Community Resilience: Prepare for the Really Big One

DSC00963This week’s New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz, “The Really Big One”, about my beloved Pacific Northwest’s vulnerability to a devastating mega-earthquake and tsunami, has stirred a lot of debate and fear here in my hometown of Seattle. There’s been a run on the buying of ready-made disaster preparedness kits. Companies doing seismic retrofitting of houses are now booked out almost a year. As the article states, scientists report that we are overdue for a large or mega earthquake (9,0) and tsunami (100-ft) that will kill at least 13,000 people, injure 27,000, displace 1 million people, and destroy two-thirds of all hospitals. Everything west of Interstate 5 will be destroyed.

Currently, despite having the technology to install a sophisticated early-warning earthquake system, we don’t have one and we will have to rely on the “cacophony of barking dogs” to provide us with a 30-90 second warning before the ‘real quake’ hits. (Dogs can hear the high-frequency compression waves that precede an earthquake. Yet another reason to love dogs.)

It is clear that our government entities, businesses, hospitals, schools, fire departments, need to do much more to prepare for this disaster. As individuals we can support legislation to require better community-wide disaster preparedness (and support ways to actually fund these measures). As individuals we can heed the public health disaster preparedness advice and keep adequate disaster kits in our homes, school, and worksites. In a previous blog post titled “Be Very Afraid” (November 22, 2014) I wrote: “Or be at least a little bit afraid: not so afraid that you become paralyzed with fear and not so little afraid that you don’t do practical things to better prepare yourself (and your family) in case of disaster/emergency. Aim for being ‘just right’ afraid.” And I recorded the items I collected to make our family’s disaster/emergency preparedness kit–along with the realization that disaster preparedness is not an equal opportunity affair.

But something I have learned from my colleagues in New Zealand who work on post-Christchurch earthquake recovery efforts, is that an equally important part of disaster preparedness at the community level is promoting community resilience and wellbeing. More closely-knit communities–regardless of economic resources–tend to weather disasters better than others. Several of the Christchurch-area Maori marae (communal, sacred land/communities) organized to take in and provide food and shelter for foreign students and visitors affected by the earthquakes before any official government-sponsored program was able to do that. This isn’t to gloss over the very real socio-economic and racial disparities highlighted by ‘natural’ and man-made disasters. The lessons on this from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans stand as reminders.

I was somewhat skeptical when I first encountered these bright, up-with-people banners (shown in the photo above) I saw in the midst of the still fresh earthquake devastation in the downtown core of Christchurch in 2014. But as I focused more on their messages, I realized they were all about building individual and community resilience. They are part of the All Right? Campaign, a Healthy Christchurch initiative of the Canterbury District Health Board and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. They based their campaign on the work of the UK-based social, economic, and environmental justice think tank, The New Economic Foundation, which developed the evidence-based Five Ways to Wellbeing (with a Kiwi slant below). Now these are some excellent ways to prepare for the Big One.

  1. Connect… With the people around you. With whanau, friends, colleagues and neighbours. At home, work, school, or in your local marae, church or community. Think of these connections/relationships as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support and enrich you every day.
  2. Be active… Exercising can make you feel good! Step outside. Go for a walk or run. Cycle. Play a game. Garden. Have a boogie or do some kapahaka. The most important thing is to find a physical activity you enjoy that suits your mobility and fitness. Do it with friends or whanau and you’ll be ticking two boxes… connect and be active!
  3. Take notice… Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you.
  4. Keep learning… Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Fix a bike. Learn Te Reo or how to play an instrument or cook your favourite food. Set a challenge you enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun.
  5. Give … Do something nice for a friend, or a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, as linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you. Aroha ki te tangata, a Maori saying meaning respect for/goodwill towards others.

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