How to Evacuate the Homeless

How do you find and evacuate the homeless if you need to?

It’s a question that’s been bothering me–and many city leaders–for a while now. Homeless people are often the most vulnerable and the most disconnected from “normal” information channels like TV and radio which makes them a population more likely to be hardest hit by a disaster.

I did some research and talked to some people and here’s what I found:

  1. The homeless are not as disconnected as I originally thought.
  2. Solutions designed to target other, related, homelessness problems can be adapted for emergency use (a pretty standard procedure for cities and states faced with limited resources)
  3. The most vulnerable of society (homeless and otherwise) will–no matter what–be the hardest hit during a disaster. But, the more prepared individual citizens and businesses are to take care of themselves, the more resilient the community, the more help is available to the most vulnerable of society when it’s needed most.

Connections Exist

According to the Atlantic, 75% of homeless youths use social media compared to 90% of their age-matched compatriots. While it is yet one tiny study, it led one researcher to posit that the Digital Divide may not be as large as we thought. Especially since the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has been working to narrow that divide since 1985 via it’s “Lifeline” program which subsidizes landlines and cell phones to low income consumers. (By the way, both Forbes and Snopes both debunked the myth that these phones are free or paid for by taxes.)

Picture courtesy of The Atlantic

Not only do some homeless have more access to cell phones and the internet (giving them a channel by which to receive evacuation notices) than I thought, but they are more socially connected than I imagined. This interview with Vacaville, CA Police Chief John Carl from the Armstrong and Getty Show shows how familiar the Police and other service providers get with homeless individuals. (I highly recommend a listen. It’s about 20 min long, but really interesting.) And some cities are working to make those social connections even stronger.

Connections build resiliency

Carli describes how his town created a “Homelessness Roundtable” to coordinate with private and public stakeholders/service providers. He also formed the “Community Response Unit”–a police unit designed to–among other things–get to know homeless individuals. CBS Sacramento has an interesting report on their successes.


Photo courtesy of Seattle Navigation Teams

Likewise, Seattle has formed “Navigation Teams,” a combination of police personnel and social workers who spend all day everyday on the city streets, getting to know the individuals in the camps and offering them housing or other services. They report that after the institution of these teams, that the acceptance rate of housing offers went from 5% to 30%.

Furthermore, this news report alludes to one of the other benefits of these teams which is relevant to my question. When an infant disappeared into the vast network of homeless camps, the Navigation Team were asked to help find her. Because of the knowledge and trust they had earned with their daily engagement, they were able to leverage the homeless network to find the child. This is the true power of these Community Response Units and Navigation Teams: they can be tapped to deliver disaster warnings to those that might otherwise miss it.

Homeless camp on I-5 near the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. Some encampments are especially close to the dangers of traffic.

In fact, it has already happened on a small scale. I spoke to the Seattle Office of Emergency Management spokesperson who mentioned to me that shortly after the Navigation Teams had begun working, a tanker overturned on I-5. The police used the brand new Navigation Team maps of homeless encampments to evacuate the homeless in the area. (He didn’t tell me a specific date, but I think this is the news report.) Navigation Teams and Community Response Units are designed to help the problems surrounding homelessness, but they may be a crucial link when it comes to delivering disaster warnings. I’d love to see Navigation Teams in every city.


I can’t help but notice a lesson buried here: when we work to make our communities safer and healthier, we make them more resilient as well. The homeless may be especially vulnerable, but–exactly like the rest of us–when they have more connections, they are more resilient.

Further Reading


Fewer Lightning-strike Deaths Good News for All

Found this on Twitter today from Bill Gates’ blog who got it from a new book called Enlightenment Now written by Steven Pinker:

You’re 37 times less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than you were at the turn of the century—and that’s not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. It’s because we have better weather prediction capabilities, improved safety education, and more people living in cities.

I love this statistic because it’s quirky, but also so elegantly illustrates what my job is about. Better meterology, geology, volcanology, sociology, and psychology science–it all makes this a safer world for everyone.

If you’re worried that the world is getting more and more violent all the time, take a look at Pinker’s books. They will illustrate that in many ways this Earth is getting less violent and more healthy. Good news like that is always welcome, am I right?

