Sandy Says: Close Calls

If you were told you immediately had to evacuate your home, what would you take with you?

I don't live in an area that requires frequent or even infrequent evacuations. We aren't in a flood plain. We don't get wildfires or mudslides. Hurricanes don't come anywhere near us, and tornadoes are fairly infrequent. We do get earthquakes, but again, nothing significant.

So, when the entire nearby community of Fairport Harbor (you might remember seeing a photo a month or so ago of a lighthouse in northeast Ohio that was completely covered in ice, making it look like something out of a fairy tale…that was Fairport Harbor) was evacuated yesterday, it was big news. The first call came into the local fire department around 6:45 am: a home had exploded. City officials realized that something extraordinary was happening when another call came in, and another, all within minutes of each other and spreading throughout the city. Eventually, more than a dozen homes and an apartment building were on fire.

Officials of the Lake County Emergency Management Agency soon realized that the fires were the result of gas leaks in basement furnaces. A number of furnace fires — many more than reported to the fire department — occurred, but quick-moving residents turned off the gas and put them out with home fire extinguishers.

Since city and county officials didn't know the cause of the gas leaks, they called for a widespread evacuation of the town's 3,200 residents.

Dominion East Ohio Gas confirmed that the gas lines in the homes, which normally carry a pressure of 6 ounces or so, suddenly over-pressurized to several pounds, causing them to spring leaks at connections and gaskets. Some 1,500 homes will need to be inspected for damage to gas lines and gas appliances.

Miraculously, no injuries or deaths were reported, though there is plenty of damage and disgruntled residents. The gas company has a mess — both figuratively and literally — on its hands.

It was a very strange experience watching this unfold. Widespread evacuations just don't happen here. And over-pressurized gas lines could occur anywhere, even on my street.

After 9/11, the city of Cleveland, where I live and work, instituted evacuation plans. The plan for the area where I work requires me to leave my car in the building's garage and walk in the opposite direction from where I live to a transportation location for evacuation. This transportation location actually is a longer walk for me than if I were to walk home, so for me and my neighbors who work close by, the plan was a source of some amusement. “We'll just walk home instead,” we told each other.

I stopped laughing yesterday and realized that everyone needs to be prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice. If a firefighter knocked on my door and said, “Get out now,” what would I take, knowing that everything left behind could be lost?

Humans, dogs and medications are the first things into the car, followed by bank account and insurance info, passports and irreplaceable family photos from the Civil War era. Jewelry and important papers related to the house would be stuffed into the glove box, and the car trunk would have enough clothes for a week and a 40-pound bag of dog food. Any other nooks and crannies in the car would be filled with more recent family photos, quilts made by my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and as much original artwork as the car could hold. Fortunately, other than running around to fill suitcases with clothes, everything else can be grabbed in under 5 minutes unless I panic and run around like a chicken with its head cut off, which is an entirely likely scenario.

If we're smart, we plan for emergencies. Yesterday made me realize I haven't taken such planning as seriously as I should. What about you?

You have 10 minutes to grab some personal items and get out of your house: What would you take?

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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