We need to get smarter before the next major disaster.
My wife Janet and I voluntarily evacuated our house in Santa Rosa, California, at 4 a.m. on October 10. We live just outside a mandatory evacuation zone, but we opted to retreat from the wildfires raging nearby when we saw a bright orange glow on the horizon and a billowing plume of black smoke—both apparently headed our way. That morning, we bundled our four sleepy hens into the back of our car and drove to the closest evacuation shelter.
We were able to return home late that same day. Nothing in our house was damaged, though electricity, gas, internet, and phone service was out; these services gradually returned over the course of the week. Air quality remained horrible until a light rain fell on October 19. Still, we were among the fortunate ones: Nineteen residents of Santa Rosa lost their lives (the death toll throughout the region stands at over 40) and hundreds—including many of our friends and co-workers—lost homes and belongings.
As I’ve continued to reflect on these experiences, I’ve also drawn from my work at Post Carbon Institute to compile this list of things people in any neighborhood ought to be thinking about before disaster strikes.
1. It can happen here.
Wherever you are, you are vulnerable to disaster. In Santa Rosa, over-growth of grasses and shrubs following last winter’s historically abundant rains set the stage for devastating wildfires consuming tens of thousands of acres. For civilization as a whole, overgrowth of population and economic activity during the last century has set us all up, if not for fires, then for many kinds of “corrections,” as stock market analysts call them. We are depleting non-renewable resources at ever-increasing rates, consuming renewable resources faster than they can regenerate, polluting air and water to the point that the oceans may be functionally dead by mid-century, and driving other species to extinction at a thousand times the “normal” rate. As a result, we can look forward to disasters connected to climate change—including fires, droughts, abnormal rain events, catastrophic winds, storm surges, and more—as well as economic, financial, energy, and social emergencies. In addition to rapid-onset crises, we should also anticipate gradual-onset failures in societal and ecological support systems, such as species extinctions resulting in loss of pollination services or overfishing driving a decline in the availability of certain seafoods. In some cases, we’re already seeing these things happen.
The fires in Sonoma County came during a season that also saw hurricanes hit Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and (remarkably) Ireland. Many people are asking if one disaster following closely on the heels of another is our “new normal.” Well, yes, sort of—except that the pace is likely to continue increasing, and individual disasters are likely to worsen in intensity and broaden in scope. Keep in mind that the climate change impacts we’re experiencing now result from only 1 degree Celsius of warming. Planetary warming is slated to more than double, even if we stop burning all fossil fuels tomorrow.
2. Human relationships are our most important resource.
Janet and I invested in solar electricity, battery backup, and solar hot water nearly 20 years ago. But when the fires came, we learned that even self-sufficient systems sometimes fail. After grid power was restored to our neighborhood, electricity in our house kept going out. I’m no engineer, and was flummoxed when trying to troubleshoot our system. Our installer went out of business years ago and I was unable to reach any electrician familiar with grid-tied battery backup systems.
Fortunately our next-door neighbor, Mark, had a friend, Willard, who is a solar engineer. Mark and Willard spent a couple of hours taking apart our inverter and battery system and got them working again (Willard refused my offer to pay him for his help). Janet and I certainly don’t regret installing our solar array: we’ve saved money and reduced carbon pollution. One conclusion from the experience is that complex systems, no matter how well intended or carefully designed, eventually break down. But an even more important moral of the story is that good neighbors are everyone’s most important resource for resilience. And you can only have good neighbors by being one.
3. Disaster prep is really helpful—up to a point.
Everyone should have a bug-out bag in the closet by the front door, essential papers in an easily accessible place, and some food and water in storage. (Here’s a handy checklist from the Department of Homeland Security.) Janet and I had all of those and more, but it still took the better part of an hour to load up our car as we warily watched the ominous glow on the horizon. Many Santa Rosa residents in fire’s path had only seconds in which to flee.
There are different kinds of disasters, and each requires different preparation and response planning. Spend some time thinking about what sorts of disasters are most likely in your area, and what you’ll need when each of them happens. Every disaster is unique and no preparation is foolproof, so expect to improvise. Consider Red Cross training, and keep your disaster kit up to date. Janet and I discovered that the battery in our wind-up radio could no longer accept a charge no matter how long and vigorously we cranked; the same with a wind-up LED flashlight we had stowed. It’s better to know all of this before you really need to.
