With one of the biggest storms – Sandy* – in recent history having just ravaged the eastern seaboard of the United States, bringing flooding and power outages and downed trees and the kind of awe-inspiring displays of raw power that only Mother Nature can bring to bear, I got to thinking about Primal disaster/emergency preparedness. Obviously, regardless of the lifestyle habits we subscribe to, we’re subject to the same basic concerns as anyone else: food, water, warmth, light, shelter, entertainment. The food we eat is gonna look different, and we might try to look at the bright side of being without power, but not much else changes.
Food? Yeah, it’s important, but this post isn’t about food. And anyway, a couple years back, I published a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving the apocalypse, and despite the humor, the recommended non-perishable foods and drinks from that post are still solid choices. The only items I’d add would be canned seafood beyond just sardines – like tuna, salmon, oysters – and kale chips. Because kale chips are that awesome. Oh, and try to get everything in BPA-free packaging. Avoiding endocrine disruption may not be your first priority in a disaster situation, but it can’t hurt.
I won’t go into the standard disaster preparedness checklist. That’s pretty basic stuff that you can find anywhere. Everyone knows the material items they’ll need to survive, the things you can buy at the store and keep in your basement or garage and forget all about until the day arrives. But in the event of a real disaster, whether it’s modern fast zombies, old school shambling zombies, or an unprecedented subtropical storm, there is one essential – and totally Primal – factor that many of us are in danger of overlooking:
The importance of having people nearby on whom you can rely (and they you).
In my experience, most discussions about disaster preparedness overemphasize the individual aspects of survival. You’ve got your bug out bags, your go kits. You’ve got your fantasies of building underground bunkers capable of withstanding a direct hit from a nuclear weapon, amassing as much ammunition as you can find, stockpiling an arsenal that would put Michael Gross from Tremors to shame, and lining your property with machine gun nests, bear traps, and a moat full of great white sharks, piranhas, and salt water crocodiles. Ultimately, these folks are assuming the worst – not just of the situation, but of the people around them – and end up preparing to face the coming onslaught all by themselves. It’s important to be self-reliant, but is it enough? Is it even possible? Are you prepared to move that fallen tree blocking your front door all by yourself? What about the extrication of your living body from the ruins of your house – think that’s a one man job? Can you wrap wounds, set bones, and fashion slings? Do you have carpentry, hunting, and masonry skills? If not, you might want to think about having a group of people upon whom you can rely (and vice versa). You might want to think about obtaining the one resource you can’t simply buy and store in your garage (without going to jail, that is): friends.
Friends can help each other hunt, forage, and garden. Ten pairs of hands (or guns, or minds, or sets of legs) are better and far more effective at doing the things required for survival. Ten guns can defend better than one gun. Ten pairs of hands can chop more wood, carry more water, build more things, and pull more weeds than one pair of hands. Ten minds can come up with a better solution for water purification or shelter fortification than one mind. Ten sets of legs can cover more ground and find more survivors and food than one set of legs.
We all have friends, of course. But in today’s world of Facebook, Twitter feeds, message boards, email, and mobile phones that allow instant connectivity with anyone and everyone anywhere, our friends often live far, far away from us. Or perhaps across town, which doesn’t help us if the roads are blocked and our cars are underwater. For friends to be helpful in disaster recovery, they need to be close. What about our neighbors – the people who we do have at arm’s reach? These are the people who will be able to help us when disaster strikes. These are the people with whom we’ll be able to share supplies and divvy up responsibilities. However, research shows that these people are increasingly not our friends. We might share casual words on trash day with them, but we probably feel awkward asking them to feed our cat and water our plants when we’re away.
When life is going as planned, strangers are fairly civil to each other. You bump into someone in the mall accidentally, you apologize. You see someone coming up behind you as you enter the bank, you hold the door open. This is basic common decency. Easy stuff. But when the world is falling apart around you, what do you do? Your innate sense of preservation kicks in. You grab your kids, your spouse, call your friends, your parents, and stuff the cat into a pet carrier. In other words, you don’t even have to think about saving you and yours; you just act. This is an incredibly Primal response.
When you expand your circle of “yours” to include the people who live around you – and they expand their circles to include you – everyone looks out for everyone. Everyone’s better off. Most importantly, each individual person is better off, because if you’re the unlucky one whose ceiling fell in or whose canned goods were washed away, your neighbors are that much more likely to pull you out and invite you in for some canned tuna and water. And you’re more likely to do the same for them. The beauty of it is that because these are now your friends that need help, you don’t feel “put upon.” You want to help them, because, well, they’re your friends and that’s what friends do. That’s what a tribe does.
Research even shows that in real life disasters, it’s not the government aid, the fire trucks, or the emergency responders that really help people survive in the immediate. It’s the friends, the neighbors, the community. It’s Paul from next door who you let borrow your tool set last year who’s going to pull you out of your collapsed kitchen, not the anonymous emergency responder coming from fifty miles away. A government worker isn’t going to know how many people live in the house across the street, nor will he know whose room is whose; you will. The official response is important, but we can’t rely on it (or ourselves) for everything.
Daniel Aldrich, professor of public policy at Purdue, has made the study of post-disaster resilience in communities his focus. After living through Hurricane Katrina shortly after moving to New Orleans, he noticed that the most successful pockets of the city were the ones with the strongest social ties. The federal response to the hurricane’s aftermath was infamously inept and initially nonexistent, and the folks who knew and liked each other survived and rebuilt their communities faster than the folks who had fewer ties, making this a prime example of the power of community, or what Aldrich calls social capital (PDF). The same held true for communities struck by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake, and, I’d imagine, the many thousands upon thousands of tribes, neighborhoods, communities, towns, city-states, and enclaves hit by floods, fires, famines, pestilence, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters throughout history and prehistory. Why else do you think humans are social animals? Why else would the tribal structure have been evolutionarily preserved if it weren’t helpful for survival?
So, folks, if you want to survive the next disaster, make friends with your neighbors. Get to know them. If you have a lemon tree, take a paper bag full of them over. Have a block party. Throw a barbecue. Pet their dog, feed their cat. Get yourself a tribe.
What do you think, folks? Do you know your neighbors?
*To all my east coast readers and anyone else affected by the recent storm, our thoughts are with you.