The Ethics of Disaster Preparation

Port Sulphur, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina

Port Sulphur, LA, after Katrina. NOAA

As I sit here, listening to the rain from Isaac’s feeder bands battering our windows, my thoughts have turned to hurricane preparation, and then disaster preparation in general.

I’ve been reading up on disaster preparation and management for several years now.  It’s a hobby of mine, I guess, and one that can be useful.  I certainly have some of the coolest flashlights around.  That said, it does have a bit of a dark side.

A lot of prepping and survivalist literature, communities, and online forums tend to take a very self-oriented view.  Part of the “survivalist” mindset, I think is the idea that to survive, you have to focus on the survival of yourself and your group (family, buddies, etc), to the exclusion of everybody else.

I think some of this comes from the backgrounds of many of those who set the tone – in an infantry unit, it’s your group versus the enemy on one hand, and a population you can’t trust on the other.  But some of it comes from the selfish, atomized, community-less nature of American society, and I honestly see the worst of it in people who aren’t former soldiers.

But wherever it comes from, the theme seems almost axiomatic: you don’t help anyone else, because that involves splitting your supplies, and taking on one more mouth to feed, clothe, and transport.  That is, unless that person has important skills, equipment, or knowledge that will help you to survive.  Even then, you have to worry a lot about who you can trust.

And I suppose there may be a certain degree of prudence to this if you ever find yourself in a zombie-pocalypse – why just look at all the trouble helping strangers brought to Hershel and his family in The Walking Dead.  But zombie-pocalypses are the stuff of comics, movies, and television.  They’re not the real world.  And in the real world, we have a responsibility to maintain our humanity even in the face of disaster.

—-

So, let me turn my critical eye inward and stop kvetching about the culture.  Looking at what I’ve done to prepare for this storm, I see a number of missed opportunities.  Both of which would have required a plan ahead of time (doesn’t all disaster preparation require a plan ahead of time?).  The first, and arguably biggest, was that I didn’t give a single thought to finding out how to help the homeless in our city find shelter during this storm.  Even though we’re far from the coast, the wind and rain threaten to be much stronger than any thunderstorm.  Right now, I feel compassion, but that’s all I actually can do now.  Feeling bad on my part doesn’t help anyone.

The second, and arguably the most shameful, is that I still don’t really know my neighbors that well.  I know the young couple across the street, who hold Bible studies, and my neighbor to the right, who’s lived in this neighborhood for a very long time.  But the others?  I only know them to wave at them.  I wouldn’t know if they had any specific needs for this storm.  And that’s really pathetic.  They’re my neighbors in the most literal sense, and I don’t even know them.  And I have no excuse.

I’ve basically fallen into the survivalist selfishness by accident.  Sure, I wouldn’t grab a shotgun and chase somebody away who’s just asking for food or clean water, but I’ve set myself up to not be in much of a position to help anyone.  Great job, Tim.

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Oh, I hear someone saying, cooperation doesn’t work in a disaster.  Let me tell you a story about my village.  Perkinston, Mississippi, late August and early September, 2005.  Katrina hit, and knocked out power and water for three weeks.  My parents (God bless them) stayed, not because they were too proud to evacuate, but because they had some friends with serious medical conditions, and they wanted to be there in case those friends needed to be rushed to a hospital.

After the storm, when it became clear that power and water were out, people started pulling together.  One friend, Mr. B____, had well water (for those of you who live in the city and never encountered that term before, that means he was outside of the municipal water grid, and had a water well in his yard with a pump that supplied water to his house).  That pump usually ran on the standard electrical grid, but could run on a generator.  Mr. B____ ran the pump for about an hour a day, providing water for his family and for several other families, including my parents.  Those among these beneficiaries who had gasoline brought it to him so he could keep the generator going.  Mom remarked to me, “It’s funny, but that gas can was just as full when I got it back than it was when I dropped it off.”

FEMA distributed supplies (they’re not completely worthless: their failures were well-publicized, but their successes were not), and the people generally tried to help distribute them, even to people who couldn’t make it to the drop-off.  In time, donations from further upstate poured in, and the locals created a food pantry to manage distribution of the goods.  They called it Our Daily Bread, and it’s still in operation to this day, running on donations from individuals and local businesses.

It’s true, a shark-selfish survivalist strategy might have worked, too.  My parents and their friends might have survived based on what they had stored.  Some individuals, the ones in the worst health, might not have.  And, in such a dog-eat-dog scenario, looting might even have taken place, as we saw in New Orleans.

But no looting occurred, not because Perkinston people are too good to take extreme measures if they’re starving, but because they were too good, and too well connected to each other, to let it get to that point.  Nobody starved.  Nobody died.  Nobody got gunned down.  The community came together, and they not only survived the worst hurricane in Mississippi history, they thrived.

—-

The real shame, here, is that I’ve had seven years to learn from their example, and I still haven’t gotten it yet.  But I’m trying, and I’m learning.  I hope this will be the turning point.

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2 comments on “The Ethics of Disaster Preparation

  1. I remember riding out Katrina with you. That time is still burned in my mind.

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