What statistic do you have that brings good news?

In the Land of Landslides

Officials hope to avoid another Niles-type Landslide 45 minutes south at Rattlesnake Ridge.

Niles Wa., 2009

In 2005, the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) inspected a quarry in the southeast foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State and told them that they were digging at the toe of a landslide. What’s a toe of a landslide? To borrow a metaphor from the History Link Files who tells this story: imagine you dump gravel down a flight of stairs. You start digging where the pile has stopped–the toe–a step or two before the ground. If you dig enough, more of the pile will slide down from above.

Essentially, geologically ages ago, the south side of Cleman mountain had slid into the Naches River Valley in a cataclysmic landslide 6 miles long creating the Sanford Pasteur Formation. Much later, still thousands of years ago, the Nachez river had undercut an edge of this formation and another massive landslide covered the river in hundreds of feet of debris. Over the many  years, the debris had gradually eroded away creating a hillside which present day homeowners had developed. (Click through the slide show to see it.)

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Until in 2005, the DNR asked a quarry operating there to submit a plan for monitoring the slope as it was on landslide territory. In 2007, the quarry did it’s own investigation of the slope which concluded that the quarry operations were too small to be exasperating slope instability.

At 6 am, October 11, 2009, the slope gave way for a third time to the largest landslide in recorded Washington State history. As History Link describes:

It occurs near the small Yakima County community of Nile located in the eastern foothills of the Cascades about 10 miles northwest of Naches, near Cleman Mountain. State Route 410 travels west from Yakima through the Nile Valley and across the Cascades at Chinook Pass. The landslide lifts this road and breaks it into huge slabs of asphalt scattered every which way. It lifts the river, leaving rainbow trout dying among high rocks that used to be the riverbed.  Five homes are damaged or destroyed in the landslide and another 20 are damaged by flooding as the river finds its new way around rock and debris some 40 feet thick. The slide covers 80 acres, taking several power poles; as a precaution Pacific Power cuts service to about 800 customers. Residents of the sparsely populated area are evacuated. Factors causing the landslide are speculated to be the action of the Naches River undercutting the steep slope, the slippery geological situation of a layer of basalt sliding over a deeper layer of sand, and the activities of a gravel quarry engaged in undercutting the slope.

Thankfully, no one was injured, but the landslide permanently altered the course of the Naches river disrupting fisheries, flooding 20 homes, changing bridges and roads, and nearly destroying Yakima’s water treatment plant. ( Read more about the massive project to build a new road and a new river channel here. Cool diagrams and pictures.)


Rattlesnake Ridge, Wa., 2018


Almost exactly 8 years later, October 2017, and only 45 minutes south,  a crack was discovered on the top corner of a hill called Rattlesnake Ridge above a quarry near I 82. The quarry moved operations away from the slope and hired a geologist to monitor it.

Presently, the fissure is about 250 feet deep, though geologists believe that the basalt bedrock has not cracked (which is good news; only surface dirt will sluff off if a landslide occurs). The main fissure is growing at about 2.5 inches a day or about 1.5 feet per week, and gaining momentum. The Red Cross is calling it a slow landslide.

This drone footage courtesy of geologist Steven Mack (for the Yakima Herald) is from about a week ago. It gives very good establishing and close up shots of the slope.

courtesy of Kiro 7 with an excellent report here

Geologists believe that the landslide will continue to fall slowly south into the quarry and stabilize, though it is possible that a million cubic feet of dirt will fall southwest onto Thorpe road and parallel I-82–farther if the bedrock is indeed broken. The 70 or so residents nearby have been evacuated and the quarry owners are offering to pay for hotel accommodations. No one wants another Nile-type slide which trapped Nile residents for ten days while an emergency access road was being built.

Meanwhile, the most likely threat is anticipated to be rock falling on the road. To that end, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has placed a wall of shipping containers filled with cement barriers along the shoulder of I-82. It won’t save the road from a landslide, but it will help with falling rocks.

courtesy of the Yakima herald

So this won’t be another Oso slide?

