All in the family

Last month’s earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan triggered a flurry of emails between members of my family, scattered as we are across these united states. The theme, not surprisingly, was emergency preparedness. My west coast relatives initiated the conversation. Living as they do atop the Pacific Ring of Fire, and adjacent to several faults – and nuclear power plants – they’re understandably concerned that something similar could happen there.

My cousin Ben is a captain in a southern California fire department. He witnessed the 7-foot remnants of the Japanese tsunami surge ashore in San Diego Bay and was the first to suggest steps our western clan members could take to prepare for “the big one.” Have a lot of nonperishable food and water on hand, he wrote. Keep “batteries, flashlights, books, paper, writing utensils, communications of any sort, weapons, yes weapons and really anything else you can think of.”

Do people really become monsters when disaster strikes?

My aunt in Tacoma, WA wisely suggested we come up with a communication plan to keep each other posted on our whereabouts and status in the event of an emergency. Another relative reminded us that the Red Cross sells disaster kits.

My dad, who lives in east Texas and has maintained a well-stocked emergency kit ever since he and my stepmother moved from volcano and earthquake prone Washington State, wrote about the FEMA rations that have filled their hall closet since Hurricane Ike left them without power for seven days in 2008 (their home, in a gated golf-course community, is a two-hour drive inland from Galveston, where Ike came ashore as only a category 2 storm). Dad recounted how my stepmother had cooked meals for the two of them and several local family members using a propane camping stove he bought in a pawn shop for $10.

I decided to share my own contribution to our family’s discussion (in its entirety but edited for clarity) here because I don’t think my family is all that different from most. The events across the Pacific have probably sparked similar conversations in thousands of households across the country. As they should. Having a plan for dealing with disasters is prudent whether you live in a seismic zone or on the Great Plains. Perhaps your own family has had a version of the “what if” conversation.

And perhaps like me you were as disconcerted by some of the things your family members said, as you were by the reminder that the United States is by no means immune from a disaster like the one that struck Japan. On the whole my people are not especially religious or alarmist. Yet one of us wondered parenthetically if Armageddon might be at hand and another advised us all to include weapons in our emergency kits – a suggestion echoed by my uncle in a recent phone conversation between us.

Although such comments troubled me, I was relieved that my west coast family members had started the conversation. For quite some time I have considered writing to all my family and friends urging them to think more seriously about disaster preparation. Ironically, I let my fear of coming across as alarmist, preachy or both keep me from doing so.

It’s not earthquakes and tsunamis most of us need to worry about. It’s climate-related disasters. Even in 2009 the majority of deaths caused by disasters worldwide were climate related. In 2010 the number of climate-related deaths doubled from the year before. And with every ton of greenhouse gas we pump in to the atmosphere, such disasters become even more likely.

Naturally, I want my loved ones to be prepared. But the line between prudent preparation and panic can often appear blurry. The more TV you watch the blurrier it seems to get.

Until recently I bought somewhat into the myth that becoming better prepared for emergencies means adopting a bunker mentality: digging in, hoarding supplies, cutting oneself and one’s family off from others, and arming against the day when the crazed barbarians storm the gates – and if you live in the United States your community is more likely than ever to have gates. I suspect my susceptibility to that bunker mentality-spawning myth has something to do with having been a child of the Cold War and Nuclear Arms Race.

I think it also has to do with the growing economic inequality in our country. As wealth concentrates in the hands of fewer and fewer people, the wealthy become more concerned with protecting their wealth, and their communities become more and more like forts. At all levels of the economy anxiety grows along with the inequality. Money (or lack of it) and material possessions insulate us from our neighbors, whether those neighbors live outside our fort or not.

More and more like forts.

And then there’s that other, corollary myth, promulgated by certain (in both senses of the word) figures in the media: people become monsters when the organic fertilizer strikes the air-circulation apparatus. But as we saw after 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, by and large the opposite is true. People become their best selves when disaster strikes.

