Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: What Do You Do In A Disaster?

Earthquake preparedness guidelines inform me that I am supposed to have enough food, water, and medication to last for three days. Apparently on the fourth day, rescue shall arrive from on high to shower me with fresh water, food, and, of course, medication. This is only a small part of the preparedness guidelines outlined in the various pamphlets public officials wave around, but it’s an important part, because it has some interesting embedded assumptions about the ability to prepare for earthquakes.

Writing at FWD last year, I touched upon some of the problems embedded in the way organisations and governments talk about earthquake preparedness when it comes to disabilities. Many seemingly ‘easy’ pieces of advice, like ‘evacuate in advance of a disaster,’ become much more complicated when you are disabled. Being told to maintain stocks of medication when your insurance might not let you buy enough in advance is an issue. Being advised that you should be ready for several days without power is not so helpful when you are ventilator-dependent and cannot afford a generator, let alone store fuel for it in the small home or apartment you can afford on your disability benefits. Being informed that you should store food is not so helpful when you may have very specific dietary needs, potentially expensive ones, that make it hard to easily stockpile supplies.

And when you live in rural areas, being advised to have enough supplies for three days is nothing short of criminal. Because there is no way you will get assistance in three days in the wake of a very serious national disaster. As evidenced in Japan recently, it can take far more than three days—more than three weeks—to get help to highly isolated communities. Japan is a highly organised nation when it comes to disaster response and emergency services. The nation responded as quickly and effectively as it could to the earthquake, tsunami, and series of aftershocks, and it still wasn’t able to meet the needs of many citizens, like older adults who died because they didn’t have adequate shelter after the tsunami.

There are rural communities in the United States that are extremely difficult to access. Some require traversing long dirt roads that might be inaccessible after or during a disaster, for a variety of reasons. The bridges might go. Trees could fall. Wildfires could cut communities off. Mudslides might block the road. The road could just vanish after an explosive earthquake that disrupts the ground. Reaching the community by air might be possible, but that requires getting aircraft, probably helicopters, close enough to service the community, and having fuel available, and this might take several days. Just getting personnel close enough to mount rescue efforts could take three days, and at that point they might not have been able to survey the area to figure out who needs help.

If all I had stockpiled was enough for three days, there is a very good chance that I would die before help arrived. And my community, while rural, is not as remote as some rural communities. We do have an airstrip that could presumably be used for rescue efforts if the tarmac wasn’t too badly damaged. We have a harbor that would allow ships to come within range with goods and supplies. We are not as remote as, say, some communities in Alaska that you can only reach by plane now, let alone after a natural disaster.

And we also have a very large older and disabled population that is at very real risk after a disaster. Members of the community would certainly pitch in to provide assistance; I certainly wouldn’t stand by while neighbours starved if I had food of any kind available. But community support is not necessarily enough, especially if key members of the community are lost, as, again, we saw in Japan, where members of governing bodies, law enforcement, emergency services, were also caught up in the disaster and weren’t in a position to organise and lead.

Rural communities also tend to have a very high poverty rate. Which means that many residents of rural areas can’t follow even the basic guidelines. If you do not have a car, you cannot evacuate. And you cannot depend on your friends, because their cars may be filled to capacity. If you don’t have a home, you can’t exactly save food and supplies for the event of a disaster. If your home is very small, you may not have storage space for supplies. You may not have the spending capacity to put together an earthquake readiness kit. Stockpiling medications? How can you do that when you can barely afford them in the first place?

These guidelines place disaster response in the hands of individuals, and make it their responsibility. If you don’t have enough supplies for three days, it is entirely your fault, and you deserve whatever is coming to you. Any of the solid reasons you may have for not being able to meet the guidelines are clearly spurious, because anyone can follow the guidelines and get ready for disaster. And help will arrive in three days, so you don’t need to worry about anything past that; there’s no way that you could do everything right and still end up in a bad place. These guidelines are not designed for a real world with real people. They are about fairly ideal circumstances, circumstances that may not be met in all communities. Remaining in this state of denial when it comes to talking about disasters could be fatal.