|The desk I was at when it hit, and the door I spent the quake in|
In January of 2010, I was sitting in my room in the Hotel Caribe, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti sipping on a Coke. Haiti hadn’t experienced an earthquake in over 50 years, and all the risk assessments my team had done prior to our arrival had indicated that the greatest danger to us was from street crime or riots. My team had personal cell phones, and an Embassy-issued radio on the net operated by Post One. I won’t go into details concerning the quake, as a Google search can provide you with that information, but I would like to share several things I learned:
|The rest of my room and the door to the bathroom|
Lesson 1. Have a plan, practice it as much as you can, and don’t count on someone coming to save you. Emergency services in a catastrophic event (those that aren’t affected by the event) will be focused on the most severe injuries or most severely damaged areas. My team was required to submit a mission plan that included procedures for what to do in an emergency. To be honest, I didn’t do the best job of sitting down and thinking about what could happen. I blame it on personal complacency. By this point, I had completed 2.5 years of mobile training teams on 5 continents. Nothing had ever happened, and I was in the mindset that nothing ever would. My plan for everything was the same: call the Embassy. When the earthquake hit, the initial panic and injuries among personnel resulted in Post One having to assume control of the net and regulating traffic. If you weren’t severely injured, you weren’t getting through. We had a vehicle, but didn’t know how to get to the Embassy, and we didn’t have a map. We also had no weapons. If you read the news, you know that you don’t necessarily wander around certain parts of Haiti during normal daylight hours, much less when all security and social services just disappeared.
Lesson 2. Know your equipment and how to use it. My team was issued a medical kit from Adventure Medical Kits, designed to treat everything from a hot spot to a gunshot wound. Nobody on my team, myself included, had ever opened the kit to actually see what was in it, or read the field medicine guide that it contained. My team also had Ultimate Survival Kits in a bottle. Like the medical kit, we had never opened those kits, and we found ourselves digging through them in the dark trying to find the batteries to put in our flashlights. Our satellite phone required a password to use, and we had rarely used it outside of checking to see if the battery was charged. Under stress, the password was forgotten, and we ended up locking the phone out.
Lesson 3. Be prepared for a total communications failure. Due to the massive damage to the infrastructure, all cell phone service was lost. We locked out our satellite phone in the chaos, and the radio network was jammed with people needing assistance. The military teaches you to plan for a primary, secondary, and tertiary method of communications. We lost all three in a matter of minutes. During another natural disaster, Hurricane Rita, I was in Houston for the evacuation. As over 3 million people attempted to leave the city, all cell phone communication went down. The only comms that would go through were burst comms such as text or the old Sprint push-to-talk phones. And this happened before the hurricane even came ashore.
|The hallway outside my room|
Lesson 4. Stay calm. I know this sounds a little ridiculous, because you’ve been told this a thousand times. I can tell you that it is imperative, and a lot harder than it sounds. Once the world stopped shaking, the only thing I could think about was getting us out of the hotel. There were two exits from the hallway, one into the lobby, and one into a stairwell. The exit into the lobby was partially blocked by fallen debris, including what appeared to be electrical wiring. The exit toward the stairs was only slightly better. I was preparing to head down the hall toward the stairs when one of my guys pointed out that we were only on the second floor, each room had a balcony, and there was a landscaping feature that reduced our drop from the balcony to less than 5 feet. That little fact made our exit significantly safer, not to mention easier. After we realized that we weren’t trapped, it made it a little easier to calm down, which allowed us to prioritize the equipment we needed to take with us. We initially escaped with our med kit, survival kits, water, some snacks, and our sat phone. As the evening wore on, we eventually had to go back to get some clothing to share with other hotel guests, but our initial evacuation left the three of us pretty equipped to make it through at least the night.
Looking back, there were many things I could have done differently, and even though my event occurred hundreds of miles from home, it has application here as well. First, know the threats – be they hurricane, tornado, earthquake, etc. Make a disaster plan. Make your disaster preps. FEMA has several resources at www.ready.gov. Get together with your neighbors and incorporate them into your disaster plan. One of my biggest pet peeves is watching Doomsday Preppers and listening to them talk about how they have prepared and they’re going to watch as everyone else who didn’t prep suffers. Golden Rule aside, that’s not a good plan. Almost no single person, or even single family, is going to survive very long in a disaster by themselves. Make sure you include trustworthy people with needed skills (Ham radio, medical, security) in your planning, and practice operational security with people outside your circle.
Hopefully this has been useful to you, and my mistakes can help you be more prepared.