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


Why 9-1-1 Can’t Save You

John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” (May 15, 2015) described the state of our 911 call grid. Much like the blog I wrote about the state of American infrastructure, our emergency response capabilities are crumbling.

  1. Most call centers have inaccurate maps and/or can’t trace cell phone locations causing them to struggle to find many victims. The FCC estimates that improved locating software might save as many as 10, 120 lives annually (3:00). Indeed, 10-95% of cell phone users run the risk of not being found in a timely manner (4:23). This is even more alarming given the fact that the Red Cross estimates that 74% of adults expect help to arrive in under 3 hours after sending a tweet.
  2. We don’t have a national or–in some cases–even a state-wide 911 response system. Each county or jurisdiction is responsible for handling their own 911 calls which makes for an extremely fragmented system (6:53). In some areas, neighboring call centers can’t meaningfully talk to one another; obviously, a big problem in a disaster.
  3. Furthermore, several states don’t have a call center at all. For instance, Washington State’s 911 calls get routed to Colorado. This is often par for the course with internet and enterprise technology, but when there was an outage at the Colorado center (April 10, 2014), Washington did not have a back up. The center was down for 3 hours and Washington lost 4,300 calls, some of which resulted in death.
  4. Call centers don’t have very modern IP networks (8:08), instead they mainly use outdated, hardwired phones (like from the ’70s). An IP network allows computers to talk to one another either in a private network (sharing files between your phone and your computer) or in a public one (the internet). Updating would allow call centers to receive text messages, social media messages, and videos besides allowing for a more robust, resilient system. Oliver makes the point that video or text could be life saving in situations like domestic violence where a phone call is too conspicuous. Emergency Managers additionally know that in a disaster, text messages often get through the crowded phone lines easier than phone calls do.
  5. Most call centers are underfunded and understaffed (9:33) which means that victims may have to wait on the line for the next operator or that the call center can’t upgrade their mapping or cellular tech.
  6. Compounding the problem is rising call volume (10:44) because of the ubiquity of cell phones and butt dials. 911 call centers simply cannot handle normal, daily call volumes; during a disaster they will be absolutely drowned. As this CBS report points out: wireless carriers have the technology to support connectivity during a disaster. The problem continues to be the overwhelmed 911 call centers.

Oliver sums up his report with “…until we’re explicitly confronted with the challenges facing 911, it seems we’re not going to do anything about them” (13:31). But I, like you, don’t wish people to die in order for change to happen.

The State of Flooding in America

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that 40% of Americans live or work near a levee. The average age of these levees are 55 years (some as old as 100 yrs) and they have worked to protect over $141 billion in flood damages–a 6:1 return on investment (24:1 on the Mississippi River and tributaries).

However, over the last 50-100 years, we have significantly developed floodplains lands, experienced sea level rise, and neglected the maintenance of these levees. ASCE gives the national levee infrastructure a D- grade (very poor). Grades are based on capacity, condition, funding, future needs, operation/maintenance, public safety, resilience (how well they withstand disasters), and innovation.

Pump maintenance crews, NPR

It’s not only levees that protect land from floods. And it’s not only levees that are aging nationally.

  • Bridges: C+
  • Dams: D
  • Inland Waterways: D
  • Levees: D-
  • Roads: D (get flooded)
  • Wastewater management: D (pipes, sewers, storm water drains, etc.)

Every facet of our storm water management system is dismally graded meaning that Americans all over are at risk from an aging, failing infrastructure. (See the full report card here)

This autumn has seen an historical amount of rain in the midwest as an unusually warm El Nino cycle takes charge of North American weather. Illinois and Missouri have logged about 10 inches of rain over three days causing the Mississippi, Missouri rivers and tributaries to flood. Officials down south are watching carefully as Mississippi flood water is scheduled to hit the brand new New Orleans levees in about a week (Jan. 9, 2016).

The State of Flooding in America
2016, Flooding in midwest raises questions about infrastructure. Especially in New Orleans where the new levees are being completed. | EMScholar


After Hurricane Katrina (2011), the US Army Corps of Engineers was authorized to spend about $14.6 billion to strengthen levee walls, build massive flood gates, install cool new flood modeling computers, and update the city’s water pumps (according to CNBC and NPR). But, as the Engineer Corps is wont to warn, new infrastructure doesn’t necessarily assure safety. New Orleans is a fishbowl. We can build lots of walls, but water will always need to go somewhere–a sentiment that Bob Criss Professor of geology at Washington University expresses in the Journal of Earth Science.

