Summer traditionally brings to mind vacation, rest, and relaxation in the United States. Thanks to climate change, though, this time of year has increasingly become what the Union of Concerned Scientists has termed the “Danger Season.” Due to some historical weather trends this year, like the megadrought in the American Southwest and La Niña conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, we are in for a Danger Season like no other when it comes to natural disasters and extreme weather events. This includes an above-average hurricane season, extreme heat waves and wildfires, and other disasters — which, in 2021, had already affected at least 1 in 3 Americans.
You’re probably wondering right now what you can do as an individual to prepare for these disasters — what to buy, what to read up on, which resources to seek out. And indeed, if you’re able, there are things individuals can and should do, like packing an emergency kit, making a game plan with loved ones, and preparing your home.
However, the very concept of disaster preparation carries an underlying conceit: that we, as individuals, can prepare for catastrophic weather events if we just plan accordingly. The truth is that not everyone has equitable access to necessary resources in times of natural disaster. And whether it was Winter Storm Uri in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, or the 2018 wildfires in California, governments at all levels have shown a remarkable capacity to fail residents in times of crisis, from basic infrastructure to evacuation.
Now, government actors like city emergency management departments are increasingly rolling out resiliency plans; disaster recovery, though, can take a long time, and there are vast disparities among those who end up getting aid, if at all. Thus, the effects of disasters are often long-term, and as the number of disasters increases, some people, especially those in marginalized communities, end up trapped in a vicious cycle. Cassandra Davis, a professor who researches the impact of natural disasters on low-income communities of color at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me many people “don’t have the ability to recover because they’re constantly trying to respond” to the next disaster.
There are still a lot of things you can do, not merely as an individual, but as a member of a community, to be prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. Whether it’s a wildfire in the Southwest, a hurricane along the Gulf of Mexico, or extreme heat from coast to coast, any kind of preparation could be the difference between life and death.
What you and your community can do when a disaster is on its way
You need to build a social network within your community of people you can reach out to before, during, and after a disaster. “Knowing who your neighbors are, where they’re at, what resources that they have, and resources that they’re able to share is absolutely vital,” Davis told me. This can involve traditional methods like knocking on the doors of your neighbors and attending community meetings, but social media also plays a key role here. Getting on a group chat with your community can help you feel connected to your community in good times and bad, Ben Hirsch, co-director at West Street Recovery, a grassroots organization focused on disaster recovery in Houston, Texas, told me. “It’s not going to save your life to be part of a WhatsApp chat, but it might actually make you feel way less alone and way less desperate or helpless.”
This all also highlights the importance of approaching disaster preparation in a systematic way, which can help people feel ready for any incoming disaster. By taking steps like preparing a kit with essential items, making copies of all your major documents, and creating an emergency plan with your household, you’re not only tangibly getting ready but also mentally fortifying yourself. Hirsch told me that, for a lot of people his group serves, the best part of disaster preparedness bags is the feeling that they took steps to protect themselves. “When people are panicking, they make bad decisions. I think that one thing people really can do is look around their house and ask themselves, ‘What here actually is [helping] me survive?’”
Staying informed is also crucial to disaster preparedness, and this can involve gathering information from sources like your local city and county government, as well as local and national weather services. This can sometimes be cumbersome, so start with the basics by signing up for weather alerts on your cell or smartphone, as they are location-specific, and can signal whether hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, or wildfires are encroaching upon your community. Additionally, be aware of what kinds of disasters can affect your area, and how that may be different from past years. For example, this year has been a particularly bad wildfire year in Texas, and extreme heat can even affect the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada, where air conditioning isn’t universal. Last, don’t forget to responsibly share crucial information with your community — not everyone will have the time or capacity to keep up.
That said, according to Hirsch, government agencies can sometimes be too focused on stopping panic, rather than being more forthright about what they don’t know. As we saw with Covid-19, this can lead to confusion and a false sense of security; in the worst cases, leading to death; and breeding a cycle of mistrust in communities for the long term.
Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist at Yale University specializing in communicating about climate change, acknowledged that it’s important for different actors to strike a balance between caution and over-exaggeration. “These are fraught communication issues. It’s hard to get it right. But I think that’s where acknowledging the uncertainty and acknowledging the benefits of planning,” can make all the difference, she said.
