Longform

FATAL DISTRACTION WHEN MASS DISASTER STRIKES, THE PROBLEMS JUST KEEP PILING UP

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Right now, Lewis said, her office is helping not only the professionals but the public prepare for the Big One, the impending California earthquake that some experts predict may kill as many as 10,000 people.

Because of the presumed enormity of the upcoming quake, Lewis currently tours Southern California schools and businesses with a "disaster preparedness" lecture that includes tips on storing corpses until help arrives.

"The first thing you want to do is determine that the individual is in fact dead," cautioned Lewis. "There's nothing worse than wrapping someone in plastic when they're not really dead but are, in fact, simply asleep or unconscious."
Lewis' warning was greeted with a wave of laughter, as was a subsequent demonstration during which two volunteers wrapped a third participant burrito-style inside a plastic sheet until the "deceased" could be properly buried. Thanks to the good-natured clowning around between the "corpse" (who cracked bondage jokes) and one of Lewis' colleagues (who jokingly stressed the importance of checking the victim's wallet for money), it was a crowd-pleasing exercise that wouldn't appear out of place on a TV game show.

Gallows humor aside, Lewis suggested that the links between proper body-storage procedure and a Beat the Clock stunt are actually a lot stronger than most people would like to imagine.

"In hot weather, you're going to have one or two days, tops, to get a body wrapped before it starts going through rapid decomposition," explained Lewis. "And, remember," she added, "maggot formation is going to start almost right away."
When the average citizen is faced with corpses during catastrophic circumstances, Lewis strongly advocates the old "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy--particularly in the event of an earthquake where trained help may not arrive for several days.

"If you're trapped with the deceased and they're starting to decompose, it's going to be a very unpleasant environment, both psychologically and public-healthwise," she said. "That's why we're trying to teach the general public that if there are deceased employees, loved ones, or students, take these individuals, wrap them securely and move them to the coolest part of your building.

"We always tell people, 'Tie them up securely and put them out in the garage or someplace like that.' We say that under the guise of protecting the loved one, when in fact we're really protecting the living. When these decomposition processes start occurring, you don't want to be around if you can possibly help it. If you don't have a roll of plastic, improvise. Those 33-gallon trash bags that most of us have around the house work real well for this purpose."
Asked about the possibility of mass burials in the aftermath of the Big One, Lewis shook her head vehemently.

"Only as an absolute last resort," she insisted, pointing out that many people (particularly in Los Angeles' ethnic stewpot) strongly oppose, on religious and cultural grounds, the concept of mass burials. "We'll do mass burials only if the health hazard were so severe that we couldn't handle it any other way.

"Our preferred method would be to find mass-fatality collection points throughout the county and try to refrigerate the decedents." (Several Southern California supermarket chains have already volunteered the use of refrigerated trucks and warehouses for just such an emergency; Lewis' office is also exploring the feasibility of using refrigerated tankers in L.A. Harbor.) "With refrigerated facilities," she said, "we can keep the bodies for many, many weeks until the identification process is completed."
Should mass burials become a necessity, interment workers will reportedly follow emergency guidelines already mapped out by the National Funeral Directors Association. "It won't be like you see in the movies where they're throwing everyone in a pit and dumping lye all over everyone," Lewis promised. Instead, individually wrapped quake victims will be buried in shallow graves, one body deep, allowing for possible exhumation at a later date.

Looking ahead to L.A.'s Great Shake, Lewis wryly told her audience: "People ask me, 'Are you going to autopsy all these bodies?' Uh-uh. If the Big One hits, we aren't going to have the time--or manpower--to autopsy any of them.

"Oh, sure, if we run across a gunshot wound or something that obviously suggests foul play, that body will be pulled aside," she said. "But in a big disaster, our main thing is going to be IDing those bodies. That's why a disaster is such a great time to hide a homicide." Then, smiling, she added, "If there are any of you out there who want to get rid of your wife, that's the time to do it."
Lewis' offhanded quip proved timelier than anyone imagined. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots less than two weeks after the Multiple Death Conference, the Los Angeles Times reported that law officials in that city seriously doubted that all of the 50-plus deaths attributed to the civil unrest were, in fact, riot-related. According to the newspaper, police believed that at least some of the deaths were gang-related homicides.

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Dewey Webb