WASHINGTON, D.C. – We all like to be prepared. It’s the Boy Scout motto, Be Prepared. And what does that mean? The story with scouting founder Lord Baden-Powell was that the phrase meant to “be prepared for any old thing.”
Often “any old thing” comes at us, and we are not prepared. TV weathermen and reporters tell us to fill our cars full of gas well before a hurricane, and to keep three days supply of food, and to have key personal papers in a safe place, and to keep a well-stocked medicine cabinet. Terribly sensible stuff.
We know this, and yet as we see our news, hardly any are ready. Indeed, those who prepare well are marginalized as reality show “preppers”, sort of wing nuts who seem to be hoping for the worst as we secretly admire their pluck and grit. But that is not the reality; hundreds of thousands of people were and are Boy and Girl Scouts, and Bear Grylls, friend to the Royals and Presidents, is celebrated even as we do not follow their advice.
This critical view of prepping has been proven wrong with Hurricane Harvey. The good old boys with Jon boats, tow-ropes and high-water pickups came to the rescue, and dented up their Jet Skis and Tritons for the chance to rescue everyday suburban Houstonians from the worst natural disaster in American history.
New Thinking on Resilience
Even if Harvey had not happened, the tide was changing. Last February, philanthropist Adrienne Arsht and the think tank Atlantic Council launched a new effort to inculcate resiliency planning into the daily thinking of politicians, business leaders and the general public. Arsht, heretofore known mostly for her support for cultural affairs in Miami, supported the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience, which is a multi-disciplinary effort to make our society more resilient. A video promoting the effort just appeared on Axios, coincidentally with Harvey.
Arsht’s leadership in this area is a sea-change, if I may use the phrase, as it indicates an institutional understanding of the importance of the everyday person in solving the problem of these disruptions, whether they be about disasters created by economics, weather, politics or terrorism. No matter what the cause, the solution is for each of us to be a better citizen. The video below shows the Sept. 11 boatlift, when the Coast Guard called on everyday citizens to help evacuate lower Manhattan. That this happened again, in Houston, is quite stunning.
In the United States, there is a strong strand of resilience, reflected in the group’s mission statement, from the February 2017 release:
Founded in 2016, the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience addresses the challenges we face by advancing approaches that promote the abilities of nations, cities, communities, and individuals to respond effectively to disruptions, understand and manage complex interdependent systems, and thrive in today’s unpredictable global environment. It aspires to be a leading advocate for integrating resilience-oriented policy into all levels of society—from the government, to the private sector, and civil society. Its work will map the pathways for societies and systems to bounce back quicker, better, and stronger from major disruptions.
In current disaster planning, there is a bias toward first responders and government. This is an important idea, as the first advice of anyone who thinks about these things is to listen to local officials in the event of a disaster. In so many past disasters, we have rightfully praised policeman and fireman, and turned the idea of the “first responder” into a sort of mantra that is repeated again and again by everyone. Some one else has to help you.
But in the situation with Houston, the state and local governments were at odds about what to do. Unwisely, the Houston mayor did not call for evacuations, asserting that it would have clogged the roads. The Governor, wisely, expressed his personal view that he would want to get out of there. This bit of history will be discussed endlessly; what us as everyday people need to take from it is that ultimately, everyone has to take responsibility for their own lives, and thoughtfully consider what is best, using common sense. Sadly, the “do not evacuate” message meant that not only did hundreds of thousands lose their houses, but they also lost their cars. This ignored the reality that you can live out of your car for a decent amount of time, if the S.H.T.F.
Kits and Everyday Resilience
The idea of resiliency is a uniting one; it means that we do not have to get into wars about past disasters, and instead we will pursue alternatives that enrich us in our daily lives, and also help protect us in the event of an emergency. The best and first example of this is the first aid kit. Everyone should have first aid in their car, and at home, disaster or not. This does a number of things. First, it means that on a daily basis, our lives are made safer. We cut fingers, we step into fire ants, we get headaches. And having a stash handy means that we can be a solution if something worse happens.
The Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience is not the only effort in making us a nation of nifty scouts. The Strong Towns 501c3 nonprofit is promotes best practices in land use, social capital and environmental policy, with the word “resiliency” in their mission, as well. Their idea is to support a model of development that allows cities and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient. They are doing brilliant work piecing together long-forgotten ideas of urbanism, taking inspiration from luminaries such as the late Jane Jacobs and Andres Duany. Just this week, Daniel Herriges published a useful piece called Houston Isn’t Flooded Because of its Land-Use Planning.
In my own Episcopal denomination, Episcopal Relief & Development has focused much attention on preparedness planning, as it has smaller resources than larger charities, and realizes preparedness can be in many cases a more efficient use of resources; a story I wrote on the Episcopal Relief talks about how preparedness is actually key to a strong church congregation.
- Redundant Systems: In general, backups are good. Backups for your home computer, of course. Backups for appliances. Have a box fan in the closet if the AC breaks down. Have a Shop Vac, which works for normal vacuuming and water cleanup.
- Redundancy transport: The Sept. 11 boatlift in Manhattan was a lesson because the subway and roads were shut down or clogged. But in snowstorms, often roads are impassible and airlines frozen, and Amtrak, snowshoes and bobsleds become essential. It’s about not only having options, but ensuring options are available. Thus private aviation was encouraged during World War II, even though there were security risks from it. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways had a defense rationale, so that railroads would not be the only method of mass ground transport in the U.S. The Intracoastal Waterway was there to protect water energy pipelines, but has become a boon to pleasure boating. The options are not just in transportation. Schools and convention centers are also shelters. School buses can also be evacuation vehicles, something Mayor Ray “School Bus” Nagin completely forgot.
- Company redundancy: For instance, corporate offices might have internet service from two cable providers; one for wireless and one for the Ethernet. And cruise ships can be used for homeless housing, troop transport and hospitals.
- Unorthodox redundancy: I once heard a Navy enlisted man tell me his proposal for a water shortage, namely to hook up a nuclear ship to the water system. While that might not be that practical, there is a real idea that a tanker ship could be converted to become a desalinization plant and water storage facility. Once you get thinking about this things, it is very inspiring, and terribly fun.
- Personal redundancy: It may be well that you have two different providers for cellphones, for instance, in the family, and backup accounts and the like. In this regard, Tractor Supply Company is your friend, with useful items galore.
- Car-based readiness is cheap and useful. Your car should not only have a first aid kit. There are many other items that are cheap and useful on a daily basis. A battery operated tire inflator, jumper cables and emergency road kit are essentials, and very inexpensive. I carry a miniature $1 New Testament in the glove compartment; it would not only come in handy in the event of a major disaster, but it is useful when I am waiting in the car for school pickups. The main question about “motor-resilience” is where you go if there is a disaster. Have that conversation with family and friends well before there is any situation; it may well be you need to go three states away. Pity the poor cousins who live in the country!
- Kits are dual purpose. First aid kits, plumbing kits, bug out bags, camping kits, tool boxes, sewing kits, eyeglass kits, and the like are so helpful in our daily lives. Having organized tools in convenient places makes our daily lives easier. To this end, Dollar Tree is your friend, where you can pick up all of these items very cheaply, so that you have a big first aid kit at home, and duplicate smaller ones in the car, for instance.
- Garages and big houses are great. My Depression-era grandparents and father are my heroes in the idea of preparedness. So many lessons about having a tool bench, garage, barn and the like came from them. Having the blessing of a large house in the country (or suburbs) enabled them to be fully prepared for all manner of disaster. In the matter of resiliency, they were able to weather days of power outages, storms and such, because they had a wide variety of available resources that they shared with the extended family. Indeed the extended family, then, became the center of resilience. Public policy must support this idea; zoning must encourage multi-generational living, in-law suites must be allowed. Association covenants against pickup trucks and utility vehicles must be resisted, and challenged in court.
- Agriculture is critical. Growing food enables bounty for all. The current mania for bee-keeping, chickens, permaculture, kitchen gardens and the like will not only save us in a disaster, it blesses us in our lives on a daily basis in healthy times. When we lived in downtown Richmond, a great joy was a $10 plum tree that I had bought from Lowe’s. We ate thousands of plums, and neighbors enjoyed them too. They were a mess in a small backyard garden, but a true joy. There is a reason every Southern farm had a pecan tree. From a policy perspective, local zoning rules and fines that favor ornamental grasses over vegetable gardens must be struck down.
