Death by Earthquake (Kit)

by Jules Older  

Inspired by the new California Academy of Sciences exhibit, EARTHQUAKE, we decided to check our earthquake kit.

Yes, we have one. We’re prudent Bay Area citizens, and like most Bay Area citizens, prudent and otherwise, we live on a fault line.

The Big One is coming and coming soon—more on that, below—so get your earthquake kit in order. We did.

But it had been how long since we put that kit together? Five years? No, more like eight. Maybe we ought to check it.

Maybe you should check yours. Ours came as something of a surprise.  

Eight years ago, we’d bought a large plastic bin that just fit the living room closet. In it, along with a few other items, we neatly packed canned beans and pesto, a can opener and plastic forks, crank-operated flashlight and radio, wipes and toilet paper, canned fruit and toothbrushes, candles and matches, disinfectant and Band-Aids, and, for reasons that now escape us, exactly forty-seven dollars. 

Sealed it up and stuck it in a cool, dry place next to the ski jackets. Should last forever. We’re earthquake-ready—rock on. 

Funny how fast eight years roll by. Until the Academy exhibit, we forgot all about our kit in a closet. Never opened it once.

Then, we did. Eight years later, it had shrunk… and grown. When we lifted the lid, here's what we found in working order. Candles and can opener. Toothbrushes and radio. That’s it.

What happened to the rest? Blame the beans. The cans exploded. Ditto, the pesto. Then, gravity draped their contents over the kit. Black mold joined the fun, first forming on bean and basil, then consuming every cardboard box in the bin. Moldy veggies permanently dampened the matches, destroyed the Band-Aids, devoured the paper products. 

And the dollars? That was the worst of it. We found them stuck together in a moist, green-and-black, foul-smelling, half-inch-thick, poison brick.

Only through good fortune did The Mold That Ate The Earthquake Kit miss the radio and the plastic-wrapped candles and toothbrushes.

In our living room closet, we’d created a toxic-waste dump. All by ourselves, we qualified as a mini-Superfund site.

What about water? That’s in the hall closet, in one-gallon plastic bottles. Still looked good, but those bottles are years past their sell-by date. Had the plastic from the containers leached into the contents? Had it become as toxic as the kit?

I asked the company. Their lengthy non-answer began, “Thank you for your inquiry about the shelf-life of Crystal Geyser® Alpine Spring Water®. At Crystal Geyser, consumer satisfaction is very important to us. Anytime there is a question or concern involving our product, we are grateful that…” blah, blah, blah. 

Here's the bottom line: “We believe that our water can be safely stored for several years beyond the stated ‘Sell By’ date. However, considering the fact that consumer storage conditions vary greatly, we feel that an average storage period of two years will help ensure optimal quality.”

Here's how I read this: Much as we’d like to sell you new water for old, you can safely drink what you bought, forever and ever, amen. 

We kept the water.

But rethought our kit. Why, we now asked ourselves, do we need cans of food in a closet, when there are many more cans of food in the kitchen cupboard, fifty feet away… all—okay, almost all—well within their sell-by dates. Ditto, can openers and forks. Toilet paper’s in the bathroom, along with wipes, toothbrushes, soap, antiseptic and the usual panoply of medicine-chest armaments. 

In short, other than to bask in our prudence, why do we need an earthquake kit?

Answer: We don’t. But, right alongside atheists in foxholes, there are no realists in earthquake zones. At least in our earthquake zone. So, despite the deadly mess left behind by Kit 1, we’re creating K2.

New Rules: This time, no explosives. So, no canned goods. And no liquids; this will be a pesto-free zone. Thus, no need to report us to the EPA.

But there was something else at the Academy of Sciences exhibit that made us rethink our most cherished earthquake assumptions. Someone asked one of the exhibit’s consultants, seismologist Lucile Jones, Ph.D., about the figure all of us know by heart: “Within thirty years, there's nearly a 100% certainty that a quake will erupt along one of the Bay Area fault lines.”

Jones laughed. “Where do you think that thirty-year figure comes from?” 


She laughed harder. “Uh, no. We always say thirty years… because that’s the usual length of a home mortgage. And because of that mortgage, thirty years is about as long as people think ahead.”

So. No more canned-food-rich earthquake kit. No more belief that water has a meaningful sell-by date. No more wondering if we’ll live long enough to experience the thirty-year Big One. 

Is nothing sacred? 



Jules Older wrote the new ebook, DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE, and the new children’s book, Snowmobile.




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