When I told my Japanese friends that I had an emergency store cupboard at home, stocked up with non-perishable items and bottled water, and that I’d bought a mini gas cooker with spare gas cassettes, they thought it was pretty funny that I was so prepared. After all, there hadn’t been a major earthquake in Kumamoto for over a century, and typhoons tended to blow through without too much damage – wasn’t I being over prepared? But even with my forethought, when the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake hit the city that I live in, I found myself far less prepared than I had imagined.
While my home was kitted out to get me through the worst of it, I had no emergency ‘grab bag’ to take with me when I fled my house with next to nothing. Once things ‘got back to normal’ here in Kumamoto, the first thing I did was prepare such a bag in case an emergency happens again. In this article I will be sharing my thoughts on what I think should be included in your evacuation pack.
At 1:25 AM on April 16th, the second earthquake (measuring magnitude 7, at least) shook us from our sleep and our beds. It had been a hot night and I’d gone to bed in light, summer pyjamas. Grabbing at my thin yukata (for modesty more than warmth) I was on the street within two minutes, thinking only of getting out rather than how cold it would be when I got there. Over the next few hours, the temperature dropped. Frightened and shaken, I was also freezing cold and lamented not having grabbed something warmer on the way out – but in those moments of terror it’s impossible to think, which is why it is so important to have an evacuation bag ready to go so that you don’t need to think, just grab it.
The first thing I bought for my emergency pack was a ‘water-resistant poncho’ which is made of that shiny material which keeps you warm – the sort of thing you see people wearing after an accident or that runners put on after a marathon. More lightweight than a coat or jumper, these ponchos can easily be folded into the bottom of your grab bag and make all the difference if you’ve dashed out of your house in little more than your underwear.
Speaking of underwear, I also packed one pair of pants and socks to go into the evacuation bag. If you wind up at an evacuation center with no change of clothes, what a difference it will make to at least be able to put on a fresh pair of knickers and some clean socks.
After the second earthquake, we had no running water or gas in our house for 10 days. Given that the average person uses more than 150 litres of water every day, it would be impossible for you to prepare for that kind of emergency unless you have limitless space in your house, but at the very least you should have a reasonable amount of bottled drinking water in storage. You can get by for a couple of days without flushing the toilet or washing the dishes, but drinking water is vital. In my emergency bag I have a 2-litre bottle of water (just because it’s a good amount without being too heavy to carry), but stored in the house I recommend at least 4 litres per person put away – if rationed carefully, that could last you for a couple of days at least.
Food wise, my grab bag doesn’t have anything that needs cooking – if you’ve evacuated from your house then chances are you don’t have anything to cook with anyway! The food in the grab bag is just a little something to get you through – something to pick up your energy and make sure you’re not completely desperate for something to eat. I recommend having some dried fruit – after an earthquake, it can be difficult to get fresh supplies running again and you’ll be sick of the sight of pre-packaged foods by the time you see your next piece of fruit. Having some raisins or something similar will be better than nothing. I also recommend a packet of biscuits – they tend to have a longer shelf life than potato chips and also are packaged sensibly and not floating around in a bag full of air that will waste space in your pack. Small, non-perishable treats are a good idea too (particularly if you have kids) even in times of emergency you can use a pick-me-up and having a little bit of chocolate or candy can kill some time and help you relax a bit.
I don’t actually have a phone, but the fact that my boyfriend was able to grab his mobile on our speedy exit meant that we were able to receive the automatic earthquake alarms throughout the disaster, as well as let people know where we were and check that our friends were okay. If you have a spare charger for your device, pack it in the grab bag. This is so important it would even be worth investing in a spare one to be able to recharge your phone. Just imagine if you’ve fled your home with nothing but your phone and then your battery runs out – nightmare. There will always be places you can charge your device, but if you want to be extra prepared then get one of those battery operated chargers which you can use anywhere.