How did we get this far without discussing the Oso, Washington landslide in 2014 which killed 43 people? Because it’s a very different scenario from both the Nile landslide and the Rattlesnake Ridge (potential) landslide. From local news investigative report, Kiro 7:

After speaking with experts, Washington state leaders are confident that the Rattlesnake Ridge landslide is very different from the deadly Oso landslide that took 43 lives nearly three years ago.

Geologists explained to KIRO 7 that Oso was mud while Rattlesnake Ridge is consolidated rock on the move.

Also, the OSO slide was affected by rainfall. Water does not appear to be a factor in the Rattlesnake Ridge landslide.

“And (with) this one we have more time to prepare,” Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz told reporters. “And understand what’s going on and respond to it.”

Interestingly (as the report continues), the Rattlesnake Ridge fissure is visible in aerial photos as far back as the 1970s. Though it’s too soon to tell, geologists are speculating that the cause of the cracks may be similar to the Nile’s landslide situation: a “reactivation” of a much older landslide caused by gravel sitting on basalt sitting on sand being pushed by the Cascade faults.

We’re keeping an eye on this slow moving landslide for you. Stay tuned for developments.

Further Reading

Ambulance Tech

A year ago I wrote about some of the issues 911 operators face in getting help to you in a timely manner. I wanted to follow up and see if things had improved at all. Here’s what I found.

  1. Statistic-number crunching software is helping about half of America’s cities predict where the next emergency is likely to call from and are pre-positioning ambulances in those high-call areas. In Jersey City, over the last decade, it has cut response time in half.
  2. Various kinds of traffic signal preemption sy
    stems are available for emergency  vehicles and call centers. Some are based on sight, sound,  proximity, or by a master traffic control board at base. Essentially, they turn red lights green for the ambulance or clear the intersection by turning all lanes red.
  3. There are experimental programs in various cities designed to ease the burden of urgent but non-life-threatening calls. Some cities are trying a triage nurse service and vans for non-emergency medica
  4. l transport.

But there’s still problems with the system:

  1. According to this report, there are more medical emergencies than fire emergencies, but cities invest in fire trucks (for lots of different reasons). Which often means that the only vehicle available to respond to your heart attack is a ladder truck which may not be physically able to deliver you to the emergency room.
  2. According to the CDC, half of Americans are ditching the landline for cell phones only which can make finding you hard for these reasons:
    1. 911 services are working with outdated equipment and pinched funding.
    2. Satellites working with cell towers can take almost 3 minutes to find you
    3. Buildings can make it even harder for gps to find you.
    4. Apple and Google services like maps use wifi data to more accurately pinpoint your position and barometric readings to approximate your altitude. But even then, it can be hard to find the right apartment door.
    5. The cell carriers don’t want to pay to use Apple and Google’s mapping services. Although new regulations are compelling cell carriers to provide 911 services with better location information, the carriers are planning on requiring wifi providers and users to manually enter wifi data to build up their own, proprietary database according to the Wall Street Journal article. This will likely be incredibly inefficient to develop and hard to maintain.

So what might the future bring?


I’m hoping it’ll bring self-driving ambulances. I understand about half of you, according to this survey disagree with me, but I think self-driving ambulances could be really cool. According to auto-piloting and sociology expert, Stephen Rice, self-driving ambulances might do a lot of good. Imagine:

  • Ambulances able to drive to staging areas while the crew takes a break.
  • A super-efficient vehicle able to plot a super-speedy route to the hospital.
  • One EMT performing CPR while another is able to call a doctor for an urgent prescription instead of having to drive.

This is still only a dream. For instance, self-driving cars are still having trouble driving aggressively enough. They sometimes get bullied by human drivers who know the automated car will back off to avoid a some areas. In 2009, Google’s car once got trapped at an intersection waiting for the other cars to come to a complete stop and let it go.  As Donald Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, who studies autonomous vehicles says:

They have to learn to be aggressive in the right amount, and the right amount depends on the culture.

But that was nearly eight years ago now. Already, Google’s test cars have driven nearly 1.1 million miles and are getting better and better at solving problems.


May you never have to ride in an ambulance; but if you do, may it be as quick as humanly–or robotically–as possible.

