Disaster Boot Camp: Take Stock

Last time on EMscholar’s Disaster Boot Camp, we learned about hazards in our areas. Follow along as our heroes confront these fearsome predators. 

Welcome to Part 2 of my Disaster Boot Camp series. This series is based on the following principles:

  1. Every little bit helps.
  2. Everything I do has to be relatively quick, cheap, and pain free. Or else I probably won’t do it.
  3. Prepping should be part of everyday choices. It’s about making every choice work on two levels: practicality and resiliency.
  4. Prepping is a work in progress. We’re never “finished”.
  5. Since there will always be something you haven’t prepared for, prepping is about building mental flexibility and practical skills. And having the right tools on hand, of course.
  6. There’s no shame or guilt with prepping. Like a fitness program, these blogs are about starting wherever you are and finding a community to support you.
  7. There’s no fear with prepping. I, personally, don’t subscribe to the ultra-militant, us-against-the-world prepping mentality. Studies have shown that people tend to resort to pro-social, community-oriented behaviors in a disaster aftermath. I’m all about connecting people with each other because we’re stronger together. I also don’t believe in scaring people in order to get them to prepare. I believe in stating the facts unequivocally and describing solutions with a cautiously-optimistic outlook.

I also want to stress that this “Boot Camp” is not the “best” way of prepping. It’s not even that original. What it is, is my story. It’s resources, tips, trains of thought, and advice that I’ve found helpful. I intend for this blog to amplify the voices that are already teaching these things, not to supplant them. I would also be thrilled if you joined in below.

Ready? Let’s go!

series 2c

Goal 2: Take stock of present resourcesAKA: making a ton of lists.

1. Organize your thoughts with survival categories: Do1Thing, the Red Cross, and FEMA all approach this a little differently, but they add up to the following list of needs:

Evacuation Plan, Family Communication Plan, water, food, shelter, clothing, Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs include work gloves, hard hat, sturdy shoes, etc), signaling supplies (flares, mirror, whistle), fire making supplies, power back ups (generator, batteries, etc), First Aid,  personal prescriptions (ex: insulin, heart meds), pet supplies, tech readiness, document backups, duct tape and hand tools (for fixing house damage or turning off your water main), family/disaster specific supplies (ex: diapers, antiviral mask), off-the-grid navigation (maps, compass), and some off-the-grid entertainment.

How you approach each of these needs will depend on whether you’re making an evacuation backpack (“Bug-out-bag”), an office kit, a car kit, or a shelter-in-place kit (i.e. camping in your house). Ideally, we’ll be making all of these.

2. Take a tour of your house: I began with a quick tour of my house and car and noted things that could be appropriated to the cause and areas where I needed improvement. I found that I already had the beginnings of a car kit and stocked pantry, so I organized my list based on kit needs. Maybe you would find it easiest to organize your lists based on the survival categories or most urgent needs first. The key here is: you’ll be continually adding to this list as you think of things/learn more. You can see how many question marks are on my list which require more research on my part.

Screenshot of my list.
Screenshot of my list. Yellow are things I still need; white are things I have. I’ve grey-ed out the “Work Kit” because I don’t work away from home. It’s a low priority right now.

Download the full list here: EMscholar’s Emergency Kit Master List

Level Up: don’t forget to backup your list somewhere. It’d be nice if it was on the internet so you can add to it from anywhere as you think of things.

As I took stock, I realized I needed to make a few more lists, so I’m putting this all on a publically-viewable Trello board to keep myself organized. I like having something online because I can access it from anywhere as I think of things. Also, I like that you can move things around in Trello and attach pictures or links.

3. Note your skills: Take a moment to think about how much you know and what you still need to learn. For instance, I’m an ok gardener (room for improvement) and a fair sewer. Those skills could help me be more resilient long term (see my Long-term self-sufficiency list here). I’ve also taken a first aid class and a CPR class, though it might be time for a refresher.I can also drive stick shift. One summer, I forced my Sister-in-Law to teach me because I didn’t want to be stranded somewhere unable to drive the only vehicle available. Later that same year, I needed to drive stick or be stuck walking. On the other hand, I’m terrible with knots. It’s going on the “To Learn” list. Knots are useful for everything including sheltering, snaring food, tying a tourniquet, securing an animal…. I’d also like to learn more about edible plants in my area.

