Money and Life Lessons from a Major Earthquake

While talking on the phone with my daughter last Friday, I heard an unearthly roar and felt the house begin to shake violently. It was the start of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, which was quickly followed by a second temblor measuring 5.8.

The epicenter was about eight miles northwest of my home in Anchorage, Alaska, but it felt as though it were directly under my feet. My partner flung himself against the grand piano, trying to keep it in place. In my peripheral vision I could see cupboard doors flying open, and hear banging and crashing as items leaped from cabinets and shelves.

But it was the earthquake’s voice that really got to me: a deep, rumbling, booming noise that sounded like a train headed straight at our front door. “Are you hearing this?” I asked my daughter incredulously.

She was – and even though she grew up in Alaska and encountered her share of temblors, Abby had never heard an earthquake that sounded like that.

It lasted less than a minute, but changed a lot of lives. The cleanup and news reports got me to thinking how earthquakes – or any disaster, really – have lessons to teach. Not just about physical preparation, but also the habits of daily living.

After all, residents of Tornado Alley can’t stop the next twister by waving bags of freeze-dried meatloaf at it. People in hurricane regions can nail plywood over their windows, but that won’t protect them against a storm surge that sends seawater into the foundations. Once the immediate threat is gone, it’s how well we’re accustomed to coping that matters as much as how many supplies we’ve stockpiled.

This applies to non-natural-disasters, too: illness, job loss, regional (or national) economic downturn. Developing smart everyday habits will help us cope with adversity when live throws us curveballs. Although some freeze-dried meatloaf might not be a bad idea, either.

Lesson #1: When Stuff Happens, Roll With It

The day of the quake, I’d planned to drive out of town for the weekend. Once we’d swept up the broken glass and checked for serious damage (foundation, water heater, et. al.), I entertained the notion of going anyway.

Radio reports of damage and uncertainty made it apparent this wasn’t a good idea. As much as I wanted to go, it would have been dumb to do so.

Making the right decision isn’t always easy to do. Suppose you help fund a pal’s startup and nothing much has happened, yet they want you to remain an investor. Maybe a sibling regularly borrows stuff and returns it in poor condition. Perhaps the guy or gal you’re dating has wildly different money goals and values, but you really like this person.

Cutting your losses – or preventing them in the first place – is usually the wisest choice. Not the easiest, just the smartest.

Lesson #2: Be Prepared

The north route out of Anchorage was closed for quite a while as inspectors checked for highway and overpass damage. When reopened, it was outbound-only for several hours; eventually the folks on the other side were allowed to come into town.

Those who’d fled to the highway once the shaking stopped, had a long, long wait. I like to think that they already had a decent amount of gas in their cars. Consumer Reports recommends never going below a quarter-tank, but I personally never let it get less than half-empty.

I also like to think those commuters grabbed a snack and something to drink before they left their workplaces (or wherever they were at the time), and that they had a few emergency items in their vehicles. Had they been forced to shelter in place overnight, that could have been some mighty uncomfortable bivouacking.

Edmunds.com has a good list of items to keep in the car for emergencies. (If you live in a snowy area, I’d add a shovel to that list.) By all means compile your own car emergency kit, but think big-picture as well. When things go wrong in life (and they will!), it’s a lot easier to recover if you have an emergency fund, a good credit score, and as little consumer debt as possible.

Lesson #3: Build Social Capital

My partner’s son called after the quake to ask us to pick up his daughter from school. The six-year-old was a bit rattled by the aftershocks that continued all day, but was mostly distracted by the chance to bake cookies with her grandfather and to help me assemble and wrap a holiday gift box for a homeless shelter.

Suppose you suddenly need child care, or pet care, or someone to watch your house in an emergency. Got any plans in place? If not, start building social capital, i.e., relationships with people in your community.