“The Mississippi River should not be going crazy after three days of rain,” Criss said in an interview. The problem, he believes, is that we’ve walled off rivers without thinking about a release for the water. It’s Downstream City’s problem. The Army Corps of Engineers has long agreed, stating that the Mississippi River and it’s tributaries (and–presumably–by extension all river systems) should be connected “more naturally” with the flood plains. This means undeveloping the flood plains.

midwest flood
Midwestern flooding, 2015, NPR

The combination of failing infrastructure with poor long term flood management planning has caused experts from many fields to call the Federal government to reimagine national flood policy.

Current national policy is based on insurance policy statistics. You may have heard the term “100-year” or “500- year” flood or storm. A “100-year storm”is a storm of such a size that it’s chances of happening in any given year are 1%. Depending on who you ask, Hurricane Katrina was a 100-year storm. However,

 The 100-year threshold is also a statistical guess based on data on past storms and assessments of whether they’ll occur in the future. That means the models change every time a new hurricane strikes. The numbers being used as guidelines for construction are changing as time passes.

And, as an engineer working on New Orleans levees points out, the current levees were meant to protect city infrastructure. Residents shouldn’t depend upon them to protect lives. There’s always the chance that a bigger storm will come along.

Thousands of miles away, Washington State–well known for it’s rain–is also struggling with flooding. Unusual amounts of snow in the Olympics combined with lots of rain caused flooding along the coast. Enough flooding to open the Emergency Operation’s Center which stymied this researcher’s thesis by causing the people she needed to be busy. (“Graduation postponed on account of rain,” she lamented on social media.) It’s not just the rain. In fact, 2015 was actually a drier than normal year. It’s that Washington coast is built for moderate, continual rains. Not for cycles of drenching rains and drought. The Washington State Climatology Office believes that this rain-drought cycling is a direct result of global warming and won’t get better. Just like how bigger storms are becoming more regular. Global warming is causing extremes of all sorts.

WA, Snoqualmie Falls: normal water flow on 10/23/15 and after rains just a week later on 11/1/15. (Photos by Richard, Krisha Chiu. Found here.)

What can be done?

The ASCE has a “tell your legislator” form and ways to share the news on their report card website (scroll down). We need to pressure local and federal governments to make decisions based on new data and the long view. But even more importantly, as citizens, we need to accept taxes which pay for infrastructure. In New Orleans, the city is fighting with the feds over who will pay to maintain the new levees. Voters have twice declined to raise taxes to pay for it. One frustrated official exclaims,

“We’re talking about $5 a month to the average taxpayer. That’s a six-pack. That’s a pound of crawfish in April…This is a country that’s run by the citizens. The citizens decide they don’t want to have flood protection, then we’re not going to have flood protection.”

I am not advocating for blind acceptance of every new tax hike. Like responsible people, we need to watch where our money goes. We should buy things with our taxes that are “worth it”, that is: effective, efficient, and high quality. We also need to watch that our towns and cities use our taxes the way they promised.

That seems like a lot of work. But maybe it’s worth it for keeping your house dry and your water clean.

Further Reading


Millennial Tech and the Digital Divide

In August, I volunteered to be Media Director for a local non-profit. It’s been a lot of fun, and a lot of frustrating. I found myself–before I could even get started on typical Media Director stuff–educating the members on the basics of technology. I’ve never felt more like a Millennial than when I tried to explain the difference between a meme and a picture with words on it.

At the same time, I got distracted with learning how to hand spin wool and make my own lye. I’ve never felt more like a Millennial than when I texted my friend the instructions on how to make lye. “It’s easy!” I said. “Or we could just buy it…” she replied (#NotAMillennial).

Millennial Tech and the Digital Divide|EMScholar Blog
What the Digital Divide means for resiliency

I can’t decide if it’s a function of my personality, my generation, or my career, but I find myself straddling the “hyper-new tech” world and the “tech of the 18th c.” world. Survivalists have long taught electricity-independent homesteading skills while Hipsters have made traditional crafts cool again, thus the rise in classic skills. However, in order to be a functioning member of this society, you need at least a basic understanding of mobile phone, internet, and word processing skills. (Like more traditional forms of education, the more you learn, the better you get paid.) Besides that, technology continues to evolve and expand at exponential rates. It’s exciting to look ahead at what might be. Did you know they’re beginning to 3D print organs? Did you know they’re constructing the “Hyperloop” a super-fast pneumatic train track that can transport people, cars, and semis by air pressure that has basically no waste and no traffic jams? “Hmm…” I thought, “we’re adding new technology to the landscape, but the old tech isn’t disappearing. Except for 8-tracks. Vinyl stayed, but 8-tracks disappeared. Huh.”

