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When your community isn’t prepared

Went to another disaster preparedness presentation yesterday. This one specifically on tsunamis. Presenters (3) outnumbered attendees (2), but gamely soldiered on.

In the first half, the earnest young AmeriCorps worker who has become the public face for emergency management in the county gave an excellent backgrounder on tsunamis.

In the second, reps from the state did their PowerPoint bit. Their presentation began with an exhortation for us all (2) to become “Preparedness Superheroes” and ended with an order to “don your capes!” But in between they offered no actual preparedness information (unless you count the offer for free NOAA weather radios to low-income folks). They talked about the publications they’d distributed to the media and to motel owners. They showed a screenshot of their “fabulous” website (whose URL they did not know). And they informed us that our town had earned “TsunamiReady” status and would soon be putting up signs at the city limits.

As far as individual action, neither presentation went beyond “duck and cover” during an earthquake and “run for the hills” immediately afterward.

All questions about the aftermath of a disaster went unanswered. Worse than unanswered; it was clear none of the presenters had even considered things like what local buildings could serve as shelters, how food supplies would be handled, and what would happen to the vast majority (>2) who weren’t bothering to prepare.

I asked the state presenters how this community could be “TsunamiReady” when, in fact, the majority of the town (including the town hall, police department, fire department, hardware store, and every single building that could conceivably serve as a public shelter) would likely be not only inundated by a tsunami, but permanently sunk in muddy water due to subsidence and liquifaction post-Big One.

“Well, ‘TsunamiReady’ is just the name of a program,” they admitted.

I learned two things of value: One is that free CERT training will start late next month. I plan to sign up.

The second is that since “officials” in charge of disaster planning haven’t even considered the most fundamental questions about a disaster’s aftermath, I’m more on my own even than I thought.

I have three local friends who do understand the dangers and have worked on preps. One of those friends is dying of cancer. The second will be out of my reach after a Big One. The third — the best prepared and most resourceful of the three — lives in a more dangerous spot than I do and practices a profession that will keep her up to her arse in alligators for weeks after any major disaster.

If I plan to stick around here, I clearly have to drag my own hermitty arse out and do some serious prep-networking.


  1. Scott
    Scott March 27, 2013 9:08 am

    I figured I was on my own in the event of any sizable disaster. A relatively small ice storm a decade ago brought things to a virtual halt-the utility companies did an amazing job considering the damage. Lines were down all over town. It was rare to see one still in place. I was accidentally prepared to a degree-lots of canned stuff, ways to heat it and the house to a limited degree. I’m better off than I was then, but still have a long way to go…

  2. just waiting
    just waiting March 27, 2013 9:19 am

    Gov’s response to Katrina and Sandy only goes to show that there is no plan for the aftermath of a disaster. We really are on our own. I’m glad I missed Katrina, but I’ve been living in Sandy’s aftermath for months.

    The lesson learned by the lack of response to Katrina was to over-respond to Sandy. Martial law was declared a day or so after the storm. The entire barrier island was emptied of everyone but LEOs. 10,000 homeowners werte denied access to their homes for 16 days. Many only knew if their homes survived by watching for them on the newscasts. When we were “allowed” back in, it was for 2 hours, by bus with LEO escort, and only after surrendering a valid drivers license. (On day 4, a friend tried to access his bayfront house by boat. Coast Guard and the marine police advised him his vessel would be “disabled” (read:sunk) and he would be arrested if he proceeded.)

    Much of the loss suffered by the homeowners is directly due to gov’s refusal to allow them back to their homes after the storm. Its a barrier island, the highest point of which may be 6′ above sea level, and tptb had no plans for a disaster.

    Almost every home was flooded with a blend of water, sewage, ground debris, etc. Toxic muck is an accurate description. What may have been salvaged was ruined by sitting soaked in muckwater for 3 weeks. What’s left of my parents home (luckily? it wasn’y totally destroyed) is at ground zero. As of yesterday when I was there, the bay has topped the bulkheads for the 4th time that I’ve seen since Sandy. Seems it happens every full moon. Entire sections of towns were inaccessible once again by flooding. Barnegat Bay is full of sand and debris, so there’s nowhere for water to go. Take 2 glasses the same size. Fill one with water, you can pour it into the other. Now refill the 1st one halfway with rocks and pour. When it hits the top, the water’s gotta go somwhere. So the barrier island floods.

    But this is the Jersey Shore, and dangit it they’re going to have a tourist season there this summer. Many, many people are rebuilding their homes and businesses as if nothing happened. Some are rebuilding on stilts.

    How do TPTB deal with the aftermath? Pretend that it never happened, refuse to believe it could ever happen again, and rush blindly toward tomorrow secure by those thoughts.