4. Warnings are useful...but only if they’re acted upon.
Many Sonoma County residents close to the paths of fires reported they had little or no warning of approaching flames. Santa Rosa would have benefited from a system of sirens that could be activated, one by one or all together, with different warnings for fire or earthquake. Japan’s warning systems for earthquake and tsunamis have saved thousands of lives. When earthquakes struck Mexico this summer, those who were in range of the country’s alert system had precious seconds to prepare.
But we also must distinguish between alarm systems that spur someone to immediate, potentially life-saving actions, and raising a loud note of caution about the meta-disasters of the 21st century. Over the past 40 years, countless books, articles, peer-reviewed scientific papers, reports, and video documentaries have outlined problems such as climate change, overpopulation, and species declines. These warnings haven’t pushed leaders and governments to make sufficient long-term changes.
5. Help often comes from outside.
Though local brigades and teams of volunteers hurried to help, firefighters from throughout California—at least one from as far as Australia—also converged on Sonoma County to work to contain the October blazes. Likewise, utility professionals from distant towns showed up to help get power and gas restored to local homes and businesses. If these outsiders had been unavailable, recovery would have been significantly delayed.
To respond to disasters, we typically rely on surplus capacity beyond the region in crisis. But as broader breakdowns of economic, energy, and transport systems worsen, that surplus capacity may recede or even disappear. Part of the reason is that, in all our towns and cities, we have created systemic dependence on distant ecosystems and potentially unreliable trade flows. This is an inherently unsustainable situation: If transport energy becomes scarce, towns will be thrust into a scarcity crisis with no chance of outside help. We can’t eliminate this entirely, but we can reduce that dependency and vulnerability by building local community resilience through strengthening local food networks and redundant local renewable power systems.
6. Grid electricity is a key vulnerability.
When the power goes down, everything stops. This is not to say that grid power is essential to all human life: far from it (a handy book on my shelf is titled Living Without Electricity). But as things are, we’re set up to depend on electricity for computers, smart phones, refrigerators, gasoline pumps, water pumps, cash registers, credit card machines, and more. The grid is a brittle system that can go down remarkably easily. When it does, we hope for repairs to happen within hours or days at most—but in major disasters, it can take much longer. As of October 30, nearly 70 percent of residents of Puerto Rico—1.1 million customers—were still without power, more than a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall. There is no guarantee that grid power will survive the sustainability challenges of the 21st century, and it’s important to have redundant, non-electric ways of supplying basic needs, such as home-scale water filters and hand pumps, and kerosene lamps.
7. Disasters exacerbate existing economic inequality.
Real estate and rentals in Santa Rosa are already unaffordable. It’s hard to find a house to buy for less than $400,000, or one to rent for less than $2,500 a month. If your household income is less than twice the national average and you want to live here, you’re pretty much out of luck.
In Santa Rosa, multimillion-dollar homes burned, as did rentals in trailer parks. Roughly 5 percent of houses were destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, there is a general sense that “we’re all in this together.” But some communities are more vulnerable than others. How will less-affluent fire victims afford rentals? Will they simply leave the area? What other choices do they have?
8. It’s essential to build resilience ahead of disaster.
Santa Rosa’s vulnerability to wildfires has increased steadily over the years. High real estate prices and lax regulations led to building in fire-prone areas. Some land-use decisions—such as approvals to develop the Fountaingrove area, which was in the path of earlier fires—may appear disastrous in hindsight, but will continue to reverberate and prove hard to undo.
The wine industry has been hit hard by the fires and this impact will also ripple throughout the regional economy. Our county’s economy would be more resilient if it had a more diverse base: just growing grapes while importing the rest of our food may be economically efficient and may help us compete in the global economy, but it puts many people’s livelihoods at risk if one year’s crop is destroyed (as may turn out to be the case for 2017).
In its pursuit of economic efficiency, competitive advantage, and growth, Sonoma County has merely copied our society’s overall game plan: We have pursued local specialization while eliminating systemic redundancies and distributed inventories. Consequently, we’ve reduced resilience, setting us all up for greater vulnerability to ever-worsening crises. It takes time, intention, and investment to build in a way that maximizes future adaptability rather than brittleness. However, a more diverse local economy can offer many side benefits—for the environment as well as for individuals, families, and neighborhoods. The time to start planning for resilience is always now.