Discussing Emergencies

Today I am using this space to talk about emergency response. As you might know, I plan for emergencies; specifically the health aspects of them. I’m not in any way speaking for my employer, so don’t confuse my words for theirs. I’d just like to take a few minutes helping you avoid sounding like an asshole when talking about disasters.

There has been some back and forth on the issue of whether the mayor of Houston should have ordered an evacuation. As Hurricane Rita showed, evacuating literally millions of people can be deadly. And even if people can get on the roads (something we need to not assume), look at the flooding that has inundated Houston now. Can you imagine if all those roads that are under 20 feet of water were full of cars filled with evacuating people? Yeah, not good.

But lets say that the mayor did order an evacuation. In any situation where an evacuation is ordered, we need to consider three things (among others):
– Do people have somewhere to go?
– Do people have a way to get there?
– Will they be cared for once they get there?

Where to go
If your whole family lives in the area being evacuated, where will you go? A hotel? What if you don’t have any money? A shelter? What if you are undocumented and fear you’ll be detained and deported? Or what if the available shelters are far outside of your ability to get there …

How to get there
…because not everyone has a car, or enough money for gas to get far enough away from a storm. As we saw in Hurricane Katrina, people needed to be moved by mass transportation but the plan didn’t exactly work. Unless a city has a system that can safely transport people who don’t have cars, then judging people who don’t evacuate requires willful ignorance.

Once you get there
People heard horror stories about the Super Dome and the Convention Center in New Orleans. All shelters are *not* like that. But shelters can be very uncomfortable places. Some of them don’t accept pets even though pets are part of the family, thereby creating an untenable situation. Additionally, if a person has access and functional needs — say they have medical equipment, or use a wheelchair, or have a mental health issue that makes being in crowds unbearable — they might find themselves feeling unsafe. Is that worth the risk of not evacuating? I don’t think any of us can make that call until we’re in the situation

I also hear people say that individuals are putting first responders at risk if they don’t evacuate, and that’s true, but that doesn’t take into account the above. Yes, there are always going to be those jerks who have somewhere to go, have an affordable way to get there, and know they will be cared for once they arrive but still don’t leave and end up needing to be carried out by the Coast Guard. But that’s not everyone, and it’s unfair to assume it.

These days we ask people to assume that they will be on their own for at least seven days after a disaster, and to be self-sufficient for that time. That assumes, of course, that they aren’t facing a flooded house. But let’s say you find yourself in an emergency. Do you have a gallon of water per person per day? Enough non-perishable food for your family and pets? Sanitation supplies? An extra 30 days of any medication you take?

Some people can barely afford enough food RIGHT NOW. How can we not understand that it might be asking a bit much that they find the money to store an entire week’s worth of food and water? And plenty of health insurance companies (assuming people even have access to care) don’t allow for individuals to get an extra 30-day supply.

People matter more than property. They just do. So when I see some jerk refer to individuals taking diapers, food, and drinks from stores during a disaster as “looters” I get REALLY angry. They make excuses that we must not lose our sense of order, as though that sense of order matters more than a toddler surviving because she now has access to some baby food. We should redirect that anger towards the society that hasn’t done enough to prevent the situation that led individuals to be in such desperate need in the first place.

People are experiencing some rough shit right now. Many people who were flooded out of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina resettled in Houston, so they’re experiencing the absolute worst time of their life again. People are being rescued from rooftops, separated from beloved family members. They are losing everything.

So naturally, we want to help. But I have to say, as many others have before me, please DO NOT send stuff. Please don’t just load up your pickup with things you think people will need and then expect it to get to individuals. Please also reconsider if you are thinking of bringing homemade food to shelters – the last thing those folks need is a food borne illness ripping through the population. If you want to give, give money. Here are some options.

You can also give your time. You may have seen a photo going around of people standing in line to volunteer their time to help out. That is awesome. Help is going to be needed for many months. But consider registering with a volunteer organization BEFORE a disaster. It’s a lot easier for organizations to use you if they’ve had a chance to train you and know what your skills are. Sure, it doesn’t take a lot of training to do things like fill sandbags, but run help out in a shelter? It’d be great if you knew what you were doing before the disaster.

Think in Months and Years, not Days and Weeks
Finally, remember that the recovery for this is going to take years. In a meeting I was in I heard (although I haven’t been able to independently verify) that the last recovery project related to the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens was completed in 2000. That’s right. Twenty years of recovery project. It takes time to clean up homes, to rebuild communities, to relocate business.

If you donated this week, make a note in your phone to donate again in a month, and again in a year. When you start to hear inevitable stories about relief organizations not having spent all their money, keep in mind that many of them do this on purpose, because they have the experience to know that the need goes beyond the couple of weeks after the storm.

This is an ultra-marathon, not the 100-yard-dash.

Also: If you need someone to talk to — whether you’re in Houston or finding yourself distressed thinking about the individuals affected by the storm — SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Hotline operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.

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