The People of Cascadia Rising


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.

Here is only a very small sampling of the 20,000 participants spread across three states and federal and military headquarters. These people were found in the Washington State Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the surrounding campus. Mouse over the pictures to see more.


Cascadia Rising: Preamble

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.

This blog series brought to you by the miraculous power of asking.

Unfortunately (according to some), I have been plagued since childhood by an innate desire to please people and bred by my mother’s perfect politeness to not get in the way. But through rigorous training administered by the loving type-A personalities in my life, I can now force myself to  knock softly on someone’s cubicle door–interrupting their day (gasp!)–and ask for something (double gasp!) with something approaching dignity and cheer.

That is how, via a terrifyingly casual handshake, I was introduced to Mr. Ed Taylor and Mr. Lit Dudley who are (more or less) in charge of Cascadia Rising 2016 Exercise. And how, after being brave, I was able to join the Controller Group which helps to administer the exercise, and how, after being even braver, I will be allowed to take photos and document the whole thing from start to finish.


Well, perhaps not from the very, very start. Cascadia Rising is a regional-wide earthquake and tsunami simulation which Taylor et al have been planning for two years. It involves around 20,000 players from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho including participants from Federal, county, tribal, and city agencies, and stand-a-lone businesses like hospitals, Amazon, the Red Cross, Northwest Natural Gas, Amtrak, etc. People from Alaska, California, FEMA, University of Washington, and South America are coming to observe how the players run this 4-day disaster simulation.

The exercise is named after the Cascadia fault off the Northwest coast. You might remember it from this post. Cascadia subduction zone2.The Cascadia Rising planners created a scenario in which a 9.0 magnitude “full-rip” earthquake along the 700-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ) fault causes subsequent tsunamis and aftershock which impact the Washington and Oregon coastline. They will deliver the “news” of this earthquake to the players across the region via simulated USGS maps and video. Then, the participants will have to respond. Local damages based on scientific projections have been pre-planned and each local controller is in charge of telling the players about outages or damages. For example (and hypothetically, since “ground truth” is a secret to the players), a county near the coast might discover that their local cell phone tower has been damaged, meaning cell phones are out as a means of contacting damage assessors in the field.

I’ll be stationed in Washington State’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) which will activate 107 state agency staff and 101 federal staff per shift. I’m looking forward to this station because the states are the conduit between local jurisdictions and federal partners. I will be at the hub of information processing, decision making, and direction giving. I can’t wait to see it all!

I hope you’ll join me for an inside look at an activated EOC this June.


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.

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: 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.

On the Lighter Side: Animals Predict Disasters

I’ve been working diligently on my school work for a while, so haven’t had the time or interest to keep posting. Add to that a TREMENDOUS case of Spring Fever, and you’ve got a girl in the garden instead of at her computer. Since I’m experiencing some crisis/compassion fatigue, so I decided that today’s blog post should be light-hearted. I thought I might share with you some crazy disaster facts for fun, but on the way I found a much better topic. Behold:

The Science of Animals Predicting Disasters:

Does Fluffy know best after all?

In 1979, animals sensing impending doom was a compelling new area of inquiry because of one Chinese city. Four years earlier–1975–Chinese officials, noticing strange animal behavior ordered the evacuation of the very large city of Haicheng. Indeed, a 6.7 earthquake did strike and despite the “uneven” evacuation (according to this article), thousands of lives were saved. This was so exciting that scientists got together to talk about it. And they produced this paper summarizing everything the community knew about animal predictions:

Abstract_animals predict earthquakes

Notice the optimistic ending: “It is hoped that precursory animal behavior may eventually be better understood, to the point that it may one day be used as a reliable seismic precursor.”

Unfortunately, in the excitement, the story was colored a little. While it’s true that odd animal behavior encouraged Chinese officials to evacuate the town, what finally convinced them were foreshocks which damaged a few buildings. (A foreshock is just like an aftershock only before the earthquake).

