Disaster Prepared in the 21st century

I recently got a letter from a 5th grader in Washington asking for information about disaster recovery. I wrote a very long response that I hope is helpful to everyone!

Although our organization focuses on answering questions about insurance claims after a disaster, having gone through natural disasters myself and having dealt with the aftermath several times I will try to address your general question and not just focus on our organization’s mission. This is not necessarily geared towards a 5th grader and it’s going to get long so I hope your teacher can help you get through it.

To help answer your questions let me first lay some groundwork. When a disaster hits it comes in phases.

  1. The first phase is the actual disaster. This is when the disaster is actually happening. Fire, earthquake, flood, hurricane, tornado, terrorist attack and volcanic eruption are the most common in the US, although tsunami’s can also happen, especially on the west coast. This phase will come with very little to no warning and last the shortest of all of the phases.
  2. The second phase is immediate needs. This phase is immediately after the disaster, and sometimes starts before aid workers arrive. It lasts until everyone has met the basic needs of being able to provide their own food and shelter and has free access to their house and can last anywhere from a single day to several months.
  3. The third phase is recovery. This is the longest lasting of the phases and the most overlooked by the public. It lasts at least one year and more likely three to five years. When this phase ends can be different from household to household and ends when a family is in a “new” permanent living situation which can vary in scope from someone finding a new rental unit, to buying a new house, to rebuilding their old house.

Now on with your questions.

“What are the most important things you need when a natural disaster happens?”

Phase 1: The Disaster

  1. Identify the types of disasters possible in your area and learn how to survive that phenomenon. Be aware that there is most likely more than one type of disaster to prepare for in your area. Most of the west coast is in the Ring of Fire (ask your teacher for a geology lesson on this topic) and as such is subject to earthquakes and tsunami’s. Washington even has an active volcano so if you’re in that area you should prepare for that and if you’re close to the coast you need to be aware of tsunami’s. Fire can break out anywhere so that will be on your list as well. There are numerous sources found online and there is no way I can go into much detail, but as an example, there is a great YouTube channel called “We Are Unprepared” that has lots of videos that talk about what you can do to prepare for an earthquake.
  2. Have a phone that can use SMS texting. Many times during a disaster it’s the only way to communicate since the regular phone network is jammed with people making calls and accessing the internet. After almost every disaster you hear stories of how the only way to communicate during the disaster was through SMS texting. You can go one step further with this idea and get a device like a “goTenna” which turns your cellphone into a walky-talky so you can text with other people in the neighborhood with the same device.
  3. Join Twitter. Sometimes you need information and can’t get it through traditional means (radio and TV). Even if you don’t use it for anything else you (or your teacher or parent) should join twitter and put the app on their phone. Not only can you use Twitter using SMS texting (see next point below), if data networks are available and you want information that you can’t find on the radio or TV, you can always search Twitter. You can also create lists of local news and information organizations that you can view to see what they’re posting all in one place. For example CARe has created a list for San Diego (https://twitter.com/CAReHelpInc/san-diego-news) where you can view news from 21 different news, government and relief organizations.
  4. Connect Twitter to SMS texting on your phone and tell your friends and family you’re on Twitter so you can send Twitter messages via texting. Then if you’ve survived a disaster you can Tweet via SMS and your friends and family can see you’re okay (I don’t think they don’t need twitter to view your account). If Twitter is too much, you can also use the Red Crosses “Safe and Well” list (http://www.redcross.org/find-help/contact-family/register-safe-listing). I suppose this idea ventures into phase two so let’s move on.

Phase 2: Immediate Needs

  1. Have a “go bag” at home and keep it updated. This includes basic supplies necessary to survive for three days and includes emergency food, water and sometimes even shelter or some sort of warmth to get you through the night. To answer your last question “What are the most important things you need inside a natural disaster kit?” I have created a list on Amazon that has a list of items I think are the minimum necessary to have at home in case of a disaster.
  2. Have a bag in your car. It’s nice to have this in your house, but I also like having one in my car. My car kit is contained in a backpack and includes:
    – Bottled water
    – Energy bars
    – Local paper map
    – Crank radio/phone charger
    – Athletic shoes, socks and yoga pants (in case I have to walk long distances and need to change from my fancy work clothes and shoes)
  3. Have a kit at school (or work) as well. This website has some pre-packaged kits for schools.

