In the wake of a major disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or a great earthquake or flood, both the best and the worst of human nature will be evident in the days that follow. We have the choice to prepare for the worst, or to pretend that we are somehow immune from the violence, greed, and abuse that are sometimes inflicted upon the victims of disasters, when looting or simple hunger drives the unprepared and unthinking to be cruel and mean to their neighbors, and to rob, steal, and threaten the weak and defenseless – especially in an urban setting.
August 2010 marked the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Most of the media spent at least one day somewhere on the Gulf Coast reviewing the events of that week and asking what we had learned. Mistakes were made, procedures in response were changed, and hopefully many of the recommendations of studies will be followed. Government officials both from FEMA and state and local jurisdictions agreed that much has been done. Michael Brown who was the head of FEMA at the time, expressed in interviews the concern that individual citizens have failed to learn the lessons of Katrina and that without personal preparedness for the next hurricane, some citizens would be doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
During the past several months I have thought more and more about those who live in large cities and how their preparations need to differ from those living in a suburban or country setting. So, while we can all learn from past preparedness mistakes, what challenges do city residents face that rural folks do not?
I grew up in the suburbs of Newark, New Jersey. When I was young I experienced the horror and distress of civil unrest. It was during the age of race riots and people were actually sent into the city where I lived to incite violence. It was very frightening. Violence touched my neighborhood and my high school. We could hear gunfire at night and knew no one was safe on the streets. My parents bought a big dog and endured many sleepless nights with a baseball bat close at hand. Although my father had two purple hearts from WWII, we did not have a gun in the house.
For those who live in the city, civil unrest is a real concern when planning for an emergency event. We witnessed various kinds of lawlessness during the days after Katrina, and in fact civil unrest will be found after every major urban disaster.
Following the devastation of a large scale weather disaster, there will sometimes be people who feel entitled to loot and even burn stores. They threaten those who try to escape the area, and may rob them of their cash and valuables. Occasionally gangs invade homes, but usually they focus on looting stores where there are much greater treasures. Then when those store shelves are empty, where will these people go to satisfy their hunger? When it comes to food and supplies, they will attack anyone they believe may have what they want. Obviously, this is of much greater concern in the city than it is in the suburbs. The urban dweller has to consider these scenarios, and be smart and prepared for it.
Following a disaster, plan and prepare to “lay low”. Don’t run out to stock up on milk or other perishables. This makes you an obvious target. You are taking home food and you evidently have cash to buy what you need. If you haven’t already stocked up on food, water and supplies, you may have to do without. Of course, if you know a storm is coming, everyone you know will be stocking up, so by all means, go stock up. Only if the disaster is sudden and unexpected should you stay put if at all possible.
If you do need to venture out, be as inconspicuous and stealthy as possible. You may have made arrangements to share supplies with others, or you may know someone willing to share vegetables from a roof top garden, but don’t advertise it. Wear plain and well-worn clothing. Don’t look too prosperous. If you are going to be bringing home supplies, wear a backpack but don’t call attention to it. It should also be well worn, a dark color and very ordinary looking.
Be prepared to be sneaky. If you have a generator and can power a computer or your fridge, do so during the day.
Use glow sticks and flashlights at night, and if you must use the computer after dark, close all the blinds so no one can see that recognizable blue light that it emits.
Even if you have plenty of supplies, make your home or apartment appear as though you are struggling as much as everyone else. Don’t do anything to make your family the target of thieves. As your food defrosts, if you are going to use a grill to cook it up, fill it as full as possible and cook everything at once. Everyone will be cooking up their freezer stash in the first few days. You will want to have your food cooked and ready to just reheat after these initial few days. Nothing will cause people to show up on your doorstep more than the smell of meat being grilled.
Cover your windows so passers-by or those in the apartment opposite yours can’t see what you have. I love mylar blankets for this purpose. Tape them in your window and they will keep out lots of heat during the summer as well as providing privacy any time of the year. No one will be able to see into your home but you will be able to see out and the blankets will still let in the light.
If you fear roving bands of thieves, make it look like your home has already been ransacked. Scratch up the door and the lock so it looks like someone has already looted your home. You will want to build a barrier between your family and the door just in case it is kicked in anyway. Place a cupboard on its side in front of the door making it easy to peer around, but difficult to move. Now create the illusion where your home can be seen from the street that your place has been looted. Consider dressing the scene the way they would for a movie, to convince thieves that someone else got to you already.
In the hours, days and perhaps weeks following a disaster, this is the time your ham radio license will be of great value. You will know the frequencies to monitor and you will hear of dangers in your neighborhood and be able to alert the authorities as you observe lawless behavior. Ham radio also can connect you to the Red Cross and other valuable relief efforts.
I am sure that by now you are wondering why I have not mentioned ways in which to defend yourself. First, if you can avoid confrontation that is always safest for you and your family. Second, I would never advise anyone on the question of weapons. I do not want the responsibility either moral or legal if an accident should occur. Defending your castle is a matter for your own training, family circumstances, and moral compass.
