Thinking About New Orleans

I’ve never been to New Orleans, LA. I’ve had a lot of friends who love it, but the truth is: it’s never much appealed to me. Ten years ago, though, New Orleans was on everyone’s mind.

I honestly don’t remember much of the news coverage of Katrina. I was new to Cincinnati, in the midst of acclimating to a brand new life, and didn’t have a television or internet access at home. My first memories of Hurricane Katrina were the pictures from newspapers I read while tending bar at work and the stories of a customer at the bar, a refugee from New Orleans.

This weekend is the tenth anniversary of the hurricane and there’s still a lot I don’t really understand about what happened and why the destruction was so severe. And then, of course, why the fallout was so bad. I’m not going to pretend to know where to point the blame or to posit what could have been done differently. The news stories I saw and heard this week prove that there are still a lot of unanswered questions on all sides.

Disasters happen. Is this really a surprise? Yet, more often than not, we are simply not prepared for them–individually or corporately.

A few quick thoughts:

1. How seriously would you have taken the warnings?
Personally, I don’t take most warnings very seriously at all. Not even from “reliable sources.” Yet, when I read this warning, issued ten years ago by the National Weather Service about the impending storm, it was hard to believe that more New Orleans residents didn’t heed the warning. Or that the City of New Orleans didn’t work harder to evacuate and warn low-income residents, the ones in the most vulnerable areas, the ones least likely to evacuate on their own. Or that so few of us outside of the region knew what was happening.

I know that evacuation is complicated and would have been very difficult for people who had nowhere to go (no family or friends outside the area) or no way to get there (literally had no transportation or no money to use it). And I’m sure that many long-term coastal residents had seen storms come and go. They thought: why should I believe this will be any different? (Or maybe some never heard the warnings? That’s possible, I guess?)

Among other foreboding statements, the warning said that “most of the area would be uninhabitable for weeks… perhaps longer.” If you saw a warning flash across your tv screen that said your city was going to be decimated by a storm within 12-24 hours, would you run for the hills? Or would you hunker down and wait for the storm to pass? I would like to think that I’d react quickly, but I honestly don’t know that I’d take the warning seriously.

2. Are you prepared?
I’ve talked briefly about this before. (I wrote a post about it two years ago.) And I hope that many of my friends and family don’t let events like Hurricane Katrina pass by them without asking important questions about their own preparation for emergencies.

A couple months back, there was a heavy snow storm in our city. Many suburban areas were hit hard and some lost power for days. A new neighbor texted me and asked if our neighborhood had ever lost power and admitted that her family wasn’t quite prepared if that happened. I was able to assure here that, in the time I’ve lived here, we’ve been pretty insulated from the weather and that our power grid has always stayed in-tact. But, there is never a guarantee.

There is no way to know what lies around the bend. And there is no way to guarantee that you’ve crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” in your preparation. History proves that even the most prepared people can be caught by surprise by things they never saw coming. All you can do is be ready for what you can reasonable anticipate.

Living in an urban area, our preparations for severe weather or other emergency situations may look different than yours. The threats are different here. But I think it’s important to assess the threats and do at least a reasonable amount of preparation for what is most likely to happen where you live. And, no matter where you live, you should make preparations for evacuating. I came across this video a few years ago and it was really convicting and, frankly, a little scary. My area might not be experiencing wildfires at the moment, but there may sometime be another reason to evacuate downtown, either by suggestion or by choice. Since I saw that video, I made it a point to be reasonably ready. Ready without obsessing about the unknown.

If you’ve been listening to talk radio or checking the news this week, you’ve likely had Hurricane Katrina on your mind, too. According to the reports I’ve seen, much of the Gulf Coast is coming back to life. I saw this movie a few months ago and it was filled with love and hope for New Orleans. My parents are headed down to the Alabama coast in about a month and I’m curious what their experience will be (we’ve been there twice before–years before Katrina).

Do you know anyone who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina?
Have you been to New Orleans or the Gulf Coast since?

Can I encourage you to think a little more this weekend about how you’d react to a similar scenario and whether or not you be ready?

On my mind especially this week was that old customer of mine. The refugee from New Orleans. His life had been completely dismantled by the hurricane and he was laying low in Cincinnati, alone, until the smoke cleared. I wonder if he’s still around or if he managed to, eventually, find his way back home again.

Are You Prepared?

Truth be told: I have survivalist tendencies.

I don’t speak a lot about preparedness because I don’t want people to see me as a weirdo Doosmday Prepper, building a bunker in my basement and storing ammunition under my bed. (I am doing neither of those things, btw.) I am a planner by nature. So, emergency preparedness is a manifestation of that need to plan ahead and be prepared for any situation, especially now that I am a wife and mother and have more than myself to take care of.