Further Reading:

Forthright Irma: A discussion of Hurricane Ambiguity.

It’s hard to get people to evacuate. Cara Cuite and Rebecca Morss–risk communication and hurricane experts–write about several factors that can cause people to ignore evacuation warnings. Things like: some people don’t like being told what to do; sometimes they judge fear-based messaging as “overblown” and disregard it; sometimes the cost and logistical nightmare of evacuating causes them to prefer to shelter-in-place. (Do read their article; it’s so interesting.)

But my favorite factor which causes people to ignore evacuation warnings is ambiguity. Ambiguity is systemic and unavoidable and–worse–humans are terrible at managing it. Some individuals and cultures are better at tolerating uncertainty than others (as Hofstede points out), but generally humans don’t like to take action when they can’t predict the outcome.

This trait can influence Emergency Managers’ work in two ways: 1. Storm prediction is inherently ambiguous which makes our jobs harder and 2. Ambiguity from authorities causes people to hesitate putting them in danger.

1. Storm prediction is ambiguous

Below is a comparison of American (blue) and European (red) computer models predicting the path of Hurricane Irma. The darkest lines are the averages. (Thanks to the Washington Post for this picture and many other excellent ones.) As you can see, there is a limit to how finely science can predict a hurricane’s progress. Imagine you’re the governor of Florida. Do you evacuate Jacksonville?

Irma prediction model
Group of simulations from American (blue) and European (red) computer models from Friday night [9/8/17]. Each color strand represents a different model simulation with slight tweaks to initial conditions. Note that the strands are clustered together where the forecast track is most confident but they diverge where the course of the storm is less certain. The bold red line is the average of all of the European model simulations, while the blue is the average of all the American model simulations.(
Fortunately for the real Governor of Florida, storm prediction has vastly improved since the deadliest storm in American history–“The Galveston Hurricane of 1900″ (This was before they started naming storms). During the 1900s, American meteorologists had a poor understanding of how storms played in the ocean. Though the more experienced Cuban meteorologists warned of an incoming hurricane, the message was ignored and no one evacuated. Surging waters killed 8,000 of the 37,789 residents or about 20% of the population.

After World War II, “the U.S. still used pretty simple forecasting tools. Airplanes took rough rides into these tempests, found the storm’s center, and then returned every six hours to find the center once again,” reports Popular Science. The U.S. launched it’s first weather satellite in 1960 and the first satellite images were broadcast on television in the 1970s.

The last decade or so has seen even greater improvements of predictions through better satellite technology and computer modeling. The Natural Hazards Review estimates that weather satellites have prevented up to 90% of the deaths that would have occurred had meteorologists not had satellites available. NOAA reports that their errors in storm tracking has dropped by 50% in the last 15 years while in the last 5 years, NOAA has improved it’s notice-giving by 12 hours. Public officials now have 36 hours of advance notice. If it hadn’t been for these improvements, weather experts estimate 10,000-20,000 people killed in Hurricane Katrina, instead of the actual 1,200 people. Because of storm tracking, only 15% of New Orleans’ population was still in the city.

The bad news is that there is still ambiguity to storm tracking–for instance, scientists still have a hard time judging the intensity of a storm. The good news is, the ambiguity is way less than it was before.

2. Ambiguity from authorities can cause inaction.

The ambiguity from storm prediction can creep into the language used by public leaders which directly causes people to hesitate to take action or to disregard warnings. Studies show that people use multiple sources of information when trying to make a decision and that people are more likely to take the action when a) sources agree and b) information is consistent over time.

Let’s compare the evacuation orders from Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Evacuation messaging for Hurricane Irma was consistent and forceful and Florida evacuated smoothly. On the other hand, Texas officials have been criticized by some for their weak and inconsistent evacuation directions.

Before Hurricane Harvey, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told residents to shelter-in-place. Meanwhile, Texas Governor Greg Abbot said, “If you have the ability to evacuate and go someplace else for a little while, that would be good.” This mismatch in message caused many residents to stay put. In Mayor Turner’s defense, he was expecting flooding instead of high winds and driving in flooded streets is far more dangerous than staying in your house. The two public leaders judged the ambiguous weather data differently from their different vantage points.