So what do we know now? How far has Animal Predict-ology come from 1979. Let’s see…

In the end, it’s much more reliable to use actual measuring instruments to predict earthquakes. Still…I suppose if you see Fluffy heading for the hills, you should turn on the news.

PS: I highly recommend you peruse that 1979 conference paper. It’s only 13 pages long and it has gems like this:

Table 2_Animals predict earthquake
It’s trying so hard to be unbiased.

Further Reading:

  • National Geographic article
  • Article from the Telegraph about a more recent proposal for using toads to predict Earthquakes. Has a video! Also, the citation for today’s featured image.

Emergency Literacy: What to expect during a disaster response

I am studying the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill as a case study for leadership and the authors of one of my papers made the point that one of the jobs of leaders during an disaster is helping those who don’t have emergency management “literacy”.

Agencies calmly executing plans can appear to be methodical and in control or lacking urgency and intensity depending upon the lens used. (p. 11)

Courtesy giphy
Courtesy giphy

For the most part, Americans understand that an “out of control” fire does NOT mean that the response is “out of control”. But we’re used to what a fire looks like. We have a general understanding about what needs to happen to put out the fire and (in the case of wild fires) how nature thwarts those efforts. Just because the fire doesn’t go out right away doesn’t mean the fire fighters are incompetent. But “non-routine” disasters are different. By their very definition, there is a lot of unknown. It can look like responders don’t know what they’re doing, especially in the era after Hurricane Katrina–generally perceived to be a failure of leadership.

I’d like to think this blog is doing it’s tiny part to increase “emergency literacy”–to increase your confidence that responders know how to help. That isn’t to say that you should not be critical. We need people to encourage us to be transparent about the response. You have the right to be anxious. It’s our job to make sure you have the information you need to make good decisions and your job to make sure we do that.

But perhaps it helps to know what kinds of plans we have already. Did you know that the each agency has a plan for each kind of incident which carefully outlines their roles, responsibilities, and agreements with other agencies? Take a look at London’s plan. It’s long and boring, but skim the Contents page. It’s kind of comforting to know people have thought about all these things (there’s even a section specifically devoted to helicopters!)

It’s also our jobs as emergency managers to manage the public’s expectations. We’re supposed to explain what things we can control, what things we can’t, and what we’re doing about the things we can’t control. For instance, we cannot possibly make a plan for every disaster that could possibly happen in the world. We could not possibly anticipate every variation. In fact, the more detailed our plans are, the more rigid they become. Emergencies are fast and loose and we need the flexibility to respond to unexpected changes. Sometimes we have to abandon or adjust our response strategies as more information becomes available. We’re not working aimlessly or randomly, it’s just a chaotic environment and we have to make lots of adjustments. Like the kinds of adjustments your muscles have to make to keep your balance on a spinning log.

So what CAN I expect?

