During the week or so after Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi, the world watched in shock as over half of New Orleans was covered in water and nearly two thousand people lost their lives. While politicians bickered and the blame game heated up, lost in the shuffled was what transpired in hundreds of towns, communities, and isolated hamlets from Beauregard Parish, Louisiana to the lower third of Mississippi. Far from the camera’s eye and merely a word on a map to Brian Williams or Shepherd Smith, whole communities were cut off from the world, often with no relief in sight for weeks.
Having lived through Hurricane Ivan here in Pensacola, Florida, I knew what must be transpiring in those forgotten neighborhoods. I well remember the first couple of days after Ivan, having no idea if our oldest son and his family were safe though they only lived less than ten miles from us. Then there were the weeks without power and phone and months of trying to help each other dig out, clean up, and move on. Though our state responded efficiently during Hurricane Ivan, authorities are honest to admit to not expect any help during the first 48-72 hours. That isn’t a failure of government but rather a fact of the logistics of responding to such major events. The greatest lesson learned through these events is the importance of neighborhood and community preparedness. No one is exempt from catastrophic events wherever they may live. And, you and your neighbors will be the only first responders in such an event.
Based on lessons learned during Ivan and Katrina, here are some basic steps to take in getting your neighborhood ready for a disaster:
Gather Information and Don’t Try and Reinvent the Wheel
Know who the major players are in disaster response in your area. Communities prone to disaster usually have printed material and web sites with the information you need readily available. If not, call your local fire department, the county’s Office of Emergency Management, and local Red Cross office. Make list of contact names, telephone numbers, and other helpful information for future reference. Once this information is gathered, contact either your local fire department or volunteer fire fighters group and ask them to answer the following questions for you:
- Are there other disaster preparedness groups, Community Disaster Councils or organized neighborhoods within the fire district? If so, how can you contact them to learn about their activities?
- Would they be willing to meet and talk with you about preparing your community for disaster?
- Would someone from the fire department participate in your neighborhood meetings?
- Does the fire department offer disaster training for neighborhoods? If so, what kind of training, where, when, and at what cost?
- Can the fire department provide disaster pamphlets, videotapes, or other resources for use at the community meetings?
This information provides an important first step in helping your neighborhood know how to best organize to protect itself during a disaster.
Prepare for a Neighborhood Meeting
The best place to start in preparing your neighborhood for disaster is with (you guessed it!) your neighbor. Enlist two or three neighbors as you begin to help shape some goals and plans for a first meeting with the whole neighborhood. Preparedness works when many neighbors embrace it as their duty and accept ownership in the project. Don’t try to do all the work by yourself – remember that a leader’s job is to excite others with the vision of what is possible. As in most things in life, organizing your neighborhood this way requires a champion.
During this stage of preparation remember KISS: Keep It Simple! You aren’t trying to become FEMA (good thing there). You, and people you know, are looking to make some simple plans all are agreed on in case of the worst.
Another thing to do before your first meeting is to determine what constitutes your neighborhood. This sounds elementary but it is essential. After Katrina, our disaster response team headed into Mississippi only to encounter more than one turf war between local officials. The same can happen to a lesser degree in a single subdivision. Believe it or not, one woman in Pensacola threatened to shoot us if we crossed her property as we sought to find a way to remove a tree trapping her elderly neighbor in his home. Had there been some association of people that lived right around her, she might have responded with less fear to people she didn’t know. If you live in a subdivision or group of homes with a community covenant, you need to be aware of existing structures already in place. The goal is to work with each other before a disaster so, should one come, you can work together during that event.
Once You Meet
I don’t know about you, but meetings rank right up there with having a root canal. Most people you know feel the same way. If some of them love meetings, don’t put them in charge! What people need are the basics. Two lists should be gone over and people understand their duties in the event of a disaster.
Checklist for Household Preparedness
- A personal household plan
- Neighborhood disaster training completed (first aid/rescue)
- Supplies in place (home and car)
- Meet-up location for extended family members
Checklist for Neighborhood Preparedness
- A connection to a Community Disaster Council or formation of a Neighborhood Disaster Committee.
- One Neighborhood Coordinator and at least one Neighborhood Liaison
- Volunteers for: First Aid, Medical, Stress Managers, Search and Rescue, Safety and Utilities, Care of People with Special Needs, Shelter & Feeding, and Communications
- Neighborhood disaster training completed (first aid/rescue).
Nothing can fully prepare one for the first few hours and days after a catastrophic event, but you can certainly lessen the impact by having an agreed upon plan. In our neighborhood, I know exactly who I would check on first, who has equipment that would be of help in rescue, and where my wife and I would be should we sit out the next hurricane. How ready is your neighborhood?
Other articles in this issue:
- Urban Gardening: Indoor and Balcony Gardening Tips 
- The Need for a Paper Library 
- Urban Chickens!