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Children and Natural Disasters

Being caught in a deadly natural disaster is traumatizing. But being a parent with a child, or children, during a natural disaster is an extra fright. Often it is confusing for children during natural disasters, because the adults themselves do not know what is going on. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, my apartment building collapsed, yet when you ask my son who was nine years old at the time, what the scariest part of the quake was, he will say the stairs. When you ask why the stairs, he says it is because for a brief few seconds on the stairs, he lost hold of my hand. While I was overwhelmed in thought trying to navigate the crumbling building in the dark, his only focus was keeping a hold of my hand, which is really how it should be. When my son was interviewed for a TV show on quakes, he was asked if he was scared during the Northridge quake. His response was he knew it was dangerous, but he knew his mom would keep him safe. A single mom in a disaster, or even two parents during a natural disaster, take on a different role than a single adult during disasters. Their first thought is for someone else’s safety above their own.
Children and Natural Disasters
By Kirsten Anderberg (

Being caught in a deadly natural disaster is traumatizing. But being a parent with a child, or children, during a natural disaster is an extra fright. Often it is confusing for children during natural disasters, because the adults themselves do not know what is going on. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, my apartment building collapsed, yet when you ask my son who was nine years old at the time, what the scariest part of the quake was, he will say the stairs. When you ask why the stairs, he says it is because for a brief few seconds on the stairs, he lost hold of my hand. While I was overwhelmed in thought trying to navigate the crumbling building in the dark, his only focus was keeping a hold of my hand, which is really how it should be. When my son was interviewed for a TV show on quakes, he was asked if he was scared during the Northridge quake. His response was he knew it was dangerous, but he knew his mom would keep him safe. A single mom in a disaster, or even two parents during a natural disaster, take on a different role than a single adult during disasters. Their first thought is for someone else’s safety above their own.

In 1989, my son was five years old, attending Kindergarten. A little before 5:00 pm, on Oct. 17, 1989, I stopped by the Branciforte Library in Santa Cruz, Ca., before picking my son up from after school care. As I stood in the library, I began to hear a rumbling, like a plane was about to crash into the building. All motion in the library stopped and everyone listened. I thought for a brief moment that a train must be about to hit the building, but then realized there were no train tracks nearby. I then began to see dust puffing out from between the bricks in the walls. Then BAM! A 7.1 quake hit us, and the floor of the library began to move so fast and furiously that it was hard to walk. Stacks of books began to fly and fall onto tables, which people went under. Myself and a few others ran out of the library before it got too violent to run effectively.

When I got outside, cars were askew in the middle of the street, with driver doors open, and drivers asking what was going on. The telephone poles were whipping around like they were made of rubber, and live electrical wires were hitting the ground around us, sizzling. Many adults were saying, “What just happened?? I ran as fast as my feet could take me to my son’s after school care. It was 5 pm, and would be dark soon , and I had no car. I was worried that we need to hurry to assess the damage to our home before it was dark. When I got to his daycare provider, two adults and maybe 35 children were cowering under desks and tables. The daycare provider was white like she had seen a ghost and said she was terrified to have all these kids in her care right then. Other parents with cars began to show up to help her, and my son and I began our mile long walk home, trying to beat the sunset. Later, that child care provider told me she was quitting child care as that experience was too frightening. She said some parents never made it to her the day of the quake, and could not get through on the phone. She has several kids for days after the quake. And the pressures of having *other* people’s kids during disasters, such as earthquakes, was more than she could bear.