I think my interest in survival scenarios started young. While some of my female peers were reading The Babysitter’s Club, I was reading books like Hatchet. When I was a bit older, my taste gravitated more toward dystopian apocalyptic literature and movies. Then, when I entered college, more toward outdoor survivalist and adventure stories. The “What would I do in this scenario?” question has always been exciting for me. When I had my first child, I developed a lot of post-partum anxiety. So, my natural need to feel prepared has been both a blessing and a curse.

Living in a city, we take for granted the fact that we can get anywhere we need to get, to get anything we need, at any time. But we should know better than that. I have no desire to breed fear or anxiety in other people (because, Lord knows, I have enough for myself), but do you ever stop to ask yourself, “Are you prepared?”

Enter, the Polar Vortex.

Now, I am a Chicagoan by birth, so cold weather is not new to me. And, in general, I handle the worst of Cincinnati’s weather pretty well. But I will admit that there have been a few really cold days this winter and it appears that some more is headed our way. When extreme weather hits, it has ripple effects that run through all aspects of our lives. In the past two months, around the country, we’ve read story after story of the effects of extreme cold, ice, and snow: cars stalled, traffic stopped for hours, huge highway pileups, water pipes bursting or freezing, electricity down, busses stranded, etc.

And how about the recent chemical leak in West Virginia? Did you hear about it? We were lucky to be a large municipality, far from the leak. But, still, the City of Cincinnati had to close off intake valves from the Ohio River and use stored, treated water for a day while the hazardous material floated past the city. What if you were one of the 300,000 people further up river who had no drinking water because of the crisis?

Now, consider hurricanes, floods, extreme heat, earthquakes, tornados. These are just the natural disasters.

What if you had no access to the public water system for 24 hours? 48 hours? 72 hours?
What if your heat went out? Or your electricity?
What if your city closed the roads for three days and the grocery stores couldn’t receive deliveries?
What if you couldn’t leave your home for a week?
Or what if you absolutely had to leave your home for a week?
What if you only had an hour to leave?

These are questions we don’t like to ask because they make us feel powerless and vulnerable. But we have to ask them because we are powerless and vulnerable. And, if we don’t ask them, then we stay powerless and vulnerable.

Part of dealing with my anxiety has been reconciling my powerlessness and relinquishing control over things I cannot control. The other part? Being reasonably prepared.

There are four phases of preparedness.

This is preparation for a sudden, local emergency like a power outage or public water loss. It also includes car emergencies like being stalled on the side of the road or being stranded away from home. A good estimate of time for supplies is 72-hours. Preparations include simple emergency kits for on-hand at work or school, and in vehicles. Basically, if you were stranded in your house or in your car or in your office for 1-3 days, what would you need to survive?

This is preparation for a few weeks of limited access to resources in times of civil unrest or after a disaster situation like a tornado. Preparations are usually as simple as keeping bulk supplies of what would normally be found in a functioning household, including water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. This would also include short-term evacuations.

This is where we get into the real “prepper” scenarios that make for tv-worthy entertainment. This goes beyond a few weeks’ worth of supplies and veers into months’ to years’ worth of stored food and sundry items, alternate sources of water and heat, and means of protection (i.e. firearms and ammo). This phase also considers long-term evacuation situations. Think: New Orleans, post-Katrina.

People who enter this phase of disaster preparedness are generally preparing for a complete collapse of society, lone-wolf survival, and living off-the-grid. Have you seen the show Revolution? Imagine yourself in that America.

As much as survivalism and emergency preparedness fascinate me, I have not ventured much past those first two phases of preparedness that I outlined above. I’m just not convinced that there is an urgent need. So, I’m definitely not suggesting my friends cash in their IRA, buy a dozen acres, and bury a bomb shelter for the apocalypse. But, there are simple, affordable ways to prepare for potential emergency situations and it surprises me how few of my friends (especially those with children) haven’t even considered doing it.

The American Red Cross has a pretty good list of resources and tools for emergency preparation. This is probably a good place to start if the concept is new to you or seems overwhelming.

Like I said, I don’t talk too much about emergency preparedness because the “Prepping” world is a bit of a freak show that I’d rather not associate myself with. But, I think I have a responsibility to protect and provide for myself and my family in an emergency situation. It’s not quite as simple as keeping a few extra batteries and boxes of cereal in the house, but it’s also not as difficult as you may think.

Consider it.

(I’m happy to post more online resources if anyone is interested.)