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  • Keith Johnson, editorial guild

What Would You Do If... ?

What Would You Do If... ?

by Gloria Flora (from issue #119, Spring 2021)

WITH MYRIAD EFFECTS OF 2020's unprecedented events still unfolding, what better time to ponder just how well-prepared we are for the unexpected, the turbulent and the unsettling?

This is the first of a series exploring potentially challenging situations and ways of preparing for them. The intent isn’t to induce fear or discomfort. We want to stimulate thought and review how we, as systems designers, might better prepare ourselves and our immediate environs for unexpected, unwelcome events and circumstances. And of course, to take appropriate protective action well beforehand.

We’ll present scenarios ranging from natural and industrial disasters to household and medical emergencies to confrontations with erratic individuals or general civil unrest. We’ll

examine ways to prepare mentally, emotionally and physically to respond effectively and minimize impacts to all. With good fortune, you’ll avoid all of the above and enjoy a placid, predictable life. But hard things happen to real people somewhere in the world on a daily basis. Will you be next?

Caring for People, a baseline permaculture ethic, is essential and nothing short of noble. Whether it’s sharing the largess of our gardens, checking in on friends or those in need, offering support in all its forms or just lending an ear, we celebrate our ability to give and are

thankful to receive. These compassionate exchanges are easy when life is calm and when we feel secure. We even care for ourselves reasonably well during good times.

But what happens when times aren’t easy? How well can we take care of ourselves and care for our family, household or neighborhood when situations devolve and deliver a big dose of chaos and uncertainty? As we say in permaculture, “It depends.” Indeed, much

depends on the specific situation but just as much on how well-prepared we are to deal with it. Any holistic design system inherently needs to include options and contingencies to accommodate and rebound from the unexpected, the extreme events and/or the difficult

situations. Permaculture design is no exception. If we aren’t considering the ‘what if ’s,’ our social and physical designs are incomplete. Just as in the other aspects of permaculture design, one size does not fit all when planning for emergencies; every plan is site and situation specific.

Most of us have our systems pretty well dialed-in based on patterns and historic trends, but what about perturbations, those unexpected deviations from the norm? For instance, we plant species appropriate to our hardiness zones, and anticipate if we’re in Zone 6 that ll our plants can handle -10°F. But what happens when the temperature plummets to +10°F the day after your first frost ? That’s deadly to many plants that haven’t gone into full dormancy. Perturbations unfortunately are a feature of the unfolding climate change disaster.

Thus, how we intend to deal with severe variations from the norm is integral to holistic design plans for our life and home. Perturbations, either envisioning them or experiencing them, hit us hard. On a sliding scale they can induce emotions that can progress from uneasiness to agitation, fearfulness, alarm, fright, to panic and flat out terror. Those last two in particular are what we’re trying to avoid by anticipatory planning for situations we plainly don’t even like to think about. But if we avoid thinking about them, we risk being totally unprepared should they occur. Caught in a compromised situation, we will not be able to care for ourselves, loved one or others, and likely experience mental, emotional and physical distress—potentially extreme.

A plethora of reliable, detailed books and websites on emergency preparedness exist, so rather than tell you what you should do in any situation in this article, we’ll share considerations and options for how to think about the potential for things to go sideways. You can decide what resonates and applies to your locale and situation.

One of your finest tools is your imagination in envisioning potential situations, visualizing step-by-step what might unfold, what might go wrong and what tangential events might be triggered. This preemptive review under calm conditions, allows you to take your time, open all your senses and take a 360° view of what potentially could happen. The more you reflect, the better your ability becomes to play out multiple stories.

Assess your risks from a long-term perspective linked to patterns of place over time, and to sudden ‘black swan’ events (a rare, unexpected phenomenon, in particular, one heretofore not believed possible). Consider natural events that could happen in your geographic location, seasonally and over a decade or so. What natural disasters historically have occurred in your region: floods, wildfires, drought, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes? What human-made risks exist, such as explosions, chemical spills, train derailments, fires, power outages, riots or threats from deranged individuals, groups or authorities out of control?

Although some events can be somewhat seasonally predictable, others are random. The latter are more challenging as they tend to be sudden, intense situations, but both require emergency response and leadership.

Response to Disaster and Threats

In the best-case scenario, if a disaster or shock event happens, the impacts are short-lived, there are more than enough professionals contactable, available and readily deployed to protect you and your property. Instructions from authorities are clear, frequent, sensible, and achievable. And you have assurances and confidence that the situation will be resolved

in short order. And everyone you love is with you or locatable and has a fully charged cell phone in an area with great reception. You feel confident and resilient throughout the

emergency. If that happens you are really lucky!

What’s more likely when disaster strikes is you just woke up from a nap, your spouse is overdue from grocery shopping, your kids are at some after-school activity you can’t remember, and you’re told to be on high alert to evacuate but you don’t know if you should wait for everyone to come home or go now. Then the power goes out and your cell phone is at 10% battery power. But what irreplaceable or essential items should you grab in 20 minutes, if you have that long? The car’s gas tank is close to empty, but where are you

even going? Car horns are blaring, and people are shouting. And the sky is as dark as night in the middle of the day and you smell smoke. Yeah, it feels like all hell is breaking loose.

