Surviving Disaster: As simple as knowing your neighbors?

A volunteer program trains everyday people to organize the resources immediately around them

Surviving Disaster: As simple as knowing your neighbors?

Surviving Disaster: As simple as knowing your neighbors?

Disaster strikes. The roads are in disarray from panicked drivers. You’re panicked yourself, confused. You dial 911 again and again, but no one will answer.

Are you safe, staying put? As you look outside your window, the blocks around your home seem to have expanded to encompass your entire world, so rapidly, too rapidly. Would you be safer in any of these other homes? Do any of them need safety? You saw old Mrs. Mulligan hobbling into her home on crutches just two weeks ago. Or was it months? You never bothered to ask her about her health — or even her day — and now you can’t help but imagine her alone, trapped and crippled. Even if you helped, what could you offer? What does she need?

How many of these people do you really know, anyway?

* * *

But let’s return to normalcy for a moment. As life moves along at its typical clip, it can be tough for the average person to imagine the need to prepare for a worst-case scenario — a situation where disaster hits, emergency services aren’t available, and your only resources are the ones immediately around you.

City-dwellers are probably particularly accustomed to handing part of their life over to the infrastructure around them. They might use the bus for transportation, restaurants for food, or local businesses to handle common household repairs. All from a system that can be simultaneously ever-present and anonymous.

“The biggest thing is that people don’t know their neighbors anymore,” said Rosanne Garrand, the public outreach coordinator for Washington state’s Emergency Management Division. “You might say hi, but you won’t know if they have kids in the house, or if someone in the house needs special medication.

“Everybody believes you call 911 and 10-20 minutes later, they show up.”

As part of her duties, Garrand distributes educational materials for Map Your Neighborhood, a program that trains everyday citizens in methods to organize neighbors and prepare supplies in the event of a disaster. The material consists of a 90-minute training DVD and handouts.

Forty-four of 50 states participate in Map Your Neighborhood in some capacity. Thirty-two of Washington state’s 39 counties do the same, and Garrand estimated the state has about 400 individual participants. Many of those come from churches and other faith organizations, or groups like the American Legion, she said.

Seattle’s Magnolia District alone boasts a 90 percent participation rate in Map Your Neighborhood.

That might have something to do with its being one of the most Puget Sound-exposed neighborhoods in the city. In “The Really Big One,” a Pulitzer-prize winning feature that appeared in The New Yorker’s July 20, 2015, issue, author Kathryn Schulz detailed the history of distant-but-assured major earthquakes along the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia Subduction Zone, the disastrous effects of a 9.0 quake’s shock damage and subsequent tidal wave, and the unpreparedness of a region that believed itself seismically stable until the ‘80s.

The article was well-read in the Pacific Northwest after its publication, but Garrand said it didn’t draw many people to the Map Your Neighborhood program.

“Sometimes people think ‘If it’s that bad, why bother?’” she said.

Larger upticks in interest came in the run-up to Y2K and the 2012 Mayan calendar prophecy.

“People laugh, but that’s what gets people motivated,” she said.

But most people sign up for Map Your Neighborhood after a small disaster has already struck. Some of the greatest interest in the program came after the ice storm that struck Western Washington in 2012. And while it would be best if people began preparing in September, October or November, that increase in interest is just fine, Garrand said.

“If people are prepared for these smaller and more mundane emergencies, they won’t be caught unaware if a really big emergency hits,” she said.

* * *

Madison Valley resident Stephen Smith is one of the Map Your Neighborhood participants who was absolutely motivated by Schulz’s New Yorker article.

“It was really scary,” he said. “It outlined that this could really happen to us, and sooner than we think.”

But the retired Group Health physician — a man who resembles Alan Alda and boasts the same “How ya doing?” demeanor — didn’t have a clear idea of what he could do until he attended an emergency preparedness meeting at Seattle First Baptist Church, organized by office manager Judy Scott.

Smith immediately signed on for training in Map Your Neighborhood, and set out to organize his own neighborhood in the two-block area hemmed in by Harrison, Arthur, Republican and Dewey. The area just outside his neighborhood is particularly vulnerable to liquefaction in an earthquake, the ground becoming like “melted chocolate in milk,” as Smith put it.

He organized an initial neighborhood meeting in October, and collected the contact information of every neighbor he could. Additionally, he made a spreadsheet noting who had already prepared emergency supplies, and who had special skills. Notes indicate “nurse anesthetist,” “knowledge of herbs, edible plants,” or “home construction and repair.”

Perhaps the most impressive portion of the packet prepared by Smith and his neighbors is the section detailing the “backyard emergency kit.” Primarily compiled by food company executive Danielle de Clercq, sculptor Richard Rhodes and Smith, the kit guide includes 130 separate items in various quantities.

Some of the items are expected: food, water, blankets and lamp oil. Other items are less expected, but make sense after a moment’s thought, such as guide books and playing cards to stave off boredom. In fact, the list includes fifths of whiskey and vodka, and a half-gallon of gin. Aside from their obvious use, alcohol can serve as valuable currency to be exchanged for missing supplies. They can also stave off a danger not often thought about in disaster situations: substance withdrawal.

Smith said he realized not everyone is financially capable of preparing such an extensive kit. If they can only gather a few of the things, he said he would start with a stockpile of freeze-dried food and water.

But the key is to be as prepared as possible.

“The way we’re wired, we have a reptilian brain that handles our breathing and basic needs, a mammalian brain that puts us into fight-or-flight mode, and a cortical brain that handles our higher functions,” Smith said. “When there’s an emergency, you hope your cortical brain remains in control, but the reality is that your mammalian brain can take over in a crisis. So it’s best to prepare as much as you can ahead of time.

“If you wake up in the middle of the night, run off in your pajamas and get broken glass in your feet, are you going to be much help? No, you’re one of the victims now.”

Psychology also plays an important role in disaster. Rhodes, the sculptor, was caught in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006. He told Smith that the experience taught him people cling to authority, in even its most symbolic forms. The people who know they can keep cool in a crisis can benefit their community by donning an otherwise unnecessary suit-and-tie, and speaking in a firm, measured voice.

With his block group becoming more prepared, Smith has taken it upon himself to present the “HARD Group” plan to community meetings in the area. He said he hopes more Seattleites participate in Map Your Neighborhood.

“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” he said. “In another sense, this is just another way to know your neighbors and create community. If a disaster happens, that’s one of the most important things.”

More information about Map Your Neighborhood can be found at