Over the past several years, our town and the next town over have worked hard to bring disaster preparedness from the government level down to the community level. Neighborhood emergency disaster preparedness operates on the assumption that, in the event of a major emergency, government will not be there to help.
Here in Marin, we don’t base this assumption on a concern that our government emergency services are corrupt, under-funded, or inept. Indeed, I’d say that the contrary is true in Marin. Our local emergency services (fire, police, ambulance) are excellent: They’re well-funded, there’s never been a smidgen of corruption, and the people on all these forces are enthusiastic, hard-working and well-trained.
These emergency services, though, exist for routine events: a house fire, a robbery, a traffic accident. They are not intended to handle a massive earthquake — nor should they be. Given that earthquakes happen at completely random, and usually lengthy, intervals, it would be insane for our community to fund in perpetuity emergency services large enough to cope with a rare (but still inevitable) disaster.
Given funding realities, should “the Big One” (as Bay Area residents refer to the next anticipated earthquake) hit, it’s a reasonable certainty that people in our community will find themselves going for three to ten days without any access to emergency services, food, potable water, first aid, and shelter. This is where we have a choice: we can wait helpless for government first responders, or we can be our own first responders, taking responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors.
Here’s how it works: At the most basic level, every household should purchase the life-sustaining supplies needed for three to ten days without access to stores, hospitals, fresh water, and shelter. The rule of thumb is that neighbors will pool resources for a day or two, but it if looks as if the emergency conditions will last any longer than that, it’s every household for itself.
Unfortunately, while it’s easy enough to say “Buy supplies,” the reality is that most people are governed by inertia. Too many people really do mean to stock up the next time they’re at Costco or Safeway, but when the time comes, they forget, or they haven’t made a place to put the supplies, or they just don’t feel up to the rigors of buying all the stuff, loading it in the car, and then unloading it again at the other side. They’ll do it another day, they tell themselves. Somehow, though, that other day never arrives.
What turns out to be the best system to ensure that the greatest number of households act intelligently before, during, and after a disaster is a neighborhood preparedness committee. When a newspaper article reminds you to stock up supplies, you might think “Eh, I’ll get it done eventually.” When your neighbor sits on your couch with you and explains what you need and how to get it, it lights a bigger fire, and ensures greater effort. Likewise, when you get yet another email from yet another organization, you might ignore it. But when a neighbor hosts a party to take about basic information (supplies, gathering spots, knowing who your neighbors are, etc.), there’s a greater likelihood you’ll be there, you’ll listen, and you’ll learn.
An organized neighborhood is also extraordinarily helpful when the disaster does strike. This is the neighborhood that will have given already ensured that homeowners have supplies and that they know how to turn off their gas and prevent potentially contaminated water from flowing into their homes. A prepared community will have block captains who go to the houses on their watch to make sure gas lines are closed, to perform the most basic injury triage (and first aid, if necessary), and to gather information about everyone’s whereabouts and status. In this neighborhood, homeowners will have signs to place in their windows so that the block captain instantly see whether that home is “OK” or needs “HELP.” (Even OK homes will eventually get a visit, but not on the first, triage pass.) If homes are destroyed, the prepared neighborhood will know where the emergency gathering spot is.
Lastly and most importantly, when the government “first responders” eventually show up (long after the neighborhood has already provided the actual first response), the organized neighborhood will be able to offer easily accessible information about fatalities, injuries, local dangers (leaking gas lines, downed electrical lines, etc.). Experience shows that this level of preparedness results in the fastest attention from government emergency services. This isn’t a case of bias or bribes on the government’s part; it’s a case of the path of least resistance. If an emergency care provider has heading towards him a level-headed person with a list and a screaming mad-woman, he’ll turn gratefully to the list holder and try to pass the mad-woman off to someone else.
All over Marin, local communities have been accelerating their efforts to get organized. As more neighborhoods prepare, those neighborhoods that don’t will be left out in the cold. Their homes will be bare of survival essentials, their response to an actual disaster will be chaotic, and emergency services will give them the cold shoulder in favor of other, better-organized neighborhoods.
In my neighborhood, I’ve been invited to join the steering committee. You won’t be surprised to learn that my role is communications. As a committee member, I now get to attend the community-wide meetings for representatives of all the neighborhood organizations. When I went to last night’s meeting (my first), whom should I see but our own Charles Martel?
At first, I was surprised to see Charles. I shouldn’t have been. For starters, he’s an exceptionally decent and intelligent human being, so it made total sense that he would volunteer himself to be in the front line of organization and preparedness both before and during a disaster. It’s more than that, though. Charles is a principled conservative who believes that government cannot and should not be responsible for everything in our lives. We know what that looks like:
Conservatives recognize that government cannot be responsible for every eventuality in our lives. More than that, we understand that it should not be responsible for all things, because that gives it way too much power.
Understanding these facts is one thing. Acting upon them is another. We conservatives like to focus on trying to elect politicians who promise small government. Too often, though, once they’re in Washington or a state capital, these politicians either prove to be an ineffectual minority or, worse, they come down with “government spending disease” and think their responsibility ends with keeping the price tag down on yet another Big Government initiative.
What we all can and should do is something closer to home: We should be at the front lines when it comes to encouraging people to take care of themselves. When there’s a vacuum, government will fill it. If we make sure to fill that vacuum before government does, we’ve done our bit to help shrink Big Government. At the same time, we’ve also ensured that we will be in better shape in the long run than those who believe that Big Government is the one and only answer.
Having said that, I’d like to request help from you, my fellow citizens: Because I am a procrastinator, I understand better than many the inertia that prevents people from getting in their car, driving to the local mall, and stocking up on home earthquake supplies. I’ve found that one of the ways to fight that procrastination is to make the shopping so easy that even the most shopping-averse, lazy, in denial person has no excuses. The answer, of course, is Amazon — and, even better, Amazon Prime. You can shop from your home, at your leisure, and everything comes straight to your door. What could be better?
The problem with Amazon, though, is that there are too many choices. A single person could spend a lifetime trying to find the best quality, best priced emergency supplies at Amazon. I’d rather use crowd sourcing.
My goal is to put together an Amazon shopping list that has on it the most highly recommended emergency supplies, everything from paper plates to can openers to flash lights to toilet paper to can openers to foil-sealed water (lasts 5 years) to food stuff to first aid kits. I know that not everyone should, will, or wants to everything from Amazon, but I still want a vetted list that enables someone looking for any or all necessary supplies can trust to provide purchase information.
Vetted supplies suitable for my Amazon earthquake list must be (a) high quality and (b) best price, keeping in mind the purpose for which the supplies are intended. No one wants to buy a $900, 10-person, all-weather tent for a possible emergency when Amazon offers a highly rated, easy-to-assemble, some-weather tent for $110 dollars. It’s even better if the tent ships free using Prime or it qualifies for Amazon’s “free shipping for purchases over $35.
So here’s my request: If you have purchased emergency supplies lately from Amazon, and you feel that your purchase meets my “vetted supplies” criteria, please send me a link for that product, either through an email (bookwormroom * at * gmail.com) or by leaving a comment here.