Pic courtesy of NPR

Additionally, Gov. Abbot’s “evacuation order” seems weak. The “If you can…that would be good,” sounds like a suggestion on par with “If you could get me butter at the store, that would be good.” At first, I was frustrated because I assumed Gov. Abbot was just a bad public speaker. “Do you want people to evacuate or not?!” I yelled at the TV. (Please forgive me, Mr. Governor.) But after reflection, I think his message was ambiguous because it had to be. Here are the facts I imagine are in Abbott’s mind: 1. I want you to evacuate. 2. Evacuation causes traffic jams. We all remember the horror of the 2007 evacuation from Hurricane Rita–the largest evacuation on record. 3. Smart people are telling me that this could just be rain, in which case I don’t want millions of people flooded and drowning on the highways. 4. If I explicitly call for voluntary evacuation, people might evacuate from safe areas blocking the road for people trying to evacuate from dangerous areas. Poor Gov. Abbot. Not only is there ambiguity arising from the limitations of science and from different vantage points, but there is ambiguity in messaging because of conflicting motivations.

Fortunately, evacuations for Hurricane Irma went smoothly. We could make the argument, as Alan Bernstein, spokesperson for Houston Mayor Turner does, that this was due to Irma’s certainty. He said to NPR, “Irma is totally different. It is forecast for a direct hit on populous areas, bringing highly destructive winds and perhaps heavy coastal destruction. That was not the case here, and Mayor Turner would not second-guess an evacuation order for Florida.”


All I can say is: Thank God for better storm tracking.

Further Reading

Humans and Information: Managing a herd of cats.

I was talking to a project manager the other day about our common struggle: information systems management. We argued the various pros and cons of software designed to organize teams and information (’cause we’re nerds). As our conversation progressed over issues of human error and information tagging, I got to thinking about the similarities of maintaining knowledge and maintaining groups.

Group dynamics and information sharing are inextricably linked in a number of ways. On top of that–or maybe because of that–maintaining groups and information systems takes a lot of the same resources and methodology. Here are some links between the two:

Link #1: Group relationships (i.e. ‘cohesion’) effect how information is shared.

Rupert Brown says in Group Processes (2000) that the more tightly bonded group members feel to one another, the more likely they are to share information–whether it’s useful or not. However, tightly cohesive groups tend to be more isolated from the environment so their information can become repetitive or outdated. On the other hand, loosely associated groups tend not to share all information with everyone, but the information they do have tends to be unique and up to date because of the members’ contact with non-group members. Therefore, managing the groups dynamics directly influences the play of information throughout the group.

Side note: On the flip side of the coin, we might be able to say that information directly influences group relationships. If young adult drama-dies have taught me anything, it’s that a rumor can make or break a friendship.

Link #2: More people effect group maintenance. More information effects system maintenance.

Network theory (and common sense) states that the more nodes a network has, the more complex the network is. Just think about how your family’s dynamics changed after your sister married that guy. Adding a node (brother-in-law) to Thanksgiving dinner changed the dynamic of the network (family). Moreover, larger networks with more complex arrangements require more resources in order to maintain them. For information systems, this might mean more people or more time spent on data entry. For groups, it might mean more time and energy spent on group-building activities, managing rumors, or resolving conflict, etc.

Side note: I suspect that the larger and more complex the network, the more inertia it develops which is why very large groups (like governments) take so long to respond to changes in the environment (like a world-wide economic downturn).

Link #3: Information systems management is necessarily human systems management.

Collaboration not only requires that we share information, but that we share information in a way we can all recognize, access, and manipulate. Each team member must be trained in a standardized method for handling group information. We all have to use the same file-naming system, the same date system, the same tags. Furthermore, as we alluded in Link 2: a) the more types of information there is to be handled, the more complex the system for managing it becomes and b) the more people handling the information, the more complex the system for managing it becomes. Information management is directly dependent on group management.

This link seems to be where project managers and emergency managers spend so much of their time. It seems like we’re all struggling to get everyone else to manage information correctly.