4. Make a 10-Minute To Do List: I’ve been inspired lately by this post from Backdoor Survival which lists easy 10 minute prepping projects by real preppers. Things like: rinse out soda bottles and fill with water, collect dryer lint in a sandwich bag for fire starting, buy an extra can every shopping day for your survival pantry, leave your bug-out-bag out somewhere and put stuff into it as you think of it, make an altoid tin fishing kit, practice lighting a fire, turning off your gas main, or cooking over a camping stove, and more.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that a few important preps will take longer than 10 minutes, but often getting started is half the battle. Use your easy list to build momentum for your harder list.

5. Keep researching: I’m sure I’ve left some gaps in my kit lists. That’s why it’s a work-in-progress. I’ll keep researching and you feel free to add things I’ve missed to the comment section below!

Whew! Good work everyone.

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Disaster Boot Camp: Find Your Hazard

Today I end my hypocrisy.

I am embarrassed to tell you, friendly reader, exactly how UNprepared I am despite my extensive knowledge of and buy-in to disaster facts. I have no bug out bag, no emergency supplies for my cat, no evacuation plan (my husband and I share a car! How will we evacuate if we’re separated?), and no copies of important documents. I have a fire extinguisher only because it was here when we moved in (Landlords, take note!). But, I’ve decided to reject my feelings of shame and do something about it. Therefore, I’m introducing a new “Boot Camp” series. And I’d like you to partner with me! I’m taking a lesson from weight loss psychology. No shame, no guilt, only working together toward progress.

series 1

Notice, I said working toward progress not perfection. The thing about disasters is that they are uncertain. Take tsunami’s. We know that tsunami waves decrease exponentially in power the farther they get in land. And we’ve seen from the Japanese earthquake/tsunami that people who left immediately survived. Since no one can tell you exactly how far inland the tsunami will hit–both mathematically and practically–every step you take up or in increases your chances of survival. It’s the same for other disasters. Don’t be overwhelmed and disheartened by the awe-inspiring lengths Preppers go to survive an extinction-level event. No one can say exactly how big of an event you’re likely to experience, so every little bit of preparation adds up to better survival. You’re FAR better off BEGINNING to prepare than “finishing” (if you ever do finish, which is debatable). So if beginning is what’s important, let’s do that.

Ready? Goal One: Find out what hazards are in my area.

I’ve grown up in this area so I felt pretty confident in my assessment of the hazards. (Maybe you feel the same). Even when I lived briefly in Tornado Alley and the Wintery North East, I felt I understood what natural disasters I faced from their reputations. But, recently, I’ve discovered not one, but TWO different hazards in my home town that I didn’t even know existed. Awkward. Every Communications and Management expert will tell you that good decision making starts with knowing your initial conditions. So let’s do that. Let’s verify what out there.

1. Know the history. Let’s start with this simplified map which makes a list of likely disasters by region. I like this one because it includes tsunamis, pandemics, and economic downturns that the other maps don’t.

Now, let’s look at a more detailed map of disaster declarations over the last 50 years from FEMA (It’s really big and beautiful. It has to stay in a link because of formatting issues). Then, let’s look at this more recent map for the last 10 years.

FEMA_disaster declarations 2000_2010
Presidential Disaster Declarations, 2000-2010. Click for larger.

There’s lots to see here. Notice that FEMA breaks up the US into “Regions”. This will be helpful to you later on. Each state is broken up into county. The darker red the county is, the more disaster declarations it’s had. The red doesn’t tell you what kind of disaster, just how many (see the key at lower right). The pie charts, on the other hand, tell you what kind of disasters but not where. So…you’ll have to do a little inferring.  It looks like we all have flooding and winter storms in common. Last thing: in some pie charts you’ll notice “Other.” The “other” is different between the maps, so I highly recommend you look at the definition  waaaaay down at the bottom left. For instance, in the 50 yr map, volcanoes, dam breaks, and landslides are included in “other” This is where knowing what land features are around you would be helpful.

Level up: Here’s where you can search a list of disaster declarations by year, government, or type. You could search by county, for instance, to discover what’s common in your hometown.

