Friday, May 9, 2014

Guest Post: The Week Ike Came to Town, part 2

Editor's note:  Erin thanks everyone for their patience as she deals with her mother's health. Things are looking up and should be back to normal soon. 

Part 2:  Disaster Response

by John "TXGunGeek" Kochan

John has been a volunteer firefighter/EMT since 1980. This is his story of being off-grid for an entire week in the wake of a hurricane, as well as being Acting Chief of his Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) during that time.


If your plan in response to any sort of disaster is to grab your bug-out bag and head out to the abandoned mine in the woods to live off the land by yourself, do yourself a favor:  turn off the computer and go outside to make some new friends. First,  because going it alone is the wrong response to 99 point something percent of problems, and second, because we are pack/herd animals and need each other to survive. As Tommy Lee Jones said in Men in Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb panicky animals and you know it.” You can’t stand a 24 hour watch by yourself, even if you are schizophrenic.

Basic bullet points:
  • Prepare yourself to survive 
  • Plan to have your family with you
  • Be an active part of your community
One word of warning:  My experience is different than many because I live in a very rural community. Your plan is going to be very different if you live in someplace like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, downtown Atlanta, or the suburbs of Austin. Where many people plan to Bug Out in case of major trouble, our plan is to get home. Of course, when our directions include the phrase “Turn off the paved roadway,” this comes with its own set of problems. There is only really one event where we are likely to actually Bug Out, and we have already done that once back in September of 2011 during a massive wild fire. (That's a story for another day.)


When Ike rolled into town, we had two friends whose plan was basically “We’re coming out to your place if something happens.” The big difference between them and so many others is that these two were part of our family. They came out as part of the plan, and were not only expected but also came bearing supplies and their part of the plan. Family may or may not be the people you are related to by blood or marriage - they are the people you plan to share your house with in an emergency. Some people call this your clan or tribe or something. I like family because these are the people you depend on for day to day living.

You should plan accordingly. Have supplies in hand for family, whether those supplies are your doing or theirs, and this preparation should be done in concert to prepare for the well-being of all. In addition, you should be prepared for those who are not part of your family that are just going to show up. Can you explain to your young child why their best friend from school cannot bring their family into your house and they have to go away? Something to give thought to now, before the situation presents itself.

When things went sideways, these members of our family not only were in the thick of it, they helped out. During the fire we had in the middle of the hurricane, they were out there with us, even though they are not firefighters. They helped not by fighting the fire, but by standing watch at surrounding intersections. Not that there was much traffic,  but there actually were a few folks interested in what was going on that were silly enough to get out in the weather to see what all the commotion was about. Once we had the fire somewhat under control, the focus shifted. We had no electricity, but due to a quirk in the electric grid in the area and location of various wells, some people still had water but no power, some had power but no water and some had neither. (This is the subject of my next post) This stretched across our county and into a couple of surrounding counties.


This leads to our next level of support, Community. Be a part of your community before things go non-linear. Be it a church, a CERT, a Volunteer Fire Department or Rescue Squad, whatever, get involved. Get to know the people that live around you, because you may need them or they may need you. When the lights went out people came out of the woodwork wanting to know what they could do to help. 

How do we help each other? One thing the VFD had to offer was a central location that everyone knew. Another was an organization that could coordinate activities. This is a vital function in an emergency: someone MUST be in charge. Otherwise, chaos will infect everything and everyone, and make the situation so much worse. 

Another very important community is a church, both for the spiritual support that we need in times of crisis as well as for a connection to the larger community. When things clarified as “bad beyond a day” storm, the churches in the area stepped up and mobilized their own little community to work with the VFD to take care of the larger community.

After the first two levels of response and families taking what care of themselves that they could, the next level kicked in. The Community at large assembled in the form of church members meeting at the VFD. The VFD was a meeting place where people could come together to share a meal and to commiserate in our collective lack of electricity. As we communicated with the rest of the county, it became apparent that the trouble stretched out much larger than our little town. 

The next higher level of community was the county at large. Since the whole VFD-Church partnership was already playing itself out across the county, we used the VFDs as communication hubs to coordinate who needed what and where, and who had what where. Despite the repeaters for the county sheriff’s office and VFD dispatch going down for damage from the storm and lack of electricity to power the repeaters, we were able to communicate using simplex channels on the fire department radios that we normally use for fire scene communications. That limited us to short range comms, but it turned into a relay system where we could get messages across the county and beyond. This led to movement of supplies by VFD members throughout the county to get the right supplies where they needed to be. 

All of this happened in the first 24 hours, long before any outside agencies responded. As the week went on, we refined our organizations county-wide not only to feed but also to fuel. Once outside agency support arrived, mainly in the form of food and ice, we already had a distribution net going strong to move things out to the people as efficiently as possible.

Take-aways for you: 
  • Have a plan for yourself and your family at the very least. 
  • Be a part of your community in some fashion. 
  • Have a communications plan outside of normal channels (cell phones get overloaded then go away as infrastructure gets damaged and or backups run out of juice at cell sites) and public service radios that rely on repeaters can easily go down.

Next up: water and waste water. Not only during an extended outage like Ike, but everyday considerations as well.

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