How badly would a disaster affect you?
The oceans are rising, the climate is warming. Is your house — literally — in order?
No matter what we do, say scientists, the oceans are rising; anything we do to address climate change won't help until, at the earliest, 2100. And the effects of carbon emissions on the climate lag the emissions by at least 40 years and as many as hundreds of years. In a report that was ironically delayed because of Hurricane Sandy, national security experts say violent weather like Sandy could end up being more frequent, and flooding is bound to become more likely; storm activity is not likely to dissipate over the next decades. The report's lead author, John D. Steinbruner, told the New York Times, “You can debate the specific contribution of global warming to [Sandy]. But we're saying climate extremes are going to be more frequent, and this was an example of what they could mean. We're also saying it could get a whole lot worse than that.”
The best thing we can all do is prepare financially. While the worst outcomes predicted by that recent study would be impossible to protect ourselves against (global famine, failed states, wars erupting over remaining fertile land, and the like), there are things we can do in the short term to at least prepare ourselves to weather a few storms.
First: Where do you live?
If the twin punches of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy have taught us anything, it is that living below sea level within spitting distance of a coastline — especially the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast, for hurricane danger, but also the Pacific Coast for tsunami exposure — is highly dangerous. While I'm quite sure that many of the residents of Rockaway Beach and the 9th Ward are, and were, without a lot of financial resources, it's also the case that housing in most coastal areas is more expensive than the equivalent housing inland. Like it says in the Bible (and I'm paraphrasing heavily but the concept is sound), better to build your house on a rock than on the sand.
If you are, indeed, one of those lucky souls who has found beautiful beachfront property, or if you live in an apartment building with sea exposures, my best advice is to move farther inland. If you're the resident of a coastal area, I know this is by far the most difficult advice to take. But, if Steinbruner and his team of experts are right, your chances of losing everything are far too high for my comfort.
No one's saying that a storm will hit in the next 30 days, and with about 20 percent of Americans moving each year, chances are you might be antsy and ready for a move before any dangerous weather strikes your neighborhood. If you are, I'd suggest, find someplace on high (and not prone to mudslides) ground.
It's not just coastal residents who should consider their address. I lived in Charlotte, N.C., in my early 20s, and one of my colleagues had the sweetest starter home… right in the flood plain. Many of the rivers and creeks had been largely paved over, but the water has a way of going where it wants to. The second time she had to put all her downstairs furniture in the Dumpster, she started looking for a new house, one on a hill.
Second: How do you heat your home?
While it's altogether possible to live without electric lights and phone chargers for weeks on end, as Sandy victims are demonstrating, heat is another matter altogether. And electricity systems can be disrupted for the wealthy on their mountaintops and the less wealthy in their riverside neighborhoods in equal measures. Relying on electric heat can be more expensive (and, thanks to all the coal power Americans still use, far worse for our descendants' chances against Mother Nature) and entirely unreliable in a power outage.
In a perfect world, you would have a high-efficiency natural-gas furnace with some ability to get it going in the absence of electricity. The problem of lighting the igniter is worth looking into, if you already have gas. Planning on redoing the heat in your home? You should think about the new high-efficiency wood stoves. They give off a lot less carbon than their forebears, and I can guarantee you they'll work the same without electricity. (This, by the way, is the top of my wish list; if I have a windfall any time soon, it's going to one of these.)
Don't live in a perfect world? Consider buying a propane heater and stocking enough propane to get you through a couple of weeks. While you're at it, a propane cook stove isn't a bad idea, either; and in post-summer sales you can usually pick one up cheap.
Third: Getting around
You probably already know I am a bicyclist, and I have to admit to feeling a sense of self-reliance when I heard about all the traffic in Manhattan post-Sandy; and how the people were taking to their bicycles. No long lines for gas for me!
But even if you would no way, no how, never trust your family on a bicycle for regular trips, it's a good idea to have a working bicycle; or at least a really great pair of walking shoes and some sturdy rubber boots for good measure — in case of emergency. You can figure out how and where you might need to go in an emergency by checking with your local disaster readiness group (another guarantee: that somewhere near you is a group of people who has thought this through). Equip yourself with whatever gas-free mode of transportation is appropriate. You never know, you might decide you want to start trying this alternative transportation once a week… or twice…
Fourth: Emergency fund
Yep. This is probably obvious. You know you should have an emergency fund. I'm working hard to develop one of my own! It's certain that a hurricane hitting your town would count as an emergency, and it could be that your regular work is interrupted — or, if you're like so many people, your paycheck comes from another state altogether, and it could get disrupted in a storm far away from home. Keep some amount of this fund (at least a few hundred dollars) in cash, where you can access it easily.
Fifth: Insurance audit
Another one you could have thought up on your own. But, it's a good idea to do an audit of your homeowner's or renter's and automobile insurance policies regularly. Lots of localities make it hard to get flood insurance, but it can't hurt to ask, and be as covered as you can in the event of a disaster. Think: you'll have to replace everything on your ground floor and basement if it floods. Everything. Even with low-interest government loans offered after disasters, that could get spendy.
Sixth: Stuff audit
I heard an interview with someone on NPR after Sandy, a man who had recently moved his wife's stockpile of stuff from a storage container to their basement to save money. Among this stuff, a collection of ornaments. These ornaments were, obviously, a complete loss.
My best advice (and here again I am not particularly well-placed to give this advice, given my love of books and my reluctance to let any of them go — but I use them! A lot!) is to not buy the stuff in the first place, or, if you have a bunch of stuff that you can't afford to store somewhere safe, perhaps it's time to put it all for sale and fund your emergency fund, or your high-efficiency wood stove fund, or whatever it is would be a better place to put your money than stuff that will be swept away or destroyed so easily.
Seventh: Food and drink
I know: most emergency preparedness guides start here. But I think you know the drill. Keep water on hand, several gallons, and replace it every few months. Stock up on enough peanut butter and crackers and dried fruit to get you through several days. I feel pretty happy about the oodles of canned fruit and jelly and tomatoes and tuna I have; but I would have to remember that, in a truly awful disaster, I would be eating it straight out of the jar with a spoon. That's where the wood stove and/or propane cook stove would come in handy.
Also remember that whatever you have in the freezer would spoil quickly if your electricity were to go out. While I wouldn't tell you to avoid using a freezer (I can't talk, what with all the beef I have down there), I would tell you to consider this as part of your calculations. You're going to have to eat it all fast, or find some brilliant way of curing or drying it, if the power goes out.
Speaking of brilliant ways of curing and drying food: having skills like this could mean the difference between surviving for weeks without power and having to spend your entire emergency fund on restaurants and motels. There are lots of ways to gain skills in everything from making beef jerky to lighting a fire without matches to rigging a shortwave radio. While you don't need to know how to do everything yourself, it's good to find out what your close friends and neighbors can do, and develop complementary skills. Make it fun; some friends organized “Disaster Relief Trials” to simulate how we could bike emergency supplies around in an earthquake that took out most of the city's bridges. My 10-year-old is taking survival skills classes as part of a year-long curriculum that includes lots of magic and role-playing, too (and he will be our family's chief fire-starter and shelter-gatherer in an emergency).
Imagine. Come up with scenarios. Think about what might happen and how to prepare yourself. Make it fun, make it a community effort, get to know your neighbors. It's possible that preparing for a disaster could improve your life, financially, in well-being and a sense of satisfaction — even if that disaster never comes.
And if a disaster happens and you're in my neighborhood, hurry over; we may as well eat like kings and queens on the contents of my freezer while it's still good.