With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the Northeast, the grocery store around the corner from my apartment had made sure by Saturday that the first thing shoppers encountered when they walked through the door were cases of Poland Spring water bottles. By Sunday afternoon, most of the water was gone, along with the best of the canned goods. I didn’t check the battery display, but I’m willing to bet they were running low.
Although the government has tried, after September 11 and after Katrina, to encourage Americans to anticipate events like the storm that’s hitting the East Coast, Americans are terrible at preparing for disasters. There’s a list of basic supplies that FEMA recommends procuring, and most people don’t buy all of them, even when a hurricane is coming: food, water, flashlight—sure—but a whistle, in case it’s necessary to signal for help? A dust mask, “to help filter contaminated air”? FEMA also recommends keeping a disaster kit at the ready, but a 2009 survey found that only about half of Americans have supplies in their house to be used only in case of a disaster. And when the next one looms, we raid the store once again.
But what if the problem isn’t people’s willingness to prepare but the way we’re taught to think about “preparedness”? A couple years ago, I went looking for people with different ideas about disasters and found Ana-Marie Jones, who runs a Bay Area organization called Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters. Jones tries to get people to realize that all is not lost just because they’ve failed to tick items off a shopping list. Instead, she trains people to think more resourcefully, and realize that in a genuine emergency, a host of everyday objects—a fork, a ziplock bag, a bandana—can become preparedness supplies. One of her favorite examples was a paperback book, which in one brainstorm session become, for example:
- A fire-starter
- Dixie cups
- A funnel
- Toilet paper
- A Hansel-and-Gretel-style trail of paper “breadcrumbs” to show friends or family where you’d gone if you had to leave the house.
Some items really are hard to replace: there aren’t many workarounds for matches and clean water, for instance. But just because you didn’t buy a whistle or a dust mask doesn’t mean you’re not prepared to deal with a situation in which you’d genuinely need one.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.