This Thanksgiving, we went to visit my in laws and on the agenda–besides lots of yummy food and long, rowdy board games–was “show Mom how to use her new smart phone.” Her very first smart phone. She was dubious. Her son is an IT nerd, and she’s used to being lovingly lectured by him. I’m sure the whole idea seemed daunting. But when we got there, she’d already taught herself how to take pictures. “Hmm..” I thought, “maybe the Digital Divide is not as insurmountable as I thought”.

Later we went for a walk, and she expressed some concern over the pace of technology. “Don’t worry.” I assured her, “Technology is additive. Did you know people are making movies without CGI still? For the art of it. I mean, look at how good CGI is getting, and they still like non-CGI stuff*. Or look at radio now. It’s still around.”

But I was wrong. Technology is not additive. As Neil Postman wrote in the 90s, “Technology is ecological.”  John D. Cook quotes from Postman’s book: “In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we do not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe.” This is why we still have vinyl but not 8-tracks. Vinyl changed the world by storing music. It’s still valuable to audiophiles because it’s the only uncompressed way of storing music (which sounds better) while the only value that digitally-storing 8-tracks had was storing MORE information on one device than vinyl which was quickly overcome by cassettes, CDs, and MP3 players. Thus, 8-tracks have worse sound quality than vinyl and worse data storage capacity than MP3 players so they’re gone.

If technology is ecological, than the Digital Divide is a big problem. As Margaret Rouse writes:

The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and the uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and, globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations. Even among populations with some access to technology, the digital divide can be evident in the form of lower-performance computers, lower-speed wireless connections, lower-priced connections such as dial-up, and limited access to subscription-based content.

Here is a graphic of internet users worldwide as a percentage of the country’s population in 2012. (**Citation)


Even in wealthy, heavily-connected America, the Digital Divide is a reality. Rouse writes, “A June 2013 U.S. White House broadband report, for example, showed that only 71% of American homes have adopted broadband, a figure lower than in other countries with comparable gross domestic product.”

If technology is ecological, than that means that places without good access to good tech are not evolving the same way that places with tech are. Who cares? Well…banks care, but–more importantly–social activists care. “Proponents for closing the digital divide include those who argue it would improve literacy, democracy, social mobility, economic equality and economic growth.” (Rouse). The Digital Divide makes being poor–already one of the most expensive things to be–harder. For instance, Kindle textbooks are cheaper than real ones. Finding jobs is easier with rather than hitting the sidewalk. Getting help is easier with a mobile phone than running for it. Organizing revolutions is easier over Twitter than by word of mouth. Transportation is easier and cheaper with GPS (which could help your country make more money by delivering things faster).

So what does that mean for Emergencies Preparedness? Three things, at least:

  1. Helping to close the digital divide makes the world a better place in general.
  2. Making your country resilient (able to recover from disasters) means closing the Digital Divide.
  3. Both high-tech solutions (wiring money to a victim) and low-tech solutions (knowing how to purify your own water) will be needed for an Emergency.

Here’s a (partial?) list from Wikipedia of people who are helping close the digital divide. Maybe you’d like to help too.

Groups devoted to digital divide issues


*The non-CGI movie is just something I heard once. The internet doesn’t seem to know what I’m talking about, so it probably never happened.

** “InternetPenetrationWorldMap” by Jeff Ogden (W163)Own work, based on figures from the Wikipedia:List of countries by number of Internet users article in the English Wikipedia, which is in turn based on figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for 2010 (updated to use figures for 2012 on 28 June 2013).
iThe source code of this SVG is valid.

This vector image was created with a text editor.

This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this:  BlankMap-World6.svg.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Further Reading

Mastering My Environment

I’d like to apologize for my extended sabbatical. This summer has been a test in personal resiliency. First, I got sick for a long time, then my beloved pet disappeared (and never reappeared), and then–as my thesis picked up again–I began having wrist pain which prevented me from typing more than I absolutely had to.

But now, as we are deluged in autumnal rains headed toward the holidays, I’m feeling healthier and more cheerful for two reasons. 1. a new kitten and 2. a new book.