  • Surprise. It will always seem like no one expected these events to happen even when scientists have been screaming about potential disasters for years. The truth is, people habitually believe that disasters are something that happen to other people. You need to prepare yourself that when we talk about disasters, it’s not if, but when.
  • Lots of chaos. There’s a convergence of lots of people at a disaster site–each with their own agendas and realms of expertise. There’s a period of intense organizing and communicating as people work to gain “situational awareness” (understanding what’s happening, where, and who’s doing what). With the advent of modern media, you get to see the process unfold in real time and it looks messy. Remember: chaos is natural and not necessarily a sign of incompetence.
  • Lots of uncertainty and anxiety. Feeling out of control and dealing with the unknown makes people anxious. That’s ok. We’re going to work through those feelings, I promise. Bear with us. Listen for updates. Prepare yourself to deal with a little uncertainty. Now, it’s NOT ok for agencies to refuse to tell you how the disaster will affect your health or future livelihood, (like how the Japanese government kept the citizenry in the dark after Fukushima). If that happens, you have my permission to cause a ruckus.
  • Lots of drama. The media LOVE disasters because they make for good stories. They will intentionally seek out the most disgruntled person and the most pathetic, oil-covered animal. The media will sensationalize the disaster and prepare a scape-goat for you. Do your best to balance your consumption of pitiful images with fact-based, evidence-based reporting.
  • Lots of finger-pointing. Unfortunately, this happens. I’d like to say we’re all adults who accept responsibility for our part in the disaster and response, but that’s just not true. It’s extremely difficult not to feel defensive when the media and congressional hearings grill you on mistakes (whether perceived or actual). Remember, the media loves a good villain and will present a scape-goat to you–fairly or not. Do your best to not fuel the fires of hate.
  • A sense of abandonment is possible. Especially if you live in the area affected by the disaster, you will be overwhelmed by all the media attention and people volunteering to help you and send you money. But very shortly, the media will disappear and support will dry up. People will go home even before you feel back to normal. Prepare yourself to work hard on recovery without a lot of attention. This is the time for you to connect with your community.

Disasters are scary and always new. That’s ok. We’re going to get through it, together. (Although, it does help if you have a family preparedness plan.)

Food Forests All Around Us

I’ve recently been doing a lot of research on permaculture, and aquculture. I like to think of these ideas as a practical sustainability. It’s working with nature instead of against it and there are so many benefits. It’s fun to learn about.

By the way, I love this quote from Home Ready Home:

Permaculture designed human habitats are adaptive, resilient, abundant, and secure places in a future of peak oil, climate instability, and deepening economic insolvency. This is at the heart of preparedness, to be adaptive, resilient, and secure while enjoying true abundance.

Anyway, I discovered this delightful post from Resilience about food forests from around the world and wanted to share the awesomeness with you. I especially liked this video:

Is there a food forest near you? Have you partaken? Tell us your experience below.

On Creativity and Resiliency

Uh oh
Sourced here.

“Is this ok?”
I was 16 and was showing off a bouquet of flowers from the garden I had arranged for the dinner table. My mom–a wonderful cook and gardener–looked up from the kitchen and said, “It’s perfect! You’re so creative! I can never get flowers to look like that…”

As I grew older, learned some more skills, discovered Pinterest, my mother continued to express a certain mixture of pride and jealousy at my creative abilities. Which completely baffled me. Her meals are always both yummy AND attractive. Her garden is a delight. She sewed a lovely prom dress for me–a very picky and indecisive teen. She helped me solve tricky interpersonal problems as a young adult. How could she think she wasn’t creative? Much later–painfully–I admitted to myself, she might be right. There is a subtle difference between her creative activities (cooking, gardening, sewing, etc) and mine. Her creativity is about following the rules she has learned to make things look nice. My creativity is about using items for a different function than what they were originally intended. Case in point:

 An example of creative problem solving: using a vase as a makeup brush holder.
I recently discovered at Goodwill a nice solution to losing my makeup brushes.

BUT–I learned–that didn’t mean she couldn’t become MORE creative (and she totally has. Mom, if you’re reading this, I love you and think you’re awesome.)

Creativity is becoming an important business and academic buzzword. We’re beginning to recognize as a society that rote-internalization of “best practices” are not working in a turbulent, globalized world. We want to train our kids to think. This is no less important in Emergency Management. A disaster response is fast, changeable, and problematic. It requires creative thinking to solve unusual problems.

It’s important for you too. During a disaster, you’ll also need to solve unanticipated problems. They may be as small as: I have one headlamp and a family of 4 that wants to use it. But just because the problem is relatively small, doesn’t mean the solution isn’t impactful for you and your family.