We are learning that true preparedness, or resiliency, depends not on digging ourselves and our families in, but reaching out to others, physically and emotionally, and knitting ourselves more closely together. Not just when disaster strikes, but today and every day. It means remembering that we’re all part of the human family and that we’d all be much better off if we gave distributive justice at least as much attention as retributive justice.

So far none of my family members have replied to my message, at least not to me. Perhaps I was a bit preachy after all. I invite you to judge for yourself and share your thoughts by posting a comment.

Dear Family,

I’m so glad Aunt Linda and Ben got this conversation started. Even in the best of times, it’s a good idea to have an emergency plan.

Despite having been a scout, and having a father who is both a Marine (once a Marine, always a Marine) and former safety executive, I confess that I did not start thinking seriously about emergency preparedness for my family until last year. Sure, we did household fire drills when the kids were little, and all of us in the Midwest have been well schooled in what to do when the tornado sirens blow, but that’s about it.

It won’t surprise most of you to learn that it was my research into climate change that moved emergency prep closer to the front of my mind. Here in Wisconsin we’ve seen a 100 percent increase (yes, a doubling) in both the number and severity of severe weather events since the 1950s. That trend has accelerated significantly in the last decade. In the summer of 2008, the county we live in sustained tens of millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure, private property and crops from high winds and flooding. You may have seen pictures on the news about the lake near Wisconsin Dells that drained in minutes when one of its banks collapsed…

Unfortunately, both the historical trend and the projections of our best scientists point to further dramatic changes to climate in our part of the country – and around the world – in future years as global temperatures rise.

One of my biggest concerns is how we can maintain adequate power supplies when storms (or earthquakes or fires or other emergencies) occur, especially since our electrical generation is so centralized in this country and the distribution of that electricity is so interconnected, making the whole system vulnerable to both natural and man-made disasters. A breakdown in one small part of the grid can knock out power to an entire state or region for days or weeks. It’s analogous to the financial crisis; in many ways the electrical grid is “too big to fail.” (The crisis with the Fukushima nuclear reactors was not a direct result of damage to the reactors from the earthquake or tsunami; the real problem was that main electrical power was knocked out by the earthquake and backup generation was knocked out by the tsunami.)

Producing much more clean energy at home or close to home at the community level would, in my view and the view of many experts, make us much more resilient to disasters of any kind, but I won’t bore you by going on about that (you could Google “distributed energy” or read my blog if you’d like to learn more). It has become very clear to me, however, that most of us could, and probably should, do a much better job of preparing our families and homes for emergencies that interrupt the flow of electricity in our communities.

In addition to the good suggestions Dad and the rest of you made, I would urge everyone to think about how we might stay warm (or cool, for you Californians) if we lose power. Remember, natural gas furnaces won’t run without electricity. I’m not sure it would be a good idea for everyone to go out and buy expensive, noisy, polluting gasoline generators, but maybe all the Wisconsin family members (for example) could chip in to buy one generator that is kept in one of our homes, with the understanding that any family member who needed it for an emergency could use it. If a disaster was wider in scope, maybe everyone could lodge at the home of the person with the generator. That’s just one idea. I’m sure you all have other ideas.

Access to clean water could also be affected by a power outage. Keeping some bottled water on hand is good, but water purification tablets or a water filter (you could use it for camping, too) might be worth the investment. As Dad can attest, tap water doesn’t get purified or pumped without electricity, and sometimes outages can last weeks.

So it’s important to take basic precautions: emergency kits, communication plans, etc. But I’ve been doing a lot of reading about what makes people, families, organizations and countries resilient, and what I’m discovering, what history and common sense teach us, is that many of the things that make us most resilient to disasters have very little to do with the items we may have stashed away in your basements or garages.

What’s more, many of the things we can do to prepare for disasters can actually enrich our lives. One of the best steps we can take to prepare for an emergency is to go down the block or across the street and introduce ourselves to some of the neighbors we haven’t yet met. Who knows? We might meet someone who has a generator. We might just meet a new friend for life.

