Fending off assaults by Mother Nature is a family affair


February 27, 1993|By ROB KASPER

If a tornado comes down the block, hide in the basement bathroom. In the event of an earthquake, crawl under the kitchen table. When floodwaters threaten, shut the gas off. And if a hurricane approaches, flee, calmly, after shutting off the utilities.

These are the disaster drills my kids and I regularly discuss. We do it for amusement. There is a thrill in outfoxing an earthquake that simply is not there when fixing a leaky faucet.

The kids enjoy planning their escapes. And it gives me a chance to tell my old tornado stories. Like the time the Wichita twister picked up pieces of the backyard fence and simultaneously tossed them in opposite directions. I saw these flying fence pieces while standing near a sliding glass door (bad idea). I quickly fled to the basement (good idea).

I am on pretty solid footing when dealing with tornadoes.

Growing up in the Midwest I learned that when the sky turns black, you leave the windows slightly open. This lessens the chances of a strong wind popping the window glass. I knew that during the spring you always kept a transistor radio and flashlight in the basement, where you would go to wait for the tornado warning broadcast to change to an all-clear. And I remembered that the preferred corner of the basement to huddle in was the southwest corner. Most tornadoes came from that direction, so if a twister hit the house the debris probably would be pushed toward the opposite or northeast side of the house. That was the theory anyway.

Since the preferred corner of our basement is now jammed with old window screens, the basement bathroom was made the designated tornado refuge center. The bathroom had what you wanted in a tornado shelter: no windows, strong walls, and nothing heavy -- like a piano or refrigerator -- sitting on the floor above it.

For tips on how to handle other disasters, I read "The Home Repair Emergency Handbook" by Gene Schnaser (Taylor Publishing, 1992, $15). One chapter listed what a homeowner should turn off and batten down when nature got nasty.

If you were at home during an earthquake, it was important, the book said, to stay away from mirrors, chimneys, high bookcases. Stuff, in other words, that could cut or squash you. Recommended hiding places were under a bed, desk or table.

I told my family about this advice, and the other night, as we sat around the kitchen table, we agreed that as soon as the ground started shaking we would dive underneath the table. Nothing above the table could clobber us. And underneath there was room for a family of four.

We agreed that when floodwaters threatened we would remember to turn off the main gas valve. I didn't do this the last time we had a flood. That was a few years ago after a big water pipe burst and water gushed through the neighborhood. Water ended up in the gas lines, and the control on the gas hot-water heater had to be replaced. Broken gas lines are a fire threat, and that is another good reason to shut them off.

I now know where the valve is. It sits behind the gas meter. And the next time the floodwaters come I have a plan. I will turn the valve off and then head to a higher floor.

Hurricanes are not much of a threat when you sit in a buttoned-down Baltimore rowhouse. But they have presented us with problems when we were perched in houses next to the Atlantic Ocean.

According to the handbook, the key to surviving a hurricane seems to be running away, before the storm hits. But before fleeing, we should shut off the water and other utilities and board up any glass doors or windows, the book said.

People who stay and face the hurricane are supposed to fill their bathtubs with drinking water, as a backup supply in case the water lines break. Another tip the book had was to put the refrigerator on the coldest setting and to keep the fridge door closed. The idea was to keep the food supply from spoiling, even if the hurricane knocked out the power.

It all sounded sensible to us, especially the part about stocking the fridge.

Which of course is how we in Baltimore prepare for our favorite natural disaster. It is a storm that wreaks wider havoc than a tornado or flood. It sends out more tremors than an earthquake and changes more travel plans than a hurricane. It is the Baltimore snowstorm.

As soon as the forecast mentions the chance of flakes, we stock up with milk and bread. It is a ritual. We use it to scare away heavy snows.

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