  3. Johnathan
    Johnathan March 27, 2013 9:48 am

    “One is that free CERT training will start late next month. I plan to sign up.”

    This. The only conceivable way of dealing with a disaster in any even semi-urban area is working with your neighbors on a community plan. Central “authorities” will be either be non-existent or delayed by a very long time.

  4. Water Lily
    Water Lily March 27, 2013 10:15 am

    We are in the ‘burbs of a big city. We know we will have to leave if something BIG happens.

    Thankfully we have some good friends of like mind outside of the metro zone and not too far out that we couldn’t reach them quickly.

    One good thing about our apt. community here is that there are a lot of residents who came from poorer, less-developed countries and they probably know how to deal with a disaster/primitive situation better than the locally-bred folks who will do nothing but wait for the authorities to take care of them.

  5. MJR
    MJR March 27, 2013 10:30 am

    Hey Claire,
    The lack of knowledge on the part of the presenters is surprising. At the very least, they should have been able to get back to you later with the information you asked for. Sounds like you went to a feel good dog and pony show.

    As for the state officials who are in charge of the disaster planning having missed the boat on the aftermath, their job is to plan at a strategic (state) level not at a tactical (local) level. Your local government leaders are the group who are responsible for overseeing all four phases of emergency management (preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation). All that Federal and state governments are supposed to do is play a supporting role in the immediate aftermath and in providing funding and guidance for long-term recovery and mitigation. When they over step this then things like the Katrina debacle happen. All this will become a lot clearer when you do the CERT training. Then you can monkey wrench with the town council for not being ready. :^)


  6. just waiting
    just waiting March 27, 2013 10:41 am

    Claire, I gotta ask, did they at least put out milk and cookies?

  7. Matt, another
    Matt, another March 27, 2013 11:22 am

    It seems that when it comes to disaster planning and disaster response training that the one thing generally overlooked is the disaster. The second thing overlooked is the local population everyone is supposedly there to help.

    This failure is an institutional issue for the most part. Most institutions, in order to write succesful plans ignore issues that might make a plan difficult or impossible to execute. Evacuating a city is a great idea until it is realized that transportation and transportation corridors do not exist for this. Dealing with a tsunami is good and heroic until it is realized that it will bring mountains of debris with it and fires and toxic waste etc. That is really hard to deal with so we shall ignore it.

    Maybe it would of been better if they just had a simple lessons learned from the Japanese Tsunami than a plan that isn’t.

  8. Karen
    Karen March 27, 2013 11:31 am

    Sounds like it was a disappointing but valuable learning experience – knowing for sure that you’re on your own. You could have taught them a thing or two since I remember when you were doing some tsunami planning yourself, with doggy bugout bags and everything.

  9. Woody
    Woody March 27, 2013 12:22 pm

    I live in an area that is not usually subject to catastrophe on the scale of Sandy or Katrina. When we do have a weather event people just get to work fixing what is broken. There is no coordination involved. People get their chainsaws, tractors, shovels, snowplows, etc, and just get to work opening roads, assisting neighbors, and generally doing what needs to be done. By the time the state or county governments get mobilized most of the immediate problems have been taken care of. Maybe it’s a rural attitude that people who live in closely packed warrens don’t have. We are also fortunate that we don’t have enough cops and other government goons to prevent people from gettinng to and repairing their property following a disaster.

  10. A.G.
    A.G. March 27, 2013 1:35 pm

    Good call on the CERT thing. If I had the time, I would do it for the networking and training.
    Our local gun club is also a magnet for those who are of the self-sufficient mindset. Not all members, of course. But enough that there are well established mutual aid relationships.

  11. RickB
    RickB March 27, 2013 2:53 pm

    I just checked out the CERT web pages for Florida (last updated 2011) and my town (last update 2006).
    The hermit remark sure hit home; I have a hard time networking.
    Fortunately I live more than 30′ above sea level. And my house isn’t listed as an evacuation shelter 🙂

  12. naturegirl
    naturegirl March 27, 2013 3:48 pm

    It’s amazing how water can ruin even the most obsessive intentions on preserving things. Unless you have it buried underground 12+ feet or are lucky to have a shelter/shed/whatever up on top of a mountain nearby, if a water disaster hits – the water will get it….

    I think what you have going for you, Claire, is there’s usually some warning of tsunamis ahead of time.

    That whole presentation sounded pretty typical, sad as it is.

  13. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal March 27, 2013 7:48 pm

    I don’t think people in my area have ever really been tested by a disaster. We had a blizzard a month or so back, but I didn’t notice any problems. There’s the occasional tornado, or grass fire (fairly common the past few years). I have to wonder how the locals would react to a real “Event”.

