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  • Writer's pictureGenta Guitron

National Preparedness Month: Because 2020 Isn’t Over Yet

Photo by Yosh Ginsu

Each year in September, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) encourages Americans to prepare for the “unlikely” event that their communities will fall victim to a natural disaster or other catastrophes that poses a danger to human life.

Preparing for “anything” without being ruled by our fears is a delicate balance, especially when we are armed with the knowledge that climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms, wildfires, earthquakes, and other disasters. The “unlikely” has now become inevitable.

Coupled with the crippling impact of COVID-19, the wildfires ravaging the West Coast are further evidence of the urgency to be prepared for disasters in our area. As most of us know, our planet is no longer “staring down the barrel of a shotgun.” We are more accurately in the path of heavy artillery fire. We do not have the luxury to leave the planning for another day.

Of course, under normal circumstances, experts would tell us that it is a bad idea to prepare for a disaster while we are in the middle of it, but 2020 has not left us a lot of time to catch our breath between tragic, life-altering events.

So, what can we do to prepare ourselves and our families for whatever comes next? 1. Ignore FEMA, Think Bigger

Okay, I know it seems counterintuitive to recommend ignoring the very agency responsible for managing emergencies but stay with me on this one. FEMA’s repeated recommendation that we have two weeks of supplies on hand fell woefully short in the face of crises like COVID-19 and Hurricane Maria. Frankly, two weeks isn’t enough. Seven months into this pandemic and the supply chain is still struggling. Add on to that the prolonged loss of employment for millions of people, and sticking with two weeks of supplies feels a little bit like thinking our spit will serve as proper hydration while we cross the Sahara.

Another benefit to this level of preparation is that we’re not reduced to putting out personal ads for “desperately seeking toilet paper” in the middle of a wide-scale emergency. Our thoughtful preparation means that we’re not required to navigate the frantic grocery store aisles and parking lots often associated with perilous situations. 2. Have A Plan (Have More Than One) We mustn’t wait to discuss our exit strategy in the heat of the moment. Just like kids in school practice the fire drill several times a year, we need to have a clear plan to remove ourselves from danger.

When discussing our evacuation plan, remember to include a plan for what to do if we are not together when disaster strikes. These discussions should cover a place to meet and an emergency contact who lives outside of town. Even if we cannot reach a family member by phone, we can still have the peace of mind of knowing that we are heading toward the same place.

Remember, there is no time to plan when the flames or storm surge is right on top of us. Whose job is it to grab the dog? Who is responsible for putting grandma’s medications in the car? No matter our individual circumstances— “know before you go” is key to protecting lives when there are only seconds to act.

Which brings me to another vital component of our evacuation planning—the “go-bag.” Each member in the house should have a survival kit that is a condensed version of the shelter-in-place items we have collected. Go-bags should never be packed after the evacuation order is issued. To do so could mean that key items get left behind, or worse, lives could be jeopardized because we waited until the last minute to act. 3. Think of Others Before You Decide to Stay Harry R. Truman attained folklore status by refusing to evacuate before Mt. Saint Helens eruption on May 18, 1980. He was killed by a pyroclastic flow that overtook his lodge and buried the site under 150 ft (46 m) of volcanic debris. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, an estimated 34,000 people had to be rescued from the aftermath. Many of those people spent five hellish days trapped in the Superdome.

Over the years, reporters have interviewed countless individuals who have chosen to “ride out the storm,” while openly ignoring the warning that such a “ride or die” approach puts unnecessary strain on emergency services. If you decide to shelter-in-place, no matter the cost, ask yourself: If I stay here, am I prepared to be the 29,894th person evacuated? Am I prepared to spend five days in a place like the Superdome? Have I considered what situations I might face when power, water, and sewage are cut off for days or weeks? Whose life could I save by heeding evacuation orders? 4. Take Steps to Protect Your Mental Health The last seven months have been emotionally brutal. For those already prone to depression and anxiety, the first half of 2020 represented an increased danger to their wellbeing. For those of us unaccustomed to bouts of depression or anxiety, we might have found ourselves floundering under the constant vigilance and uncertainty. Under these circumstances, it’s critical that in the hunt for “normal,” that we don’t overlook the necessity for self-care.

While it’s easy to say: “get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, and exercise.” The truth is that our circumstances during a natural disaster rarely lend themselves to such measures. Examining the methods, we use to self-soothe now will help inform our planning for the future. If chocolate or a glass of wine helps you decompress, add such items to your go-bag. If you release tension through art, always make sure you have a couple of adult-coloring or sketchbooks on hand.

Moreover, we must never overlook the value of sharing our feelings. We shouldn’t bottle up the things that make us feel afraid or unsteady. Exorcising our emotions in a healthy way releases toxins, and fortifies us to face the challenges ahead of us. If we find it difficult to share our emotions with others, journaling is an excellent tool to mitigate stress. Pour everything onto the page—from a list of the first things we want to buy, if we’ve lost our home in a fire, to the deepest thoughts that keep us up at night. Journaling can help us process the unimaginable so that maybe one day, our stories can help others. As the planet continues to be engulfed in an escalating climate crisis, the hard reality is that we are more likely to experience a wildfire, tornado, hurricane, or another climate disaster with each passing year. As heartbreaking and vulnerable, as this fact may be, we are not defenseless. Each day, we make choices that determine the overall outcome of what comes next for our planet. And while we continue to work toward a healthier environmental future, we can further embolden our chances of survival and success by planning for the “unlikely,” the “unthinkable,” the “unimaginable,” and, yes—even the “inevitable.”


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