2. Know your area. Let’s do a little geology/geography.

  • Ask your local authorities. A quick Google search of your town, county, or state’s “Emergency Management System” or “Disaster Response”. Some may continue to use “Civil Defense” name, though that is becoming increasingly rare. I highly encourage you to do this!
  • The NYT has a delightful map about the most and least risky spots to live. Complete with type of disaster.
  • Here’s a collection of USGS maps based on the various disasters (click for larger). I got them from the side panel of the Red Cross Map Library.
  • Map library based on state. Has maps of roads, rivers, elevation, etc. If you click on the river map in your state and scroll down, you’ll find a drought map, water flow rate map, and more. (Left: water features of Washington State. Right: drought map of Nevada)
Environmental hazards around DC. (screenshot)
Environmental hazards around DC. (screenshot)

Level Up: A lot of places have information on the intensity of a potential disaster. San Fransisco, for instance has numbers on how big of an earthquake to expect. Ask your local authorities if this information is available for your area.

3. Gather situational awareness. Situational awareness is knowing what’s happening around you right now. Do you know where to go for severe weather advisories or flood predictions?

  • Know what kind of warnings your area uses. Outdoor alarms? Push notifications (reverse 911)? Often you have to opt-in to local or regional push notifications. Your jurisdiction EM office should have information on how to do that.
  • Red Cross weather hazard library. A collection of constantly updated maps. Find rainfall/flood risk maps, wind gusts, status of tsunami and earthquake monitoring stations, air quality or heat maps, etc.
  • Map of seismic zones overlayed with nuclear reactor locations (courtesy Mike Meuser via CrisisHQ)
Is there a nuclear reactor in an earthquake zone near you?
Is there a nuclear reactor in an earthquake zone near you?
  • You can make your own “Lifeline” map here. (A lifeline map shows roads, sewers, electrical plants–anything a city needs to survive). I encourage you to play around with the map. There’s lots and lots of USGS info on it that you can overlay onto your specific area. It’s a really good source for local knowledge.
Custom made
Custom made “Lifeline” map around Chicago. (screenshot)
  • ESRI Severe Weather Public Information Map. Real time, crowd sourced severe weather reports. Puts NOAA warnings, and Twitter, Youtube, and Flikr info on a map. (Click “Fullscreen” over upper left map corner to get details like pic below).
Current crowd sourced info over Oklahoma. (screenshot)
Current crowd sourced info over Oklahoma courtesy ESRI. (screenshot)

4. Know what to do about it. 

The Red Cross has a list of (almost) all possible hazards. It’s good to start with a long list so we don’t miss something important. Notice the lovely alphabetical order and the lots and lots of further resources listed underneath.

Red Cross Disaster Library. Click to go.
Red Cross Disaster Library. Click to go.

I think that’s enough for today. Whew! Good work, everyone. Look at how much better prepared we all are!

If you found helpful resources, please do share them below.

Researcher on the Road: Sneaky Resilience

Read the first in this series here for some context.

While we went to the coast to talk to citizens about what they knew about Tsunami preparedness, we ended up talking a great deal to our fellow Emergency Managers (EMs) and hazard scientists (i.e. geographers, seismologists, meteorologists, etc who specifically study disasters). Much like veterans, we shared stories and groused about our common difficulties.

A common difficulty for EMs is funding. There’s never enough money for mitigation projects (like building a vertical evacuation tower where it’s needed or creating a cache of emergency supplies for the community), especially in smaller communities which a) don’t have much money and b) want to invest the money they do have in other problem areas like industry or housing.

Creative Commons via PSD
Creative Commons via PSD

Another (related) common difficulty for EMs is generating support for preparedness. It’s really, really hard–we’ve found–to get people to do anything about disasters. Humans are expert procrastinators and it’s hard to get worked up about something which might happen especially when current problems exist (like no industry or housing). And let’s face it, disasters are pretty much the vegetable of our world: important, but not that much fun to think about. When (blessedly) a few people in the community do take an interest and do some advocacy or preparedness work, EMs are over the moon. But inevitably, these little groups fall away. Though they are powerful forces for good, they are fragile and easy to dissipate after a while. So how can we get them to stick around?

It turns out that the solution is the same to these two problems. More than one EM and hazard scientists said the same thing. You have to embed preparedness into the fabric of the community. There’s two ways to do that. First, you design everything you build to be dual use. For instance, at the Long Beach and Ocean Shores areas, there are no paths up the hills for foot evacuation. Instead of building an evacuation path (a low priority for most people), build a walking path for visitors and residence who like to hike. Add nature signs and little benches next to stunning viewpoints. Tourists would love that. Residents would love that. And–as long as the path ran up hill–EMs would love that. Tourism is the honey on our resiliency-carrots. It makes it go down easy.