A torch is an absolute must. When the earthquake struck in the middle of the night, our electricity went out too. With our belongings flying across the room, furniture shifting and the sliding doors opening and closing by themselves, not to mention the fact that it was nearly impossible to remain standing on your feet with the shaking, I could barely tell which direction I was facing in. I had prepared a torch in a easy-to-reach place for such emergencies, but groping my way across the darkness I arrived there to discover it gone – scattered away into the shadows. Now I have a torch ready and packed in my grab bag, with spare batteries, as well as another torch pinned to the head of the bed.
After fleeing the house we spent the night in a local park, and I remember thinking on our arrival there how glad I was that the park has public toilets. Well, with hundreds and hundreds of people sheltering in the park, you can imagine what the toilets looked like after only a few hours. Both the squat toilet and the Western style toilet were piled high with human waste – you couldn’t even sit on the toilet seat because the tower reached so high. There was no toilet paper, no water to wash your hands with, and looking at the piles of used sanitary items on the floor I felt sorry for the women who had fled their homes without the necessary female items.
As such, my emergency grab bag contains a small amount of each of the following: tampons, pads, pocket tissues, wet wipes, pain killers, a mini hairbrush, toothbrush and paste. The later items are the sort of pre-packaged things on offer when you stay in hotels (I don’t often use the amenities but sometimes I take a few home to have on hand, just in case) but you can just as easily buy them in drug stores and supermarkets. A miniature first aid kit is also a good idea, particularly if you have children, as well as hand sanitizer.
Fingers crossed, if you have to leave your house in a hurry you’ll remember to take these two key items with you – your money and I.D. However, it’s not uncommon to forget about those things entirely when faced with the possibility of the world crashing down around you, so it is a good idea to think of this when packing your emergency grab bag. A photocopy of your passport, local residency card or other I.D. Would be a good idea, as well as a bit of cash including change in coins. If the disaster is a big one it could be days until the shops are open again, and vending machines are quickly drained of their wares. However, if you get lucky and find a machine that hasn’t been completely emptied, you’ll want to grab at the chance to buy yourself a drink. The water sells out almost instantly but a bottled coffee or fizzy drink is just as important for picking up your energy in a disaster.
As for the bag to actually pack this stuff in, if you don’t have an old rucksack lying around, I recommend something lightweight and waterproof – and also, don’t go mad and get the biggest thing you can and cram it full of stuff – remember that you’ll have to carry it and mobility is key in an emergency, particularly if you’re flying down 5 flights of stairs in the dark. I also recommend packing another bag within the bag – one of those super-lightweight shopping bags that squash down into their own tiny little bag. If you’re tramping around trying to gather supplies and find water and the like, the last thing you need is to discover you have nothing to carry it in.
This list is just a basic guide and certainly does not qualify as a hardcore ‘survival pack’ – for that kind of bag you’re looking at food and water for three full days at least, as well as other items not included on this list (such as manual can opener, etc.) If you want a full-blown survival pack ready for an emergency in Japan, consult an official list of what to pack – the items listed above are simply my ideas based on my own experience of the Kumamoto Earthquake.
Once you’ve gathered all your emergency supplies, wrap them all up in clean plastic bags – possibly then wrapping them up again in more bags – before packing it into the actual grab bag. If it so happens to be raining when you evacuate, what a shame for all your planning to go to waste when your electronic items are soaked and don’t work and you’ve got a nice mix of soggy tampons and biscuits. Waterproof everything – sandwich bags are good for little items and also easy to see what’s in them.
Natural disasters are a part of life in Japan (even if you thought it impossible to happen to you, you never can tell!) and so its best to be prepared. Even if you are involved in a major natural disaster, chances are that you won’t end up losing your home and all your possessions along with it, but all the same, having that extra security of knowing you are prepared and can get by can make all the difference to your state of mind in such events. What’s more – don’t put it off! If it’s one of those things you add to your ‘To Do List’ and think I’ll get around to it… I’ll get around to it…how silly you will feel if there ends up being a major disaster before you’ve sorted it out. Seriously, if you live in Japan, or any country where natural disasters are the norm, be prepared and get yourself an evacuation bag ready by the door.