Darleen Steffani remembers well going for days with no running water after Ashland Creek became so swollen on New Year's Eve 1997 that it engulfed downtown's Plaza and knocked out the city's water-treatment facilities.
"It hits home a little more when you've been through something like that," said Steffani, who was walking out of Ashland Fire & Rescue's Saturday morning "Ashland is Ready" community seminar, which included four hours of discussion and directions on local emergency preparedness from those who know.
Ashland's last big flood ultimately caused about $4.5 million in damage within the city and reduced many Ashlanders to using portable toilets set up at Safeway and Albertsons for nine days.
"We had no toilet facilities, no water facilities. ... It was a tough situation for a lot of people," said Steffani, 76, of Ashland.
"I am so pleased I came today," she said. "They did an excellent job, a lot of really good information ... it was a good reminder of all those little things you should be thinking about."
All of the roughly 320 attendees walked away with a 72-hour emergency survival kit stuffed with water bottles, a small radio, flashlight, batteries, space blanket, meal replacement bars, poncho and an emergency guide — among other items.
Asante, Shop'n Kart and the Ashland Community Emergency Response Team sponsored the event and provided the items inside the survival kits, said Margueritte Hickman, Ashland Fire & Rescue division chief.
Hickman said 145 people attended the morning session, and 175 attended in the afternoon.
"These are great things for people to be walking out of here with," Hickman said. "We are very pleased with the turnout ... and everybody's enthusiasm."
Hickman said Fire Department personnel began brainstorming about holding something such as Saturday's large-scale public education event at the beginning of this year, and they're tossing around the idea of making it annual.
Whether it be a fire like the September 2010 Oak Knoll blaze that destroyed 11 homes in south Ashland, a flood like the one in '97, or a massive earthquake, which geologists expect could rattle Southern Oregon at any time, "the reality of it is that we really don't know when a disaster is going to strike ... and our community may be put into a situation where we have to rely only on our emergency services. We need to be prepared," Hickman said.
In that type of situation, the fire department will have to begin prioritizing reports from what surely will be a mass of phone calls, and not everyone will be reached in a timely manner, she said.
"People will have to take care of themselves for a bit," she said.
"It's not something we think too much about here in Southern Oregon ... but when we do have one, when it hits, that's it, you are done preparing at that point," said fire Chief John Karns, who spoke to attendees.
Oregon is in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a 600-mile fault line stretching from California to British Columbia. Scientists have predicted that a 9.0 or higher earthquake, similar to the one that struck Japan in 2011, could hit Oregon at any time.
The hundreds-of-miles-long undersea fault has a major slip every few hundred years, generating a massive tsunami and earthquake. It last gave way in 1700.
Joining Karns and a handful of others on stage, Charles Lane, professor of geography and environmental science at Southern Oregon University, spoke about Ashland's seismic risks, and AFR Division Chief Chris Chambers went over what to expect — and what to do — during fires and floods. Other speakers gave audience members tips on how best to store important documents, understand weather emergencies and inspect buildings for compromised integrity before times of emergency.
Terri Eubanks, coordinator of Ashland CERT, which rose from the flood waters of 1997, also presented. CERT volunteers are trained to be first responders the next time Ashland is faced with a natural disaster.
"If an event strikes, if there is a natural disaster ... you'll be taking care of yourself. If you're prepared, you'll be able to step up and help those around you," said Damaris Fish, 60, of Central Point.
"You don't hope something awful happens, but preparing for any of these things will put you so far ahead of the curve. ... The less burden you have to place on the rest of the system during an emergency ... the better."
Tom Schuetz, 41, of Ashland, who attended Saturday's afternoon session, also remembers the flood of '97.
"The initial day was crazy, and the subsequent two weeks was horrible; by horrible I mean terribly inconvenient," he said. "I remember riding my bike down to look at the creek ... it was crazy."
Schuetz said he showed up Saturday because "well, right now, if that happens I'm pretty well screwed.
"I'm sure I'll learn something," he said.
All of the documents and PowerPoint presentations used during the seminar will be available on the city of Ashland website by following the tabs "Fire," "CERT Disaster Preparedness" and "Ashland is Ready" from the homepage at www.ashland.or.us.
Nearly 20 Fire Department volunteers and staff came together to put on the event, Hickman said.
"Our only intention here today is to help people."
Sam Wheeler is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.