Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Some Thoughts about Disaster Risk Reduction Day – October 13, 2022

 


 

Prevention

As Secretary -General of the UN, Antonio Guterres says, 

“A little understanding of the economic losses from extreme weather events can help to generate greater action on Climate Change and increased ambition on reducing greenhouse gases.”  

 

 

Unfortunately it seems that most communities are too busy recovering from the last disaster to think much about preventing the next.  It is also true that even if we were to stop creating emissions today, the inbuilt momentum of those already in the atmosphere will mean that we will continue to bear the consequences for a very long time. While much of the UN’s focus is now on providing early warning systems in as many regions as possible by 2030, this must be accompanied by disaster mitigation and preparation.

National Responses

The EU has a central pool of experts and agencies to not only deal with its own emergencies and those of its neighbours, but also for deployment in less developed countries. It works as a knowledge broker, facilitator and researcher, has firefighting teams, search and rescue teams and medical teams and is even preparing responses to maritime disasters such as oil spills. A major feature of its disaster preparedness is its Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System. Its  European Civil Protection Pool is a co -operative  and co -ordinating body involving 25 countries contributing some 115 resources between them from water supplies to humanitarian aid and medical support. So far it has assisted in several major emergencies such as the 2022 cyclones in Madagascar, the Haitian Earthquake and tropical storm of 2021, flood and fires in Greece and Belgium in 2021 and the explosion which rocked Beirut in 2020.  For details on crisis management and procedures in individual countries, click here.

Sweden for example, has 64,000 shelters which together have space for every man woman and child. It also tests its alarms on a weekly basis so that everyone understands what they mean and how to respond. Of course, having Russia as a near neighbour is a great motivator, but one has to wonder, how well are we prepared for other emergencies such as a gas leak or a chemical spill for example, or even another Covid variant or worse? While I like to think our government would step in, in the event of a major emergency, the Lismore floods (AU) of 2022 and the 2019 fires do not inspire much confidence. People don't really believe it can happen to them until it does. That was the problem in Germany's recent floods. Despite excellent warning systems and preparations in place, such major flooding had not taken place before and people didn't take the warnings seriously. Better to be sure than sorry. If nothing happens, then at least it was a good practice drill.

Americans have never forgotten Hurricane Katrina and are all about personal responsibility. I’m not suggesting you go into full "prepper" mode, but a few basics will give you peace of mind and put less pressure on emergency workers who may be busy restoring power or rescuing others who may be less able to help themselves. A prompt response while waiting for first responders, really can save lives.

For Households

As I write, flood waters are engulfing many parts of the state. Roads are cut and people are being evacuated. It’s also happening in Victoria and along the Eastern seaboard, with the people of New South Wales facing their fourth “unprecedented” flood after they have only just cleaned up after last one. In the previous one, emergency services were overwhelmed and many people were only rescued  because of quick action by their neighbours and their communities, so if you aren’t already getting wet feet, now is a good time to think about the kinds of hazards you might face in your region and to prepare accordingly.

Most of the following information comes from our State Emergency Service, so check what yours says, but if you don’t have one, you could use this as a general guide. Your local council may also have plans in place, though only a few councils have done so in my state. In Australia, the rule is Prepare, Act, Survive. Here's a quick run down.

Prepare...

Know the conditions you might encounter in your area. In Australia at this time of year this usually means getting ready for bushfire season. In the suburbs it’s about things like making sure that gutters are clear, that yards are free of dry grass and flammable items and that there are no overhanging trees or branches. In the country, farmers will be looking at clearing undergrowth away from homes and cutting firebreaks for an easy get away in the event of a fire. In the USA it might mean making sure you have enough storm shutters and a safe place for hurricane season.

It also means understanding the warnings and alerts you might get. I notice ours now include Tsunami, Earthquake and Landslip warnings, which haven’t been much of an issue before. There was a tsunami last year, but it was much smaller than anticipated.  It is however, much better to be safe than sorry.We have also just had a major landslip which threatened power supplies in the Midlands.Right now though, people are more worried about getting enough sandbags. A few extra tarps and duct tape are also a good idea in case roofs, skylights or windows get broken during a storm.

 

Make an Emergency Plan

 It's also time to make a Plan and get a Basic Emergency Kit together. It will help you to remain calm in a crisis and at the very least you won't be left in the dark if the power goes out.   If your local authorities haven’t issued one, you could work through our basic checklist here. Make sure everyone in the household understands the plan, knows how to turn off the power, water and gas and where fire extinguishers and exits are, also where to meet up if you are separated. Do a drill if you can. Teach children how to dial Emergency (000 in Australia). Children as young as four have been able to save their parents' lives by being able to do so. Make sure you know what is covered by your insurance and what isn’t.