Link #4: The person who manages group life also tends to manage information flow. 

It’s easier to spot in small, informal groups, but in every group there is a gatekeeper. A gatekeeper is a person who manages access to benefits which they do not own. For instance, access to the boss, a spot on the agenda, or access to illicit information (like rumors or secrets which they may trade for more political capital).

I, personally, like to think of the gatekeeper as someone who manages the group’s Transactive Memory System (TMS) which is a fancy sociological term for knowing who knows what. Usually, the gatekeeper is well connected in the group and–especially if they’ve been there a long time–generally knows who knows what. They are a valuable resource for members as they can direct them to those members with the expertise or connections they need. Gatekeepers control information flow in the group in a very direct way.

Here’s where I go out on a theoretical limb. We’ve experienced often how information gets stymied during a crisis and a lot of research (including my own) is focused around how to open the channels of communication. What if part of the problem of information flow is that the gatekeeper gets overwhelmed by requests literally or figuratively? What if they don’t prioritize information correctly and let something important drop? What if they can’t help the group efficiently because there’s too much noise (i.e. the opposite of data) to process requests for information/expertise?

So the solution might be to decentralize gatekeeping duties across the whole group (or at least more members), but then you run into the increased maintenance cost of more people handling information.  Hmm….


There seems to be an intimate association between handling group members and handling information. They take a lot of the same resources and processes and the cost in terms of time and effort of maintaining each seemed to be linked. Each individual may have a limit to how much information they can process at one time, necessitating collaboration with other individuals. But collaboration is inherently more costly as networks increase in complexity. Therefore, managers must cleverly walk the delicate line between too little and too much information, between too few and too many team members.

So if you ever feel like the system should behave better than it is, keep in mind: you’re actually managing two related, yet unique systems. Problem in one might be symptoms of problems in the other.

Day in the Fields: Volunteering at the Special Olympics NA Golf Tournament

I’m taking a task-less moment to document the fun I’ve been having. This is Day Two of my volunteering gig I got with the Emergency Management Group-Washington who is deployed to support the North American Golf Championship for the Special Olympics.

20170626_145441.jpgYesterday, I was on the Seattle campus of University of Washington (UW) in a little conference room in the basement of a faraway building watching various monitors and chasing details. The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) takes note of potential threats, plans, daily schedules, contact information for liaising groups, keeps radios charged, and holds first aid equipment for off duty med staffers. It is the information hub and it’s run–today at least–by 4 hardworking, always cheerful, and ever-dedicated women and overseen by the experienced and knowledgeable Director who sometimes drops by to fix the wobbly internet. I sat at a long table with my tiny laptop and watched TweetDeck (our Twitter aggregator) update languidly. I delved deep into the hinterlands of NOAA to find the exact right weather report for tomorrow. (We need to tell the med tent if they should expect heat stroke). I listened to a UW representative who had dropped by for a radio describe what their crisis management office was up to. It was a quiet day–pretty much ideal for our line of work.

20170628_120624Today, I’m following the Director around on the golf course itself. We’re mostly based at the med tent which is staffed with two doctors and two EMTs on golf carts. It’s very quiet today and comfortably cool. We’ve had some radio problems, but otherwise all is running smoothly.

While we are here to protect the health and safety of the athletes and volunteers, we’re also treating this as a practice run for The Special Olympics golf tournament in 2018 which will see thousands more athletes, and many more spectators and volunteers. We’re collecting notes and opinions about the event to include in an After Action Report which will help us plan next year better.

We take a break in the clubhouse (where there’s power outlets) to gather some information. Yesterday, we heard about a townhall meeting being hosted on the UW campus concerning an incendiary social-justice topic. There might be protesters which line or block the path our athletes were going to use to get home tonight. No one is expecting the protectors to be violent, but we’ve also seen how these things quickly escalate and it’s our job to be extra safety-conscious especially since we’re supporting our own sometimes-vulnerable population. So the leadership staff spent last evening developing an alternate transportation plan and today, the Director made the finishing touches and sent it out to all his staff. My job was to research and verify the protest (we’d heard conflicting reports). I felt all my Millenial training come to my aid–finally it was good for something–as I scoured the internet for signs of unrest. Exactly one of the words I reported made it into the plan. And it was paraphrased.