Planning for Civil Unrest
There will be civil unrest after a disaster. Plan on it and plan for it.
When disaster hits the city, the safest thing to do is to stay put if you and your family are safe and if you have prepared and are able to meet your basic needs of food, water, and shelter. If however, there is mass civil unrest or you find your supplies are running low or you have time before a devastating disaster such as a hurricane, flood, or wildfire, it may be time to pack up and get out. If a weather emergency is approaching always get out, we learned that all too sadly from Katrina. We can talk about just what you should take with you when you evacuate at another time, but for today let’s just think about getting out.
Have an escape plan. If your plan is to evacuate the city, do so immediately. Don’t wait to see what happens. If you have warning of an impending disaster, do not wait until authorities say it is time to go, just go. Too often, especially for those leaving a large city, traffic jams can make an hour’s drive turn into three or four. This uses up gas, makes tempers rise and means simple things like restroom stops become a big problem – all of which you could avoid by leaving early and promptly.
Every time you have to stop while in the process of evacuating, you are in danger of not being able to get back on the road, and risk being hassled by those looking for food or money because they failed to plan.
You are safest when you are in your car so make every preparation possible to remain on the road once you have made the decision to leave.
What to do now?
Make it a habit to maintain at least a half a tank of gas in your car at all times. If you have more than one car, do you have a way to siphon gas from the smaller car into the larger? Do all you can now to insure before evacuating to start the journey, you have a full tank of fuel. You may consider storing a small gas can which could also be filled – giving you more fuel for your trip.
If you have no car you will need to make sure you have spare parts for your bike and you will need to determine routes which will lead to public transportation or a meeting place where friends or family can come to rescue you.
Emergencies don’t always happen when we are at home, so consider the following tips for your trip from work or school back to your home as well as trips out of town.
Now is the time to purchase a good set of road maps and a good atlas. Remember that just making it out of the city does not assure smooth sailing. You may encounter road closures and traffic jams many miles beyond the city limits.
You should have already chosen a place to evacuate to if you are leaving the city so you should have a destination in mind. If you have not done this, now is the time to choose one. This should be somewhere at least 50 miles from your home and with someone who has agreed to take you and your family in. In the case of a mass disaster you will also want a second destination even further away, at least 100 miles away. If you think this is excessive planning, you have only to examine the recommendations of FEMA, USGS, and others who have considered the possible evacuation events and scenarios for every major city in the nation.
Now is the time to get out your hard copy maps and several highlighters of various colors. You can begin by highlighting the route you would normally take. Remember the internet will likely be down after a disaster and your GPS may not work – depending on the type of disaster you’ve been handed, so please don’t think they will be your back up plan. Besides, haven’t you ever had your GPS send you on a route that was much longer than it needed to be because they don’t use all those back roads you know about? You can use an internet mapping service to give you some good ideas about alternative routes by entering various locations as way points for your journey, but whatever method you use – label more than three routes for evacuation (or from work to home).
Now it’s time to road trip! Before we built our home we used to take drives with our family on the weekend from our home in the suburbs out into the country, and dream of a time we could move. Do the same. Take time to drive county roads and go for a picnic outside the city limits. You may discover that some routes out of your city take you through neighborhoods that would be way too dangerous during a civil emergency. Cross those off your list and find other routes that could be used during an emergency evacuation. A disaster is no time for you and your family to be carjacked and stranded on the wrong side of town.
As you examine your routes, consider bridges, tunnels, high rise construction sites, elevated roadways, power stations and other places that are along the route which are targets for damage in a disaster, and could cause you to make detours. Note low-lying areas that would be likely to flood in case your evacuation follows a storm.
As you rehearse your evacuation route, make note of gas stations, hospitals, and police stations along the way. If you should find a gas station open as you flee the city in a real emergency, you should stop and fill up no matter how full your tank.
Make sure you have enough cash, as credit cards may not work.
Next, rank each evacuation route from best to worst. You will want to share these routes with your out of area contact, the person whose home you will be evacuating to. It will be easier for emergency personnel to locate you should you encounter a problem, if they know the route you were taking. Store a copy of these routes in each of your cars and also in your 72 hour kits and office kits.
Planning and preparation for worst case scenarios can provide peace of mind and confidence for our families in a real emergency. Rather than standing there with that deer-in-the-headlights look on our faces, we will know what to do and when to do it, and get our families quickly in motion as events unfold around us that can change our world completely. Remember the sights of Katrina. Keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy in times of distress, is the payoff for all our planning and hard work.
I am very excited about a new venture I am about to launch. Beginning next Tuesday, September 7th I will be hosting a weekly preparedness show: Ready or Not on the Preparedness Radio Network. I would invite all of you to listen and to call in with your questions and comments. You can find the show at: Ready or Not will air each week with special guests and lots of practical, affordable and timely information to help you prepare and become self reliant. With questions or suggestions for guests and topics contact me at: [email protected]