Elizabeth Doerr is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who focuses on social justice, resiliency, education, and parenting. Her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Baltimore City Paper, and Scalawag Magazine.
To survive the “Really Big One,” some neighbors in the Oregon city are organizing block parties that promote emergency preparedness.
On a chilly Sunday evening this fall, a few dozen people gather in a home in Portland’s Alameda neighborhood. As they chat about the hosts’ landscaping and what they’ve been up to at work over wine and beer, the scene looks like a typical neighborhood cocktail gathering. Then a bell sounds from the living room, and everyone leaves their conversations and heads into the living room to sit on couches and fold-up chairs.
“One of the main elements of disaster preparedness is knowing your neighbors,” Michael Hall says as the meeting begins. He’s the bell-ringer and leader of Alameda’s self-titled “Council of Blockheads,” which represents a two-block, 25-household area. For the last four years, the residents of this leafy neighborhood have convened twice annually over a lofty goal: ensuring the survival of everyone on the block in case of a disaster.
For the next 30 minutes, the group talks about whether to order more stackable emergency water containers and how much extra food to stock up on (the new advice: enough for two weeks). They listen to earthquake survival tips from a guest speaker, Marilyn Bishop, who sells pre-made emergency prep kits full of freeze-dried rations. Four years ago, these neighbors hardly knew each other. But after seven meetings and counting, they now see each other as their lifelines.
Hall is one of the many residents of the Pacific Northwest reckoning with the terrifying potential of the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that many experts believe will strike in the next 50 years. The overdue super-quake could trigger devastating coastal tsunamis—waves up to 85 feet high—and deliver potentially massive damage to homes, highways, and water and power infrastructure. Galvanized by Kathryn Schulz’s 2015 New Yorker story “The Really Big One,” Hall was eager to do something. So he gathered a few neighbors at his house over beers to brainstorm. The result was their first disaster-awareness block party, where nearly every household had a representative. The block parties became the way to make catastrophe preparation less overwhelming.
They started holding twice-yearly informational meetups with guest speakers and workshops that covered how to create a family emergency plan, human waste storage systems, and water and food storage. They made a bulk order of water bricks. And they created and continue to update a comprehensive inventory of neighborhood contact information, emergency supplies (such as generators, tools, and camping equipment), and skills (e.g., first-aid, carpentry, childcare). Some neighbors even gained additional training as Neighborhood Emergency Team (NET) volunteers—city-trained residents who deploy in a large-scale emergency.
Hall’s mind is mostly on the earthquake, but the Big One could also be fire, flooding, ice storm, blackouts, or any number of extreme weather events or social disruptions. As a bonus, the group has forged strong new social bonds. “I know folks on the end of the block now that I didn’t know for the first 20 years living here,” says Hall.
The principle behind Alameda’s ad-hoc survival school is well established. While having a store of food and water to withstand days or weeks of service outages is important, research shows that a supply of helpful neighbors might be your most critical emergency preparation. “The number-one thing I always say to community groups, ‘Do you want to survive in a disaster? Well, then you better know your neighbor,’” says Lori Peek, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. “In the immediate life-saving moment of the disaster unfolding, that’s when our communal ties are exceptionally important. If you’re isolated, no one will know to come rescue you.”
This recommendation is backed by studies showing that, in the aftermath of disasters like earthquakes in Southern Italy in 1980 and Kobe, Japan, in 1995, between 60 to 90 percent of victims were rescued by untrained survivors. Those spontaneous rescuers are most likely to be your neighbors.
The “know your neighbors” recommendation, though, goes beyond remembering names or small talk at the mailbox: It’s building connections and laying in a supply of social capital. “People who have those stronger social ties before the disaster or develop them after a disaster, they recover more quickly,” says Peek.
Daniel Aldrich, director of security and resilience studies at Northeastern University, began studying these connections after his own home in New Orleans was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. In a February 2018 FEMA PrepTalk, Aldrich says that “the core elements of recovery don’t come from outside the community, they come from inside.” Particularly, the social connections and the people around you. “We found from around the world that those individuals, communities, with more social ties and a sense of place, a sense of belonging, those individuals come back,” Aldrich said in the PrepTalk about his research. They found that after Katrina, the level of destruction didn’t correspond with people who returned. Rather, it was the strength of social connections that brought people back.
Additionally, Aldrich found that collective action as essential to resilience: “Many of the challenges that we face with disaster cannot be solved by one individual or one family by themselves.” In the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, the government was essentially wiped out: Families relied on their communities to fend off looters and keep themselves safe.
There are both psychological and economic advantages to pursuing emergency preparation as a group. “When we talk to each other about what we need to do and prepare, it can be less overwhelming,” says Regina Ingabire, community resilience outreach coordinator for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management. “Everyone has something to contribute. If you put together your skills in the community and what you have in your home, you probably don’t need hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a kit.”
Ingabire also recognizes that communities like Alameda—a relatively affluent neighborhood of mostly older, white homeowners—enjoy privileges that lower-income areas lack: residents with money, time, and energy to devote to preparations. In a way, they’re doing the city a favor by boosting their resilience on their own, so emergency workers and city officials can focus on more vulnerable communities.
“People, we are social animals,” Ingabire says. “If we just take that courage and knock on someone’s door, I think someone would be equally excited to see that the neighbor is reaching out.” Those who are anxious about knocking on a stranger’s door or who live in areas less conducive to neighborly bonding can start with bolstering other networks, such as places of worship, parents’ groups, or online neighborhood forums. “It doesn’t have to be a [large-scale] disaster that could happen,” she says. “It could be a fire. If you need a neighbor to watch your kid. Just think of the safety net you have by getting to know your neighbors.”
Indeed, Alameda’s Council of Blockheads is not exactly a cadre of hardcore doomsday preppers—they don’t have an arsenal or an underground survival shelter, and only about 30 minutes of their meeting was actually devoted to disaster preparedness content. The rest was catching up over adult-beverage-drinking and barbecue-eating.
“We’re inventing this as we go along, and still have skills [development] on the back burner, but not so intensely,” says Hall. “I think we’re drifting towards a more social, getting-to-know-you kind of thing.” For that, he brought in Mary Leverette, another neighbor, to help organize the social aspects and keep the meetings going. She already organized a non-disaster-focused knitting group that sprang out of the regular earthquake gatherings.
Leverette said at one point that Hall had suggested moving to one gathering a year, but she pushed back. “You lose too much,” she says. “You lose the connection, you lose the momentum. We’re really trying to keep the momentum of meeting twice a year, because it’s a good reminder. We still have work to do.”