During Houston’s Hurricane Preparedness Week this past May, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook were awash with slick square images full of good ideas: “Make a go bag!” “Know the high points in your neighborhood!” “Decide which relative to call!” “Identify news sources that are reputable and up to date!”
This is all true, but disaster preparedness is more than an infographic.
Being prepared for disasters requires knowledge, skills, social networks and the material resources that make the strategies and communication plans practicable. Real disaster preparedness requires honesty about the ongoing injustice that makes some so vulnerable and real effort to actually reduce risk. Setting aside the limited reach of social media (young, technologically capable people), no amount of individual awareness will make up for a systematic lack of material support and resources among Houston’s most vulnerable communities. Recent history shows that local and state governments are far from ready for the next disaster. Considering the accelerating frequency of disasters, this shortcoming is putting all of us at grave risk.
An anecdotal but honest survey of governmental preparedness is harrowing: Despite ample warning that a freeze was coming, the city and county did not have a single warming station set up before the storm began. By the time over 2 million people had no heat, centers had only 800 beds prepared. The freeze killed about 700 people, many which were totally preventable.
Unfortunately, the given assumption that the government often acts under is that life-threatening risks are inevitable and acceptable. For example, at the start of the 2020 hurricane season during a presentation with Harris County Emergency management Commissioner Jack Cagle defended the lack of contagion precautions in evacuation plans by saying that no one would care about the sickness risk if they were at imminent risk of drowning. A good disaster plan doesn't include this sort of potentially deadly choice.
Residents who seek out disaster-prep information are often told things they already know and are frustratingly reminded of how the government falls short of being of any help. During a meeting with the City of Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, Ben Broadway, a 36-year-old blind resident of Northeast Houston, was told to sign up for the STEARS program, the state’s registry designed to help officials identify people with disabilities during disasters. He’s been signed up for 10 years, but has never received material support or even a call during a disaster.
Meanwhile, the city’s disaster preparedness grant calls for the wide-scale distribution of this same information. While the climate crisis accelerates, the city is spending thousands to generate and distribute information that, in the end, doesn’t help very many people in ways that matter.
If we were being honest about the climate crisis and our current underpreparedness, we would go beyond the infographic and flyer paradigm and provide the real-world material support and training that families need to be ready for the inevitable.
At West Street Recovery, we use a vulnerability approach that prioritizes families who rely on electrical medical equipment to stay alive. (Considering the weakness of the power grid makes this priority even more urgent.) People who use oxygen or CPAP machines, or people with extreme heat or sensitivity, for example, should be provided generators, fuel and power cords to keep their machines and HVAC systems running. People who need insulin and who may have many months of supply on hand should be supplied with coolers and dry ice when storms approach or extreme temperatures are predicted. Go bags with basic essentials such as flashlights and drinking water should also be provided to residents who live in the most flood-prone areas. If the state can give corporations $10 billion in tax breaks and the city’s redevelopment authorities can potentially support developments with millions in infrastructure investments, then shouldn’t they be able to buy flashlights for low- to moderate-income families?
Open and trusting conversations that we have had with community members reveal extremely low levels of faith in government. In the long run, providing material support is a likely avenue for building that trust. But trust in the moment is essential to safely execute evacuation or shelter-in-place plans. In crisis situations, the deep relationships organizations on the ground already have with community members are critical for effective emergency response.
In February, as temperatures plummeted, West Street tried to put this into practice by checking in on families we knew might be at risk and helping them make difficult decisions such as: Should I drive on icy roads to get to heat? Should I take a COVID-19 risk to get water? Specific knowledge of each family’s risk factors, confidence and mental health was key to providing good consultation under pressure.
By the time the crisis arrives, it is too late to try to establish trust. But community organizations, civic clubs and churches already exist, and their capacity to prepare communities should be developed and their efforts should be funded. Here is a non-exhaustive list of what community-based organizations could do:
► Identify the most vulnerable people in the group and work with them to figure out what support they need during a disaster. This should be iterative and ongoing. During disasters or close calls, residents will build knowledge about what they need.
► Facilitate the building of bonds between vulnerable members and those with greater capacity to withstand disasters
► Provide key materials to vulnerable people in your group.
► Distribute “go bags.”
► Develop phone trees and ways to distribute information and collect lists of needs.
► Place generators that can be used for charging electronics, cooling and heating, and powering medical devices where they’re needed most.
Disaster prep also necessitates being ready for the day after a storm. Community organizations can get ready to help residents access resources, know their rights and be aware of assistance opportunities in case of the worst. We have begun using each of these strategies over the past year, but we are constantly learning. Disaster preparedness is not something we are ever “done” with; it is something we should always be improving.
Maybe the STEAR registry could actually be put to better use in the long run, but telling people to sign up for a service that doesn’t function properly will actually weaken our preparedness levels at a time when they must be strengthened. It gives people the illusion that help is standing by, when it may not be.
Governments should take their own advice by developing an effective plan and practicing it. Just as a family wouldn’t plan to don wings and fly away from floodwaters, a department shouldn’t imagine that a broken system will suddenly function during a disaster. In the long run, preparing for disasters will require serious changes to our political economy and ecology.
We cannot be sufficiently prepared for a world where sea levels are rising, 80% of the country is experiencing sustained temperatures over 90 degrees and 75 cities saw record-high temperatures over four days in July. Despite this, governments must do the work to mitigate the worst risks in each region. For Houston, where we work, this means investing much more heavily in flood prevention and the protection of homes from rising waters. It also means proactively creating shelters for when disaster hits.
We also need governments to look at the long-term — to help move away from fossil fuels, to make polluters pay to remove creosote, to safely cap landfills and to compensate families whose resilience has been compromised by exposure to toxins from truck yards and rail depots.
No level of preparedness can prevent destruction from flooding the likes of Harvey. But since then, we have seen many minor disasters cause unnecessary death. We must fight for a just world where we all live in safe and healthy houses, and in neighborhoods where the air is breathable; at the same time we need to prepare with honesty and urgency for the disasters that are sure to come before we get to the world we envision.
Disaster preparedness is possible, but it is more than an infographic.
Ben Hirsch and Becky Selle are with the nonprofit West Street Recovery, a grassroots disaster-aid group that formed after Hurricane Harvey.
The views, information or opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.