Planning for Disasters When They Don’t End

September is National Disasters Preparedness month.  It serves as a reminder of the importance of preparing for natural and human-made disasters before they occur.  But what does planning look like when the window for advance planning doesn’t exist? Or when the time between disasters become smaller and smaller? What do we do in a moment such as this one, whereby the natural disasters (wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, etc.) occur in the midst of human-made (human-exacerbated) ones, such as state sanctioned violence against Black people, the COVID pandemic, economic devastation at depression-era levels and chemical fires? In the midst of multiple, simultaneously occurring crises that often amplify the devastating impacts of one another, does the question of preparation go out of the window? Do we focus on simply surviving these moments, as best as possible?

I am writing about this topic because I want and need to prepare myself and loved ones for what is now upon us, what we know is coming (based on historical patterns and current cues) and that which we cannot yet predict. We the People hold a lot of power in our hands, hearts, minds, bodies and communities: the power to fundamentally transform unjust systems of rule, the power to survive and thrive following the most difficult circumstances and the power to heal and live in right relationship with the earth and one another.

For those currently inside of a disaster moment, attending to survival is the most important thing. Getting out of harm’s way and keeping children, families, elders and the most vulnerable among us safe, housed, fed and cared for is top priority. It is important to note, however, that care is not limited to meeting these most basic needs. It also includes listening with open ears and hearts, holding one another’s hands, praying with people (with their permission, of course), assisting and supporting them by sharing relevant information, filling out forms, transporting them to places they need to go, cleaning up and organizing, and so much more. It includes helping to feed and heal one another. It means screaming, crying and mourning with one another. It involves fighting against injustices and for societal change together.

Between natural disaster seasons (i.e., fire season, hurricane season, tornado season, etc.) there is a lot that can be done to develop action plans at the household and neighborhood levels, stash away supplies, put important documents in safe places, etc.  The important thing is to do the best you can with what you have to prepare. And there are many resources online to help identify those, including those from the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, Federal Government, National Safety Council.

And yet for many Black, Native/Indigenous and Latinx people impacted first and worst by natural and human-made disasters, these seasons run together, often for many years.  Most recently, when Hurricane Florence hovered over the Carolinas in 2018, Black and Native/Indigenous communities still hadn’t recovered fully from the impacts of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.  In interviews I conducted with various local elders and leaders in North and South Carolina (January 2019), a shared analysis emerged that white supremacist settler colonial and capitalist policies and practices defined their lives and communities as expendable, leading to:

  • Cumbersome state and federal agency processes which prioritize middle and upper class white communities;

  • Lack of policies and practices that prioritize meeting constituency needs (housing, shelter, food, care, etc.) until people can get back on their feet;

  • Lack of policies with enforcement mechanisms that prevent corporate vultures from profiting from disasters by hiking up the prices on essential goods, services and housing.

So what do we do when faced with disaster seasons that run together during a health pandemic, at a time when joblessness is reaching depression levels, state sanctioned violence against Black people continues unabated and white nationalist sentiments and mobilization is growing? Many are grappling with answers to these questions and more as we see in intersectional analyses (example), demands for change (example) and social movement responses (example, example). And what you choose for yourself and family, how you choose to show up in community and the world all depends on what your spirit demands of you, what your capacities allow, your willingness approves and the conditions create space for.

The reality is that we have to fight for our futures as we fight for our lives. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to do ALL THE THINGS as individual people. Rather what this means is that as small communities, groups of people or survival teams, we should collectively have the tools to survive the now and seed the new.

In the lists below, i offer a few things to consider alongside what you already may be thinking about doing or to stimulate your thinking (if you haven’t already begun). The lists aren’t in any particular order, nor are they exhaustive. Please share other ideas in the comments section below.

Inner Work. Preparing for and/or strengthening oneself in the face of disasters requires commitments of the heart. What do you need to do within your being to prepare for multiple, simultaneous and intersecting disasters?