Still, I like contributing. I’m learning a lot and am grateful for the opportunity to meet my ilk. Here’s to those behind the scenes. Great job.

Update: Nothing happened at the protests. The athletes were walked home via a different path and didn’t even seem to notice the change. I’m glad.


Mind over Manufacturing: what do to when the system defeats you.

I have many hobbies, one of which is sewing, and lately I’ve become enamored with Japanese folk textiles. Specifically boro. (Special thanks to Sri Threads for many of the pictures.)

I like boro textiles because they are burdened with more than the “waste not, want not”, Great Depression-style resourcefulness I grew up with. The Japanese (from my limited understanding) have a more nuanced relationship with waste, repair, and beauty. That Wikipedia link above includes tangential concepts that are beautifully exemplified by boro textiles. For instance: kintsugi or the practice of repairing broken pottery with gold which has come to symbolize that history is what makes a piece beautiful. Or the exclamation “mottainai” which means “what a waste!” and comes from a Shinto belief that objects have souls. (Remember how Marie Kondo thanks her shoes for doing a good day’s work and some how–even though she knows it’s silly–it makes her feel better about herself and her possessions?) Westerners–especially this new generation of self-sufficient, economically/ecologically conscious ones– we may hate waste, but do we lament waste as a minor death?


Take a look at these boro textiles again and their sashiko stitching which both strengthens the delicate hemp cloth and beautifies it (we might call it wabi-sabi, perhaps). Did you know that sometimes, the Japanese would recycle thread from old clothes to do this? Imagine painstakingly pulling out each stitch so you could reuse the thread instead of simply cutting the seam apart.

So, as an artist, I got all fired up about the sustainability of hand stitching when my heater broke. True, it was an old heater, but if it was old, it should be simpler to fix, no? Just a matter of finding an expert. But I couldn’t fix it. No one made the parts for it, and I couldn’t get to the broken bit anyway. I was left with a blanket around my shoulders helpless to save the world from our booming landfills.


An early 19th c. American quilt made out of feed sacks. A western frugality. Courtesy of

Then, I went on the internet and happened to discover planned obsolescenceor the strategy of shortening a products usable life by design. Sometimes this means aesthetically (clothes and cars do this since their materials often are more durable than fashion houses and auto brands would prefer. Although, don’t get me started on fast fashion: so shoddy that even Africa is starting to reject our secondhand clothes.) Sometimes planned obsolescence means simply designing things that can’t be repaired. Like clothes dryer drums molded to the machine so you can’t replace the part that breaks; watches and phones that are one piece so you can’t get inside to replace a battery without destroying them; or printer ink cartridges that lie about how much ink is left.



Credit: Ray Van Eng Photography | Getty Images

As an Emergency Manager and socially-conscious person, I’m trained to promote self-sufficiency and sustainability. We commonly think that it’s a matter of laziness; that if we can get people to care enough, they would make an emergency kit, build up a pantry, and stop living so wastefully. But I do care. I love boro cloth and I still can’t stop living wastefully. 


Kate Fletcher wrote a paper about emotional durability. In it, she critiques our focus on durability as a product of good design, material, and construction processes and suggests that psychological factors also make a thing durable.

The logic goes like this:

  • Some scientists have claimed that you can get people to hang on to goods longer if you cause them to form an emotional attachment to the object.
  • That’s true, but usually people who form attachments to objects collect them and store them instead of using them.
  • Fletcher did some ethnography and claims:  “… while mending and altering were common, the physical durability of the garment per se appears less critical to the piece’s durability than a user’s habit of mind fostering long-term use” (p.231)

In other words, durability has more to do with how you treat an object than how long its materials last. Here’s an example Fletcher gives in page 232. I do recommend clicking through so you can see the picture:

A Life of Action “I call this my three stage jacket. It began about forty years ago as a very slim waistcoat that was given to me. I knitted a panel and put it into the back just to be able to fasten it together at the front, you see. And then about fifteen years ago I added sleeves and a collar and some trimmings. And then, only about five years ago, I became a bit too big to button it up so I added latchets across to the front so that I can fasten it.” (Figure 1)

She goes on to recommend (with others) that the fashion industry–and I would add, society at large–change from “ownership” to “usership”. Fletcher urges the fashion industry to design garments that require collaboration with the wearer; that can be used for more than one occasion or fashion period; that can be altered and passed down. I think that that applies to all objects. Before you bring an object in to your house, think about whether or not you would enjoy using it as opposed to whether or not you would enjoy having it. Changing your identity from an owner to a user opens up many possibilities for adaptation in the future.