Since my dad had couched quakes with an air of fun and natural adventure to me as a child, I tried to do the same with my son. Rather than teach me to fear the earth and its natural movements, my dad taught me to marvel at it, like the moon through a good telescope or swimming in the ocean at night. My dad would get excited like a kid at an amusement park during quakes. In 1971, my family lived at ground zero for the 6.5 “Sylmar? quake, in Los Angeles County. I was ten years old. I saw with my own eyes, many hospitals that collapsed, killing patients inside. Whole wings fell over and off of one hospital I saw. We drove down block after block of flattened houses. As a kid, it was chilling. Freeway overpasses collapsed, ending oddly in the sky. I remember being most frightened by the places people had died, like the rubble that used to be hospitals. This quake smashed all our dishes but those in the dishwasher that morning. It left bottomless fissures in our backyard, and tore two house walls apart so you could see light outside through them. And directly behind our home was the Van Norman Dam. The sides of the dam had crumbled and were sliding slowly into the dam, endangering the Valley floor below. So, for 4 days, 80,000 people had to be evacuated from the San Fernando Valley while they drained the dam. Officials say that was a near catastrophic event. But somehow, my dad kept the whole earthquake thing light enough that it still seemed more fun than scary. We got out of school, our parents stayed home with us and did not have to go to work…Even though it was a little frightening to see the wreckage around us, I was still able to see quakes as a natural phenomenon of beauty as a kid.

In August 1989, in Santa Cruz, Ca., we started having earthquakes that were big enough to get me out of bed, with my 4 year old son in arms, running for the door. I was reminded of the 1971 quake and aftershocks. Others around me thought I was nuts, but I began to store bottled water, canned food, clean towels, candles, batteries, etc. for a big quake. I began to shut the lid on my toilet and taught my son to do that. Because in 1971, everything from the medicine cabinet flew into the toilet and jammed it. I began to talk to my son about quakes very casually. I explained plate tectonics, I explained it was natural, I told him he needn’t be scared of quakes, but rather just needed to be aware of his surroundings during them. I explained earthquake safety, and why you go under tables during a quake. I explained if a big quake ever hit when I was not with him, while he was at school, for instance, to just know I would get to him as quickly as possible.

About two months after we began to have the strong small quakes in August, I was really glad I had been teaching him about quakes. On Oct. 17, 1989, we got hit by the 7.1 quake, and I am really glad I was able to get to my son quickly, on foot, within several minutes, not a bus ride away! As my son and I walked home after the Santa Cruz quake (which is called the Loma Prieta Quake), every single chimney we passed was on the lawn, not roof. Also almost every plate glass window in the front of people’s houses were now shattered on their lawns. They would say to us as we walked past, “Was that a nuclear blast? What was that?? I kept saying, “I think it was an earthquake? but I was not sure myself. That is one of the weird parts of a disaster, you are not sure what is going on initially.

We stepped over the live snapped wires on sidewalks until we got home. Once home, some neighbors were outside listening to a radio. They told me about the Santa Cruz Mall buildings collapsing and killing people and worst than that, the Nimitz Freeway disaster was unfolding, as people died en masse in that flattened strip of highway. Two thirds of the quake’s casualties ended up coming from that freeway collapse. I literally had to just sit down and cry for a moment when I realized how big the quake was and how many people would die from it. The day after the quake, fire marshals had our block evacuated as you could hear the gas hissing as it leaked out from broken pipes below the streets and sidewalks. Schools were closed. The Mall had search and rescue teams. Life as we knew it came to a standstill. And my having a child as my first priority made me interact with the quake much differently than my childless friends.

After the Santa Cruz quake, I got my son as many educational toys about earthquakes as I could find and afford. We encouraged him to draw the quake. One picture he drew a few days after that quake was of a cloud and a sun in the sky, and then this figure in the middle of the page, amidst furious blue scribbles, while standing on brown earth. I asked what it was. He said it was “a guy in sunglasses in a tidal wave from the earthquake.? I had not discussed tidal waves with him, but apparently since much of Santa Cruz is at sea level, and the town is at the shore’s edge, he picked up the reality that a tsunami was possible as well. By encouraging him to draw, I found out he was afraid of tsunamis and could address that fear.

Several years passed, and my son and I moved to Northridge, Ca. We moved to the Northridge Oaks Apartments in August 1993. It was a 3 story stucco building, that had a square shape and a pool in the center. Due to my Sylmar and Santa Cruz quake experiences, I had proper quake supplies in my apartment right away. I had medical supplies, canned foods, bottled water, clean towels, etc. for an emergency or quake. But in 1994, my son and I experienced a new kind of quake, like none I had experienced before. It was stronger than the others, and I have never feared such catastrophic disaster as what I felt during the Northridge quake.