  1. Create a vision for your life. You may ask, what does this have to do with disaster preparedness? If there is any part of you that agrees that systemic change is necessary, you will be able to appreciate that aligning all of your personal strategies and practices (including how you deal with disasters) with a broader vision and set of values that supports systems change will move you in that direction. If the future you envision and are fighting for values all forms of life, how you prepare for and respond to disaster will differ from someone that sees a future for only themself or their race, class and/or gender.

  2. Ground in (and/or clarify) your values. What is important to you, your values, will automatically be activated, and therefore reflected in your actions under moments of crisis. If you pay lip service to anything, the truth will surface when your back is pushed up against the wall. So get clear in your heart what your values are and practice them on a daily basis. Go out of your way to practice them so that they become a part of your automatic (autonomic) responses.

  3. Analyze the context and identify the problem(s). Get clear on what the underlying problem is and how it came to be. Nothing today was born in a vacuum, rather it emerged from preceding circumstances. Why is it important to have this understanding as part of disaster preparedness?

  4. Prepare survival bags. Pack an emergency bag in case you have to leave immediately. Here is an example. Make it as complex or simple according to your circumstance, capacity and ability.

  5. Put money aside. Tuck a little bit of money away each time you get it, regardless of bills. Put something away for your survival and future.  No matter how small (a dollar or so) or large. It is the energy that surrounds the practice of saving for your future that seeds more saving.

  6. Be inspired. Disaster moments are tough and can be demoralizing. Do things on a daily basis that give you hope, provide energy and inspire you to forge ahead.

  7. Create moments of joy, laughter and pleasure. Doing this makes even the most difficult times just a little more bearable. So what are the things that bring you joy? Put them in your survival bag and/or bring them into your life on a regular basis.

Family and Community Work. Planning for disasters in community with others makes surviving, recovering and growing stronger more promising. What do you need to do within your family and community to prepare for multiple, simultaneous and intersecting disasters?

  1. All of the above in community with others.

  2. Build and deepen relationships. Taking the time to get to know one another is critical for building trust. And trust is needed for families and communities to get through crises together stronger and better prepared to rebuild, challenge systems of oppression and ultimately (ideally) thrive.

  3. Identify the different types of emergencies that are most likely to happen where you live, work, play, pray and learn.

  4. Assign responsibilities. For each person in your family and/or community, agree on who will be responsible for what and how you all will work together.

  5. Engage in scenario planning and testing. Identify various scenarios based on what you’ve seen, heard, experienced and/or consider possible based on the current and emerging social, political, economic, environmental and climate conditions and develop a plan for each. The current climate is giving us a lot to consider when trying to deal with wildfires, hurricanes and flooding while in the midst of a global pandemic, political violence and dismantling of democratic institutions. The best plans, even imperfectly done are better than not having a plan at all.

  6. Agree on where you will meet up under the different scenarios. Will you meet up at someone’s house, a neighborhood institution, a different part of town or city? It is important to figure out where you will meet up, check in with one another and assess the situation and next steps.

  7. Agree on how you will communicate with one another and how often. In the lead up to, immediately following and during long term (or protracted) crises, how and how often will members of your family and community check in with one another? Knowing this let’s you know if people are safe, when search and rescue efforts are needed and how to proceed.

  8. Agree on how your collective will make decisions and hold one another accountable. In crisis moments decisions will need to be made immediately and without much discussion. Agreeing on processes for decision-making and accountability ideally will be tested before a situation occurs. If this doesn’t happen, people will lean on the strength of the relationships.

These are just a few ideas that i’ve been thinking a lot about. Clearly there is so much more that can be said about planning and preparing for disasters from people far more knowledgeable about this topic than i. If i can leave you (and myself) with anything, it is become the expert on disaster preparedness in your life and in your family. Create opportunities to learn and grow along with others in loving, compassionate and non-judgmental ways. And know that we have to work on multiple levels simultaneously, which means addressing the crises while building long term power. It also means healing and caring for one another while fighting.

So thank you for reading.