So, what are you going to do? If you haven’t given any thought to this, you’re in a world of hurt, feeling helpless, panicked and filled with fear for you and your loved ones. You will waste precious time just trying to calm down enough to breathe and control your racing, scatter-shot thoughts, before you can make smart, definitive choices. That is not what you want to experience, even for a minute.

But if you spent some time imagining your emergency responses ahead of time… your spouse would have already texted their location and when they actually expect to be home. The kids’ events would be on the calendar with a location and contact; you’d have a spare charged battery for your phone and a priority list of essential items to grab and go —

including containers to put them in. And your car always has at least 1/3 tank of gas… You get the picture.

If you’ve spent any time mentally preparing, the difference in how you feel and perform is profound. You can kick into high gear with attention, focus, speed and confidence as you implement a plan, not devise one. Your confidence and direction will calm and safeguard your whole family, and importantly, you’re not a basket-case or burden on the emergency

services system. Calling 911 seeking advice because you’re frantic is not a solution.

Likewise, if you have imagined emergency situations and how to respond, you will have noted things that you can do to your home and around your property to add resilience and

reduce risk. Having noted deficits or areas to strengthen, you can take appropriate action before an emergency. So, when that emergency happens, there’s not only a few less things to worry about, but you are secure in knowing that your home and property can take the hit and rebound. And potentially save the lives of you, your family, and your animals.

A Mental Walk-through

The first step is identifying the most likely threats in your area. Always include one real outlier to stretch your creativity. Make a list and prioritize it as to likelihood of occurrence:

probable, likely, possible or remote. Then for each event, think about the possible impacts, limitations and stressors, including duration, on you and your property. Then project out to your neighborhood and community to inject a sense of scale. Using your imagination—and the permaculture principle of “Creatively respond to change.” — determine what actions or infrastructure could help effectively ameliorate impacts to you, your family, and your property.

Adding resilience to your property needs to be undertaken well before the event, you may not have much, or any, time to prepare.

Following your list of possible disasters, develop your scenarios, breaking down each event into sequential steps. Here are some basic questions, followed by the type of information you need to know. Make a list of those keywords. And under each, fill in the details of how you and/or your property would respond.

How will I learn that this disaster is coming? Awareness— communications or personal observation that alerts you to the situation.

Where do I find trustworthy, real-time data and what do I do if I can’t find any? Information—reliable sources and how much you will know or not know.

How fast do I have to respond? Urgency—the timeframe and level of threat to life and property.

What do I need if I stay, or what do I do to evacuate? Strategy—basic action plans for both options gives confidence in making either choice based on factual circumstances not emotion.

Where can I go to avoid the most risk to myself, loved ones and animals? Scale—how widespread the impacts are and locations of the 2 or 3 closest safe zones.

How do I stay in touch with others? Communication — is any form of communication possible and if so, what will enable you to make and maintain essential contacts.

How will I find out where/how my loved ones are, and help others find theirs? Networking—locating your immediate family members and notifying others of theirs.

How do I keep myself, family and farm from serious harm? Safety—essential actions to preserve the health and life of those people and animals you are responsible for, including yourself.

What can I do to minimize property damage? Protection/ Resilience– alterations to add resilience and protect your property before disaster strike.

As you go, evaluate the ‘what ifs’ of each event on your list, you’ll see a pattern in your responses, even though each disaster or threat presents its own set of challenges. Learning

how to deal with even one type of emergency will give you a big advantage in dealing with any other.

You can make this into a somewhat fun, albeit macabre, “What If...?” exercise for the whole household. Try to outdo each other in thinking up all the possibilities. Then everyone

works together to build—and implement—solutions.

Every natural or human-related disaster has its own set of circumstances that you can build into your planned responses and designs. You’ll find as you prepare your property for

one particular perturbation, your innovations will serve to protect from a wide variety of disasters.

Now that you know how to begin thinking about emergency planning, let’s take a closer look at infrastructure, that is, the installations and structures on your property, and the utility systems that allow them to function. (We’ll get into more design details later in the series.)

Resilient Infrastructure

In building, retrofitting or upgrading your home, green and resilient architecture should be your applied standards. And your landscaping should likewise be part of your resilience, in this case, disaster preparedness. Let’s walk through an example.

My husband and I built a home in Montana on a ridgetop (5,500’ avg. elevation) on 160 acres with densely forested slopes on three sides: a high-risk zone for disaster in that very

wildfire prone area. However, we chose there knowing that, with some work, we could likely create the most defensible and accessible space on the property.

After much PATO (Patient and Thoughtful Observation, a permaculture mantra), we designed an integrated house, landscaping and infrastructure system to help our property

become more resilient. We thinned 35 acres of forest around the house site, cleaned up all slash, used our goats to keep the underbrush low, increased site moisture with strategically

placed snow-fences and swales, and built the soil with organic matter and biochar to help keep it moist.

Our infrastructure was likewise built for resilience. We designed a gravity-feed water system to ensure a 4,000 gallon reserve and flow without power, and built a pond for wildlife,

irrigation and fire-fighting. Since earthquakes were unusual but not improbable, we framed our stucco home with large timbers (beetle-killed trees we harvested and milled from the

property) and heavily reinforced foundation walls. With a concrete roof, minimum exterior wood, and being partially underground, it also wasn’t going to catch