DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Debbie Elliott. As a national correspondent for NPR News, I've covered dozens of natural disasters - floods, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and lots of hurricanes. And there's always talk about resilience in the wake of such disasters, but just what does resiliency actually look like?
CHAUNCIA WILLIS: Resilience is all about bouncing back, having the ability to be prepared before disaster strikes and then recovering from it in the shortest amount of time possible.
ELLIOTT: That's Chauncia Willis in Tampa, Fla. She's been an emergency manager for over 20 years and is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management. Every natural disaster is different, but no matter where you are, emergency planners will tell you if you want to bounce back later, you have to prepare now. Waiting till the last minute or taking that it-won't-happen-to-me mindset could mean the difference between life and death.
Willis remembers working during a hurricane and getting a frantic phone call.
WILLIS: From a family located in Tennessee. And they wanted us to go check on their mom. And, you know, the winds were above 40 miles per hour. It just wasn't happening because that would put the first responders in danger.
ELLIOTT: Willis says when you wait to evacuate, you run out of options. But still, every hurricane season, Willis hears the same story time and time again.
WILLIS: You have those who say, I want to stay and protect my house, or, I don't want to pay to have to shelter my animals, so I'm going to stay here in the house with my animals. So those are the ones that, you know, when you talk to them afterwards, they're saying, well, I should've left. I could've done this. I had options. I could've done something differently so I wouldn't be stuck in a situation where I almost died. Don't do that.
ELLIOTT: As we approach the peak of what is already a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, Willis says do what you can to be ready now.
WILLIS: You want to do most of your planning and preparedness in blue skies. Don't wait until the skies are gray. Begin to think about what to do to survive right now.
ELLIOTT: This episode of LIFE KIT, emergency preparedness - what you need to know before the next hurricane to set yourself up to bounce back.
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ELLIOTT: What is the first thing that people should think about should they be ordered to evacuate? How do you go about creating an evacuation plan?
WILLIS: Really understand what your evacuation level is if you're in an evacuation zone, if you're in a flood zone. You always need to have a better idea of where you are and what your own vulnerabilities are. Some of the vulnerabilities might be having a health care issue, also not being able to have access to transportation. So it's something to think about, and that's especially for the coastal areas where there's usually - like, for example, in Key West, there's one way in, one way out, right? So you have to leave early. You can't wait. Things like that.
ELLIOTT: So timing is important. What about, like, who do you listen to? What are the resources that you should be pulling in as you go about making your decision?
WILLIS: When it comes to an evacuation, you have to pay attention to your local meteorologists. If they are saying that we believe that this is going to impact our area, then take that seriously. Even if you're not asked to leave and you see that there's a watch happening and then it moves into a warning and you know you're in a vulnerable situation, you should probably begin to make your way to a safe location.
ELLIOTT: Let's talk about the decision to evacuate. You've made your decision to evacuate. You've listened to local authorities. You think you need to get out. What do you do at that point? What do you need to be thinking about, and how do you decide where you're going to go?
WILLIS: Most emergency managers will tell you to run from the water and hide from the wind. The impacts of flooding can be particularly treacherous. So you want to get out of the vulnerable areas as quickly as you can once the warning - hurricane warning is given. The ideal plan would be to go to family and friends. Many people feel that shelters are a first option, and that's really not the case. A shelter should be your last option. Shelters are a life raft; they are not a cruise ship.
ELLIOTT: So what do you take with you? What should be in your go kit, as they say?
WILLIS: Anything that would be deemed critical for your everyday not only survival, but your everyday usage. So a list of important phone numbers, and if your families are going in separate vehicles and you want to have a communication plan that will allow you to connect with them at some point in the future. So, you know, calling Aunt Mabel, who lives in New Jersey, and telling her that, hey, I made it safely to, you know, a safe location, and I just want you to know that our carload is fine. Have you heard from the others?
ELLIOTT: I've always heard you should have some sort of a checklist to make sure you have everything you need. What would you say should be on that list?
WILLIS: Well, you know, it's important to have a checklist. And, you know, if you're evacuating in your own vehicle, you want to make sure that you have fuel for the vehicle as a need on that checklist. You also want to make sure you have at least two weeks' supply of medication or medical supplies that you use, such as insulin and the needles that go along with it. It's also important to have cash on hand because banks and ATMs may not be available after the storm has passed. I always recommend as well having bandages and soap and things like that thrown in there as well. And if you have access to a battery-operated radio, it's good to have that as well.
ELLIOTT: What about food and water?
WILLIS: Who needs to eat? No, I'm just kidding. We all need to eat, so you have to think about the food and water.
WILLIS: So your checklist should include nonperishable items, at least enough food for seven days. It used to be 72 hours, but now they're saying enough food for seven days. Now we're going to also ask that you have disinfectant wipes, if you can get those, and hand sanitizers and face masks for your family. You know, your bank account numbers as well - your bank numbers and credit card information, anything that you might need - you want to have a copy of those important things or have access to them somewhere.
ELLIOTT: Now let's say you don't have resources to stockpile a lot of emergency supplies. What are some alternatives that people could look to in terms of they can't go buy gallons and gallons of water, if they don't have the ability to go stock up on canned goods? What else can people do?
WILLIS: Well, there are so many things we can do as far as preparedness on a budget, and that's something that's really critical in this time and this space, where we're going through compounding disasters here in the United States. With COVID-19 and just so many other things affecting the economy, everyone doesn't have the financial wherewithal to purchase preparedness.