If you are going on holiday, make sure you know something about conditions there too and report to embassies or other authorities if going overseas. The last thing people in disaster zones need is tourists running about like headless chooks, to use a fine Australian expression.

A Home Emergency Kit

1.       A battery powered radio

2.       A torch and spare batteries, or the sort that needs to be shaken or wound up.

3.       Candles, matches or lighters and possibly a storm lantern and whatever it needs to run it.

4.       A few litres of water- 2 litres per person a day, minimally, bottled or in a container, and possibly a filter or water purifying tablets

5.       Enough food for three days – a few cans, dry goods which keep well like flour, rice, beans or pasta and two -minute noodles, tea bags and some muesli bars.

6.       A First Aid Kit and any medications. Painkillers aren't mentioned, but I would add some of those too and antiseptic lotion of some kind.

8.    A spare pair of glasses if anyone needs them.

7.       If there’s someone in your household who needs medical aids which rely on electricity, think about back – up generation. There are now some solar units on the market, but not sure how long they will last. Might be best to ask your Healthcare authorities.

8.       A small camping stove or propane stove for cooking or sterilising water, but don’t use these  inside as most of them produce carbon monoxide. Same goes for gas BBQs.

9.       Wipes, bleach or sanitiser, masks and gloves

10.   A copy of your plan, a contact list, insurance details and ID documents in a waterporoof ziplock bag. You should also prepare a much smaller Evacuation Kit in case you  need to leave your home.

You can check out the American Red Cross version here or one specifically for Hurricanes here. This video is interesting because it shows how power companies are preparing too, though I’m not sure how you would call those emergency numbers if the phones are out as well, as was the case during our big bushfires. I hadn’t thought about the cash aspect, but ATMs are often out as well. On the other hand, during fires on the West Coast, cash wouldn’t have helped either, as all the petrol pumps were shut down. I wouldn't get too carried away on that front as it might make you a target. I also wouldn't want mine to be the only house in the street that still has its lights on. That's also why it's better to work with your neighbours.

The Evacuation Kit

If you are asked to evacuate, wear sturdy shoes, take heavy duty rubber gloves or garden gloves for clean -up or rescue work, take water, underwear, pajamas, toiletries, medications and any special needs such as baby food and nappies, phones, chargers, a few snacks, a ziplock baggie or USB with proof of ID, birth certificates, insurance policy, Medicare card or any other essential information, possibly some photos or games, and a book or favourite toy if there are children. Include any protective clothing, even a poncho or two and warm clothing in cold weather.

Act....

Stay informed. Listen to the news. Our weather bureau gives daily warnings at the end of the news about severe weather, bushfires or high fire danger days. There are for example alerts for bushwalkers, road weather alerts and information for farmers about the possibility of frosts or floods. There is also maritime information about windspeeds and rough seas for those who might be tempted to go out in boats. Even our inland waters can be treacherous in wild weather. Check the relevant websites or information hotlines for more information and act accordingly.

If there is an imminent threat in your neighbourhood – e.g. fire, severe storms or flood, it’s best to move vulnerable people, children and pets out early, ideally with safer family and friends. In the case of floods, move livestock to higher ground. Sandbag doors and windows and move electrical goods, computers, heirlooms and any other precious objects as high as you can in your house, with electrical goods on top. Turn off power, water and gas. Check in with your neighbours, especially if older, disabled in any way or living alone. There is a special Primary Producers Plan to make sure farms are ready for floods. 

Evacuate early rather than late, but if you stay, contact authorities and await rescue if roads become impassable. Never try to drive or walk through flood waters. Stay where you are and alert authorities

Be aware of other risks you might face – fallen trees, washed out bridges or roads and downed power lines. Under no circumstances should you try to do anything with powerlines other than call emergency services. In the event of lightning strikes, don’t be the tallest object in an open area. Stay low and run for cover.

Never try to rescue someone by endangering yourself – use a rope, a pole or an Esky, but stay on firm ground yourself.

Register yourself at the nearest evacuation centre, so family members can find you. You may not end up in the same place, especially if other family members were at work or at school when disaster struck.

Survive...