We got Ollie at 6 weeks and it is a delight to watch him grow. At first, he was so little that he could just barely jump high enough to hook his claws into our blanket and climb up to the bed. Now, he can jump straight to the top from about two feet away. Sometimes he would trip over his feet chasing after a string. Now, his body courses gracefully (mostly…we have slippery floors). Ollie has mastered his environment. He is confident, intelligent, curious, and adept. There is a simple beauty and a deep satisfaction that accompanies watching a masterful creature.


My wrist pain–you might have guessed–was tendinitis and muscle spasm from working too much at the computer + knitting + playing games on my phone. I’ve always had bad posture, so–suspecting that had something to do with it–I went looking for information on body mechanics and physical therapy. I found this book: Pain Free by Egoscue & Gittines. It’s major tenant is that we tend to put our load bearing joints out of alignment with each other. The longer they stay that way, the more muscles designed for holding you upright go into atrophy which causes your body to compensate with other, lesser muscles. For instance, when you hunch at your desk or slouch over your phone, your shoulders are not square with your hips which mispositions your elbow which makes the stabilizing muscles in your wrist do work they aren’t designed for–the heavy lifting of your palm and fingers causing your tendons to rub and get inflamed (if your wrist was using the right flexor/extensor muscles, the tendons would be lined up properly and not rubbing anywhere when you move your fingers). And there you have it, carpal tunnel syndrome caused by slouching. The book also outlines simple yoga-type poses to get the right muscles back to doing the right jobs. Like all physical therapy, you have to do the work, but it usually feels so good and refreshing afterward, that I don’t mind putting in the time. And now I get to write again!

But the combined experiences of watching my cat’s prowess while finding myself unable to hold my torso upright properly was humbling. I am not master of my environment.

On the other hand–paraphrasing Egoscue–movement begets movement. Once I began doing the exercises, I began feeling better, then I wanted to move more, and now I find myself naturally watching less TV and doing more projects. Soon my body will be a useful tool again instead of just somewhere to live. Without any cardio or strength training, I feel more balanced, more agile, and more flexible. I–like my kitten–am growing in confidence.

Sometimes, we may feel puny, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity for strength.

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.

Resiliency Quiz

This quiz has been adapted from Maddi and Khoshaba’s Resiliency at Work and is meant to serve as a companion to this post. Read it! It’s a good one.

Part 1: Answer either “mostly yes” or “mostly no” to each question.

  • Do you wake up eager to go to work?
  • Despite fond memories of the past, do you look forward to a changing future?
  • Do you feel that your input makes a difference in how things turn out?
  • Do you rely on yourself to figure out how to solve problems?
  • Do you consider change to be a normal and inevitable part of life?
  • Do you see yourself as trying to grow and do better?

Part 2: Answer either “mostly yes” or “mostly no” to each question.

  • Do you feel most comfortable with clearly defined tasks?
  • Do you feel most comfortable with little change in your tasks/environment?
  • Do you put problems out of your mind in order to feel calm and happy?
  • Do you escape from problems by distracting yourself?
  • Does work (or life) stress you out and you don’t know why?
  • Do you work to pay bills and nothing else?

Part 3: Answer either “mostly yes” or “mostly no” to each question.

  • At times have you tried to undermine coworkers by devaluing their contribution or personal characteristics in front of other coworkers or management?
  • When you’re part of a team, do others’ contributions make you feel nervous or angry?
  • Have you taken credit for others’ ideas or product?
  • Do you feel personally attacked by changes?
  • Do you feel unappreciated and hurt when a supervisor points out areas in which you need to grow?
  • Do you use problems outside of work to get your coworkers or supervisors to take over work projects?

Give yourself one point for every yes and zero points for every no. Which part did you score the highest on?

If you scored highest on Part 1: Maddi and Khoshaba consider you to have Resilient coping strategies. You use the principles of commitment, control, and challenge to transform problems into opportunities.

If you scored highest on Part 2: Maddi and Khoshaba consider you to have Denial/Avoidance coping strategies. Instead of preparing for changes, you hope they’ll go away. You feel powerless and give up trying to participate in the decision making process.

If you scored highest on Part 3: Maddi and Khoshaba consider you to have Catastrophic Reaction/Striking Out coping strategies. Instead of changing direction, you try to make things go back to the way they were. When you can’t, you often disengage and feel under-valued.

For more, read this blog post.

