prepared.

“But the more prepared you feel, the more you realize you’ve got a lot of work to go,” she says.

“The city is not prepared unless everybody in the city is prepared,” Bill says. “Remember the old ’60s statement that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem? Well, we don’t want anybody to be a problem, or have a problem. We want everyone to be self-sufficient and able to help their neighbors who are in trouble.”

I’ve been counting on my neighbor Steve to save me. But maybe I need to get a little more proactive.

The city of Berkeley is holding a free emergency preparedness fair Saturday, April 30, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  at Civic Center Park, 2151 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (at Center St.), Berkeley.

This story was produced by KALW and was first published on March 21.

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