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But What If Nothing Happens?

I was in Boston this weekend visiting my sister, so didn’t have a chance to reprise my Irene prep post or any of the other approximately two billion (ok, maybe a slight exaggeration) posts I’ve made over the years about how to prepare for a natural disaster, but I’m still getting emails from people in the dark or by the water talking about how their preps fared, and how they are doing. It is one of the most rewarding things about what I do – hearing that others are warm, fed and safe in part because they took my advice. For us, it was a matter of putting our preps into place and then nothing happening – which is a natural and expected part of preparedness – even more the norm

The storm was minor here, which was a relief – our area is still recovering from the twin disasters only last year of Irene and Lee. Frankly, another similar disaster so soon after the storm would have been possibly beyond recovery for many of the worst hit towns around here. We prepped (like mad at my house, since I didn’t get home from Boston until Sunday evening), moving wood in, getting our water stocks high (no power = no running water here, although we can haul from the cistern), and making sure everything and everyone was clean (I want to go into an extended power outage with clean hair, clean children, no dishes and no laundry – these seem trivial but they are big quality of life issues).

We also had some other preps to do – the kids’ big worry was what would happen if they couldn’t trick or treat with their friends, so we made plans for host a power-out spooky Halloween party at our house for the kids in our neighborhood if we couldn’t get out (otherwise kids mostly go to other neighborhoods, since our rural area is terrible for trick or treating – too few houses, no sidewalks, dark streets, etc…). Asher’s 7th birthday arrived with the storm on Monday, and we celebrated with board games, jack-o-lantern carving and a family dance party. His birthday gift, his own shofar (a traditional Jewish wind instrument made from an animal horn that makes a really loud noise, and yes, that’s what he wanted!) prompted me to say “Ok, yes, it is a hurricane, but you still have to blow it OUTSIDE” which goes in the parental lexicon along with “I’d really prefer you hit each other somewhere else” and “No, you may not bury your brother in the lego bin.”

All this is lighthearted, but as we all know, the storm was not a light matter for many people. We are still waiting to hear about some of Eric’s extended family in the worst storm-affected areas, particular distant relatives in Queens. Phil-the-Housemate will be headed downstate with the relief effort this weekend, taking my spare stash of baby formula to shelters in need. The number of deaths and losses is appalling.

As is always the case, there are always those who prepared and didn’t need their preparations, and those who didn’t prepare and did. People take different lessons from these experiences. Already, and only a year after Irene and Lee destroyed whole communities in my region, I hear people saying “Well, everyone was off school and nothing happened, it was overstated, people shouldn’t over-react next time.” The correct reaction, of course is “we were damned lucky and chose the right course in preparing” but it is human nature to resent additional effort. Indeed, a friend who is an emergency planner for New York city tells me that it was harder this time to make some of the preparations in the city precisely because New York was largely spared in Irene last year – everyone remembered that last time the bridges and subways were closed for no reason, and he suggested this is probably why they waited so long to close the bridges.

As climate change alters the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, we are going to have to change our basic response, which is often to minimize and deny. and avoid the inconvenience of preparation. As my colleague at Class M points out “Think about that. Storms that used to occur every 100 years can be expected between 5 and 33 times as often.” If once a real disaster came one time in twenty, now we are talking about one in three or five or seven.

I’ve written many times about why it is we are so reluctant to prepare and use the precautionary principle. In many cases, I think it is because our sense is that preparing for disaster might bring it upon us, in others because we’ve had an experience where effort was wasted. But such efforts are NOT wasted – preparing once, even if the disaster doesn’t strike, gives you the experience of preparation – next time you will know what to do and do it more easily – if only you can take the right lesson from this. The odds are good that next time, or the time after that or the one after that, you’ll be sorry if you aren’t prepared.

The message of “I prepared and nothing happened” is not “I wasted my time and resources” as our culture so often tells us. Instead, it is ”I was ready. I was ready to care for myself, ready to step up and aid others. I did all I could to avoid being a victim and thus endangering others (rescue workers) and placing demands on what could have been a strapped emergency system. I stepped up, so that those who cannot step up due to poverty, lack of a home, disability, age, ill-health can be protected.”

If you were in Sandy’s path and are struggling now, I wish you much aid, a quick recovery and good hope. If you prepared and nothing happened, be proud of yourself, and remember, someday something will happen – few lifetimes pass without something happening. Preparation is not wasted effort, it should be a point of pride.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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