Uncertainty Guaranteed – The Islanding Effect of Disasters
The second airplane hit the World Trade Center while I was at anchor on our sailboat in front of a white sand island in Fiji. Recently retired from the Army, my husband and I had sold everything, bought a boat and were slowly making our way around the world. Our biggest concerns were spearing fish for dinner and studying the weather fax to avoid getting clobbered by Mother Nature.
Early retirement, a great sailboat, endless places to visit, daily adventures… all were very real. Everything I left behind seemed unreal. I traded a camouflage uniform and bulletproof vest for an orange safety vest, and biting winters in Russia as a nuclear weapons inspector for South Pacific islands. The attack on the Twin Towers brought me back to the reality of my past. Those in the military understand that life can end in a flash. But to imagine sitting at your computer on the ninety-ninth floor of the World Trade Center sipping coffee as men who believe 72 virgins are waiting for them in heaven fly an airliner through your window, well, that creates uncertainty on a far larger scale.
Then came a disaster no one could have anticipated or prepared for: the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck 14 countries and swept 250,000 souls to sea. Our boat was in Phuket, Thailand, but fate, God, the universe… caused us to be elsewhere that morning. Our sturdy Amel sailboat (our only worldly possession) survived the tsunami without us. Other sailors weren’t so lucky; those walking the shore were swept out to sea and others injured when their boats crashed upon shore. Boats were lost when marinas were destroyed by walls of water. Survivor guilt became a tangible emotion trying to process how we made it when so many perished. The tsunami opened my eyes to another level of uncertainty in disasters: loved ones separated from their family. Countless flyers with photographs of missing children were posted on walls and buildings, parents hopeful their child had been rescued and waiting to be claimed.
Then came Hurricane Katrina, the benchmark for natural disaster in America. Leaving our sailboat in the Med, my husband and I flew in to help my parents when 21 feet of muddy ocean surged over their waterfront home. That was my first hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up baptism in the micro-world of disaster response. Since then, Glen and I have deployed as volunteers on dozens of disasters for the American Red Cross, installing emergency satellite communications and internet in America and internationally. Part of that work involves reunifying family members after a disaster. To show you the seriousness of the problem, after Katrina, it took seven months for the last of 6,000 displaced children to be reunited with their family.
Uncertainty is the watchword of disasters. Stockpiling perishables and drinking water to get you through the initial emergency phase is not enough. Gas lines will rupture, electricity is down and wires block the roads and communication (cell and internet) is out or limited.
In Big Disasters Your Home Becomes an Island
Think of your home as the hub of a bicycle with each spoke representing infrastructure you take for granted: roads, cell phone service, public transportation, stocked grocery stores, pharmacies, clean water running from every faucet and sewage sweeping magically away. Normally, you drive to work, drop off your kids at school, and make trips to the grocery store. The lights come on when you flick the switch, your refrigerator and freezer hum along keeping all your goodies safe to eat, and your smartphone works. All this will be a faint memory in a serious disaster. During major disasters, everything we count on as birthright in America unravels quickly. Your home which was formerly a hub connected by spokes is now an island.
After disaster your home lacks the infrastructure that made it a hub. The first thing to go is communications and electricity. In disasters like Puerto Rico our Red Cross team traveled village to village providing internet and cell phone service for people to connect with family members, arrange to evacuate to distant family or send email with updates. The people we helped said they can live on rice and beans and bottled water, but not knowing the fate of loved ones was the hardest.
A Plan in Place to Reunite with Loved Ones.
Even if cell towers (which require electricity) survive, the carrying capacity of cell service providers is taken up by emergency services, or overloaded by well-meaning relatives checking up on loved ones.
Like most people, you probably have never discussed disaster scenarios with your spouse, partner or children, counting on schools, emergency services or the military to deliver them home. You would be wrong. It will take a couple days for the Red Cross to open shelters with cots and feeding tents and even longer for the military and emergency response to deploy from unaffected areas.
Reuniting with Family
What is the plan to get your family back together now that your home is no longer a hub, but an island. Buses are not running, roads are blocked, communications is down, electricity is out…What happens to your children and family members meanwhile?
Don’t be that helpless person without a plan. Lead family, work and school discussions and use the checklist below as a start. Everyone in your family needs to know and be able to recite the plan to get home when infrastructure is down, or know where to go if you decide to meet up elsewhere or your home is no longer a safe option.
There is no cookie-cutter solution. Serious thought, brainstorming with family, discussion with your kids’ school and employers will be required to arrive at a viable plan. Be sure to include a practice session because the chaos and uncertainty of disaster interferes with clear thinking. Add realism. What if roads are blocked by rubble, or a gas line has ruptured near your home? What now?
- Discuss the types of disasters most likely to happen. Talk through what to do in each case. Ask for advice from your local Red Cross disaster expert about their nearest planned shelter and feeding sites. Sleeping on cots among strangers may not appeal now, while your home is a hub. Depending on the situation, it may be safer to be in a Red Cross shelter such as a school gym, than stranded on a figurative island.
- Determine the best escape routes from your home. Identify two escape routes.
- Put together what we call in the military a Good To Go kit containing vital items such as medicine, flashlights, water purification straws, hand crank radio, a change of clothes, sturdy shoes… There are more items listed on the Red Cross survival kit website.
- Pick two places to meet. Right outside your home in case of sudden emergency, like a fire or earthquake. Outside your neighborhood in case you can’t return home.
- Ask an out of state friend or family member to be your “family contact.” After a disaster it’s often possible to text when calls don’t get through. Every family member should try to text this person and tell them where they are. Everyone must know your contact’s number.
- Discuss what to do in an evacuation if you are separated.
- Plan how to take care of your pets. The Red Cross normally opens pet shelters.
- Practice evacuation drills and in earthquake areas Duck, Cover and Hold drills.
- Find out about disaster and reunification plans at your work, children’s school or daycare and other places where your family spends time. If those plans are lacking, take the lead.
- Make copies of your important documents such as wills that specify the care of your children if something happens to you. Keep a copy with someone outside your immediate area.
Your ability to survive the unthinkable depends on your ability to anticipate and willingness to prepare. It is something no one else can do for you. There is a tendency to not want to believe it can happen to you. But it can. Don’t be that person posting flyers to find your missing child or spouse. Start with the list above and expand it with the help of the Red Cross survival kit website. Have your plan in place and live your life in fullness with the knowledge you are as ready as possible for the certain uncertainties of disaster.
You can read more about our international disaster volunteer work with the Red Cross at www.juliebradleyauthor.com
https://tinyurl.com/y3mx5tac (link to Escape from the Ordinary)
Julie circumnavigated on a sailboat with her husband Glen and wrote two books about their land and sea adventures: Escape from the Ordinary and its sequel, Crossing Pirate Waters. Julie and Glen now install disaster response communications in America and internationally as volunteers with the American Red Cross.
Link to Red Cross website: https://tinyurl.com/rrv2hnv