Phase 3: Recovery

  1. Place important documents in a safe place away from the house. You can put the originals in a safe deposit box, but I recommend scanning everything and storing it online. Most big email companies give you some from storage (like Google Drive or One Drive) or you can create a free account on a site like www.DropBox.com which will give you enough space to store the major things.There are three major categories of “important documents”:
    A. Identification: Copies of your state ID card, social security card, birth certificate, passport, car and home ownership information, insurance cards etc.
    B. Memorabilia: photos, home movies, etc.
    C. Insurance preparation photos and movies: This is basically where you go into every room and take a picture and/or movie of everything you own. Open every closet, box and drawer and take a picture. It’s way easier than making an inventory (which is never done and is a thankless task that you will hopefully never use) and can be done in a matter of a couple of hours and will make your life a LOT easier getting through phase three.
  2. Backup your computer. I would recommend backing up your computer online with a service like www.mozy.com or www.carbonite.com. You must assume you won’t be at home to save anything. It happens more often that you’d like to think and there is so much information stored on a computer now-a-days that it’s an essential part of life.
  3. GET/UPDATE INSURANCE. If you don’t even have the most basic of insurance (even renters can get insurance) your recovery will be extremely long and painful. Phase three is not news worthy and rarely gains extended media exposure so most people don’t realize that the government (state and federal) only has very limited assistance programs that will in NO WAY get a family back to a fully recovered status. Government programs are geared towards helping your local government get reimbursed with their costs associated with moving through phases one and two. For people who do not have insurance, it will be local, everyday people, philanthropic and religious organizations that get together to organize long term recovery. Since San Diego suffered two major disasters in four years (2003 and 2007) we now have a Community Recovery Team that is active in keeping prepared for a disaster. Even with these organizations help there is no guarantee an uninsured household will be able to find adequate recovery. Sometimes even insured people have that problem, but in every case I have ever been involved with, an insured household is, without exception, better off than an uninsured household. If you’re already insured and want to go one step farther, make sure you’re Insured to Value.
  4. Get to know your neighbors. Make a phone list of everyone in your neighborhood and join your local neighborhood organization (almost all of them have a group of volunteers that gather regularly to discuss local issues) and join a neighborhood social network like www.nextdoor.com. Neighbors that know each other can communicate much easier and when the entire block disappears you no longer have the luxury of knocking on their door and telling them about a local recovery meeting.

“What kind of structure do you need to build a natural disaster proof building?”

There is no way to make your structure disaster proof. Just build to code and keep things strapped to the wall in case of an earthquake, tornado or hurricane. If you have an older house you can have a builder do some work to bring it up to code which will help the structure in a moderate disaster, it will not help in the most extreme circumstances.

“What could I do to help?”

  1. DO NOT SEND PHYSICAL DONATIONS (like clothing) to a disaster location as most organizations don’t have the capability of processing the flood of things they get (and many call it the second disaster). You can of course donate to local organizations that regularly take those donations like the Salvation Army. They have the ability to process and sell the items and then buy what they need to help with disaster recovery.
  2. Send money to a local organization who will give the money to a long term recovery team. For example, the San Diego Foundation funded the Community Recovery Team following both the ’03 and ’07 disasters in San Diego. Many other areas have similar foundations. These organizations generally “help teach people to fish,” or organize where the fish are located, instead of just giving them fish. Well, they don’t actually hand out fish, but in general people have the ability to learn how to recover and money is better spent teaching them how to do it, and organizing the local effort to avoid duplication of services and just buying their way out of their recovery problems.
  3. If you have no money to give, then sign up with a local organization and give them your time. I’m sure the Salvation Army would love help digging through the mountains of household goods they have to sort to sell, local animal shelters need help feeding their animals and the local Food Bank needs help stocking shelves.  The Red Cross has a disaster relief team, but you have to sign up well in advance and go through training before you can help with active disaster recovery. All of these organizations help following a disaster and the more people they have helping before a disaster, the more prepared they are when the time comes.

“What are you already doing to help when a natural disaster happens?”

We teach insurance lessons to help people through phase three of recovery. Since we help people well after the disaster and immediate needs phases, we generally wait a while before we go into an area to teach. Having survived a disaster, I found that this was the most important help we received, and is usually the most underfunded.

When people donate money to help survivors, the people in need who receive money from that organization get a fraction of what you donate (the fraction they get depends on the organization and the programs they offer). For example, if you donate $1 to an organization, the people who benefit from that organization might only get 50c or 75c. Do some research before you donate to make sure you’re maximizing your donation dollar.

When donations are given to post-disaster education, the survivor gets multiple times the amount of money the organization receives. For example, in our 12 month reports to the San Diego Foundation following the 2007 San Diego Wildfires, we reported that for every $1 that was donated to our organization, more than $350 dollars was brought back into the community based on educating consumers on their rights.

In Conclusion

If you made it this far, CONGRATULATIONS! We hope you found it informative and that you’re better prepared because of it.

(CARe mentions websites in this article as a public service, and has no financial interest in their products or programs.)