Whatever information you gather to make preparations, as Marlon told me, consider also what individual preparations you can make that are also communal. In the case of a wildfire, for example, not taking care of your property and allowing your trees and vegetation to grow unabated can make your home a potential tinderbox for your entire community. “Your actions are actually affecting the people in your community and making them less safe or more safe, depending on what you do,” Marlon told me.
If you do need to evacuate, say from a wildfire or hurricane, get ready to follow a plan of action for yourself, but also consider who else in your community needs assistance. Davis said, ideally, evacuation would be a choice people can make for themselves, but in reality, that’s usually not an option for a lot of people. And as Andrew Barley, another co-director at West Street Recovery, told me, local, state, and federal governments usually only directly aid in evacuating people when the worst-case scenario has already happened, when “there’s already four or five feet [of floodwater] in the neighborhood, and someone’s calling from their roof trying to get out.”
So, think about community members who will need help. For example, elderly people and those with mobility issues can have a difficult time escaping, as can those without personal means of transportation like a car. There may even be some people who are unwilling to leave, but rather than passing judgment, it’s important to have empathy and help them be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
What you and your community can do to prepare for the long term
Extreme weather and natural disasters may seem to come and go, but thanks to climate change, they are becoming a more frequent uninvited guest in our lives, so we all need to start preparing for them. The term “natural disaster” belies the fact that the devastation they bring is anything but natural; it’s exacerbated, like everything else, by structural and systemic problems in our society. These are collective problems and they demand collective action.
The first step to organizing your community is to recognize that you and everyone else have something to contribute. As Marlon told me, get a sense of who has big power tools, who has a generator, who has medical expertise in your neighborhood, and so on, and make a list. Hirsch shared that his upbringing in Boston made him well equipped to guide people when Winter Storm Uri hit Texas (and the state failed to respond adequately). This all ties into the concept of mutual aid, where communities foster interdependence to solve their own problems, particularly in the face of governments that are slow, unable, or unwilling to solve crises. In this way, you not only engage with your neighbors for community-wide solutions, but also build long-term muscles for disaster response.
Nevertheless, it’s still crucial to work with local officials and hold them accountable. Marlon said, “Putting a little bit of time into helping your local officials understand that you want to make [your community] more resilient, or future proof your community, can have outsize benefits across the community that can shape the health of the residents.” Working with your neighbors to get politicians and bureaucrats to address issues such as having more trees and shade, better water usage, and cooling centers in areas affected by heat waves and drought can make communities less vulnerable in the long run, and also be the difference between life and death for marginalized residents.
This all gets at a much larger question: what does it mean for communities to be “resilient?” The United Nations defines this as a community that’s exposed to disasters and is able to resist, recover, and adapt to the effects of a disaster in a timely and efficient manner. Hirsch criticized the way many government actors and politicians have invoked the concept, saying that resiliency can sometimes “just mean marginalized people’s capacity to continue surviving through suffering.” Davis agreed, saying, “For a lot of communities, resiliency is a dirty word. A lot of times that the media, political figures, individuals will say, ‘oh, they’re such a resilient bunch!’ But it … kind of glosses over the systemic issues … all of the isms, around why a [particular] group was hit.”
That isn’t to say resiliency has no merits as a concept. There’s a difference between using it as rhetorical sleight-of-hand to cover up state failure and actually doing the work to ensure a community is habitable and thriving. Hirsch mentioned that, in the hurricane and storm recovery work that he and West Street Recovery have done, they have found that simple, lower-cost interventions such as helping households switch their flooring to tile and get flood insurance, can make a big difference if their homes do end up getting flooded.
The question is whether these solutions can be scaled up and taken on by the state, as it can’t just be left up to individuals to take on the cost burdens of, say, making sure their homes have proper air conditioning in the case of extreme heat.
Ultimately, the story of disaster preparation, relief, and recovery, and of building resiliency into communities is actually about all of us adapting to the consequences of a changing climate. Hirsch remarked that governmental and media responses to disasters are often quick to move past disasters and the areas they damaged in a haste to “get back to normal,” and this makes light of how long the impacts of disasters truly last. “[We’re five years later] still meeting people that have received no assistance from any organization and are living in homes [badly damaged by Hurricane Harvey] now … in Houston, the normal is like a disaster just happened,” he told me. To challenge and upend this unsustainable status quo, Marlon said, “the more you can tune in and start coordinating and organizing now, the better.”
It’s up to us and our neighbors to collectively organize and prepare our communities for the increasingly disaster-prone future. Starting today can make all the difference.