Of course, it’s also your responsibility to develop (or find someone who has developed) the technical skills to make those adaptions such as knitting, gluing, composting, and hammering. It also means you are responsible for properly cleaning, maintaining, and storing your objects. This summer I was the recipient of a 50 year old cast iron pressure canner in near-mint condition because the original owner was meticulous about cleaning it. I mean: marine-level clean. It’s perfect. And now it’s my turn to keep it that way.

But it’s all worth it. Just ask any crafter how much fun it is to reuse a thing you thought was dead.

Credit: clothing designers CoolHunting

Hope Dogs in the EOC: Comfort in times of crisis

EMScholar Exercises

This is part of a series about the largest disaster exercise conducted in Washington State history called Cascadia Rising, 2016. See the other blogs here.

You know immediately when they arrive because the whole room gravitates toward their wake.

“Did you see the Hope Dogs?” someone asks me.

“What are Hope Dogs?” I ask heading toward a growing crowd in a corner. Oscar and Pickles are therapy dogs who work for the non-profit organization Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (Hope AACR). They are part of an elite team that not only has animal-assisted therapy certification and experience but are also screened for suitability in a crisis response environment. Teams receive extensive training in Incident Command System (a standardized way we organize crisis response), first aid/CPR, emotional first aid, crisis communication, and special stress management techniques for work in the field along side first responders.

Founded in September 2001, Hope Dogs provided emotional support victims at the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks. Hope Dogs are called out nationally to attend policeman memorials, Operation Purple camps (for military kids), and natural disasters. They work closely in conjunction with FEMA and the Red Cross and were happy to practice with us at Cascadia Rising.

Molly Fischer (right) with Oscar and Raquel Lackey (left) with Pickles

Molly Fischer sits comfortably on the floor with a gentle Oscar. He gives me soulful eyes until I pat him. Hope Dogs first began as emotional support for victims of natural disasters but gradually, the organization began to see a need to support the responders themselves. Fischer started working with FEMA staff during the 2014 Oso, Washington landslide. “It’s such a rewarding thing when you walk into a building where everything is so tense [like that]” she says, “When we walk into a room, it’s all smiles.” She invites another person to pet Oscar. “Snohomish [county] was the smoothest-operating EOC because of the dogs” she says proudly. They were able to relax and focus on the response. “Dogs are amazing at that.”

Pickles Oso
Pickles and another Hope Dog look across the valley to the Oso landslide. Pic courtesy of Cal EOC.

Pickles and handler Raquel Lackey join us. They were at Oso too a day after the landslide while search and rescue were still happening. She describes how exhausting it was for the dogs to sponge up all that emotional stress. They need a break every other day and then a longer break after about three weeks. They never use dogs under 2 years old because it can be too stressful for the puppies and they only use dogs who are highly tolerant of new things and stressed people. After, Oso, she took the dogs to the beach for a couple days were there was no one around.


Still… she says, they can get depressed if they don’t work for a while.
“How do you know when it’s time to go back to work?” I ask
“They’ll tell you. This one,” she nudges a tail-wagging Pickles, “will approach people on the street for pets” she laughs.

I wonder aloud why the dogs need practice when they seem to be such naturals. “Our minds know this is an exercise but our bodies don’t” Fischer tells me. Lackey nods. “You’ll notice the dogs can identify who’s the most stressed.” Oscar puts his head in someone’s lap. Both he and the person seem grateful for the head scratches.


If you’d like to support these intrepid therapy dogs and the volunteers who give up their time to support first responders and victims, do visit their page to see all the different ways you can help.