Not only will you save money by trading baby-, pet- or house-sitting, you’ll create bonds that can help in other ways. Should you have to fly back home to be with an ailing parent, it’s a great comfort to know that friends are picking up mail and mowing the lawn while you’re away. Someone is quite literally looking out for you, which feels much better than hiring a service.

Lesson #4: Get the Best Information You Can

A local radio station provided updates from emergency services personnel, and also invited listeners to call in with what they knew. However, they specified “things you have seen with your own eyes,” vs. “hey, I heard that…”

Good thing, too. My teenage nephew called to see if we were all right, and said that a high school in our neighborhood had been evacuated due to flooding and a gas-line break. Since I’d been listening to the radio, I was able to tell him that only minor damage had been reported.

Did it really matter, given that he attends the vocational high school across town? Yes, it did. He has friends at the neighborhood school – and besides, rumors are scary things. The nearby school is surrounded by houses and condominiums, and I would have been super-anxious if I’d believed there was a possibility of explosion.

Get the best information you can in non-emergency situations, too. Just because you know a guy who knows a guy who says that everyone needs whole life insurance, you shouldn’t run right out and buy it. Educate yourself first.

Maybe your peers are convinced that Social Security will be kaput when it’s time to retire. This makes you feel really gloomy, not to mention resentful that you might be paying into something you’ll never get to use. But that’s not true; this piece explains why.

In money and in life, the more you know, the better your decisions will be.

Lesson #5: List Your Advantages

Frequent (and frequently severe) aftershocks made Friday fairly nerve-wracking. Would the next temblor take out the electricity or break a gas line? Did we have sufficient plywood to cover windows if they broke? Although we have plenty of firewood, could we keep the house warm enough to prevent frozen pipes (especially in the baseboard heating) if the power went out and the temperature dropped?

During this time my partner and I were caring for his young granddaughter. Outwardly I was calm and cheerful, in order not to frighten her, but I went through the day with a headache and constant nausea. Logically speaking, I knew this was due to stress and adrenaline overload. Emotionally, it was hard to picture how things would get better; any time I did let my guard down, another aftershock would ratchet it right back up.

Friday night was even worse: I got practically no sleep because of accumulated tension and the all-night aftershocks. On Saturday morning I was exhausted and apprehensive about what the day would bring. My stalwart sweetheart did whatever he could to help me feel better: hugs, tidying up, going out to buy chocolate ice cream. By Saturday afternoon my normal approach to life – “Think of the big picture” – was firmly back in place. Here’s how that sounded:

  • Neither of us had gotten hurt.
  • Unlike some parts of town, our neighborhood didn’t lose power.
  • We had no major structural damage.
  • Nothing of value was broken.

The aftershocks continue; my nephews and I felt a few at the movie theater earlier this week. (Pro tip: “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is a good antidote to cumulative stress.) Each time I feel the ground tremble, part of me wonders whether it signals the start of another 7.0 shaker. And each time, I apply big-picture thinking:

  • Am I thrilled about the aftershocks? Nope.
  • Will they inconvenience me? Yep.
  • Will they kill me? Unlikely.

In other words, I’m focusing on what’s right about my life instead of what’s temporarily wrong with it. That kind of focus should be the baseline, no matter what else happens to us.

Suppose you lose your job. That stinks. But remember what you still have: a place to live, enough to eat, and a chance to go look for a new job tomorrow. It might not be that simple – but what if it is?

And even if finding a new job isn’t that easy, being able to try at all is a tremendous gift. My daughter was unable to work for much of her 20s due to health issues; she now has a job that some people would consider boring, but the fact that she can work at all is one of the greatest joys of her life.

Or maybe your employer has stopped contributing a 401(k) match. That also stinks. But on the bright side, you’re still able to put money aside on your own. You could also look for ways to save money, thereby freeing up more cash to contribute; The Simple Dollar archive is full of articles that will help you get the most of every dollar.

When things are going right, count your blessings. When they’re going wrong, count those blessings in a much louder voice – it will help you remember that all is not lost.

Award-winning journalist and veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”

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