The Red Cross lists dozens and dozens of items homeowners should have at the ready in case of a disaster. The full list, a good three printed pages, is at www.redcross.org. Purchasing, assembling, and storing the whole list could easily become a full-time occupation, and carting it away in an evacuation situation could require a U-Haul truck. But reading the list makes you think — would you really want to be without a non-electric can opener, a box of bandages, a battery-operated radio, enough water for the whole family, or a spare pair of glasses?
The problem with disaster planning, though, is that the range of possibilities is huge. Surely the preparation for a chemical attack is different from that for a chimney fire. Will there be two seconds to get out of Dodge, or will there be three days’ warning? Will it be necessary to hunker down for a day, or a month?
But no matter what the disaster, there are commonalities — involving supplies, as well as much more important underpinnings. I think about this, having been through a few mini-disasters, in the form of rising water, during the past few years:
Get to know your neighbors really well. Before a recent flood, everyone on our Delaware River neighborhood’s E-mail list received early warning. Bernard McMullen, education consultant and good neighbor extraordinaire, sent out a message hours and hours before anyone suspected that there was a problem. He had been monitoring websites, and learned that the river was expected to rise above flood stage within 24 hours.
It turned out that it rose more quickly than that. By the time that a reverse 911 system alerted residents to the need to get ready to leave their homes, we had already had a good eight hours’ head start thanks to Bernard. A number of people used that time to hire trucks to remove appliances from basements, to contact plumbers to remove the electronics from furnaces, and to make arrangements for lodging for their families and their pets — oh yes, and to make sure that all credit card payments were up to date to support said lodging arrangements.
Not everyone was on the E-mail list, but many of those who were knocked on the doors of newcomers and of people they suspected were not on the list, and gave them some extra time to get ready, too.
Disasters come in all sizes. The help that neighbors gave to one another during the Delaware floods was of incalculable value. No one felt alone. There was always someone to move furniture higher, run an electric line to a house still without power, and offer hot showers to families whose hot water heaters were being repaired.
Beyond the tangibles, many people drew tremendous comfort from meeting neighbors for breakfast during the evacuation, exchanging phone call updates, and knowing that there were lots of people who knew exactly what the uncertainty of an evacuation felt like.
Feeling entirely comfortable calling on neighbors for help has value in routine mini-disasters, too. Just this week a neighbor locked herself out of her house, and was able to just flag down the first person she saw for assistance.
Be careful in relying on usually rock solid information sources. With the rapid spread of Internet use, one would think that accurate information would be easier to find. Well, it is. Usually. But when there is any sort of a disaster people log onto websites in much greater numbers than usual, and the result can quickly be a website freeze. Or the result can be potentially more dangerous. It can be a very buggy, very unreliable website.
This is what happened along the Delaware last June. The wonderful Advanced Hydrological Prediction website of the National Weather Service, the site that Bernard McMullen relied on to give his neighbors early warning, went progressively more crazy as word of the flood spread. Sometimes it wasn’t accessible, sometimes it showed a page that was days old, and sometimes it did something more dangerous. It showed a page with the correct date, a page that looked absolutely fine, but that wasn’t. Only by squinting at tiny print in the lower left-hand corner of the web page would anyone see that the update time was hours earlier than it should have been.
One result was that, as four or five of us were racing to get a friend’s antiques out of harm’s way, a neighbor strolled by and said “Haven’t you heard? The river is going to crest below flood stage. It’s says so on the National Weather website. Why are you running around?”
No, no, he was told. That’s old data. He went back into his house to check, but the update time was so well buried that he was still convinced that we were wrong.
If a localized flood caused this much disruption of a usually-stable federal website, it is a good bet that the Internet could useless as an information source in a larger scale event.
Know that not all insurance companies are equal. People in our neighborhood had vastly different experiences with their insurance companies. Some were unbelievably helpful. They didn’t even wait for a call, but made contact immediately, offering substantial help on the spot. Others took forever to respond, didn’t return phone calls, sent out seriously sub-par people to evaluate damage, and argued endlessly over relatively small claims.
Take the time to talk to neighbors about claims experiences. Every house is a potential target — if not for a terrorist attack or a flood — then for a falling tree, water from a frozen pipe, or fire from over-heated Christmas lights. If there is a problem, having a responsive insurance company will vastly decrease the stress of putting everything back together again.
There are so many things to do to prepare for a disaster, but the very best one could be to invite the neighbors over for a holiday get together — and not just to grill them about their insurance carriers.
Getting to know the people in your neighborhood can go a long way toward making a disaster of any variety easier to weather. Mr. Rogers constantly reminded pre-schoolers of the importance of getting to know “the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street.” It’s good advice for the kids’ parents, too.