Secondly, you embed preparedness into the fabric of the community by using standing institutions to spread your message. Single-purpose fledgling groups are hard to maintain because they have few resources, few connections, high turnover, and too many other external pressures. Libraries, however, will always be around. Every community needs a hospital. Schools and churches crop up naturally wherever there’s people. These kinds of institutions are long lasting and serve a broader purpose. By doing so, they have access to lots and lots of people and more resources. So they make a powerful voice for preparedness advocacy. In one group, we had two librarians from two different, sister libraries. They had hosted some preparedness events and wanted to know how to help more. They felt strongly that their constituents needed tsunami evacuation information and had the power to make that happen for us.

These concepts–I’ve noticed–aren’t that much different from environmentalism ones. We use an old cottage cheese container to plant seeds in. Why can’t we make a hiking path serve as an evacuation route? We’ve also seen this in fitness and weight loss programs. The weight stays off when your exercise becomes embedded into the rest of your habits. A community is like that too. It needs resilience to be a part of every choice, not an alternative choice. We need to sneak it into community development like Mom snuck vegetables in to our lasagna.

When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.
When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.

Researcher on the Road: Survivability

Yesterday, we stopped in on our friends at the Washington State Emergency Management Division at Camp Murray.

20150515_150435

They graciously gave us a tour of the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and it was So. Cool. Downstairs, it’s dark and empty and very quiet. The whole bottom floor is dedicated to disaster management. There’s cubicles where the search and rescue teams sit, there’s a tiny kitchen, lots of binders, files, and posters filed neatly. If you turn left you’ll see an assuming door entering into the main, super-cool part.

EOC proper looks like a modern version of the Mission Control room in Apollo 13. Giant screens line one wall (tuned to CNN or a slide show presentation as needed, I’m told). 5 tvs sit side by side in each corner of the room. Giant whiteboards have today’s wi-fi password on it and big, clean spaces ready for writing. Maps of all sorts serve as functional decoration on free surfaces. Way, way up there’s windows looking down on us. That’s the Planning Room where the state authorities and FEMA have a birds-eye view.

Desks are broken up into pods, but don’t have any cubicle walls to impede communication. I could imagine people milling about and shouting across the room to one another. But maybe there’s more decorum during a disaster than that.

None of these people were here when I visited. This is "activated" status.
None of these people were here when I visited. This is “activated” status.

Opposite the giant screens on the one side are several rooms. One is a super secret communications room that we’re not allowed to see. A few look like nondescript offices. And the largest one sprawling importantly in the middle is the Alert and Warning Center (AWC). It’s the only room on the whole floor with anyone in it today, it seems like.

WA state AWC
WA state AWC. Sorry for the substandard pic. It’s pretty dim in there!

It’s staffed, I’m told, 24/7 and is responsible for monitoring the entire state for trouble. I’m shown the computers with steady green dots on a map–tsunami detectors off the coast. Nearby are lahar monitors, muted CNN on tv’s, maps, equipment I don’t understand, and–in the center–a little tabletop shelf where all of the state’s procedures are laid open. The AWC serves as the primary warning point for everything including: civil disturbances, earthquakes, forest fires, dam failure, floods, severe weather, lahars, landslides, HazMat incidents, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, and radiological accidents. So there’s a lot on that little tabletop shelf.

The building itself, I discovered–as we were ushered reluctantly out–is build on “base isolators” or giant bearings that sit in a concrete bowl shaped like a tiny half-pipe. Base Isolators let the building stay straight up instead of swaying and toppling during an earthquake. (Left pic courtesy of 21Century Builders. Right, courtesy KPFF Consulting Engineers who built the WA state EOC isolators and discuss it here.)

The official FAQ sheet I picked up on my way out says that the “building [was] designed…with the primary goal of survivability, particularly in the event of an earthquake. Building designed to continue to operate with minimal damage following a 1000 year earthquake” (italics/bold in original). A “1000 year earthquake” refers to the size  of the earthquake and the probability of it’s occurring, not the duration. It’s so big that we have to talk about it’s chances of happening in thousands of years. Cities, for example, often plan for a “100 year flood” which is a flood with 1% chance of happening in any given year. (Here’s more if you want to understand the math of that.) So a 1000 year earthquake is a really devastating one. This building will stand when everything around it is completely gone. And the people in it will still be working at saving lives from the rubble.