Emergency Hacks from Buzzfeed: headlamp-water jug lantern
Emergency Hacks from Buzzfeed: headlamp-water jug lantern

But we–as my mom exemplified–still think creativity is a type of genius. Not everyone grows up to be Picasso. It’s a talent you’re born with. Wrong. Sort of. There are two kinds of creativity. Dr. Gerrard Puccio, Chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, calls them “Creativity” and “creativity”. Capital-C Creativity is the type of Picasso, Einstein, Michael Jordan genius which might have a genetic component (it’s not something we understand well). Small-C creativity is universally hard-wired into your brain. “You’re human and you have an imagination,” he says. “You are wired to be creative.” This kind of creativity can be taught, practiced, and grown as demonstrated by creativity degrees cropping up hear and there. If you thought, “oh ya, I guess you could you a vase to hold makeup brushes. I bet a cup, bowl, bread loaf tin, or empty coffee canister would work too,” you were demonstrating the innate ability you need during an emergency. You already have the skill. The trouble is, we’ve forgotten how to use it.

So how do you remind your brain to think creatively about problems? These are scientifically-unproven, anecdotally-sound tips from my own life.

1. Don’t panic. Unexpected problems can be scary. Imagine having hungry children and realizing that you don’t have cash and none of the stores’ credit machines are working. It’s easy to panic a little bit, but intense anxiety can get in the way of creative problem solving–just like stage-fright can make you forget your lines. Take a deep, purposeful breath or two. Begin brainstorming. Can you get to cash? Is there someone who can help you? Is there somewhere farther away you can go? Is there a shelter? etc.

2. Believe creativity can be trained like a muscle. Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset that people who believe that they are born with a finite amount of traits like intelligence or creativity don’t do well in life because they avoid challenges. Failure just point out their limits which is psychologically uncomfortable. But people who believe they can learn and improve on those traits do better because they try their best at challenges and learn from mistakes. In fact, they do learn to be more intelligent or creative. (Side note: this is one of the few books that I can honestly say changed my life. I highly recommend it. It’s a really interesting read on top of being important.)

3. Gather ideas. Creativity is NOT about developing a unique product from scratch (contrary to popular belief). It’s about recycling, refining, combining, adapting, rearranging, reapplying ideas. For a long while, I thought that as a fiction writer I had to sit alone and think about my story so that it would remain pure from influence. But, like water in the Dead Sea, I got stuck. I needed input from as many sources as possible. I needed to dialogue with other ideas in order for my story to be fresh and lively–ironically.

3b. Gather ideas from EVERYWHERE. I’ve talked about Pinterest before, because I think it does a good job of collecting folk solutions or life hacks. My creativity has bloomed since I began looking at other people’s work on Pinterest. But gathering ideas is more than knowing a lot about one topic (which is helpful). Being creative is partially about applying ideas from one field to another. My Brother the Scientist likes to say NO science is wasted; it always tells us something worth knowing. In Emergency Management, we like to apply ideas from Psychology, Marketing, Geology, Engineering, etc. But people like you are doing MORE. They’re applying ideas about Permaculture, upcycling, reusing “trash”, and skills like macrame, sewing, origami to philosophies about resiliency and self-sufficiency. Here are some good examples (see credit links at end–formatting reasons):

3c. Use others. When you get stuck, seek advice or bounce ideas off of others. Two heads are better than one for a reason. Sometimes just trying to explain the problem to another novice is a good way to understand the problem more deeply and stumble upon a solution.

4. Experiment. And fail. Creativity is also a little dependent on experience. Innovations are often on “the fringe” so to speak–past all the common, already-in-the-box ideas. We have to work through all the middle stuff before we can explore the unknown. And in order to explore the unknown, we can’t be afraid to fail a little. That’s how we learn whether it’s a good idea or a bad one! My brother used to say, “If you don’t fall down once or twice, you aren’t skiing hard enough.”

5. Be patient and persistent. You’re asking your brain to do something hard. Sometimes solving a problem doesn’t come all at once. Sometimes you have to sleep on it or think about something else for a while.