On Jan. 17, 1994, my son and I were both sleeping on the living room floor in sleeping bags, as it was a holiday and we had stayed up late the night before watching movies together. At around 4 am, I sat up because I heard a lot of glass breaking in the streets below. I thought maybe it was car theft and vandalism, but then I began to hear *sheets* of glass hitting the sidewalks below. Still sitting up and alarmed, I began to hear what sounded like zombies moaning, lots of them. They sounded like they were in our walls, about to burst through. I woke up my son right as a big jolt hit our apartment. I heard the back of the toilet fly off and smash into the bathroom wall. The electricity and lights went out, and I heard our refrigerator and cupboards empty onto the kitchen floor. The moaning in the walls got louder, and my son asked who was moaning? I told him I thought it must be the materials in the walls reacting to the quake (but god knows, I was not sure!) Pictures were flying off the walls in the dark around us, it was insane.

The apartment building was shifting like a house of cards. Walls, floors, ceilings, were inhaling and exhaling, loudly. Odd noises were everywhere around us. Making a split second decision in the dark, with a nine year old in tow, was confounding. Unlike the Santa Cruz quake, where we wondered what it was initially, my son and I assumed this one was a quake. Although my son was in shorts and a t-shirt, and I had on underwear and a t-shirt, I decided we did not have time to grab pants, shoes, keys, coats, ID, etc. I decided that this was about life or death and if the building survived, we could come back in for clothing and belongings later. I decided to lock my apartment door behind me as we left, even though I did not have my keys. Grabbing my son’s hand, we left our apartment and headed for the closest open space, the pool area. I was very weary about using the stairs as I felt they were unsafe, but I grabbed my son’s hand and rushed down the stairs with him. Apparently that was the one or two seconds I let go of my son’s hand, as I was overwhelmed with thoughts right then.

I was very happy to hit ground level with an open sky above. Since there were several hundred people in my building, I stood there confident that at any minute I would be joined by other residents, and shortly our great minds would work collectively together, reducing some of my stress. But no one showed. We stood alone by the pool, wondering where everybody else was, hoping they were not dead in their units. We are too poor to have heavy furniture that could kill us in an earthquake, but others weren’t. And I began to fear I ran quicker than the others, due to my previous quake experience, and thus we were one of the few who got out alive. Standing there, I began to worry that not only my apartment building was full of dead people, but that the streets outside our building could be completely empty too, as the buildings around us were full of dead folks too. I began to fear leaving the building to the potential chaos outside. Brief flashes of trying to find food with my son among thousands of dead bodies scared me profoundly. I will never forget thinking those thoughts, alone, holding my son’s hand, in the dark.

As we stood there wondering where everyone was, a strong aftershock hit. Pieces of the building walls and windows began to fall like rain into the bushes around us. We heard people moaning and crying. The motion kept going back and forth, and seemed to be building momentum, until the pool was throwing out huge rhythmic waves, and we were getting sopping wet as if on a boat deck in a storm. It was hard to stay standing. Then I began to smell gas. I was terrified to go back into the building as it was obviously collapsing. I felt I was risking our lives to go back into the building to exit out onto the street, but we were surrounded on all four sides by the building. And now I was afraid we would fry in a fireball. So I chose the risk of the collapsing halls to the fireball!

As we entered the dark hallways, in bare feet, we found torrents of nearly knee high water rushing down the hallways due to broken water mains. Aftershocks continued as we navigated the pitch black hallways full of water, as pieces of glass and stucco shook off the walls around us. I could not see, was in sheer panic, holding my son’s hand as if we were cemented together, and finally someone opened a door and we called to them and they led us to the outside. The person at the door was the building’s handyman. I told him I smelled gas in the pool area, and heroically, he raced into the building to turn off the gas mains. As I stood on the street in my underwear and t-shirt, cold, with my son, two teenaged kids from our building showed up scared. Their parents had gone out that night and not yet returned home. I told them to just stay with me and my kid and they would be fine. Just then another unbelievably huge aftershock hit. The children all grabbed onto me in fear, and I reassured them that this was just nature, and that we were safe and would be okay. But to tell you the truth, I thought we might all die! As I was saying how safe we all were, I was watching the asphalt in the street in front of me shake so hard that I swear to god it turned to liquid briefly. I have never seen a solid shake into a liquid like that before. It looked like if someone had been standing on the street, they would have *sunk* into it!

