The word ‘Disaster’ comes from French (désastre) and Italian (disastro), which combined the Greek prefix dis- (“bad” or “ill”) with the noun astro (“star”) and gave us a new way to describe calamity on a cosmic scale — disasters, in other words, resulted from the lining up of our unlucky stars.
In 2017 we’ve been counting a lot of unlucky stars, and based on most of the world’s agreement that our climate is changing, we should all be expecting more successive extreme weather events like we saw with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Factor in rising sea levels and the dangerous storm surge that all hurricanes cause, and communities that used to be safe are now highly vulnerable.
Lessons learned from many hurricanes in many countries
Of course, in every storm cloud there’s supposed to be a silver lining and we’ve already seen firsthand in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean how this has been true: an unprecedented deployment of formal and informal disaster responders and resources gave us a very public view of how communities can help other communities in meaningful ways. Despite the widespread destruction, the hurricanes have claimed just over 200 lives, and a lot of that, we believe, has to do with the effectiveness of emergency response carried out at the community level.
The purpose of this post is to share a few of the biggest and most basic lessons we’ve learned about designing, deploying and managing community-based response networks before, during and after a hurricane strikes. As you can imagine, everything depends on good communications.
BEFORE THE HURRICANE HITS
1. Act Like The Hurricane’s Going To Hit Your Community Head On
We’re not saying panic — just be prepared for the worst case scenario. No matter how many warnings or mandatory evacuations are issued, people are going to play their chances and not leave when they probably should, so understanding a little about your community’s vulnerabilities and resources will go a long way in making sure you’re best prepared to give help when and where it’s needed. A few things to consider:
1. WHERE'S DAMAGE AND FLOODING EXPECTED TO BE WORST?
Check your local community’s risk assessment maps (hopefully accessible from the municipal/county/state website)
2. WHERE DO THE MOST VULNERABLE POPULATIONS LIVE?
Are there skilled nursing facilities? Special needs communities? Populations living near high-risk industrial areas?
3. WHAT KIND OF PROBLEMS HAVE HAPPENED IN THE PAST?
This is the best way to prepare for whatever’s coming, so make a call to your local historian and ask them about the last time the 50- or 100-year storm hit town
4. KNOW YOUR OWN PREPAREDNESS
Making basic preparations to be able to leave rapidly or stay on your own for several days or more will be the difference between being a victim and being part of the solution. Have a plan, have a kit, have a go-bag, and if you are really into this, take a first aid course, build relationships with your neighbors and run some drills
BEFORE THE HURRICANE HITS
2. Familiarize Yourself With Available Emergency Resources
If you live in a highly populated area, it’s very possible you have a range of emergency responders and resources available, including emergency medical services (EMS) providers, fire and police departments, a department of public health, hospitals and community-based organizations, like the community emergency response team (CERT) or civil protection.
If any or all of these responders exist, they will have plans and protocols to follow so it’ll be helpful to know what they are as best you can ahead of time. But things can change, too, and all resources eventually meet their limit: As the flooding from Harvey spread, Houston and Harris County’s 9-1-1 call centers became overwhelmed by calls requesting assistance, many of which were for non-life-threatening situations which had the potential to keep true life-threatening calls from getting through. Knowing the limits of formal resources is good info to have, so here’s a list of questions to help you figure this out:
HELP THAT ACTUALLY HELPS
Help isn’t help unless it’s seen as help. Included here is a list of roles and responsibilities we’ve seen where community groups have successfully supplemented formal first responders in the event of a major hurricane:
- Traffic control
- Pet retrieval
- Wellness checks
- Mobility assistance
- Search and rescue, when resources are overwhelmed