6.  Find another perspective. This might be the hardest one. But this is also where gathering ideas can be helpful. If you’re especially stuck on a problem, step back, and begin brainstorming different ways of looking at it. Then, try on those each ways. See if anything pops.

Your creativity might be the most important tool in your disaster response arsenal. Don’t forget to practice it!

What do you think about creativity? How do you practice it? Tell us below!


Links to Gallery

1. Duct tape uses by YearZeroSurvival

2. Food storage for homesteading and the apocalypse by Modern Homesteading

3. Paracord projects by Instructables

4. Paracord project uses by SurvivalLife

5. First aid kit by a SpoonFullofSugar

UPDATE 3/13/15:

After this post went to print, I found this TED talk by a Tokyo-based toy developer who was asked by his boss to develop toys based on market studies. He found that looking at data killed his creativity and made up a game to spark his creative juices again. It’s directly related to point #3 and it’s a lot of fun.

UPDATE 3/24/15: ( every week, I find something new that applies, eh?)
I just learned about the “Diffusion of Innovations Model” which basically says that where there is a moderate amount of heterogeneity, innovations can diffuse through the population. When you have friends that are a little different than you, you get new ideas. (It can’t be TOO different, or the population will reject it, but it can’t be too much the same or no new ideas exist.). Academia proves #3 again. I love it.

Hashtag Takeovers during Crises and What to Do About It.

Thanks to John L. Hart
Thanks to John L. Hart

Today I attended a webinar put on by the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) to learn how to use social media better during a disaster. Host Jennifer Lazo (@JDLaszo) related an anecdote that I think is worth sharing:

During the Napa Earthquake last August, ISIS began posting graphic beheading pictures with the trending Napa earthquake hashtags as a way to put their message in front of the most people. Not only was that disturbing for victims searching for real-time information, but it hampered the responders’ ability to monitor Twitter (which we consider to be an important part of our response).*

Fortunately, there is a solution: geotagging. Here’s a quick primer:

1. If you are POSTING, Twitter geotags automatically, though some users have turned off this feature for privacy reasons. In fact, I too, usually keep my phone’s location turned off. If this is you, and you notice that the emergency hashtags are being overtaken by malicious users, you can help responders by re-allowing the geotagging software. If you turned off geotagging in Twitter’s settings, you’ll have to change the settings. If you have simply turned off your phone’s gps, you only have to turn it on again to reinstate geotags. Remember, once the crisis is over, you can turn it off again! No problem.

2. If you are SEARCHING, there are two ways to use geotagging to filter out foreign malicious users. Unfortunately there’s not much we can do to avoid local vandals short of ignoring them (they die in silence) and/or changing hashtags.

a. First, you can use Twitter’s in house search function. Type in your hashtag search in the search bar up top. On the results page, there will be an “Advanced Search” button to the top left. Click that to filter your search by location (and other things if applicable).

b. You can use geofeedia. This is the one that journalists and other pros use because it searches all of social media–not just Twitter. It’s super cool.

3. It also helps to identify and follow quality Tweeps before a disaster so you have access to accurate information at hand during a disaster. See my post about that here.

* Emergency Managers like to monitor Twitter and other social media sites for a variety of reasons: 1. for distress calls which have been known to be posted, 2. for greater situational awareness as citizens post damage reports, 3. to learn of and boost other agencies’ info, and 4. to answer questions and dispel rumors. 

Further Reading:

  • Geotagging Wiki — a bit technical in areas, but a good pro/con read
  • Geotagging with Google Earth — Google’s help page
  • Geotag — “an open source program that allows you match date/time information from photos with location information from a GPS unit or from a map”. I have no idea how good or bad this is, but for the pro citizen journalist, might be interesting?
  • GeoTag Photos Pro — another app. Not free, but supposedly works very well with Lightroom. I have no idea if it’s  awesome or not
  • Geotagging #Ferguson article — interesting to see how information spreads and how clever people can apply geotags.

Got any more information for us? Share below!