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Disasters Happen: Prepare to Survive

We live in a world full of risks and hazards. There have always been weather-related and other natural disaster events, but these days it seems they happen with greater frequency and impact more lives. We also find ourselves in an ever-more complicated—and connected—world, bringing new opportunities and new risks. Watching the video feeds of flooding in the south, volcanoes in Hawaii, and pounding storms along the east coast reminds us we need to be prepared for what may come our way.

Preparedness rightly begins with putting together emergency kits and storing water and food. Take a first aid class, learn CPR, become a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)-trained volunteer. There is much we can do to be prepared—and resilient—survivors. Thank goodness, we don’t have to do it alone.

Two of the most essential preparedness tasks: prepare a communications plan and strengthen formal and informal networks.

When a disaster occurs, we immediately want to know that our families and friends are safe—and they want to know the same of us. A critical preparedness task that can be done now, for free, and needs no room for storage is to make an emergency communications plan. If a disaster makes local communications difficult, likely it will be easier to reach someone farther away from any damaged areas.

Start by identifying someone who can be your “out-of-area” contact—a friend or relative in another state unlikely to be impacted by a disaster here. Share that contact information with key family and friends; now, everyone has someone they can contact to share information about their location and safety and learn the status of others.

Next, make plans with close family and friends about how and where everyone will reconnect when safe travel is possible. Working out these things in advance makes the first hours and days of an emergency easier.

Issaquah residents participate in a Community Emergency Response Team training. (Photo courtesy of City of Issaquah.)

We have both formal and informal networks available to us. Research has found a solid link between having strong networks and being resilient—not just in times of trouble, but every day. We have formal health care systems, social services such as home care and meal programs, faith communities, senior centers, and service clubs like the Lions and Rotary International.

We can strengthen our formal networks and support them to be ready to continue vital services after a disaster. When the world goes sideways, our community-based organizational partners will be keys to respond and recover. Essential services like food banks, transportation programs, and day care need to be ready to get back up and running as soon as possible. Volunteers at hospitals, libraries, schools, and social services organizations are all of use in providing valuable community support services—in both good times and bad. Just as you prepare yourselves, your family, and your home to be ready for an emergency, volunteers can support their community- and faith-based organizations to be ready for times of disaster as well.

We also have countless informal networks available to us—friends, neighbors, faith-based fellowships, and the people we meet at the coffee shop, walking around Green Lake, taking a dance class, and in book clubs.

We can strengthen our informal networks and plan together to get through whatever comes our way. Getting to know your neighbors is a great preparedness goal, as well as looking out for those around your community who may be isolated and in need of a check-in when disaster strikes. Volunteering—formally through a program or informally by helping family, neighbors, and friends—builds connections and resilience. We have an American value—that we are “stronger together”—and that serves us well in times of disaster.

Along with pictures of flooded Houston streets during the storms of 2017, we also saw the heroic rescues being accomplished by a community-based, spontaneous response that became known as the Cajun Navy. Neighbors—and strangers—with boats showed up to save people from the rising waters. Behind the scenes, volunteers across the country networked together and, utilizing an Internet-based app, responded to calls for help, and coordinated sending in the Cajun Navy boats to effect rescues. In disaster after disaster, the “first responders” on the scene are often those who have survived the event and immediately turn to helping others. In both good and bad times, we are stronger together.

This isn’t our first rodeo. Most of us have lived through disaster, war, and/or personal emergencies. We carry with us wisdom born of experience and survival. Our communities benefit from that in both good and bad times.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA area ranks 8th among the 51 largest Metropolitan Service Areas (MSAs) with 32.1 percent of older adult residents formally volunteering time in their communities. That doesn’t account for the countless ways we support each other informally, such as cooking a meal for an ill neighbor, giving a friend a ride to church, or walking a friend’s dog.

Survivors make the best emergency volunteers. The Seattle Auxiliary Communications Service (ACS) volunteers are the backbone of neighborhood emergency communications. Their missions include responding if area communications systems are damaged or overloaded, and providing a connection with other community volunteers who coordinate together in emergency response. Along with others, they provide essential support to the Emergency Operations Center when it activates to coordinate a planned—or unplanned—event.

The City of Bellevue has a similar program called Bellevue Communications Support. The cities of Bellevue, Redmond, and Issaquah all have Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) whose volunteers regularly train and exercise together. If you have interest in helping your community in times of emergency, there are ample opportunities throughout King County, including local chapters of national organizations like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

We have been through much in our lives—we are survivors—and in times of trouble we can carry the message to our communities: “We will get through this!”

Contributor Deborah Witmer, the Seattle Human Services Department’s vulnerable populations coordinator, works closely with the Seattle Office of Emergency Management and has been involved in FEMA regional catastrophe response planning in Washington state.