How to Survive Whatever Life Throws at You

As Emergency Managers (EMs) we talk a lot about “resilient” communities which are cities and towns that can bounce back after a disaster. Lots of things make some places more resilient than others: stringent building codes, strong local business, committed volunteers, closely connected IRL social networks (IRL = in real life… we’re talking about how well people are connected to their neighbors).

But individuals can be resilient too. 

I’m reading Resilience at Work by Salvatore Maddi and Deborah Khoshaba for class and it got me to thinking about what happens to people under high stress–why some people crumble and why some withstand or even thrive under the stress. Understanding what makes people resilient is important to me (and you!) for three reasons:

1. Both of our jobs (mine and yours) are likely to change frequently and rapidly these days due to changes in technology, political/social contexts, etc. It behooves our mental and physical health to withstand the stress that comes with change. In other words, I want to be prepared to be happy more frequently than miserable.

1b. Emergencies are stressful so practicing coping skills is part of being prepared.

2. The more resilient we are, the more we can help people.

3. The more resilient everyone is, the better we can recover from disasters and the better the world is.

earthquake woman2

So what makes us resilient?

Good question. Lots of things. Resilience is a mosaic of attitudes, beliefs, and skills that you can learn. (Yay!) Lets look at what the experts say. (For ease of viewing, I’m going to group overlapping ideas into categories with citations after each line.)

  1. Believe growth is possible instead of believing you’re born with a finite amount of intelligence/talent/creativity/etc. (This is straight from Carol Dweck’s book, “Mindset“. I HIGHLY recommend you read it if you haven’t already. Not only is it important, but it’s got interesting stories too.)
    1. Be pro puzzle/challenge. Resilient people see problems as an opportunity to grow their toolbox. They think puzzles are fun and like challenging their brain. Seen in this context, problems and failure aren’t so threatening. (Dweck)
    2. Failure isn’t final. Failure doesn’t mean your stupid or talentless. It means you’re learning which is valuable. (Dweck)
    3. Change is an opportunity. Rather than fear or avoid change, Resilient people think of ways to benefit from the change. (Maddi & Khoshaba)
  2. Practice good mental tools:
    1. Choose what you tell yourself: (What Pscyhology Today calls “self-talk”)– talk to yourself about your strengths and support. Reject self-criticism and fear. Be thankful. Remember, you head toward where you look.
      1. Nurture a positive view of yourself (American Psychological Association, Psychology Today)– here’s where rejecting automatic negative thoughts and confronting lies comes in. Keep practicing, you can do it.
      2. Fake it till you make it: (Psychology Today). This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you act confident, soon you’ll feel confident. Here’s a wonderful TED talk for more.
    2.  Practice Functional Attitudes: Give yourself a break if you don’t get these right away. They take practice.
      1. Stay positive/optimistic (Psychology Today)– this isn’t to say you should avoid the realities of your current problem or deny your fear, but you can choose to focus on things your thankful for or a cautiously optimistic picture of the future.
      2. Stay open and curious (Psychology Today)– stress can narrow our focus and cause us to rely on old habits to get us through. Resist that temptation. Brainstorm other solutions, talk to people, be curious about the new changes and your role in it.
      3. Be brave As Maddi & Khoshaba state in their book, “It’s difficult to completely eliminate the fear that comes with stressful changes, but you can learn to manage it and do what needs to be done anyway.”
      4. Tolerate a little Uncertainty. We don’t like it, but since you don’t know the future, you’re just going to have to be flexible (Psychology Today) For more info, here’s what wikipedia says.
      5. Keep things in perspective: place change in a broader context (Maddi & Khoshaba, American Psychological Association)
      6. Believe what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: Psychology Today calls it “stress inoculation“–those who have experienced some stress are better able to handle later stress.
  3. Embrace change as a part of life
    1. If you expect it to happen, it’s not so scary. (Me)
    2. Maddi & Khoshaba’s 3 C’s
      1. Commitment: view work as important enough to stay engaged
        1. Have a sense of purpose. (Maddi & Khoshaba)
      2. Control: Believe that you can positively influence outcomes. Resist sinking into powerlessness. 
        1. stay engaged with your work, the process of change, your fellow coworkers/family, etc.
      3. Challenge: be alert for opportunities, embrace change as a part of life, and express optimism toward the future 
  4. Cope well
    1. Get Support: Stay connected and engaged with coworkers, resolve conflicts, and work for win-win solutions (Maddi & Khoshaba)
    2. Get Organized (Psychology Today). List coping mechanisms you can employ, list possible solutions, choose a goal, list steps to get there, list opportunities you could forsee, list priorities (maybe it’s time to clear a few things from your plate?), put your projects on Trello, Make a to-do list. Whatever you need to feel more comfortable, do it.
    3. Get prepared (me)– get training if you need it (especially in technology–I know I tend to avoid new tech that I don’t understand. But that just makes it worse.). Get mentally prepared (Psychology Today calls it Visualization)
    4. Set limits (my mom)– say no to extra projects, set a timer on odious projects, etc. This is good advice for lots of areas of your life. Learn more at PsychCentral.
    5. Take care of yourself: (Psychology Today)
      1. Stay connected with family/friends
      2. Take time to de-stress But make sure you aren’t avoiding the stress of work with Netflix marathons (Maddi & Khoshaba)
      3. Watch your health:  (Maddi & Khoshaba) Stress often causes us to over-eat, over-drink, and under-sleep. Remember, exercise is an excellent de-stresser. true...
…so true…