That’s somehow comforting, no?

Researcher on the Road: Step One

I have joined up with strangers from New Zealand and run away to the coast.

We drove many hours through city traffic, beautiful rain forest, and blooming marshland.
We drove many hours through city traffic, beautiful rain forest, and blooming marshland.

Drs. Johnston and Orchiston from Massey University in New Zealand are studying tsunami risk perception on the Washington State coast and I and Kimberley Cowrin (Geology student from Boise State) are helping. They’ve come all the way here because New Zealand has a very similar fault and socio-economic population who are also thinking about tsunami mitigation. (Anyone remember the NZ Christchurch earthquake? It’s what we like to call a “focusing event”.)

Washington State, Oregon, and California are putting together a joint earthquake-tsnunami disaster drill ominously called “Cascadia Rising” and I want to know the people who are participating. So I came too. Besides, I should learn how research works, no?

While the Cascadia Rising drill and this research project aren’t really connected, they are studying the same scenario and involve a few of the same people.

Here it is: Washington et al sit on the North American Plate while most of the Pacific Ocean sits on the Pacific Plate. There’s a tiny Juan de Fuca plate in the middle getting squished and pushing under the North American Plate.

The Juan de Fuca plate is an oceanic plate which is denser and smaller so it's getting pushed under the North American Plate.
The little black arrows on the map point to which plate is going on top. Volcanoes form on the top plate, so you can remember how to read the map by thinking of the little black arrows as volcanoes. Pic courtesy of Cascadia Earthquake Work Group. who explains this all in more detail.

The Juan de Fuca plate is an oceanic plate which is denser and smaller so it’s getting pushed under the North American Plate. That area with the black arrows is called the Cascadia Subduction Zone. They say that eventually a large earthquake will hit there just off the coast and cause a tsunami. Unfortunately, it will all happen so fast that the authorities won’t have time to sound the tsunami alarms, so people who live on the coast have to know that if there’s shaking, they move to higher ground whether they hear warnings or not. So we’re running focus groups to see whether these small towns know these things or not.

We've been at the Long Beach and South Beach communities so far.
We’ve been at the Long Beach and South Beach communities so far. Pic courtesy of Wa Coast tourism.

The towns are small and double or triple in size during peak tourist season. There’s clam digging, kyacking, fishing, shopping, beaching, and more. The towns are also built on sand which will most likely sink and flood during an earthquake. (Sinking, flooding, and liquefaction are all a little different, but all amount to impassable roads).

This is an
This is an “Inundation Map” which scientists use to show how far the tsunami water might come up. Pic courtesy of Esri geohazards maps.

Unfortunately, some people might have to travel 30 or more miles to a safe zone on roads which may not exist after an earthquake. Most of the all-year residents are elderly. All of this makes for a pretty gnarly problem (as our So. Cal friends say). In fact, many people we talked to cited a wide ranging apathy about tsunami evacuation. As one retiree said, the last time the alarms sounded, we went to the bar and had a drink. Where were we going to go?

There’s a tension in Emergency Management between delivering realistic, sobering information and frightening the public into nihilism. When people believe their actions don’t matter, they won’t take any (as the retiree so playfully illustrated). We talked to many civilian activists committed to changing that perspective in their community.

Inevitably, as we share these facts, someone in the focus group will say, “then what’s the point? It sounds like we’re all dead no matter what we do.” Then Dr. Johnston will lean forward and share the story about a study that was done on the most recent Japanese tsunami. Every step taken upwards or inland reduces your risk, he says. Sure, you might not outrace “The Big One”, but it might not be the big one this time. You can never tell. And since Tsunami waves reduce in size and power exponentially the further in land they get, you could maybe outrun this one. If you got up. Every step makes a difference, he says.  A few people nod to themselves.

Later, I stand around with our host Emergency Manager watching our focus group filing out. Sometimes, he says, if you can reach just one person, you’ve made a real difference. If you can reach one person then maybe they collect a Go Bag, and maybe they start telling their neighbors about how to prepare, and maybe they can help others when they do reach the high ground. That’s all you can do, he says shrugging. Get them one at a time.