- Mormons have answers. The idea of having months of food stored, and of being self sufficient is often seen as extreme. But the reality is that having food stored ahead of time, and rotated regularly, is important. Having a stash at home of essentials means that in the event of the last minute rush, you are not contributing to the shortage of batteries, foods, etc. That being said, the sort of over-the-top Glenn Beck-like foodstuffs that last for 20 years are impractical for most of us, who do not have giant storage areas or the sort of extra funds to invest in meals that will let us survive nuclear meltdown. But do study the Mormons. They get it.
- Professional “Safety” is often over-rated. We treat security systems as Gods, that we will just have a person in a call center to ring when something is wrong. Yet there is another reality; for many they are expensive, and in true disasters, 911 is overwhelmed. We all should have fire extinguishers handy, as fire trucks cannot always be there immediately. Dogs, even yippy toy dogs, are often the best deterrent for break ins. Have a hose, nearby, always.
- Just In Time is not our friend. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with prepared meals like Plated and Homechef. But we still need well stocked larders. What that looks like for each person is different. Keeping giant bags of white flour might only create mealy worms in some houses, but in other houses, it works. Instead, consider practical items that are used regularly, and when you get closer to expiration, rotate them or donate to local food pantries. A practical lesson? Houses need to ditch the popular big kitchens, and make instead again make room for large storage pantries and deep freezes. There is no reason why the two are mutually exclusive.
- Multiple fuels needed. During Hurricane Irene in Richmond, we lost power for two weeks. What kept us sane was the availability of City of Richmond natural gas, which meant we did not need electricity to use our stove. During ice storms, houses need to have fireplaces, with wood and coal, so that people do not freeze when electricity is out and HVAC systems do not work. In areas where there is no natural gas, insist on having a side burner with your gas grill.
- Small tech items are key. One of the most essential items I have for preparation is a DC/AC inverter, that allows you to plug in electric appliances into a car cigarette lighter. The USB charger is certainly helping millions survive in Houston.
- Analog is our friend. The lessons in Colonial historic house kitchens will help you in a time of extended power loss; I remember heating coffee with visiting a family without natural gas during an electricity outage. Candles and such are obvious essentials, as are manual can openers and other non-electric tools. At least one wind-up clock, gas lamps, musical instruments and the like are our best companions during a prolonged time of power outages.
- Terrestrial radio and TV is essential. In every disaster, AM and FM radio and TV are keys to providing information. Thankfully, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai understands this, and sees broadcast as important in the mix of communication. A cheap, portable rechargable radio is the answer. Cellphones and car radios should always be able to receive radio because of this need.
- Retail is key. Seeing what Walmart, Home Depot, H.E.B and the rest have done in Houston is astounding; they are truly genius at preparing their logistics to serve immediate needs. Their preparation is not only good for their business, but good for society as well. In recent years, as retailers have new inventory data, they have devised patterns in what people buy. So we have “cold season” and “hurricane season” and “back to school” promotions that do well at the end of store aisles. What if, like back to school, grocers promoted full larders, with checklists distributed?
- Dual purposed social services are essential. In 2012, our Church of the Redeemer sponsored Day of Hope, to help kids get back to school services. The day was useful in alleviating need, but in addition, it gave our parish the blueprint to organize and deal with serving large numbers in a major disaster. A food pantry for homeless will help in a large disaster when all need supplies. A church thrift shop, which will raise money for a church’s everyday operation, also helps local homeless get the clothes they need. Yet if there is a disaster, the institution has the square footage, man-power and expertise to deal with the distribution of essential to a larger population.
- Self defense is a personal issue. Certainly, having some solutions is important, but do not have solutions if you have not trained with them, or do not feel comfortable with them. Often, a lesser solution can do as well; a shotgun, if not comfortable with revolver. But think this through, well ahead of time.
- Sporting goods are resilient goods. Things that make us healthier, and encourage us to be outside, are also essentials in disasters. And you never really know what is needed until it happens. Who could have thought that cheap plastic kayaks would be lifelines in Houston? Or RV’s essential in every other hurricane? Or bikes useful when a city’s streets are blocked because of downed trees. Boating, camping, travel and exercise all provide answers to resilience, as they make us healthier. Indeed, one of the most resilient things around is to be healthy, so you do not become a burden on others.