Communities’ Role in Disaster Management

One of the things that has not gotten enough attention in post-Sandy New York City (in my opinion) is community level disaster management strategies. Most people rely on the government’s response, but there is a lot that communities can do to help themselves and help responders. When dealing with disasters, the police, firemen, and EMTs may also be affected and may not be able to help as they normally would. Volunteer organizations, NGOs, and State and Federal Governments need to marshal forces, prepare appropriate supplies depending on the emergency and travel to the area in need. This can take days if not longer depending on how isolated or badly affected an area is, and in the case of really widespread disasters, some people may end up waiting while others are being helped (resources are not unlimited). This means that individual neighborhoods are expected to be on their own often for upwards of 72 hours.

A lot of attention has been directed at putting together “Go Bags.” These can address individuals’ short term emergency needs, but the most vulnerable are often not able to afford one or have special medical or other needs. These needs may make normal precautionary measures cost-prohibitive or too environmentally sensitive to be reliable in every emergency (insulin must be refrigerated, for example). Additionally, these Go Bags are only useful if you are able to access your home in an emergency. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep one in your house, it just means they aren’t the whole solution to preparing for those 3+ days.

A few years ago, I took a course in Istanbul, Turkey with the incomparable Ayse Yonder and Eva Hanhardt, where they introduced the class to the concept of participatory mapping to address disaster management related to earthquakes and other emergencies. There was a major earthquake in Turkey in 1999, and Istanbul (near this large fault line) has some substantial developments on steep hills. Like a lot of cities, there are many new immigrants who may be unaware of the potential danger they are in by occupying these residences. There are also many long-time residents who run the risk for likely a variety of reasons including various attachments to their neighborhoods and cost. We worked with a group of women from Ilk Adιm, a women’s group that provides day care and other resources for women. One task was to assist them with mapping their community, so that these women could take on a local leadership role should a disaster occur. We provided base maps and walked with them as they identified safe meeting places for families, vulnerable residents, resources (like supply stores), and potential hazards (precarious electrical cables, construction sites, steep paths and fragile or damaged structures). This provided an opportunity for knowledge sharing and a physical place (the maps which they hung up near the entry to their facility) for that knowledge to reside.

This process has been used worldwide from Mozambique to the Virgin Islands. California (also an earthquake prone area) seems to be the most active on this front in the US. A number of groups and government agencies in California support this type of community mapping which they call “Map Your Neighborhood” (MYN). They even offer a template for communities to engage in creating a community emergency plan.

This participatory mapping can empower local residents and prepare them to help their neighbors in all sorts of emergencies. The ongoing acquisition and sharing of this information is very valuable to agencies outside the neighborhood who require this type of data to more quickly locate vulnerable populations and better understand and prepare for on the ground conditions. It can also allow governments to preemptively address dangerous conditions before a natural disaster occurs. In New York City, for example, this process could likely be done with paper maps and smart phones (to alert 311 of unsafe conditions) as the mapping activity is occurring. Note that having a physical (non digital) version of the map is good to have in case there is a loss of power and the data needs to be updated regularly. It would be a really amazing thing if we could collectively dedicate one day a year to participatory mapping and sharing of local knowledge. There is another possible benefit to participatory mapping that should not be lightly dismissed: After disasters it can help communities who may feel victimized by a disaster engage in a positive activity that allows them to become more empowered and resilient.

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