Technology Review: Waiting for the Big One, then Coronavirus Arrived

MIT Technology Review has a good article about community preparedness on the Oregon Coast in They were waiting for the Big One. Then coronavirus arrived. The article’s subtitle is Can being ready for one kind of disaster prepare you for another?

Linda Kozlowski’s neighbor wanted to know if she needed anything from Walmart. It wasn’t a quick trip into town; the drive from the Oregon coast to Portland took two hours. But because of her age, Kozlowski, a 77-year-old retiree, might be at risk from covid-19. Perhaps there would be hard-to-find goods, like hand sanitizer. She thought for a moment and asked for bread, pasta, and toilet paper.

Helping senior citizens is a neighborly thing to do, especially in the middle of a pandemic. But in Manzanita, where Kozlowski lives, joint grocery runs are part of a detailed disaster preparedness plan that Kozlowski herself introduced to the town 13 years ago. Back then, it wasn’t a disease they were concerned about, but a storm that helped locals realize exactly how vulnerable they were to power outages, floods, and landslides.

The Oregon coast is a harsh, unforgiving place where mundane outings can quickly turn deadly. This past January, Jeremy Stiles and his two young children, Lola and William, were swept out to sea by a sneaker wave while hiking north of Manzanita. Lola died at the hospital. William’s body was never found. (Jeremy recovered from hypothermia.)

Until recently, though, the main thing most residents were preparing for was a combined earthquake and tsunami they nicknamed The Big One. The Cascadia Subduction Zone fault line stretches from Vancouver Island in Canada to Cape Mendocino, California. The last Cascadia earthquake occurred in 1700, and scientists have predicted that one will occur every 300 to 600 years. When it hits, the region will be devastated.

So Kozlowski had helped the neighborhood get prepared. She’d followed advice, called a meeting, and identified who had first aid skills, who had generators, who had a chainsaw. She’d organized a spot for everyone to rendezvous if things went bad. Sure, she’d created the disaster plan in case there was a tsunami. But it meant that when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Kozlowski and her neighbors already knew exactly how to lean on one another.

The majority of Americans are not ready for disaster. A 2016 survey conducted by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness found that 65% of households reported having no or inadequate plans to survive a catastrophe. Forty-one percent of households said they weren’t confident their communities knew what to do if disaster struck unexpectedly. And yet, in the face of coronavirus, preparation has become urgent in a whole new range of ways to a whole new range of people. Lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders have paralyzed communities, shut down businesses, and led to panic buying. If the nation was generally unprepared for disaster, it was even less ready for this particular flavor of emergency.

“Are we prepared as a country? I don’t think so,” says Irwin Redlener, the director of the Columbia center. “The fact is, the studies we have done that have to do with individual preparedness have been extremely depressing…”

Kozlowski…organized residents to get trained. Then came the portable, handheld emergency radio operators and those familiar with ham radio. Today, every Thursday at 6 p.m., they call in to a centralized channel called the Net (the operation center is the firehouse), say who they are, and listen to what’s called an “educational moment,” about something like how to get to an assembly site. Last year there were 2,701 total check-ins.

In 2008, Kozlowski expanded from Manzanita to two other local towns, covering some 2,000 people, and formed the volunteer corps. Most of its money comes from local fundraising and from the fire department. Her budget is small—even if it has risen from $4,000 to $12,000—but the corps offers classes in emergency radio, WaSH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), and managing chronic illness in austere conditions. The closest hospital is 40 minutes away, so the corps also has a medical reserve made up of local doctors, nurses, vets, and physical therapists. Kozlowski says this training has all helped them deal with coronavirus. “We’ve been talking about ‘How do you wash your hands?’ for a long time,” she says. “Because after a disaster, the last thing you want to do is get diarrhea.”

Kozlowski’s efforts were soon mimicked around the coast. Sharon Kloepfer, a CERT volunteer in Gearhart, another coastal town, told me Manzanita has “blown away every other community as far as preparedness.” In Rockaway Beach, a strip of land south of Manzanita, David Elkins is trying to copy Kozlowski after taking her volunteer corps classes. He was told the city didn’t have any money to hire an emergency manager, so he rallied 25 residents who are now trained in first aid, lost-person search, and small-fire suppression…

Click here to read the entire article at Technology Review.