And so in that situation, we have to be creative. And I've always encouraged the prepper mentality, which is that mindset of perpetual preparedness. It requires that you use what you have. So if you have a 2-liter soda bottle and you don't have the wherewithal to purchase a three-day supply of water for each family member, well, start saving those 2-liter bottles now. Wash them out for drinking water. Filling up the bathtub with water to ensure that your toilets will flush and, you know, other things that can be done.
If you're not able to prepare yourself and your family due to financial restrictions, then now is the time to line up resources and possibly get some additional assistance from churches who, you know, have food banks from other areas that might have canned food items and things of that nature.
It's about using and - being creative and using what you have on hand and what you have access to. And if you don't have access to it, then asking for assistance now instead of waiting until the sky is dark. So you want to do most of your planning and preparedness in blue skies. Don't wait until the skies are gray. Begin to think about what to do to survive right now.
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ELLIOTT: What do people tend to overlook when they're making their go plans?
WILLIS: One of the things that I think is important to take are your documents - your critical documents that, you know, provide evidence of ownership to your home or your lease agreement. You know, many times, the recovery considers the homeowner as one that receives priority in terms of funding and restoration, and renters are often encouraged to just move. Why don't you go stay somewhere else? So, you know, let your landlord know that, I intend to come back. And if needed, put that in writing.
Also, any insurance documentation - anything like that. And even before you're leaving - even before you leave the house, you want to actually, if you can, get those documents scanned into the computer. You definitely want to have your identification and that of your family members as well. And I think it's very important to have the house properly secured because you don't know how long you're going to be away.
ELLIOTT: You know, let's say I don't have a car. I live in a community that's, you know, a low-lying coastal area that's prone to flooding, and my emergency managers in my county are telling me to go. What do I do if I don't have a way to get out on my own?
WILLIS: So when it comes to the transportation-challenged, one of the things that your government will do is find a way to provide transportation access for you. And that has been a nationwide effort. In times of disaster, the cities and counties will create a partnership with those bus lines to provide free transport. And this is a result, in large part, because of what we saw with Hurricane Katrina, where many people wanted to evacuate, they wanted to leave in advance, but they had no access to transportation.
ELLIOTT: What advice might you have for, say, when there's a family difference? Let's say there's a member of the family who is somebody who says, I'm not leaving; I'm staying with my house, and there's another family member who's trying to say, look; let's just - better be safe than sorry; we really need to evacuate?
WILLIS: Yeah. So that's actually a common scenario, right? If it's just not safe to stay or to leave that person, then don't do it.
My dad puts up a big fight every hurricane season. And he's near the coast, and so when there's a storm, you would think that he would be one of the first ones to say, I want to leave. And he doesn't. He wants to stay every time because he thinks, for some reason, that his house will make it and, even if no one else's makes it, his house will still be standing. And so it's that idea that we are superhuman or Teflon or something like that, and that's just not the case.
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WILLIS: When there is a threat, take it seriously. And the threat of a hurricane is significant. With climate change, storms have become much more powerful. They're moving at a more rapid rate. So think about that. The storms are becoming larger. They're costing more. They're creating more damage, so it costs more to recover from them. And they're becoming much more frequent.
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ELLIOTT: So how does the coronavirus pandemic change disaster preparedness and response, for that matter?
WILLIS: You know, there's no part of our life that we don't have to consider the impacts of the coronavirus, right? So when it comes to first responders, the number of first responders available to assist is greatly impacted by the coronavirus. I know of one department where they have over a hundred firefighters who are out sick. And that is just, you know, multiplied over all of these public safety organizations where they are dealing with the public.
So it's very pervasive. And because of that, the shelters have had to modify their staffing, but also their configuration. So we require more space in each of these shelters. And, of course, that means that you have to have more shelter spaces now, so more shelters have to come up. Now you think about coronavirus plus a hurricane and consider how many shelters may be opened and how many people are needed to operate those shelters.
So it significantly changes every aspect, and it just expands the need for additional space and additional assistance.
ELLIOTT: You know, I've covered dozens of disasters, and one thing that strikes me each time is how a crisis tends to expose the most vulnerable people in the community. What do you think can be done from a preparedness standpoint to mitigate those kinds of impacts?
WILLIS: When we're providing service to our communities, we have to be considerate of the entire community, not just those who can attend the preparedness meetings and the other educational outreach opportunities. We have to think about those who are working three jobs and couldn't make that meeting.
We have a situation where there is a lack of representation within the field of emergency management, and that lack of representation actually fuels the impacts of a disaster on those communities that are impacted by the disaster, so they have worse outcomes. For example, if I'm an emergency manager that has never considered the perspective of people with disabilities, then it's going to impact the communities that I serve where we have people with disabilities. And if I'm not developing intentional programs to address those specific issues and needs, then they're going to have a worse outcome because of it.
And it's been proven that when we're protecting the most vulnerable, we, in fact, will protect all so that everyone has a chance to really survive and thrive.
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ELLIOTT: Chauncia Willis is co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Diversity and Inclusion in Emergency Management.
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ELLIOTT: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got an episode on practicing forgiveness, another on taking up biking and lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.
And as always, here's a completely random tip, this time from Kelsey (ph), a listener from New Jersey.
KELSEY: Hi. I had a life hack for sewing. So once you're done sewing and if you have something else to sew, then when you're done tying off the knot at the end of the string, tie off your new knot about an inch or so up, and then when you cut the string, you already have a full knot and you don't have to retie again. Hope this helps somebody.
ELLIOTT: If you have a random tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Debbie Elliott. Thanks for listening.
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