My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

To quote The Lion King...

#19・

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My World's on Fire
To quote The Lion King...
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #19 • View online

My World’s on Fire is a free newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. My goal is to help you feel a bit more at ease about our unpredictable world by equipping you with in-depth reporting and insights. I can only do that with your continued support, so please subscribe and share!
A smoky sky over Idaho in August. Unfortunately, no filter
This summer, hundreds of thousands of Americans found themselves under evacuation orders. Officials urged readiness, encouraging residents to gather “go bags” or disasters kits, to prepare for the worst.
But: “The whole notion of being ‘prepared’ is fraught with uncertainty,” according to Dr. Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
All month, I’ve been including small ways to get equipped for disasters in these newsletters as a nod to National Preparedness Month. Today, I want to dig into what “preparedness” actually means to help make it more tangible, a term that inspires action rather than confusion.
I interviewed Dr. Redlener in February for a Vox article about the rising popularity of curated preparedness products, which I’d seen popping up on top influencers’ Instagrams. These kits, often sold in aesthetically-pleasing backpacks or crates, are typically filled with emergency medical supplies, high-protein food, water, blankets, flashlights, and other basics with the goal of sustaining someone in the days following a devastating event. When I published my article in early March, I pointed to both those celebrity endorsements and the growing global market around these sorts of products as a turning point away from our traditionally unprepared culture, in which just about half of Americans – if that – had any sort of disaster provisions.
Well, we all know what happened next. Days later, states started enacting shelter-in-place regulations and hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, face masks, and toilet paper disappeared from shelves, some still yet to return. For those armed with disposable income who missed the boat on these purchases, were eager to avoid packed stores, or were feeling vulnerable during a time of global crisis, emergency kits proved to be an appealing alternative for stocking up. The demand for them skyrocketed, far surpassing the numbers and predictions I had cited.
Christian Schauf, founder of Unchartered Supply Company, said they’ve had nearly “10,000 back orders” over the past six months on their kits, which are designed to turn the “worst case scenario” into a “somewhat-unpleasant-but-survivable scenario.”
“There’s a crescendo around this type of stuff, for sure,” Schauf said during our August conversation.
For some experts I spoke with, the interest around these kits evokes mixed emotions. Monica Sanders, a disaster response expert and professor at the University of Delaware and Georgetown University, is encouraged by this shift in conversation after years of what she believes was lackluster risk communication.
“Looking at the confluence of climate change and disasters and social justice issues,” she said, “The silver lining to all of us going through all of this is that it’s the start of an important conversation that we need to continue having.”
Still, she admits to being “disturbed” by some of the branding she has seen around disaster kits online, particularly when it comes to marketing them as a high-end or luxury purchase. She doesn’t want people to be put off by preparing due to cost concerns.
“It doesn’t have to cost that much,” Sanders stressed. For her own kit this year, “I went to CVS and pulled together a kit for one person for $46.”
Sanders’ kit includes:
  • A manual can opener
  • Vitamins
  • Travel size toiletries/personal hygiene products
  • Three days worth of food and water
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Masks
  • Bleach
It’s a kit that fits her needs and considers the risks she faces in her area. It’s that specificity, Redlener fears, that can get lost with buying a prepackaged one, as I described in my article:
“In some ways, they just somehow misrepresent themselves as being ‘disaster preparedness.’ So people think, ‘I’ll buy a kit for my car and another for my house, and I won’t have to think about it again.’ Really a false sense of security,” Redlener says.
From his perspective, preparedness first requires a plan based on your personal risks. Are you likely to face an evacuation or a need to shelter in place? Do you have provisions for any other household or family members? Pets? Medical needs?
“I would say that one of the most overlooked things, I think, is experience, education, guidance,” Schauf agreed. Simon Huck, the founder of Judy kits, said something similar in my piece. Schauf’s Unchartered Supply Company offers practical tips via a blog; Huck’s Judy offers free texts with personalized emergency advice.
Ultimately, preparedness is personal. While you can buy a kit or use Sanders’ list as a model to get started assembling one on your own, having a plan that takes into account your unique needs is key. Then, it’s about sharing that with your loved ones and making it a practice, something you revisit with enough regularity that you would be comfortable employing it if a hazard reached your home.
Around 80 percent of Americans have lived in areas impacted by disasters, according to FEMA, with more than one in five polled by YouGov having had to evacuate at least once back in 2018. It’s likely those numbers are even higher today, coming out of this “unprecedented” summer. The idea of looking around your home and deciding what items to save or what roads you would take to evacuate is undeniably alarming, but it’s also a necessity at this point to mitigate the risks many of us do face. And it’s something that can be made more manageable by taking small steps to first understand your own situation, and then work on addressing the concerns that arise from there.
I’ve included some links below that I think are particularly useful in helping get started, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, too. Do you have a kit? If so, any tips on making it more effective? Or do you have questions on the topic of preparedness in general? Leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or reply to this email to let me know.
Helpful links:
As always…
thank you for being a part of this community. If you found today’s dispatch interesting, please consider sharing it and spreading the word on social media.
Here’s a little something for reading to the end (had to get in just one more before the month ended)!
Colleen
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