A nurse emerged from the building and asked me where all the residents were. I said I wondered that too. The few of us out on the street began to make a map of the building and lists of who was out and who was not accounted for. Several people had been knocked out by things like aquariums hitting them. Others could not get out because their fallen furniture had blocked their doors and they had to exit via ladders to their balconies. Another whole group of residents was locked in a hall when firedoors jammed. They had to use crowbars to get those folks out. The nurse’s white cotton nightgown got shorter and shorter as she ripped pieces of it off to bandage bloody people as they emerged from our building. We grabbed some blankets from the first floor apartments for the elderly and children as it was cold out. Fires lit the sky up in a bright orange haze around us, as ashes the size of leaves fell on us. We worried our building would go down in a blaze during the night. And we never heard a single fire engine siren.

We waited for sunrise to assess the damage. With light, it became clear our building was unsafe to enter. And throughout the night, looters had actually cleaned out many an apartment! With daylight, came the city building inspectors, who red tagged the building, making it a crime to enter it. I was truly not clear what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to walk across the Valley with no shoes in underwear with my kid, with no belongings now, miles to a friend’s house? Wow. That was hard to get to sink in. So I kept hanging out near the building, not sure what to do. Finally, I decided I had to reenter the building for my car keys, shoes, pants, ID, money and coats. But I had locked my apartment door and the keys were inside! And the apartment manager would not give me a key due to liability.

I finally found someone to borrow shoes from, and then a neighbor who agreed to go into the building illegally with me, and to help me break down my door if I helped him break down his. I made the choice, bad or not, to leave my son alone on the street. My neighbor and I entered the back of the building and began to walk over separated floor boards and walls that were almost horizontal, no longer vertical. We were dripping sweat from our foreheads from stress. The place looked like a bomb had hit it. Our doors were open due to all the shifting of door jams in aftershocks. I ran into my apartment with my neighbor and grabbed the few things I felt we absolutely needed. We ran to his apartment, he grabbed a few things quickly and then he and I sped out of that building. As we had just left the building, a large aftershock hit. He and I grabbed each other, hugged tightly and said we had to quit meeting like this. We both laughed at how covered with sweat we were, and both admitted we felt slightly nauseas.

We walked out to the street and you could see my son’s anxiety melt off his face. He had worried we were in there for that last jolt. I handed my son some pants and shoes and a coat, and the man who had gone into the apartment with me, handed my son his Mariners hat. It was so sweet I almost cried. While we had gone into my apartment, this man had thought of my son and grabbed the hat when he saw it in the pile of stuff on our floor, and I did not know it until he handed it to my son. My son seemed really happy to get the cap as one of his very few possessions left now. We now had access to a car, and shoes and clothing, and so now we could leave the scene like others had. Up until then, I was not clear how to leave, honestly, and if I had not had a car, I am not sure what on earth I would have done.

My son showed little fear over the Santa Cruz quake series, even though the town was devastated in ruins. But the Northridge quake scared him. There was a profound difference in the severity of the shaking between those two quakes. The Santa Cruz quake felt like mild gliding motions. But even those were disorienting. I remember after several thousand aftershocks in Santa Cruz, I literally went to my door to open it to see the horizon to get oriented again. I felt I had been on a boat at sea for a long time. But those quakes had a sliding feel to them. The Northridge quake was more like convulsions and violent jolts. I normally enjoy quakes, but I was truly scared in the Northridge quake, and its aftershocks.

In the days after the Northridge quake, I stayed in a house with 2 other adults and a total of 5 kids, including mine. We, the parents, were too afraid to sleep, even in one story houses. We let kids sleep and we stayed up, on adrenaline. I would nap during the day when my son was playing outside on the lawn with other kids and adults nearby. And then I did not sleep at night, keeping guard. But what was I guarding? My fear was I would be asleep and my son would be killed while I slept. I felt if I was awake and a bigger quake than the Jan. 17 one hit, I could run with my son perhaps before we were crushed to death. I got us out of our Northridge apartment in 14 seconds. Up the street, at the Northridge Meadows Apartments, they had 16 seconds to get out and then the entire first floor flattened beneath the second floor, so completely that the first time the fire trucks passed it they thought the building was a two story building and it was fine. It was not until they realized that was a three story building that they began to rush into action. I kept worrying I had to protect my son’s life. Mine seemed secondary.