After a disaster, don’t go back into the area until you have been given the all clear that it’s safe to do so. Be aware of damaged structures that could fail or surfaces which could still be hot. Try to assess and protect your property from further damage and take photographs to show insurers. Let family members know you are OK and make sure they are too. Also check on pets and farm animals. Stay out of floodwaters – they can be contaminated by overflow from sewerage works or chemicals and don’t handle or consume anything which may have been exposed to them. If you must retrieve anything afterwards, wear strong rubber gloves.

 I've written elsewhere about bushfire safety and dealing with extreme heat but today we should perhaps  spend a few minutes on to How to keep warm if the power goes out. For other types of emergencies see your local authorities’ recommendations or check out ours here.After you have put your own house in order, ask yourself. How prepared is my workplace? My child's school? The elderly or disabled in our community? Do we even know who and where they are?

Keeping warm when the power goes out

 

 

There are also a couple of low cost ideas on this video from the UK. They include things like putting bubble - wrap on windows and glass doors- no need to stick it - just use water, for insulation, and reversing ceiling fans so that heat is pushed down, rather than sucked up. Keep furniture away from heat pumps and column heaters to allow for better circulation - it's safer too. Stock up on woollen jumpers and blankets and eat carbohydrate rich food such as porridge. In the absence of a down sleeping bag, a woollen blanket underneath the sheet on your bed will keep you nearly as warm as an electric blanket. Don't forget socks and beanies to keep your core temperature up. There are hundreds of ideas on YouTube and some very expensive ones too. Don't panic buy. Be sensible and just buy a couple of extras when they are on special.

The role of Government

Governments at all levels in Australia and no doubt in many other countries could most certainly do more too. Here are just a few suggestions.

 Better Communication and Co -ordination

In the Red Cross presentation on Integrated Disaster Management it mentions the importance of engaging at local government and community level. This doesn’t seem to have happened here yet. When I asked at the Neighbourhood Watch meeting a couple of nights ago, what the emergency plans were for our neighbourhood, no one had any idea. “That’s a state government issue, “ said one. No one knew where our local evacuation centres were either. There was in fact a flood warning for this area the next day. I wonder how many people got the message or were prepared in any way?

 Pre -emptive planning

Rather than only responding to disasters after they have happened, it’s high time we did more in the way of prevention. Local governments for example, which are responsible for planning regulations and approvals here, should no longer allow developments on low lying land and have strict regulations around building in bushfire zones and vulnerable coastal regions. Some of them – especially those already faced with extensive rebuilding in the wake of recent floods are already discussing this.

For individuals it may be forced upon them by insurance companies. Some either exclude flood and other major risks - landslips for example, aren't covered anywhere, or charge such high premiums that they become unaffordable for all but the wealthiest. In cyclone -prone areas, having at least one reinforced room is becoming imperative. Ever since Cyclone Tracy demolished 80% of Darwin in 1974, all new homes there have had to have a cyclone -proof room, usually the bathroom. Most are also built on concrete pylons which raises them above monsoon flooding range.

Our infrastructure needs to become more resilient too. Are our bridges adequate? Should roadbeds be raised above flood levels? It should at least be a consideration for new ones. How good are our backup power and communication systems and water supplies? Which other places would benefit from levees and the like? How do we pay for it? I read in one report that Honduras for example, is looking to banks and insurance companies to help foot the bill for mitigation work, because they would in fact be reducing their own risk as well as that of their customers.

A Dedicated Workforce

I'm not questioning the dedication of our volunteers here, many of whom risk their lives and that of their own families to come to the aid of others, but given the scale and increasing frequency of disasters, I find it quite shocking that most of our firemen and emergency services personnel are in fact volunteers. Perhaps it’s time to make them full time professionals with adequate pay and career paths. When not engaged in actual emergency operations, they could be training communities, upgrading infrastructure e.g. they could be finishing the levee banks such as the one started at Latrobe, (Tas.) after the last big flood in 2016. They could also help with rebuilding and work on prevention.

Reducing Poverty and Inequality

One of the reasons people rebuild in places where they have lost homes before is simply because they cannot afford to move elsewhere. People do not generally choose to live in homes made of cardboard and tin at the foot of volcanoes or landslide zones either. If we wish to avoid civil unrest and mass displacement and migration, we must do as the European Union has done in helping and supporting our neighbours as well as engaging in knowledge sharing and collaborative efforts.

Thinking calmly about such things while nothing is happening and taking action before another "unprecedented" event comes along is exactly what Disaster Risk Reduction Day is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping warm if the Power goes out

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