Some of my fondest memories of childhood involved family and neighbors coming together in a crisis to help each other – or just pass the time more enjoyably. I remember many storm-related power outages at our cabin in Michigan where we would sit around in the same candlelit room telling stories, playing cards or just listening to the rain on the roof and the rumbling thunder. I don’t think it was just us kids who were disappointed when the power finally came back on…

I remember a close call with a tornado in Green Bay after which we and our neighbors stumbled out of our basements, marveling at the damage – and at our good fortune. You learn a lot about your neighbors at such times, and almost all of it is good.

There have also been occasions in recent years when I’ve huddled in the basement with Hattie and Sam during tornado warnings praying that the power would go out so we would all stop staring at our screened devices and talk to each other!

Not to be too Pollyanna about it, because I think there are some big challenges ahead for humanity, especially as climate change transforms our planet, but I don’t think I’m going to be rushing out to the sporting goods store to load up on guns and ammo anytime soon.

Many of us assume that when disaster strikes most people become fiercely selfish, independent and vicious. But researcher Rebecca Solnit studied disasters throughout history including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the recent tsunami in Indonesia and found that most of us fend for each other most of the time during, and after, disasters. If you like, you can read more about Solnit’s work and new book here:

Here’s another interesting thing that you probably won’t hear about on the nightly news:

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and political thinker best known for his book “Democracy in America,” became convinced after traveling extensively around America in the 1800s and studying our society that the strength of our country, what made us unique among nations, was our many community associations. We had – and still have – more associations, formal and informal, than any country on Earth, per capita. Sewing circles, sporting clubs, church groups, fraternal organizations like Rotary and Elks, political organizations, conservation groups… You name it, there’s a group for it.

The online “communities” and social networks taking the place of many of these groups are a poor substitute for mixing it up in person, in my opinion, but they do serve a role. I heard one of my favorite thinkers, David Brooks, say in a radio interview just today that research shows that for most of us, joining a single club that meets once a month gives us more happiness than we would get if our salaries were doubled (this is not true of those who are not at least in the middle class).

I do believe, dear family, that a “We’re all in this together” spirit is going to stand us (our family, our country and our world) in much better stead than “It’s us against them” (whoever them is), in good times and in bad. The still unfolding disaster in Japan, as terrible as it is, has given us all a great opportunity to take stock of both our blessings and shortcomings, and it has helped us to think about ways we can become more resilient and content as individuals, as families and as citizens.

Thanks for “listening.” I’m eager to hear more from all of you.






  1. You have a good point, Rick. I remember especially on 9/11 the first thing my children did was come to my house for the rest of the day, and I happened to be able to supply comfort food for dinner (scalloped potatoes and ham,) Others spoke of going to gatherings at churches where the sense of community was very strong. \You could just feel it in the room.\ Getting to know your neighbors is a very good start. And we should all spend more time sitting around talking!

  2. Thanks, Jean. I can almost smell the potatoes and ham! Sitting around and talking does seem to be a lost art in some circles.

  3. “True preparedness . . . depends not on digging ourselves and our families in, but reaching out to others, physically and emotionally, and knitting ourselves more closely together.” Sing it, brother! The belief that we are vicious and selfish by nature continues to blind us to more hopeful possibilities; it is the source of most social cynicism and despair. In the chapter of the book I’m writing I take a long look at that belief–where it comes from and especially how a religious (theological) belief became the starting point and foundation for a secular society and economy. Thanks for the info on Solnit’s book–sounds like a good ally.

  4. Apologies for the tardy reply, Priscilla; Sundays are screen sabbaticals for our household. Thank you for your comments. I’m eager to read your book. The book I’ve just finished by David Brooks speaks to that belief of which you speak and how it, like many beliefs, are at odds with our innate, subconscious selves. In one study Brooks highlights, babies as young as six months old display a preference for images that show people helping others over images that show people hurting or hindering others. So many of our “deeply” held beliefs are really not very deep at all, residing mostly in our conscious minds — the tip of the iceburg, really. So much more lies beneath the surface.