About 3 nights after the initial quake, my son and I were sleeping in my friends’ den. Then a very strong aftershock hit. And my son stood straight up from sleep, and began to run down the hallway, letting out a blood curdling scream. I raced after him but he woke everyone in the house up. My friends were angry and told him not to scream. But to me, it showed me how truly frightened he was. And how aftershocks were wearing us down emotionally. People forget that the aftershock series after initial quakes go on for weeks and months, and it is draining.

From my experiences as a child in Los Angeles witnessing devastating results of earthquakes, to my Santa Cruz experience with a 5 year old, and then the Northridge quake with a 9 year old, I have a few suggestions regarding quakes, at least, and kids. But I think this advice could probably apply to many natural disaster situations. The best way to help a child feel safe about natural disasters is to demystify them, in my opinion. Explain these are natural occurrences, and they are not abnormal or dangerous to the earth, per se. This is also a good opportunity to teach kids that the earth is a living being.

But beyond teaching children about the science and nature involved, there are other things you can do to help kids to be in awe of nature, rather than fearing it. I have gathered some earthquake legends from around the world on my Earthquake Webpage at Learning about other cultures’ relationships to quakes in such a way is interesting and educational, and lets kids know people have dealt with quakes, worldwide, for as long as humans have been on earth. Another good thing to do is let kids help you with preparedness. I have also posted preparedness tips on my website. You can do a walk through of your home with your children and make a game of spotting the safe and dangerous spots to be in during a quake. You can walk around your neighborhood and look for dangerous things to be aware of in a quake as well. You can let your kids help you strap the water heater to the walls, help secure things on shelves with earthquake putty, or help you bottle, label, and store water. I think kids need to know that there are some things we can do to make even unpredictable things like quakes a little safer with conscious preparation.

Our industrialized world feigns control over nature. But nature has shaken many a civilization from her back. The Pacific Rim is not called the “Rim of Fire? for no reason. The Seattle area, for example, is overdue for a very large, devastating quake and it is not at all prepared as were the communities in Ca. I lived in during big quakes. I assume quakes like I have seen in Ca. hitting Seattle would leave a much higher death toll and wake of destruction. Seattle is a much bigger town than Northridge or Santa Cruz, and we were not dealing with skyscrapers in either of those towns either. A quake like the Northridge quake hitting downtown Seattle is a nightmare I cannot fathom. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is the *exact* same style of freeway as the Nimitz that trapped and killed so many in 1989. It is also the exact same model as the freeway in Kobe’s quake in the 1990’s which also collapsed and killed en masse. I wish to god the people of Seattle would hurry up and replace that Alaskan Way Viaduct death trap!

They say the next big quake happens when the last big one is forgotten. Do not let your child experience fear, or worse, from a natural disaster, simply because you did not take the time to explain nature, and safety precautions, to them. Use preparedness tools to help empower kids in natural disasters. And do not overlook things that may seem obvious, such as telling kids to run uphill during floods and tsunamis, to face away from windows and to stay back from outer walls in quakes, to watch out for falling bricks, chimneys, and electrical wires above you in quakes outside, or to expect aftershocks to hit after a big quake so you are not out of trouble once the first jolt hits and subsides. Teach kids to roll to the floor to the side of their beds in a quake. Often if a large beam falls, it will hit the bed, but then leave a small area next to the bed untouched as it rests on the bed and floor. Do not tell kids to go in doorways in quakes, this has caused many smashed fingers as doors swing back and forth in quakes. Tell them instead to get under cover. Make sure your schools have quake preparedness kits good for several days, for *every* child enrolled. But know, that when a natural disaster hits, the most important thing to your child will be *your hand in his.*

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Re: Children and Natural Disasters

Aren't you lucky? Thanks for the timely reminder.


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