    Our biggest disaster may just be the slow, ongoing drought that threatens to kill everything. It’s actually been drier here for the past couple of years than it was during the worst of the Dust Bowl days. And the ground water is getting lower and lower. Without rain this region will become uninhabitable (not even any rivers near here). It’s an unsustainable situation that some are crying out to El Federales to solve- as if they have that power…

  14. c uptegraff
    c uptegraff March 28, 2013 9:40 am

    The CERT thing is definitely a good source of information. I have been involved since the program was rolled out in my area. Good training, good source material and you meet a great bunch of people. We have only been called on once officially. Problem here is all the first responders don’t think they need us. So unless there is an official activation of the team, we meet, train and wait. The stuff you learn is all good.

  15. LarryA
    LarryA March 28, 2013 10:18 am

    I’m a member (as in not-in-charge-of-anything) of an organization on the fringe of local disaster planning. How do tptb do “disaster planning?”
    1. Start with a roster of local participating organizations.
    2. List what resources the organizations can muster.
    3. Plan disaster drills that allow each organization to show off their resources.
    4. Insure that the actual exercise doesn’t impact anyone not participating.

    As a result, the county is well-prepared for anything they are well-prepared to handle, as long as it doesn’t involve 99% of the county residents.

  16. Woody
    Woody March 28, 2013 10:41 am

    I had never heard of CERT before reading about it here. Being a rural anarchist hermit malcontent I am very skeptical of _any_ government agency that aims to ‘help’ me whether I want it or not. If I hear of a local CERT team forming I’ll be sure to avoid it like the plague.

  17. A.G.
    A.G. March 28, 2013 4:51 pm

    From what a friend in CERT has told me, it is more of 72 hour type of emergency org, with an emphasis on community awareness/education via tables set up with fliers at the local village swap meet or whatever. Similar to what Red Cross volunteers do I suppose. She had the official bug out bag and some tools to help clear wreckage and debris.

  18. LarryA
    LarryA March 28, 2013 8:47 pm

    [Problem here is all the first responders don’t think they need us.]

    Same around here. Local Official Opinion seems to be:
    CERT = Preppers = Militia = Anti-Government Wingnuts.

  19. Richard
    Richard March 29, 2013 12:29 am

    I’m confused! Who are you and what have you done with Claire!
    would you have me believe that she would willingly attend a gum’mint presentation on emergency planning? That she would expect words of wisdom to come from their orcs?
    I’m not easily fooled. Return her at once and return to mordor.


  20. Mic
    Mic March 29, 2013 8:55 am

    I think everything you need to know about government preparedness education can be summed up by their advice that they told you in a RISING water situation to DUCK and cover. Sounds a bit counter productive don’t you think?

    I just assume that in most bad situations I am on my own. As long as I know that upfront and prepare for that my surprises will hopefully be at a minimum. I had an ice storm a couple of winters ago that downed power for 5 days while the temperature hovered in the teens. I had an independent heat source, fuel, food, and water. I coasted through. My neighbors… not so much.

  21. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau March 30, 2013 3:58 pm

    Might as well figure any govt “help” will be worse than no response from government at all. Those guys are just going through the motions and drawing a salary. You are on your own except for whatever assistance might come from neighbors and friends (with you helping them in return, of course). You might try to locate outside the tsunami zone though, depending on how likely you think it is to happen.

  22. puptent
    puptent March 31, 2013 7:21 am

    Government can only create or increase the severity of a problem. Make work projects, like sending little GS 8 workers out into the hinter land to power point the “solution” to a problem they haven’t a clue about dealing with, only decreases the unemployment numbers (let’s see, a writing and graphic arts team to design a flier, or twenty; editors; proof readers; pre-print technicians; printing contractor or gov’t shop; post production; packaging; transportation office; shipping facility and all that goes with that; DOT; IRS; yadayadayada. And, of course, the same, and maybe more of it for the power point!), it does nothing to increase preparedness or knowledge (here, have a flier). Knowing that you are a “Tsunami Ready” community must be a great comfort. I would suggest facing all signs towards the ocean so that any approaching, and potentially devastating wave would be forewarned of our Government’s readiness to spend its people’s money on… well, on just about anything.

  23. BamaSuzy
    BamaSuzy March 31, 2013 3:11 pm

    We had two or three tornadoes and some awfully high straight line winds week before last so we had huge power outages in our county in central Alabama…I had heat (because I heat with wood anyway) AND I cooked on the wood heater with my cast iron skillet so no problem there…son and his wife (who also live on the farm) also “shared” a small generator with me so that I could keep the fridge running in my tiny farm store…were without electricity for three and a half days on my road and longer in other areas….I’m trying to be as prepared as possible for as many situations as possible because I don’t think we need to depend on the government for anything….

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