So much to talk about – how to choose? I spent the day at the Resilience Northwest Conference discussing business continuity planning – an area notoriously ignored by the medical profession (maybe because it sounds so boring). At the same time, the damage assessments from Hurricane Sandy pile up, raising another interesting topic – how everyone continues to be astounded at the high cost of disasters. What about the excellent example of public leadership by Representative Bob Turner who ignored instructions to evacuate the low-lying areas of Queens, only to flee the flames that leveled his house and over 100 others! But for my first real post, these topics do not seem meaningful enough.

Community Is Everything – Just Ask Japan

Instead, I will turn to the single lesson that Masayuki Nawa of  Miyako, Japan hopes the world would learn from the tragedy that washed away his town in 2011 – community is everything. Despite the best laid plans of all the emergency planners, when a major disaster occurs, you will still be on your own. If you survive the disaster, which most of us will, your neighbors (or office mates) will determine how you survive the aftermath. Emergency responders will be overwhelmed, providing they are can function at all. The people around you will be the ones you will depend on.

Nawa watched the tsunami from the top of the community government building, only to discover when the waters receded that they were trapped in the building and all of their emergency response equipment was gone. Their governmental advance planning washed away with the tsunami, leaving them wondering how their town would survive. But despite the lack of government, the surviving citizens grouped together on their own, forming group shelters in schools, sharing medications, food, and water, some of which were stashed in the schools in advance for exactly this purpose.  Miyako citizens established their own governance for their shelters, including chores such as  cleaning the toilets.

Unfortunately, in larger cities, the shelters did not work as well. Even though government established these shelters, they were overcrowded with people who did not know each other. They were often dirty, poorly organized, with disagreements and no sense of shared community. (For more information on the Waves of Despair, Tides of Hope presentation in Portland August 29, 2012, visit http://www.slideshare.net/psu_cps/waves-of-despair-tides-of-hope-english for the transcript of the panel discussion.)

Neighbors Can Be Saviors

Neighbors are far more important than just creating a better shelter lifestyle. I’ll talk more about neighborhood emergency planning in the future, but imagine that your neighbors are the only ones available to check on you, or perhaps your child, to make sure you are not trapped. They might put out a small fire before it becomes big enough to burn down the neighborhood. They provide a place to gather, a place to stay, and a safety net for those who are more vulnerable, such as the young or the elderly. They might even rescue or feed your dog if you can not get back home. Given these important roles, do you even know who your neighbors are? Unfortunately, these days the answer is often “no”, particularly in a big city. Well, it’s not too late – not only will it help with emergency response, but it will also create a better sense of community every day, something we are often missing now.

There is also the larger sense of community – your city and your county. There is still an impression by most Americans that the national government/FEMA will ride in on a big white horse after a disaster and make everything better. If they are not successful, it also gives us someone to blame. But in reality, FEMA states its mission is to “support our citizens and first responders”. In other words, response to emergency or disaster is a local community affair. If your community is not ready, don’t expect someone from a higher level to step in and rescue you. And community doesn’t just mean your police, fire department, or hospital – as we’ve already said, they will be overwhelmed. Community means you…and you…and you…and you. So start changing your mindset, and think like a small towner, even if you live in a city of several million. It is up to you to develop a sense of community with your neighbors now, hopefully long before a disaster.

Do you know your neighbors? Have you done any planning together? What do you think would happen in an emergency? Share your thoughts about your community in a comment, and follow my blog for ideas on how to improve neighborhood preparedness, as well as multiple other emergency preparedness tips.

Stay safe,

Sheila Sund, M.D.

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