Disaster-readiness in urban areas

For Burners, preparing to go to Burning Man is a good exercise for disaster-readiness. People test their outdoor shelters, plan and purchase enough water and food supplies for a week or so, assemble first-aid kits, pack extra batteries, and ready their flashlights, hand-crank radios, solar-powered lanterns, and generators. They also check through their toolkits (sledge-hammer, swiss armyknife/leatherman, duct tape, GPS, etc.) and stock up on dustmasks and ear and eye protection. People prepare fun gadgets, too, like a bicycle-powered blender, and learn new skills, such as building temporary shelters or putting together machinery.

Sociologist Lee Clarke, who specializes in understanding disaster preparation, notes that your chances of surviving a major disaster are increased if you can pool efforts and resources with your neighbors and colleagues. Another sociologist Chick Perrow argues that given the complex and tightly coupled nature of modern systems, normal accidents, such as a nuclear plant meltdown or major transportation snafus are bound to happen. Given that we are likely to encounter a major disaster during our lifetime, I tell my students to look to their classmates on their left and to their right – most likely, if and when something bad happens, they will have to depend on each other, as governmental agencies and relief organizations may not reach them immediately. Recent natural disasters such as Haiti’s earthquake and Hurricane Katrina should remind us that help, if it arrives, may be days or even weeks away. Preparing what we usually take for granted – shelter, food and water, and communication – can increase the chances of survival.

We should also consider how socio-economic inequalities can increase vulnerabilities to disasters. For example, we can construct homes and buildings that can withstand the elements, set up access to drinkable water and regular health care, maintain multiple transportation routes, and reduce social isolation and enhance participation opportunities so that people can collaborate. Such measures ensure that people not only have a fighting chance during disasters, but that they also have a better quality of life as individuals and as a community.

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