Final thoughts:

  • You can see how these resiliency factors overlap and support one another. The good news is you probably already have functional coping skills that you can build on.
  • While Maddi & Khoshaba were writing primarily about work-related stress, I believe the principles hold true for disaster-related stress. The book uses army personnel as examples of resiliency under acute stress, so there’s some precedence here.
  • If you’d like to know more about how YOU cope. Take my QUIZ! It’s quick.

Are you practicing any of these ideas? Tell us about it!

The Philosophy of Being Prepared: What Improv Taught Me

Credit: Before It's News. Click for more.
Credit: Before It’s News. Click for more.

When I was a kid, I belonged to an organization remarkably similar to the Boy Scouts (except for both genders and religiously based) in which you learn to “Be Prepared”. I learned First Aid and knot tying and wilderness survival (I mean–I also learned cake decorating and how to identify shells, but that doesn’t apply here). I was memorizing how to be ready for anything–especially the worst. A little later, I joined an Improv team which I discovered I liked SO MUCH better than play-acting because I didn’t have to memorize lines and worry about forgetting them. After 2-3 sessions of training, I was much less nervous about going up on stage with nothing prepared than I was going up for a speech. The difference was, in Improv, you learn principles about story telling and good gamesmanship. You learn to save your partner if they get stuck (and they learn to save you). You learn to  treat everything your partner says and does like fact and to build from there. You learn how to adapt to your constantly changing environment.

Emergency Managers talk a lot about resiliency which is how well stuff resists damage. It can be applied to buildings, the environment, networks of people and processes, etc. If I wanted to be “resilient,” I would pack a solar charger in my evacuation bag so that I could charge my cell phone if we lost power. But if the cell tower goes down or becomes overloaded, a cell phone is mostly useless. So if I wanted to be resilient, I should buy a satellite phone. But that’s prohibitively expensive (and you’d only get, like, 1 minute of time every 24 hours, so….) The thing about Emergency Management is: there’s always something worse that could happen. We literally cannot plan for every scenario. Instead, we plan for the most likely scenarios and make our communications towers as strong as possible so that hopefully it won’t get knocked down in a storm. This is our current “Being Prepared” philosophy. It works, but I think it needs something.

The temptation of “Being Prepared” is to plan to exert control over your environment. This is motivated by fear. It’s scary to feel out of control; you want to memorize lines so that you can say them at the right time and return the theater to a familiar place. But disasters are an Improv game. The environment changes constantly with new information, arriving responders, evolving problems. There are surprises which require creative solutions. “Being Prepared” should be about learning the tools of response. It should be about giving yourself lots of options by both bringing a solar charger (just in case) and packing quarters for a pay phone (just in case). I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but preparing to adapt will be much less scary than preparing to control. You can’t pack everything you’ll ever need (that’s what houses are for), but you can learn how to be adaptable. Here’s how to get started:

* read all those cool articles about how to make things with paracord or duct tape. (i.e. pack stuff that has more than one use or that can open up potential uses in other things. Click on the pic above, for instance.)

* buy a (small) survival manual AND download some apps (it’s called redundancy and it helps us be more resilient)

* meet your neighbors (it’s overwhelmingly likely that they’ll be your partners in this Improv game. Besides, two minds–and sets of tools–are better than one)

* expect to be fearful, anxious, sad, etc. and get what you need for emotional support.


How about you? Is it hard to give up control? What worked for you? Tell us below!