Maureen Katz grew up with earthquakes and when a 1989 earthquake rattled the Bay Area, killing 62 people and collapsing freeways, she still found those tremors "a thrill ride."
It took distant hurricanes to change Katz's mind. Not long ago, she and some neighbors met to discuss preparing for the "Big One," the long-expected next major rupture of the San Andreas Fault that would dwarf the one that ravaged San Francisco in 1906. They drew up a list of supplies and, this being liberal Berkeley, had a politically tinged discussion about buying guns.
From civilians to bureaucrats to businessmen, firefighters, mayors and sheriffs, the twin hurricanes that pounded the Gulf Coast have touched off a nationwide conversation about disaster preparedness. The mantra, being repeated by civilians and government officials alike, is: We are on our own.
The response differs fundamentally from the nation's reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then the primary ingredient was a fear that seemed to naturally lead people to accept the government's agenda of how to respond. This time, Katz and others interviewed for this article note, another emotion has taken its place: outrage -- primarily at the government's botched response -- a far more empowering sentiment, Katz added.
"I don't think I really believed the infrastructure had been so badly eroded that they really would take three days to get water to people, and it ended up taking them even longer," Katz said. "I had this basic belief that help would be there, but watching Katrina I realized it's not going to be there, and I have responsibility for my kids."
In the days after that meeting with their neighbors, Katz, her husband and their two elementary-age children had purchased an enormous waterproof box that now anchors their back yard. They stuffed it with a four-day supply of water, protein shakes, power bars, a change of clothes, flashlights, transistor radios, multipurpose tools, dried fruit, duct tape, dog food, rope and bleach -- to purify water in a pinch.
The rethinking of preparedness is occurring coast to coast in private homes and in government offices.
In Memphis, there is talk of positioning food caches in preparation for a major earthquake like the one in 1812 that leveled the city. In New Jersey, the governor has begun reviewing the security of chemical plants in case of a terrorist attack. In Los Angeles, which has faced earthquakes, urban unrest and wildfires, officials now are urging residents to stock five to seven days of food and water instead of their previous recommendation of three. A federally funded study in May estimated that as many as 18,000 people could die and hundreds of thousands could be left homeless if a major earthquake were to hit Los Angeles.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have also prompted officials to go back to the drawing board on the critical issues of evacuation plans and temporary housing, said Sandra Hutchens, director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office of Homeland Security. "The hurricanes brought home how much work we still have to do," she said.
"I never, ever considered an evacuation strategy in San Francisco that would require the entire city to evacuate," said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom of his city of 750,000, where a city-funded study in 2003 estimated that an earthquake registering 7.9 would level more than 45,000 buildings. "I'd have to have five aircraft carriers collecting dust waiting off the coast."
Among officials nationwide, the hurricanes have prompted hearings on disaster preparedness, talk of tougher restrictions on building in coastal areas and along earthquake fault lines -- an increasingly common practice during the recent nationwide real estate boom -- and reevaluations of the qualifications of disaster preparedness officials.
"Everyone is now taking a look at how we are situated and asking questions like, 'Do we have the best and brightest in place?' " said San Francisco's Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White, the first female fire chief in San Francisco's history.
Politicians, eager to traffic in pork or preparedness or both, also predict the disasters will smooth the way for expensive government bonds to upgrade infrastructure. Next year, Newsom said, he plans to ask San Francisco's voters to approve the city's most expensive general bond issuance ever -- an estimated $800 million plan to retrofit San Francisco General Hospital. Newsom said its chances of passing are better because the hurricanes have brought disaster preparedness to the front of many people's minds.
Local and state officials also believe the disasters will breach a firewall erected by the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 attacks. Under the federally funded Urban Area Security Initiative, local governments were given large grants to train for terrorist attacks but prohibited from using the money to prepare for natural disasters.
"We've broadened the discussion," Newsom said. "After 9/11, ne'er did I hear a word about Mother Nature. It was all about bioterrorism, dirty bombs, the prospects of another airliner being used. It's understandable. In the past, the focus was always on Mother Nature. Now we've got to balance the two, and that's the lesson of Katrina."
The lesson for many residents is that they have to learn about surviving on their own.
That was evidenced at a recent class held by the San Francisco Fire Department to train people in triage, search and rescue, and other techniques. Kevin Hartley, a 37-year-old event manager from Sonoma, reeled off a list of the items he has recently bought that could save his life. Javier Ortiz, a 26-year-old grad student, listened intently, especially when Hartley got to the chain saw.
"Really?" Ortiz asked, his brown eyes bulging. "That's got to be my next purchase."
The fire departments of both Los Angeles and San Francisco say that Katrina and Rita have sparked unprecedented interest in these disaster-response training programs. After Katrina, the San Francisco Fire Department instituted its first training program on a Friday night; 170 people showed up.
Gun dealers in California report an uptick in sales. "In the last few weeks, we've sold as many guns to first-time people buying for security reasons as collectors," said Tad Szajer, owner of L.A. Guns, near Beverly Hills. "As a matter of fact, I've got three people in here right now who are first-time buyers."
The West Coast camping giant REI said it is selling out of cots, soft-sided coolers, flashlights and water bottles.
But the renewed interest does have the appearance of a fad.
Less than 10 percent of Californians, arguably some of the most disaster-aware people in the country, have an emergency plan in case an earthquake hits, according to the state's Office of Emergency Services. And less than 10 percent have retrofitted their homes.
Annemarie Conroy, the chief of San Francisco's Office of Emergency Services, worried that by Christmas, the fad will have faded. "We have a window of opportunity now," she said. Because of Katrina, her department moved up an ad campaign urging residents to prepare themselves for an earthquake. The office also recently launched a Web site called 72hours.org, informing San Franciscans that in the event of a major earthquake in the Bay Area, to plan to be on their own for three days.
"Perhaps," she quipped, "we should have called it 172hours.org."